Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Get out of line! The fun is over here!

Homeschooling is scary sometimes for me.  It’s hard to educate your kids differently than everybody else.  There are so many people sending their kids off to one school or another without even questioning it.  It’s just what people do. When their kids turn 6, they buy them a little backpack and stick them on a school bus, just like everybody else.  Even though I know in my heart that my kids are going to learn more and be happier learning outside of the system, there’s always that little kernel of doubt…are they missing something?  Is everything going to turn out OK?  
James Bach, author of  "The Buccaneer Scholar", told me once that unschooling is hard because it’s not what everyone else is doing and no one has made any promises about what happens at the end.  He described unschooling as a rickety track with a coal cart on the top.  I have embellished Mr. Bach’s idea with my own imaginations.  James said that unschooling is like everyone in the education system is behind the ropes at Disneyland.  They are standing in lines, doing what they are told, preparing to get on the big shiny ride.  At the end of the ride they are promised a diploma, a great job and a successful life.  We unschoolers, on the other hand are not standing in line behind the ropes.  We are milling around and building a rickety, uncertified track of our own that has a crappy old coal car on it at the top.  Each board we hammer onto this track is something we felt would help our kid on their path of learning and growing.   The boards represent self-directed learning, investing in beloved hobbies, reading lots of books, interning with a mentor, playing video games, daydreaming and whatever else seemed important.  The problem is we can only build part of the track, because we have no control of the future.  We don’t know where the track goes.  No one has made any promises about the outcome.  We just know that in the process of building the track, we have also built a beautiful family and many wonderful memories.
So then we plunk our kids into the old coal cart on top of this hodgepodge track and give them a shove.   It’s scary!  We hope that at the end they will be launched off into the air and they will fly, but there are no promises.  Unfortunately, the kids on the shiny ride at Disneyland are getting to the end of their ride with a big bag of debt and no job to pay for it.  And when they get off the ride, they all look the same.  They have the same “skills” and the same piece of paper in their hands.
My son made the choice to go to college when he turned 18 and pursue a college diploma in film making.  It had been a passion of his all through his high school years learning at home.  We were happy that he had a passion and had decided to turn his passion into a career.  He just finished his first year of college with much success, and has decided to leave school and try working and living on his own.  He said he’s not sure he wants a degree in film making and needs some time to grow up and find a direction. He doesn’t want to go into debt to be trained for a job he may not want.  
It’s hard not to freak out when your kid quits school.   I don’t know about you, but I instantly started questioning the choices I had made in his education.  Were his earlier self-directed learning experiences causing him to be unable to stay in college?  Had I parented a kid who couldn’t handle structured environments?  Luckily, it only took a day or so for me to realize that he was fine.  In fact he was being very responsible!  He had already proven that he could be a traditional student because be had been successful in every way during his first year at college.  He knows himself enough to realize that he’s not ready to get a degree in film making.  He needs to try a few more things, learn a little more about the world and himself.  And what a good time to do it, while he is young and unburdened by responsibilities and debt.  For such a young man, that seems very wise to me.  I’m proud of him for being able to jump off the Disney ride.  It must have been scary to make that choice.  But for him, I think it was scarier to keep riding when he wasn’t sure that the ride would end where he wanted to go.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Unusual Education - Showing up to parent/educate your kids

What is a good education? 
What do you need to know to live a fulling life?
·        Knowing yourself (talents, weaknesses, personal philosophy and goals)
·        Knowing how to find out about something you are curious about (using technology, books, and people to get the information you want)
·        Knowing how to cope with stress
·        Knowing how to take care of your body and how to be safe
·        Understanding relationships and the chemistry of attraction*
·        Knowing how to ask for what you want. (Having excellent communication skills and the confidence to use them)
·        Having life skills like cooking, cleaning, budgeting, driving, reading a bus schedule, using a computer.
·        Knowing that the world is an amazing place filled with amazing people who do all kinds of things and that you can do any of those things if you really want to.

How do you achieve this education?  One way is to actually be with your kids and have time to have conversations with them; lots and lots of conversations.  Educating your kids requires that you be there reading to them, taking them places, introducing them to different people, talking to them about physical and emotional health but more importantly modeling it for them.  Modeling behaviors you want to see in your child is VERY effective.  Model for them a person who loves learning by reading and being excited when you learn something new.  Talk to your kids about what you are curious about and what you are investigating.  Expose your kids to the world though books, travel and the internet.   Show your kids all different kinds of things (art, music, theater, technology, sports, animals, gardens, buildings, machines, war, homelessness, world religions, world cultures).  Let them direct their own learning content by noticing what fascinates them.  Pay attention to what interests them and bring them more of it. But most importantly, let them play.  The time the spend playing is maybe the most important “educational” time they will have everyday so protect it and encourage it.

As they get older, locate mentors for your children in the fields they are interested in.  Internships and volunteers jobs become very important, because it allows children to actually work in the area they are interested in.  It’s much easier to make good decisions about a career if you have actually done some of the work.  If kids have this kind of education then they will be able to discover their own passions and they will be able to learn whatever they want.   If they want to go to college they will.

 All of this can happen very naturally at home with an engaged parent but what if a lot of this has to happen at school?  What if both parents work full time jobs and only have a few quality hours a week with their kids?    What would a school look like if its soul purpose was to nurture and grow young adults who had a broad exposure to the world and had focused their learning on their unique talents and passions.  What if these same directed young people also had life survival skills like stress management, communication skills, and knew how to live on their own.  It seems their potential would be nearly limitless and they would enter college or the work force truly ready and fully engaged.

I envision a school where young people are educated from a place of respect and good expectations.  I hope for a place where the main goal is to help kids discover themselves and the world.

This kind of school would require more focus on the individual but much of it could be done in a classroom.  First you teach young kids all about the world (books, field trips, hands on projects, PLAY, internet).  When they discover something that lights their fire, let them immerse themselves in that topic for as long as they want.  Your job is just to be a facilitator by finding them resources (books, documentaries, movies, field trips, project supplies) to investigate their passions.   Some children may choose to work/learn in small groups while others will prefer to work alone.

Then as they get a bit older you teach them about themselves (health, relationships, communication, Meyer-Briggs, survival skills), while continuing to let them explore their interests.    Finally,  as they start to mature, help them puzzle out where they fit into the world by helping them find internships, mentors, volunteering opportunities, or through personal projects.

I think this education would "produce" young adults who have direction, confidence and outstanding talent.  Our kids have so much potential.  It's our job to help them bring it to fruition through an education based on dignity and a celebration of the individual. 

I spoke at my son’s high school graduation last year and I think what I said at the end of the speech, sums up, very well, what I think a good education is.  Here is what I said:”…  I’m not going to tell him to go out into the world and become successful because I believe he already is.  He already knows how to be a good neighbor, an involved community member and a lifelong learner.  These things, in my opinion, are the hallmarks of a good education.”  

*Turns out even if you know about the biology of attraction, your brain still turns to mush when you are in love.  But perhaps having that knowledge will help you forgive yourself later. :)