Joy in the Pursuit of Proficiency

The following blog post was originally written by Russell Zuckerman, a parent of two students attending Arts & Ideas Sudbury School. It is re-printed with permission from Arts & Ideas Sudbury. I am reprinting it here because the educational assumptions of unschooling are the same as in a Sudbury school, and so are many of the outcomes of this special type of education.

Our family began our Sudbury education three years ago with no small amount of trepidation.  From what I understood at the time, Sudbury children did not concern themselves with learning, they simply followed their interests.  What I did not know then, but fully understand now, is that by “simply” following their interests, they unceasingly pursue proficiency.

Sudbury children are in an environment that permits them the space to pursue the natural developmental stages that are organic to their needs. Cognitive and physical development occur at a pace that is theirs alone. Emotional, cognitive, motor and social development are directed by their intelligence, their interests and their instincts.

Through Sudbury, my daughter Isobel has taught herself to read.  Her process went beyond learning “sight words,” she never received a teacher’s praise or external accolades; she was never graded or given a diagnostic to figure out the number of words per minute she was capable of.  There was no bell curve to tell her that she was mediocre, or behind, or ahead…she simply was.  She didn’t want to “learn” to read, she simply wanted TO read.  The incredible thing about Sudbury is that Isobel isn’t working to learn words for weekly spelling tests, so there is no drudgery in the process.  Through her own volition she has begun the process of self-mastery. Her proficiency is a product of her motivation and her desire.

At Arts and Ideas, son Jarrett, has learned to throw a football.  He is only six, but he goes out to the yard and, “plays with the big kids.”  He asked me recently to play catch with him.  Once we were outside he threw it over and over, conscientiously changing his footwork and his arm motion, explaining to me how to set up and execute a spiral.  Like all kids at Sudbury, he is free to play video games all day, but he doesn’t.  At the moment, his body and mind are craving the physical education that comes through the balance, hand-eye coordination and strength of playing catch and running around outside.  No one is telling him he needs to run a mile or take the president’s challenge; he is pursuing the physical proficiency that a young boy needs to grow up healthy.

As a parent, my hope is to raise courageous, conscientious citizens.  The fabric of a Sudbury school is knitted together through the democratic process.  Both my children, at 6 and 7 years old can understand, through their experiences, what legislative, judicial and executive processes look and feel like.  Because we are a military family, we move around every few years.  Being stationed near Washington DC has given us an opportunity to walk the Washington Mall, view the Smithsonian and see the White House.  My children can converse knowledgably about how our democracy functions by extrapolating their experiences of school meeting.  They understand civic responsibility and the importance of dialogue and compromise. Through judicial committee proceedings and school meetings my children have learned how to take responsibility for their actions, intelligently and peaceably challenge perceived wrongs against them, and courageously speak out for ideas they believe in.

Three years of Sudbury schools have shown me that the learning process is like a drip of water against a rock. At a glance, it appears fragile and delicate, but uninterrupted over time, it is an unstoppable force of nature.  The challenge of the Sudbury parent then, is to leave the water alone and allow nature to take its course.

The tough part of being a Sudbury parent is trusting that our children will pursue proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic; or rather that we are preparing them to be successful in the uncertain world that we live in. I freely admit that until Isobel, now in her third year of Sudbury, began reading on her own, I had trouble truly believing in the process and “methodology” of Sudbury.  Through the time we have been a Sudbury family, I have come to understand that curriculum does not drive intelligence, rather it is the other way around, intelligence drives curriculum.  Like drops of water against the rock, children insistently pursue proficiency in all manner of disciplines. Sudbury schools, like Arts and Ideas, provide the space for that pursuit to occur. All a parent needs to do is let nature take its course.

Continue reading

Switching It On

Since the beginning of this blog, most of the posts have been theoretical and philosophical discussions. Owing mainly to the young age of my children, I have had few unschooling stories to share. Well, that’s all starting to change.

W is nearing four. He has, of course, been learning his whole life, but examples of him starting to walk, talk, throw, cut with scissors, etc, are not viewed by the traditional world as being instances of unschooling (though, they are exactly that). Oh, no, we need academic examples to prove our theory. So, here’s one for you.

He has been very interested in letters for the past few months, and at this point recognizes upper case letters about 90% of the time. He will often muse, “Pool starts with P” just out of the blue. Just because he was thinking about it and realized that the “puh” sound was at the beginning of the word “pool.”

Then, today he was playing around with the light switch and said, “Now it’s off. Why is there a zero here?” I looked and realized he was talking about the word “off” written on the light switch. I said, “It’s not a zero, it’s an O. It says O-F-F, that spells off.” Then he switched the light on, looked at the switch and said, “It says O-N, that spells ‘on.'”

Was he using didactic reasoning to figure out what the word said? Yes, he was. Was he reading the word? Yep, he was doing that too. This is how the process works. I have many people who will nod  along with me when I talk about life-learning, but will say, “But at some point, you will have to sit down and teach them to read.” It’s hard to wrap our schooled brains around the idea that, actually, words are everywhere and reading can and does happen naturally.

Do you have a story about learning to read? Share it in the comments!

Continue reading

The Dangers of MineCraft and the one thing you should do to prevent problems

A friend of mine, and co-founder of The Open School, wrote the following blog post and I love it. You can find her blog here.

If you have boys in the ages of 8 to 14 years old, most likely you have heard of MineCraft. MineCraft is a computer game where you get dropped into a world where there are creepers  and monsters, and you can build your own world, at the same time trying to survive with these creepers around. You can play with multiple people together on your own server or on someone else’s server.

My kids who are 7, 9 and 10 years old started playing MineCraft in August, and have played ever since. They love it, they created their own worlds, from Mario Galaxy to Star Wars, but also recreated the city in which we live and Paris. It is pretty impressive.

They can build these worlds by finding resources, like wood, blocks, etc and they can craft glass when they have collected and mix together the right resources. (I would tell you what it is, but I’m still learning too!) It kinda looks like lego bricks but more like natural resources and obviously it’s in a virtual world.

My kids have been enjoying playing and exploring in the MineCraft world for months, and they are very passionate about it. I always had a listening ear to when they shared with me their stories, and always looked at their newest creations they were showing me.

But that isn’t enough.

It wouldn’t be enough in the real world either.

If I wanted to spend more time with my kids, I knew I should connect with them in the area that they are passionate about, to deeply connect with my kids. These were the thoughts going through my head for weeks. But at the same time I wasn’t interested in playing MineCraft for myself. At all! Then a few weeks ago my husband joined my kids and started an account to play with them, and see what they really were doing. And he revealed a shocking fact:

Sometimes my kids were mean to each other on MineCraft, if they were angry with each other, they were being mean in the game – and even though we are close to the kids, we might not even notice it. They sometimes killed each others character on purpose.

If they would hit each other in real life, I would not allow it, talk to them and work with them. But now they were online, I didn’t always see what was going on and if they were respecting each other.

If I want to be a good parent and lead by example, then – was my conclusion – I should be with them on MineCraft to see what’s really going on and lead by example and discuss when stuff comes up that might turn into a fight.

And that’s why I am now on MineCraft. To parent my kids.

And to spend time with my kids.

Instead of asking them to meet me where I am at, I am meeting them where they are at. The place they are most passionate about at the moment: MineCraft.

Oh, and believe me. Your first try on MineCraft is not gonna be fun, it’s a steep learning curve! My kids wanted to help me out many times, but I asked them to tell me what buttons to press so I could try it and learn to remember. The first time I played I was done after 20 minutes. But you can build it up from there. Walking around in those hilly areas is no fun. I felt I needed 3 hands to do everything I needed. And it looks like my kids do it so easily.

Practice makes perfect.

And I must say, I am very excited to see that my kids are so much collaborating. Helping each other find food, resources, etc. It builds trust for the future.

But I want to stay part of their world, we are a family, we are all in it together.

And now we are all into MineCraft too.

Continue reading

The Power of Puppets

I am sure I’m not the only mother who struggles with a toddler or preschooler who says “no” to everything.

“Let’s put your shoes on.” “No!”
“Do you want oatmeal for breakfast or eggs?” “No!”
(Me placing his stool next to the counter.) “NOOOO!!!!”

I’m often completely confounded by his “no”s, and even more often at a loss to get him to do the things he needs to do. It’s one thing when he says “no” to playing with a particular toy, but completely different when it’s getting into bed or putting clothes on.

Then one day, he was playing with Percy (if you don’t know who Percy is, your child is not into trains), and I decided to have Percy “talk” to him. At first, it was just pretend play. But then I realized that Percy could get my little man to do just about anything. Including walking to his bedroom, climbing into bed and picking out a book. Percy, in a stroke of genius, even read his books to him and then (get this), got too tired and had to go to sleep. There was no “read it again, mom” because Percy was the one who was reading and he had decided to go to sleep.

Now, it’s not fool proof, but using a “puppet” to do your talking for you, can be magical. First, your child will perceive that you are playing with them. In fact, I recommend that you do start out by playing with them, not just pick up a toy and start barking orders. Unless he’s not in a good mood, he will likely be smiling and conversing back with his new friend. Second, you will find yourself being livelier and more creative when you are speaking to your child through another character. This character is not your child’s mother, but his friend. So he says and suggests things that a friend might, albeit a friend who is trying to get your child to do what you want. I find myself being funnier, more energetic, and not nearly as pushy when I’m speaking to my son through one of his toys.

So, next time you’re coming up to a task that is normally a struggle, try it out. Pick up a stuffed animal or toy car and start a conversation. You might be surprised at yourself and your suddenly coorperative child.

Continue reading

It’s Not all Academic

Below is a post I wrote for The Open School:

I was talking to a 7th grade math teacher the other day and the topic of Minecraft came up.

“What’s Minecraft?” she asked.

“Umm, really? Don’t you teach 7th grade?” I didn’t meant to be rude, but I was a little shocked she hadn’t heard of it. After all, Minecraft is probably played by at least a few of her students. And they are probably pretty passionate about it.

“Yes, but they aren’t allowed to talk about outside topics in my class,” she answered. “Only things related to math.”

Ahhh. Yes, of course. In math class, you talk only of math. This is, after all, school. You aren’t supposed to enjoy it. Or find ways to relate it to your life. Stay on task, and talk only of what is sanctioned by the teacher.

There are so many things here that I could address: the fact that Minecraft is filled with math, or that kids’ interests aren’t validated by our system, even though they are extremely valid. But what struck me as the saddest part of this scenario was that this teacher didn’t know her students at all. She didn’t even attempt to get to know them.

Before I am indicted for setting up a straw man argument, let me say that there are lots of traditional teachers out there who do value and pursue relationships. And thank God for them. But, the system itself doesn’t value relationships, and in fact, often devalues them.  This is not only true for relationships between students, where they are not allowed to talk to one another for most of their day, but also between adults and kids. Our system is run by tests and assessments, and it is so fearful of subjective assessment, any relationship between a teacher and a student is looked upon with suspicion. The student who considers a teacher to be a friend is often ridiculed as a teacher’s pet, and a teacher who takes special interest in any student is accused of favoritism.

We know a few things about learning that need to be addressed here. First, we know that people learn when they are interested in a topic. This is a basic assumption of The Open School. But, second, and nearly as important, people learn from people they care about and respect. A child won’t listen to an adult they don’t like and who they feel doesn’t care about who they are. Regardless of how interested they are in the topic, the relationship to the “teacher” is paramount. And staff members need to know the students to know who they are and what they need. Are they interested in punk rock? Do they need some alone time? Are their parents getting a divorce? An adult who is invested in a child will be able to respond to their needs much better than one who simply talks at them.

The Open School won’t just be a place where kids can pursue their own interests. It’s not just about democratic votes or personal responsibility. It will be a place of relationship; of community.  Every individual, regardless of age, will be respected, valued, and known. That is the only way our school will be able to respond to the needs and interests of the kids. And the only way the kids will be empowered to truly learn.

Continue reading

Be the Coach, not the Referee

There are a number of parent/child metaphors that I have heard over the years, usually to help understand the world of a child. One interesting one is to think of your child as an alien from another planet. They know nothing of our culture, our language, our rules, or our expectations. So, we must show them, with patience, how to live and thrive on this planet. It is actually a pretty appropriate metaphor.

But, the one that has stuck with me , is the coach/player metaphor. If you think of yourself as a coach for your child, instead of their referee, you may find yourself being more empathetic and effective. The coach comes along side the player; the referee blows a whistle in their face. The coach demonstrates how the game is played, giving them tips on the best way to dunk or pitch; the referee points out the fouls and has no room for mercy. The best coaches were players themselves, and so they speak from a place of experience and empathy. They don’t just hand out punishments for poor playing, they admonish and then show the correct way. In fact, they may have to do this multiple times for the same mistakes.

A coach does not just tell a player what they are doing wrong. They then show them the right way to do it. Your child is angry and hits you. Yes, that’s wrong, you should point that out. But, what should he have done with that anger instead? He has the emotion (and it’s not wrong to be angry), but still needs to be coached on how to deal with it. Perhaps he could hit a pillow instead? Or go outside and yell? Or throw a stuffed animal at the wall? He needs ways to channel his emotions healthily, and we are the ones to teach him how.

Some other instances might be:

“I see you want to throw. We don’t throw hard things like toys because they can break or hurt people. But, you can throw a ball outside.”
“The tablecloth is not for cutting. Here’s some paper to cut instead.”
“It looks like you are in the mood to tear something up. But, tearing up a book means we can’t read it anymore. How about if we find a newspaper to tear?”

The desires to throw, cut, and tear are real desires (not to mention important dexterity milestones). Instead of just saying, “NO!” How about giving them an alternative so they can express their needs correctly?

A coach does more than tell his players what to do. He also shows them. We are constantly modeling our behavior for our child, whether we like it or not. In the example from above, how you deal with anger will inform your child of how to deal with his anger. Do you yell at people? Do you hit or throw things? Or, do you give yourself some space, take some deep breaths, perhaps scream into a pillow, and then go back and deal with the situation?

Finally, a coach sticks up for his players. A coach understands where they are coming from, even if they aren’t playing well. They might see that a player needs a break or some electrolytes (am I stretching my metaphor too far?). A parent sees the heart of the child. Their intention, their emotional needs. Not just the behavior that is the end result. So they may see that the child needs a snack, some extra attention, some space to run around and be wild, or a big hug. A referee parent calls fouls and deals out punishment. A coach parent sets loving limits, models correct behavior, and empathizes.

Which parent are you?

Continue reading

The Tortoise and the Hare

Recently I told my son the story of the tortoise and the hare. I think I was hoping he’d see that slowing down is often the best way to get things accomplished. Of course, he’s not quite four, so he just liked whole racing aspect of the story.

So, really, that story was for me. You might even see from my blog history that I can be hare-like. I get a lot of energy for one thing, then I go, go, go on that thing until I burn out and quit (or stop for a loooooong time). Or, I get distracted by something else that looks more interesting. That’s been the general pattern of my life. I’ve been really into everything from cosmetics to clean eating. But nothing lasts longer than three months.

But in building a school, the tortoise always wins. The hare won’t even finish. This is the first time in my life where I am doing something I believe in so much, that I am still committed to it after so many years. I have been in love with life-learning for 7 years now, and I am still passionate about it.  But my hare tendencies keep sneaking in. I want things to get done now, I want to open the school as soon as possible. I get frustrated at the length of time things are taking, and I have to remind myself to be a tortoise. Slow and steady, Cassi. Slow and steady.

We are still making good time, though. We have developers who are committed to our cause, and donating their time to us. They are also committed to working for free on our project, until we raise the money to pay them. They have brought in architects who are willing to have a similar arrangement.  We have our non-profit application in to the IRS, we are building our business plan, and are having our website redeveloped professionally. Our fundraising efforts will start in earnest as soon as our exemption status comes in. All this only 10 months after I put up the original website and started looking for founders.

But the hare in me says, “Ten months! And you are just here now? You haven’t started fundraising yet?” Slow and steady, Cassi. Slow and steady.

All this also to say, sorry, blog readers. I am not the ideal blogger. I write in fits and starts. In the blog, I will probably always be the hare. But, you can know that while I’m neglecting my writing, I am working on a learner-centered school. And hopefully, writing the blog will become part of that process.

Want to know what school I’m talking about? Go here.


Continue reading

How to Create a Tattletale

My son W has a best friend. We’ll call him E. E and W play one to two times a week together. E’s mom and I trade off watching the other’s children, so the boys see each other a lot. Because they are 4, they are at an age where they don’t need a lot of supervision – just checking in now and then and listening for screams. But, there’s one thing that drives me crazy when E is at our house. He tattles. A lot.

Most parents tell their kids not to tattle, but then they reward tattling by getting involved in the situation. I’ve realized that my son, though he has other faults, does not tattle.  The reason, as far as I can see, is that I don’t punish. When something happens, and someone does something “wrong,” I (usually) problem-solve. This gives the kids a model for how to deal with their own problems, instead of having to bring in an adult to solve the problem for them. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Sharing is always hard, and is often an area that parents come in to referee, hand out a solution, and force the kids to abide by it. So, when E wants a toy that W is playing with, and W says “NO!”, E comes to me and says, “He’s not sharing.” He is used to having the adult in his life jump in, and make the other child share. But, that’s not what I do. Instead, I walk them through a problem solving process:

“Hmm, there’s one toy that two boys want to play with. How can we solve that problem?” If they don’t come up with ideas, I offer some. “Is there a way to play with it together?” “Is there another toy that E can play with while W plays with this one?” Once I say a couple of things, they often jump in with their own ideas. Usually, it’s that W will give E the toy once he’s done. It’s actually a very quick process at this point.

Another situation is when someone gets hurt. I have noticed that when a child starts crying (usually a little sister), and I walk in the room, E’s first reaction is “W did it!”  Most parents begin by trying to figure out who hurt the crying child. They start by asking who’s to blame and then punishing that person. Instead, I say, “I’m not here for you boys, I’m here to help the baby. She’s sad so I’m going to help her feel better.” Then I proceed to comfort the crying child. Then, once she’s okay, I ask “What made D sad?”  The question is centered around the hurt child, not around who did the hurting. Often, the truth comes out quickly because I am not asking angrily nor will the person who hurt the baby get “in trouble.” In fact, we tell friends who visit our house that no one gets in trouble here. Instead, we solve problems.

Once we find out what happens, I guide the child who did the deed through a process of restitution. First, what did they want that led to the bad decision? Was the baby grabbing his toy and he pushed her? So, what could he have done instead? What kind words could he have said? How could he have solved that problem with kind hands? Perhaps finding another similar toy for her to play with? Now that we have that figured out (and, perhaps we practice saying or doing that thing), then it’s his job to restore the relationship. Or, as we say, “Fix things.” And, how he does that is up to him. Perhaps he says “sorry.” Perhaps he gives her a hug or a kiss. Perhaps he gives her a toy. Then, I point out how happy that action made her, and I tell him how much I love him. The end. No time outs. No spankings. No resentment. Just modeling problem solving and restoring a broken relationship.

If you’d prefer to have a tattle tale, don’t do these things. Instead, blame children for acting like children, punish the wrong-doer, and jump in to solve all of your child’s problems for him. It might be easier in the short run, but you are paving a road that will lead to years of tattling. Because until kids know how to solve problems, they will ALWAYS need you to do it for them. We can’t expect kids to not tattle if we also don’t help them how to work it out on their own.

Continue reading

Is Unschooling Lazy?

I was thinking tonight about the presumption that unschooling is a lazy option for parents, and an easy option for kids. It would seem, the logic goes, that if parents are not preparing a curriculum or forcing their kids to complete homework assignments, they are doing nothing. And, doing nothing, is incredibly easy. As for the kids, if they are not forced to do something (i.e. schoolwork), they will end up doing nothing. And, again, doing nothing is incredibly easy.

I will not, in this post be addressing the fallacy that doing nothing is easy. A lot has been written on that, and perhaps I will tackle that at a different time. But, what I do want to address is the assumption that unschoolers have it easy.

A metaphor came to mind, and the more I think about it, the more apt it seems.  Let me ask you, what’s easier: going to a restaurant with a set menu or making your own meal? Of course, a restaurant where all of the thinking, planning, preparing and work has been done for you is much easier than coming up with your own meal idea, shopping for the ingredients, and prepping and cooking the food. Restaurants are lovely and nice, and a major part of the reason is that they are easier. But, what if you go to a restaurant and don’t like anything on the menu? It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, I’m bitterly disappointed. I’d much rather be able to choose something else.

Just as with restaurants, there is an array of educational philosophies out there that allow varying levels of choice. Perhaps a Montessori school would be like a buffet, or a Waldorf school like a “cook your own steak” place. But, they are all still limited to the choices that the restaurant itself deems to offer. If you want to choose from anything in the world to eat, you end up making your own food. The choices are limitless, but it will take some work to get where you want to go.  Unschoolers and kids in free schools are like home cooks.  Following your interest is actually incredibly difficult work, much harder than just sitting in a class and doing what you are told. But, it’s also much more rewarding.

As for the parents of unschoolers, supporting the education of a self-directed learner is a constant task. Parents are always on the look out for books, videos, workshops, websites, toys, museums, experiences, and whatever else may be interesting to their child. They have to constantly keep their own agenda in check (a monumental task for anyone who was raised with a more traditional viewpoint), and always ask themselves if they are valuing each pursuit equally.  We cannot just open a book and tell our child to do the worksheet on page 58. There is no manual to this. We have to figure it out as we go along.  It would be so much easier to just stick our kids in the public school system, or even to order a bunch of curriculum and blame the writers of said curriculum if our kids hate it.

But, most unschooling (or free schooling) parents have ended up here because we refuse to stop challenging ourselves and our basic assumptions.  I believe that, upon actually seeing the activity of an unschooling parent, you would be hard-pressed to call them lazy.

Continue reading

Creating Creativity

Recently I asked you about the type of adults we want to create, and I got some great answers. Many of them have been the same as my answers, and some are different.  I want to address education from this point of view because the conversation can get so caught up in the details, the teaching, the assessments, and the philosophies that the goal of this whole thing is lost: raising future citizens of our world. We need to keep in mind the type of adults we need in our country, our economy, and as future parents of our grandchildren. Once we know who we want our kids to become (in a general way, not in a control-freak way), then we can extrapolate the ways to get them there.

The first and most common comment, and the one that tops my list, is that we need a world full of problem-solvers. We need people who are creative, think “outside the box”, are resourceful, and can improvise.  By one estimate, 65% of kids entering grade school this year will have jobs that haven’t been invented yet. This means that we can’t just prescribe a list of facts that every child must learn, because we have no idea what their lives will look like. They need to be able to adapt to the world of the future, and solve problems that we cannot even fathom.

So how do we go about creating creative people? First, give them plenty of chances to use their imaginations. Give them space. Unstructured time is the primordial ooze from which creativity can spring.  You can’t be creative on a time table. Children, just like the rest of us, need lots of free time to let their minds wander. Imaginary play is the basis of creativity, and authentic imaginary play cannot be forced.

Second, give them toys that are 90% kid powered. A blank piece of paper allows so much more than a picture from a coloring book.  A set of Legos allows a child to go in many more directions than a toy that can only be played with one way.

Third, allow them to solve real problems. Don’t jump in and fix everything for them. This doesn’t mean hanging them out to dry or letting them get overly frustrated.  Coach them through a problem, talk about it.  Say something like, “It seems like we have a problem here. You want to play with the train, and your sister wants the same train. What can we do to solve it?” If they are too young to come up with ideas on their own, offer a couple of options. Then let them decide on the solution. If you automatically referee for them, handing down solutions for everything from how to share to how to pour their own cereal to how to save up for a toy they want, you are robbing them of the opportunity to come up with their own solutions.

Finally, foster an environment of peace.  Studies have shown that people are more creative when they are happy and relaxed. This means allowing a child to do what he or she is interested in; their passion.  It means valuing that interest, even if it is different from your own. It means making relaxation a priority for you and for your kids. It means letting go of control and letting your kids follow their own intuitions.

So, what’s the action plan here? Start by looking at your weekly schedule and limiting scheduled activities to about 2-3 times a week. If your child is in school, really consider dropping all other scheduled activities. Unless he or she BEGS to continue a sport or an instrument, plan to have after school time completely free. If your child is not in school, protect his or her free time vehemently. Be judicious about your scheduled activities. Is that mommy and me music class really important? Or could you turn on the music and have a dance party at home?  Then, enjoy your free time. Let the mood take you where it takes you. If you need to have a plan (I’m with you there), be willing to change it. Plan things that you can cancel, like park days or trips to the library. They give you a loose structure, for your own sanity, but no one is really counting on you being somewhere.

Then, stand back and let your kids amaze you with their creativity. If you give it space to grow now, it will become part of their very essence.

Continue reading

prev posts
Unschooling Blogs
Powered By Ringsurf