Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Radical Unschooler

I grew up reading the works of Gerald Durrell, beginning with My Family and Other Animals. This is an account of the 5 years the young Gerald Durrell spent with his family on the island of Corfu. (There's a nice BBC adaptation which is available on Netflix.)

Louisa Durrell occasionally worried about young Gerald's schooling, and employed various tutors to transmit the basics, but she also gave her son enormous freedom to explore the island's wildlife. His years on Corfu launched his later career as a naturalist and writer. Gerald Durrell treats his mother as a comic figure in his books, but it's clear that she was an adventurous and unconventional spirit who gave her children a wonderful start on life.

I've always admired those, like Durrell, who, rather than climbing up some prefabricated career ladder, invented their own career to suit their passions and abilities. In our times of rapid social change and economic uncertainty, more and more people will be called on to do this. How can a lockstep, authoritarian school system help our children find their own way in a constantly changing world?


  1. Have you heard of the Purple Cow? The theory is that we all need to discover what is unique about us and what we can do that no one else can do. And find what makes us happy. We have two kids in the public school system and I firmly believe that some of the system's main goals are to inure the kids to boredom and instill unquestioning compliance in the students and the parents. They don't state these goals explicitly, of course, but the policies and procedures in place promote these goals. I had to have another discussion about homework for a first grader yesterday and the teacher used the tired old "if you don't show her you care about homework, then she won't care about homework" and "we all have to do things we don't like sometimes." I wanted to jump through the phone and throttle that smug harridan! Instead I told the teacher that my daughter would eventually find her own path and that I hoped it wouldn't involve doing something she dislikes on a regular basis. I added that my daughter is fine with the idea of doing things that are not her first choice but she should at least understand what the point is. The school system does not want anyone to be a Purple Cow, that much is clear. I predict that many of today's kids will become adults who are unable to think on their feet and blaze their own trails when and if they need to.

  2. ***
    "if you don't show her you care about homework, then she won't care about homework"

    Oh, for heaven's sake. Any intelligent child is perfectly capable of hating homework on her own. It isn't Mom's fault that the kid doesn't want to do this tedious nonsense. SO infuriating!

    When my daughter started public school, I was prepared support the teacher at home. You see how well that worked out. When you have to choose between your child's mental health and supporting the teacher, your choice is clear.

  3. Thank you, Fed Up Mom. I almost told the teacher that it's true, I don't care about homework and I never, ever did.

  4. PsychMom says....I'm about to tell the teacher that homework is not allowed in my house in a meeting I have next week. And it doesn't stem from the actual work itself but the tone I'm getting from my child and from her classmates that a "good" parent would help her child with homework. The school is not allowed to come between my daughter and me either, let alone homework.

    Purple cows???? That's Seth Godin talk...Is Kim a fan of Seth Godin? Me too!

  5. PsychMom -- I hope you'll let us know how that meeting goes. My sense is that schools are more open to that kind of "opting out" than parents realize. (If more parents realized it, they might be less open to it.) I think they often prefer to let one parent have her way than to risk having that parent make a stink about something and potentially get other parents on board.

  6. PsychMom says:

    I will Chris. An earlier meeting yielded some recognition of issues with homework and I wasn't on my own in that meeting...another parent was with me. But it's the culture of school and homework that I want to get at this time. Notes are coming home referring to "your student". She's not my student, she's my child. And this pressure about getting help with homework is destructive, and I think sets the kids up to be less independent. As they get older, I know the tone will change at school and the teachers will tell them they have to do things on their own. But just that idea, that the teachers are telling them how and what to do and when to do it, is unsettling to me. The kids have to listen to anyone but themselves...."no point in thinking...any minute now some adult will tell me what to do."

  7. PsychMom follow-up..
    ...the meeting about homework happened last week. My main reason for wanting to meet with the principal was over my concern that my values and beliefs around homework seemed to have no grounds in our school. I wondered, in looking forward, how the situation could be reconciled when the school's demand for homework increased (right now demands are very light). My child would be caught in the middle between a teacher making demands on her student's homelife, and a mother making sure her 12 year old gets enough sleep and (more importantly) doesn't end up hating school.

    Discouraged would be a good way to sum up how I left the meeting. Middle school students must have homework so that they learn to work independently. They mostly hate high school, where they definitely will have homework, and they hate their parents, but you, as a parent, get them through it by telling them they can do whatever they want after they're done. This gives them the best preparation for life and the most options.

    I didn't offer counter arguements. If I accept the status quo, I'm choosing a track for my daughter that I see as very, very limiting. If I don't accept the status quo, our lives will have to change drastically, and my daughter will be angry with me for taking her out of school.

    Talk about horns of a dilemma.....

  8. PsychMom, how very frustrating. Can you bring in copies of the Homework Myth and The Case Against Homework? Can you put together a group of parents?

  9. PsychMom says...

    I could bring in the books (I have them all), but I think it's irrelevant. They know my tune now and they ain't playing it. Only teacher endorsed tunes are allowed. The issue sort of goes beyond the homework issue, anyway now. I think it's about whether parents have any voice about anything to do with curriculum...and the answer is a resounding no. This is what we do here and if you don't think it fits your family then unfortunately you'll have to go elsewhere. Sort of like the choice to do steps.....

    It's a small school. Though it was a pleasant conversation, I feel like I've already crossed a line.

  10. What are the alternatives? It never hurts to do research.

    BTW, when I first started talking to my daughter about changing schools, she was against it. I think it was fear of the unknown.

    As soon as she took a tour of a Quaker school, she was totally in favor of leaving the public schools.

  11. PsychMom says:

    Yeah, but you guys were having troubles with the workload at school, weren't you?...In this case it's just me and my idiosyncratic daughter is as happy as a proverbial clam.
    Maybe I just have to wait until she's not anymore.

  12. That's true, she was quite miserable by the time we started looking at different schools. It wasn't just the workload, there was a particular teacher who was bullying her.

    So the main problem at the moment is that you don't want to spend your rare free time with your daughter doing what the school told you? I sympathize.

    Are you willing to fake it? That's what a lot of people do in your situation.

  13. PsychMom said:

    I also don't want my child to learn to put school work ahead of fun and family life. That's at the crux of it because North American society puts work above all else. I don't want her to learn that...I also don't want her to do what I have done, which is cave. I don't want her to go through life uninspired...I really don't.

    Unless I'm willing to alter my work life completely, I'll have to swallow this.....Perhaps I should change my name from PsychMom to Suppressed Bohemian.

  14. PsychMom -- I've been meaning to comment on your update here. Your conference with the teacher sure sounds depressing. I know a little bit how you must feel, since we have very few options here and are pretty much stuck with whatever our schools dish out. I certainly don't expect to single-handedly dictate school policy, and would never be surprised to find myself in the minority on educational issues (not that anyone is polling the parents about their opinions). But, like you, I do get frustrated at the school's seeming unwillingness even to discuss or examine contrary points of view, or to reflect at all on the underlying reasons for existing school policies.

    All I would add is: Keep in mind that the school may be putting up more of a front of resistance to change than it really has. I think school administrators try to quickly discourage parent complaints, in hopes of squelching them before the parents start talking to other parents. They'll tell you all the reasons why they could never do what you're suggesting. They can do that with one parent, but if enough parents become dissatisfied about the same things, then the school's got a problem on its hands that it has to address somehow. So if I were you, I'd keep talking about the homework issues -- and not just with the school, but with other parents. People who aren't initially inclined to agree with you might come around after they've experienced the system for a while. At least you've got a head start, since your daughter is still in the early grades.

    A friend of mine recently came up with the idea of starting an education reading group with some other parents from our school. I hope it happens; if it does, I may blog about it as it goes along.

  15. PsychMom says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Chris...on some days I think it's already too late because my daughter knows what homework is already and has been innoculated with "homework needs to be done" messages from school. Undoing it, especially in the absence of support from school makes it very hard.
    Getting parents together was my idea too and I tried to get discussions going on "parent info" nights, but the teachers over-ran it and this year I see that the idea has been laid to rest. A book club is an interesting idea though. Do tell us what happens on your end.