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A major part of the last fifteen months with PK at home has been about me observing how he acts and what he does when he’s learning something new. When he is trying to do something that’s a bit of a stretch, he gets anxious. If the anxiety is minor, he can handle it by being jumpy and physical: he’ll get up and pace around, or crawl on the back of the couch and look over my shoulder while I show him how to work a problem or something. If the anxiety is major–or if he isn’t allowed to do the wiggling, like if I say “come back here and sit down!” rather than *very gently* saying, “sweetie, I need you to look at this, come back” and then letting him crawl on the back of the sofa rather than pacing around the room–then he starts arguing and trying to physically get away, and it looks like refusal. (Though interestingly, sometimes after refusing and leaving he’ll come back a few minutes later to say “I figured it out in my head.”)
Needless to say, this is a BIG FUCKING CLUE as to why middle school–where he was finally starting to have to push himself *and* where, unlike his hippie (public) elementary school, they weren’t even going to consider letting him move around the room for a bit–totally, totally didn’t work for him, and why the math teacher in particular thought it all boiled down to a battle of the wills. He says that he mostly didn’t even try to move around, because it was so clear that that was not how things were done, and in elementary school we had done a LOT of work on teaching him not to shout or act out when he was frustrated, so I imagine that his attempts to restrain himself sent him fairly quickly into the refusal mode and would just shut down (and feel anxious, which is pretty much the recipe for causing depression). His first grade classroom was also a “traditional” school, and one that was very proud of its “good test scores” and mostly attended by the children of the kind of affluent (or hoping to become so) parents who “value education” in the sense of wanting their kids to go to the “good” school, so there, too, he was pushed to sit still and complete his work, which led to nightly crying jags and homework avoidance. Which is why I put him into the hippie school.
I’ve also come to recognize that when he’s doing something new that’s physical? He deals with that discomfort–including the excitement of the new–by talking. Which his PE teacher loathed (“stop talking to me and go run laps”) and which honestly drives me nuts b/c whenever he’s got a new video game, same thing: he has to tell me all about it at top speed any time he takes a break.
There’s some of that with new learning of ideas, too. He stops video lectures like seventeen times every half hour to comment on them, and when he was in elementary school I used to try SO HARD to get him to just write down questions/comments instead of interrupting. Most of his 2-5 teachers did a good job of setting up some kind of “hold on, ask/tell me later” signal with him, bless them. The first grade teacher and most of the middle school teachers, though, just tried to shut him down. Result? Frustration, anger, anxiety.
Which has led me to a broader realization or, at least, a hypothesis. It seems to me that everything about and around education, in the U.S. right now, is under enormous pressure. I used to be firmly of the “send your kid to public school, it’ll be fine” school in part because I saw people of my socioeconomic class worrying about whether public schools were “dangerous” or “good enough” as unnecessary anxiety, and I still do, where that anxiety is focused on whether kids will be exposed to “gang violence” or whether the standards of public schools are up to snuff. Which I still think are concerns that are motivated (consciously or no) out of racism, primarily. But what I didn’t realize is how much public schools themselves have become the focus of those pressures. In fact, it seems to me that homeschooling, too, is affected by the broader social pressure and anxiety around the entire category of “education” these days.
“Unschooling,” maybe, can be seen as an attempt to open up the pressure valve and let some of that build up out of everything associated with education. I’m not comfortable with the term for reasons that I think led me (and lead a lot of other people) to misunderstand it as *anti*-schooling (and indeed, there is some anti-schooling prejudice in both un- and homeschool circles, as well as among people who send their kids to private school; and I think that all of that has roots in historic racism, but that’s a different topic). When people start making blanket statements about schools as “factories” or how they “oppress children,” it gets my back up. And I continue to not understand how people who care about education enough to actually decide not to just follow the beaten path with regard to their own children’s education can be hostile to free, public schools as a fundamental institution in a modern society.
But that said, I am starting to understand where people are coming from when they talk about actually experiencing school as oppressive or inimical to education, because I am starting to see exactly how the amount of pressure in the system right now does function to undermine one of the most basic requirements for learning and teaching, which is the ability to be patient, and to listen.
People under pressure don’t listen well, and they tend to be a lot less patient than they otherwise would; and psychological stress tends to be “catching.” (Which might also suggest, by the way, why mass shooters sometimes attack schools even if their grudge isn’t “against” the school or they have no association with it? As well as why school shootings, more than any other kind of mass shooting, push all of our buttons. Yes, obviously the fact that school shootings affect kids is a big part of that last one, and it’s certainly a sufficient explanation in itself; but might there also be something going on with shootings that happen in an arena about which we all already feel enormous pressure and anxiety just ratcheting it up that much further?)
Or, as this school principal puts it,
Teachers are engaged in practices like these because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Their principals are pressured and nervous about their own scores and the school’s scores. Guaranteed, every child in the class feels that pressure and trepidation as well.
Surely, this is not a good atmosphere for learning, or working, or teaching, or collaboration of any kind.
One of the things they say about unschooling is that if your kid has been in school, there’s a “deschooling” period of about a year–during which the kid (and the parents) need to “unlearn” the entire mindset of school: that work is opposed to play, that learning is something grownups have to make kids do, that what kids want to do on their own is almost certainly neither educational nor healthy. That certainly proved true in our case (it took a little longer than a year). What we’re doing is not quite unschooling, I don’t think–we have a formal math curriculum (which I love), we have a formal series of history lectures (which are in accordance with the historical period his grade peers are doing in this state–and which he loves), I am “making” him learn to type (which initially he had a panic about but is growing to really enjoy), I “make” him get some kind of exercise, which we call P.E., every day. For language arts stuff I rely on my own expertise to be able to determine how his skills in exposition, persuasion, marshaling evidence, forming theses, etc. are coming along simply via our talks about things (he’s very good at this stuff), since writing is still a sore spot for him. I am arranging occupational therapy for him at the suggestion of a psychologist, and in the hopes that it will help him with the writing (which is also what the typing is for, obviously).
However, this “curriculum” of ours has taken shape very, very slowly, and only within the last couple of weeks has it really started to be an everyday thing. For the most part, we’ve been “deschooling”–giving PK time to get past the anxiety (with the help of medication) that is probably his birthright, but which I think was also made much worse by the current atmosphere in public education.
And while I’m pretty happy with how we seem to be doing for now, I can’t stop thinking of all the kids and teachers who are still swimming in that pool. I’m glad to know that lots of folks are starting to resist, challenge, and organize against those who want education to mean pressure, stress, distrust. I wish for public education that it be an institution where we don’t need to “un”school kids in order for them to enjoy learning.
And for all the kids and teachers, I wish them a nice long period of un”schooling” from the way we currently think “school” is supposed to be. Because that shit isn’t healthy for anyone.
More unschooling posts: