Bringing Unschooling to School – A Conversation with Free Student Press founder Damon Krane

By Alex Walker

alexwalker

Alex Walker

My son is only three years old, but even before he was born I was determined to raise him in a less conventional way. I knew homeschooling – or more specifically, unschooling – would probably be part of that design.  My unconventional view of education is bound up with my attraction to a less mainstream, off-grid lifestyle. So, naturally, part of me longs to turn on my heel, leave all the worldly nonsense I detest about society in the dust while at the same time keeping my son out of the depressing feedback loop of the 19th century factory-style education system.  As my son becomes an adult, I want him to have an experience that is itself significant, and not a contrived training for what is expected of him as an adult. I want him to have the guidance and resources available to become an independently minded person who can make empowered decisions for himself.

Yet I face an ethical impasse. To renounce the society you are born into comes with a price, and I find myself in a very privileged situation to even be considering homeschooling my son. As a white, middle class, college-educated American, I have both financial and social freedom to make relatively bold decisions in my life. And yet I am coming to acknowledge that the privilege I hold exists because of the very system I want to reject.

Furthermore, caring about my son means caring about the larger world he’ll live in and the society he’ll have to negotiate. Being an off-grid unschooler won’t make that world go away. Whatever protective buffers I create for my family, we will always be umbilically linked to the larger world, populated and sustained by individuals whose experiences may have been curtailed by public schools; flawed institutions that are symbiotically necessary to our current social framework.

While struggling with these issues, I was contacted by an old acquaintance, Damon Krane, who has been an activist, journalist, and grassroots social justice organizer for the better part of 20 years. His initiative, Free Student Press, amounts to an utter infiltration of independent thought within high schools, giving students the power to challenge norms, confront authoritarianism, and engage in constructive dialogue, while discovering and exercising their First Amendment rights to distribute independently produced publications that are often illegally inhibited by schools officials. By developing self-confidence and learning to work together, he believes that students can become empowered to build a better world.


Recently, Krane launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive and dramatically expand Free Student Press. Already, his vision has been lauded by such prominent educators, authors and activists as Ira Shor, Noam Chomsky, Bill Ayers, and Dawson Barrett.

I recently spoke with Krane about Free Student Press and the relevance it might have to those interested in homeschooling and unschooling.

So what is Free Student Press (FSP) and why is it relevant to people interested in homseschooling and unschooling?

Damon Krane. Photo by Ece Ucoluk Krane

Homeschooling and unschooling have a lot of appeal to parents who believe children and adolescents deserve more freedom to pursue their own curiosities and creative impulses than conventional schools allow. FSP is based on the same conviction. But instead of seeking to create totally separate alternatives to our public schools, or trying to reform national school policy from the top-down, FSP takes unschooling to school.

What exactly do you mean by that? 

FSP starts from the assumption that teenagers don’t need anyone else telling them what to do. What they need are more meaningful opportunities to express themselves, to make sense of their world, and to have an impact on that world. So FSP offers teenagers some very practical tools. The first tool is the knowledge schools typically hide from students about their First Amendment rights to distribute independent student publications at school.

More commonly known as underground newspapers or zines, these publications are produced by students, outside of school, and without using school resources. But then students can bring these publications to school and pass them out to their classmates on school grounds, during school hours. School officials can’t control the content, they can’t punish students for writing things school officials don’t like, and in the overwhelming majority of cases school officials cannot legally prevent students from distributing independent student publications at school.

Within one of these publications, students can create for themselves a unique forum for public dialogue among their peers that is anchored to their experiences as students within their schools, and as young people within their communities. From my experience with these publications, I’ve learned that whatever disagreements students may have with one another, they tend to all want a place to discuss what they care about. So students learn how to manage this forum, because they’re committed to keeping it. They learn how to communicate themselves better, because that’s necessary to change minds and have an impact. They learn about their peers and others’ perspectives, and the situation forces them to contend with others’ arguments. Finally, if school officials attempt to illegally censor a publication – as they often do – students get to learn how to defeat corrupt people in positions of power and authority through grassroots organizing.

And the best part of FSP’s approach is that we don’t have to wait until we’ve changed our schools, or until we’ve built better large-scale alternatives. Instead, we literally turn public schools into an opportunity for a massive unschooling campaign – one that not only enriches learning and improves young peoples’ lives, but which also dramatically increases Americans’ capacity to create a freer, more just society.

Let’s back up a bit and talk about students’ legal rights to do this. Are student press rights just a matter of the First Amendment, or of court decisions and/or other legislation?

The First Amendment was a concession early American elites granted in order to get the Constitution ratified. It really didn’t mean anything in practice until mass movements of ordinary people made it mean something – and that’s true for student press rights, too.

Back in the mid 1960s, a group of families in Des Moines, Iowa decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Some of their kids wore these armbands to school, for which the children were threatened with violence by school officials and then promptly kicked out of school. The families and allied individuals and organizations fought back, and eventually this resulted in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Tinker decision did several things. Most important for FSP, it established the right of public high school students to distribute independent student publications at school.

Are there any legal limits placed on what students can do with these publications?

Independent student publishers and journalists are still bound by the same laws as professional journalists, publishers and everybody else when it comes to stuff like libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, copyright infringement, and so on. But there is only one additional legal restriction that applies to independent student publishers at public schools.

School officials may only attempt to prevent distribution of an independent student publication if they can show there is a very high probability that the either the contents of the publication or the manner of its distribution would cause a severe disruption of official school proceedings or invade the rights of others. What 46 years of case law following Tinker has made clear is that it is extremely difficult for school officials to meet this standard.

If students have had this right since 1969, why am I just hearing about it now?

It’s not just you. Practically everyone is unaware of this.

For nearly a half century since Tinker, illegal censorship has continued to run rampant in our schools, as documented by groups including the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Student Press Law Center. But the many reported cases of illegal censorship are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t tell us about all the kids who were lied to about their rights at school, or simply not informed, or students who never reported illegal censorship because they didn’t know it was illegal.

Take me and many of our high school classmates. During our senior year some sophomores created a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak. As soon as the students passed out their first issue, they were called down to the principal’s office and told they could not hand out a student publication at school unless they first allowed the principal to edit its contents. Since they had not done so, they were all punished with several after school detentions, and that was the end of Hide and Go Speak. That’s miseducation and illegal censorship, but none of us knew better, so it was never reported.

So what happened when you first put the idea of Free Student Press into practice?

Within three weeks of our first outreach event, the very first group of high school students Lisa and I worked with produced a publication called Lockdown. On page one of their first issue, Lockdown’s creators accurately explained their First Amendment press rights and the Tinker decision.

Student reading paper issue of Lock Down

And how did the school respond to Lockdown?

The principal threatened to suspend all of the students involved if “anything like this ever turns up again.” Then he informed the family of Lockdown’s lead publisher, Devin Aeh Canary, that a suspension would likely prevent her from becoming class valedictorian. Later, school authorities falsely accused the students of promoting drugs and violence through their publication, and local police were called upon to illegally break up a meeting about the paper the students were trying to hold at a public park. The superintendent, meanwhile, issued a press release declaring members of FSP irresponsible outside agitators who had made children feel unsafe at school, and he pressured officials at Ohio University (where I was an undergraduate education major) to encourage me to stop FSP’s work.

The conflict was pretty intense, and it lasted for nearly four months. But with FSP’s support the students mobilized so much community support that they completely defeated both their school administration and local police. The students kept publishing Lockdown, and the school’s principal resigned. FSP went on to work with more high school students and independent publications in the years that followed. However, officials at all of the five districts we worked with remained opposed to teaching students their press rights, publicly refusing to include accurate information in their student handbooks after FSP audited the handbooks a few years after the Lockdown controversy.

Why do you think censorship and deception about First Amendment rights are so common in public schools?

Public schools are supposed to be how we teach Americans constitutional rights essential to American democracy. But the design of our schools is at odds with that mission.

ks_memes_chomskyOur schools are designed to carry out what Paulo Freire called the banking concept of education. Within the banking concept, students are considered empty containers for a teacher to fill up with deposits of whatever information authorities have deemed valuable.

The first problem with the banking concept is that from the time we’re born, we human beings have our own curiosities and creative impulses. We want to figure out and consciously shape both ourselves and our world. But in the banking concept, these aspects of human nature are the enemy. They’ve got to be beaten down and suppressed so that students can be filled up with whatever is on any given day’s lesson plan.

For the banking concept to be implemented students must be silenced and made powerless. In contrast, independent student publications give students a voice and a means of developing power. That’s why our schools usually oppose student press rights.

You worked through FSP from 1999 through 2006 with students in Southeast Ohio. Now you’re trying to launch FSP in four Southern states over the next two years, and then take FSP nationwide. Tell me more about that plan.

If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its goal, I’ll begin traveling to several college towns in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In each town, I’ll recruit a team of college student activist-volunteers to assist me with outreach and working with the high school students in their areas.

Once we’ve established contact with interested area high school students, we’ll hold two separate weekly meetings in each town – one for just the local FSP team, and one with the local FSP team and the local high school students. In the beginning, I’ll be leading FSP’s work with each group of high school students. But as the skills of the local team members become more advanced, they’ll gradually take over from me, freeing me to launch FSP in additional towns.

In the meantime, I’ll try to facilitate online networking between the different student publications, and I’ll help the students access the additional resources of other press rights advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center.

Finally, I’ll be chronicling FSP’s work in a book. After this new two-year phase is completed, I’ll get the book published and use it to try to convince major funders and national organizations to expand FSP all across the country.

I can see this being something that homeschooled teenagers would enjoy and benefit from being a part of. Do you foresee FSP collaborating with and reaching out to kids who are not educated at school, but who want to learn about their rights and how to organize and engage in a more meaningful dialogue within their communities?   

Homeschoolers – along with private school students, who aren’t afforded the same press rights as public school students (except by California’s Leonard Law) – can attend FSP meetings and connect with independent student publishers at the public high schools in their area. This gives homeschoolers the opportunity to submit writing and artwork and even participate in governing student publications. So the experience can benefit homeschoolers and give them a great opportunity to interact with other young people.

How can people support this work?

The Free Student Press campaign on Kickstarter needs to reach its goal by August 24, so I encourage everyone who supports this work to donate immediately and to tell all their colleagues, friends and family to do the same. This only works if a lot of us pitch in. But if this campaign succeeds, its impact will be tremendous.

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NOTE: This is a condensed version of a longer interview. To learn more about what the digital age means for independent student publications, the situation of students at private schools, and critiques of the banking concept of education, see the full interview.

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BIOS:

Alex Walker is a stay-at-home mother to a three-year-old son. Formerly a figurative artist and portrait painter, Alex is fascinated by sustainable architecture, homeschooling, gardening, and anything involving creative design. She is following her intention of learning more about human rights and progressive values and movements, as well as becoming a practitioner of ecological living. She lives with her son and husband in Littleton, Colorado and is thoroughly enjoying what the state has to offer.

Damon Krane is co-founder and director of Free Student Press. He has worked as a news reporter, opinion columnist, magazine editor, communications director, non-profit director, grassroots organizer and activist, journalism educator, and business manager. Much of his writing is archived at damonkrane.com. He is also a visual artist, specializing in black and white pencil portraits of people and pets at fineartpetsketches.com He lives with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

 

Growing Up As An Unschooler

2011-04-22_12-34-45_Germany_Baden_Württemberg_Büsslingen-1Alternatives To School contributor, Gina Riley, Ph.D., follows up with many of the grown unschoolers who participated in the research study on grown unschoolers that she and Dr. Peter Gray conducted last year. Here is the third in a series of interviews of these grown unschoolers. (Click here to read the first interview, and here to read the second.) 

Josias is a young adult unschooler from abroad who had a variety of schooling experiences before unschooling. His dream is to eventually start his own farm, and he is well on his way to doing just that…

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I was born in 1993 in a tiny village in southern Germany. Though I quite like it here I’ve also spent several years in the UK, France and New Zealand and am still making my mind up where (and possibly if) I want to settle down. I enjoy working outside and playing games (card, board, roleplaying, computer, etc.). My plans/dreams for the future include building a tiny house, starting a farm and travelling.

Were you homeschooled or unschooled or both? For how many years? Did you attend public or private school? Why did you switch?

I started school at 6 in the local public primary school. Then at 7 I switched to a private Montessori school. When I was 9 my brothers both left school and after a year I said I wanted to do what they were doing. So I started unschooling at 10. We had a brief stint of founding a Sudbury Valley school where we hoped to have a little more contact with other people. We got shut down after a year because we were operating without permission from the authorities. When I was 17 I did a one year agriculture course at college. Afterwards I had periods of working and travelling and now I’m looking to go back to college for another 2 years.

What, for you, are the main advantages to unschooling?

The ability to pursue my own interests and make my own mistakes.

What are the main disadvantages?

It is the social question, although mainly limited to Germany. As it’s illegal to unschool in Germany, it can be quite hard to make new friends. This isn’t only due to being unschooled in my case. My grandparents moved to this area and we never integrated that well because we don’t go to the typical clubs and so on. In the UK this wasn’t as bad.

Ugh! The social question…(Sorry! But so many want to know…). How did you make friends as an unschooler? Would you consider your social life healthy (as a child and now)?

In Germany my friends are quite far away and are mainly other unschoolers. In the UK they’ve now spread out but used to be fairly close and were either unschooled or from college. I also regularly went to a sports club, partly for the social contacts. Although I didn’t see my friends as often as people in school might, I still view my social life as healthy. I do remember sometimes wanting more friends or closer friends when I was younger. I’m not sure school would have helped me in that sense, however.

Tell me about your first job (paid or unpaid). How did you obtain it? Did being an unschooler assist you in any way?

When I was 16 I started being involved in several work experiences. One of them was at the farm of my best friend’s dad. After working there unpaid for two weeks we agreed that I would work there for 2.5 days a week for some pocket money. It was fun and I learned lots. He’s still my favourite boss. After my year in college I applied for a job in a museum, which I found through a newspaper, and worked there for a season. Unschooling hasn’t per se helped me find a job, but since I know what I want to do for what, I’m more confident.

What about college? Did you attend? If so, how did you get admitted? 

I attended a one year course at British college (not uni). I did my German qualifications in order to be accepted there but found I didn’t really need them. After I do my other two years at college I have the qualifications I’d need to go to university but don’t see how it would benefit me.

What about your current career? What do you do? Is your current career somehow associated with what you did as an unschooled child/teen?

I’ve wanted to do a lot of jobs in my life, but being a farmer is one thing I’ve wanted to do from when I was very little which still stands. I come from the countryside and used to live right next to a beautiful apple orchard. My best friend’s dad has started a farm and I used to want to take it over. Well, I still kind of do, actually. After working for him for a while I decided that growing food is what I want to do. So yes, my current career goals are connected to what I did as a teenager. I’m working as a mover at the moment in order to afford college so I can gain more knowledge on starting my own farm.

What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?

Hopefully a fulfilled relationship with children, who will be unschooled if they choose to be….A sustainable farm with cattle, sheep, a vegetable garden and perhaps an orchard. I’m interested whether I’ll achieve that and whether being an entrepreneur will suit me or if I actually prefer working for someone else. But I’ll give it my best shot and pursue my interests!

What advice would you give parents who are thinking about OR making the choice to unschool?

I would say that it’s not really their choice, but the children’s choice instead. I think unschooling is great, but the parents need to trust their kids a little. Like with the video game question: They’re still learning something when they’re in front of the computer and it’s their life.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

I have great parents who support me in practically everything I do. If they wouldn’t support me it would really get me thinking about if what I’m doing is right. Those things are connected. They trust me to do the right thing and in turn they have my respect. It’s important that unschooled children (and schooled children, really) have the possibility to get help and support, if they want it.

I’m very satisfied and happy with my life and I like to think unschooling is part of what led to that.

A Letter from Teaghan Rose, Homeschooled Teen

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Hello!

My name is Teaghan Rose and I am 18 years old. I began homeschooling when I was seven years old, stopped at 12, and started again at 15. I have two brothers (six and 12) and a sister (16) who all follow a self-directed learning path, too.

My schooling path has been a world of contrasting learning environments. From traditional school to online and an adventure at a Performing Arts School, my academic explorations have always led me back to self-directed learning and to truly being in charge of my education.

I attended kindergarten and continued with traditional education through first grade. I can remember as a six year old thoroughly disliking the classroom environment; all I wanted to do was play. Focusing was extremely hard for me, and I could never quite comprehend what the teacher was talking about because I simply did not care. Granted, not everything was a negative experience. I enjoyed the friendships that I made in school and made some connections that I still enjoy today. However, academically, traditional school was somewhat of a disaster.

After first grade my mother decided to start homeschooling me. I liked this a whole lot better. I could play as much as I wanted and explored what interested me. If I didn’t want to do something, I didn’t have to. And I certainly did not have to sit around all day while information passed straight through my head.

I spent most of those first homeschooling years outside, building, playing, and creating. But as I got into the middle school ages, I started to worry about my education. I worried that I wasn’t learning enough or learning the right things. I would hear my traditional school friends talk about their classes and felt under- educated. At this point I decided I was finished with homeschooling. I thought that if I were going to be successful later in life, I needed to know certain things.

I can remember my friends discussing a history class of some sort and not having any idea what they were talking about. I am sure they’ve now forgotten all the facts and information that were being discussed, but in the moment I felt bad that there seemed to be general knowledge I knew nothing of. I love to read and did it all the time, but felt I was lacking in mathematical and scientific knowledge. I thought maybe attending traditional school would awaken some deep scientific appreciation within me. And, in time, I have come to really enjoy science a lot and I love to learn about it. However, that appreciation certainly did not come from traditional school; instead, it stemmed from a curiosity about the world that I was unable to pursue in the direction I desired within the traditional school environment.

Instead of believing in myself to teach myself the things that I wanted to know, I opted for having others choose for me. I wanted to be smart and felt that I wasn’t, and that pushed me away from homeschooling.

At the time my neighbors were attending an online charter school that also offered a Performance and Fine Arts Center for interested students, and after talking to them I signed up. The Performing Arts Center was somewhat selective, and I had to submit art work and prepare a dance audition. After weeks of waiting, I received my acceptance letter and ecstatically started my online work.

The first two years of online school went well. I was doing all my work on time and felt very fulfilled and productive. I was also enjoying the Performing Arts Center and created many friendships there.

However, my enjoyment of online learning did not last long after that. When I graduated from 8th grade, I was excited about 9th grade. My fellow students were always complaining about how hard it was to balance online work and the arts assignments, but I had always juggled the work load well. Until 9th grade, that is.

High school was overwhelming from the start. The workload was huge, both academically and at the Performing Arts Center. I was constantly working, would stay up well past midnight on most nights and worked on weekends and holidays. I never had any time to explore what I was interested in because I was always learning what other people thought was important.

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Open Connections

Throughout 9th grade, I was exhausted and soon decided that I needed a healthier learning environment. My sister and brother had been homeschooled the majority of their lives and had recently begun attending a center 45 minutes away called Open Connections (OC). Every Tuesday and Thursday, after my art classes, I would drive over to OC with my mom to pick up my siblings. I loved to sit in the quiet space of the Barn and read; it was wonderful to have a few moments away from schoolwork to focus just on myself. I also enjoyed coming to OC events, the Pausing Ceremony and Music Night. The community was so positive and laid back, I felt instantly welcomed.

The choice to begin homeschooling again and to attend OC was an easy one to make. I desperately wanted to be in control of my learning—and I soon was. I created a schedule and curriculum for myself and started to really love learning again. It felt so natural to be teaching myself, and learning what I knew was important to me. I realized that this was where I belonged all along, and that learning at my own pace was what would truly make me successful.

I began homeschooling and attending OC in 10th grade and am graduating this year. I got into my top three colleges with good scholarships (woohoo!) and have big plans for the future. If it weren’t for making that vital decision to begin homeschooling again, I don’t know if I would be in this position, ready to attend college. I don’t know if I would have realized my potential as a scholar and person, and if I would have taken the initiative to succeed. The homeschooling and OC communities are warm, encouraging, and truly enabled me to set big goals and then achieve them. I am so thankful for the the community and opportunities that have presented themselves through Open Connections and self-directed learning!

- Teaghan Rose

A Visit to Summerhill – Possibly the Happiest School in the World

By: Alexander Khost

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Summerhill students along with students and staff from five countries during International Schools Week 2015.

“When people come here, they don’t say that Neill’s writing inspired them, but rather, that Neill’s writing changed their life,” I heard Zoe Readhead say in a meeting I attended last week. Zoe is the principal of Summerhill, a ninety-four year old boarding school in Leiston, England and the daughter of A. S. Neill, the school’s founder and the author of many transformative books. I am one among the self proclaimed life-changed people.

Many years before, across a huge ocean far away in the suburbs outside New York City, Summerhill seemed like an unattainable fantasy to my fifteen year old public-schooled mind, But the very thought of it, just the possibility that a school could be as such made me come alive and has had me so for the twenty-five years since.

A life’s dedication
I have dedicated my life to Neill’s simple philosophy, Freedom not License. At Summerhill, children can do as they please (freedom) so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others (license). That means, for example, students only go to the classes they are interested in attending, but cannot play their guitar at 2am while everyone else is sleeping. It is a century old self-governed school run predominantly by the young people living there.

An invitation from Summerhill
My partner, Amanda Rose Wilder, made a documentary entitled Approaching the Elephant about the first year at a school I founded in New Jersey based on Neill’s principles. The film debuted last year and was discovered online by Philipp Klaus, a Summerhill teacher and house parent. Philipp invited Amanda and I to attend the school’s annual International Schools Week and so, among thirty-six staff and students from free schools in South Korea, Italy, Spain, and Germany, we found ourselves immersed in a week long sampling of what life is like at Summerhill.

Getting there
Neill once said that “Summerhill is possibly the happiest school in the world.” If I had any doubts of that claim, I was certainly assured that it was true last week, as I joined the ranks of the happy community. Amanda and I arrived at the Saxmundham train station and took a fifteen minute cab ride to the small village of Leiston on the eastern shore of England and onto the many acres of land that houses the Summerhill community.

So many rules!
After being shown our tent among the many tents to house the international guests in the horseless horse field, we were shown around the grounds by P., a thirteen year old student and member of the committee that put together this International Schools Week. P. briefed us on the most important of the school rules.

Paradoxically from the school that has inspired so many stories of freedom, my first feeling at Summerhill was one of panic should I break any of seemingly many stringent rules. One of the most common misconceptions of Summerhill (and other free schools alike), is that it lacks structure. The massive law book and specific visitors rules I reviewed were the confirmation that quite the opposite is true. Summerhill has a great deal of structure, perhaps twice that of a typical community. To successfully allow everyone to have an equal voice there, it must be that way. Whereas in the more conventional top-down environment many of us are used to, less rules are needed, since authority presides. Just think of any decision-making environment you have been in, where you try to give equal voice to each member of the group– it is perhaps much easier in the short term to have one person make all of the decisions but is it as fair that way, is it respected and obeyed? Self-governance is indeed governance, just a form of structure many of us are not accustomed to, having been raised to do as we are told, not as we all decide together.

Bedtimes
Amanda and I learned of the complex system of bedtimes at the boarding school (which I could not accurately repeat without a rule book cheat sheet in front of me). It began with the youngest children being in their rooms at 8:30pm and lights out fifteen or so minutes later, working it’s way up to the older 11pm bedtime children and the oldest of whom have no curfew at all but need to respect the quiet time mandated by after hours.

There are Beddies Officers, community members who are over thirteen who are elected to the Beddies Officer committee, who go around and lovingly tuck in all of the children each night. In my questioning of many in the community, the bedtime rules seemed to be some of the most important to them. And not once in a school of more than seventy sleeping children and a dozen or so staff, did I ever witness the bedtime rules being broken.

…and more rules
There are laws to regulate meal schedules, class schedules, event schedules, the mandates of how the two trampolines and various skateboard ramps can and cannot be used and so on. But somehow within this blinding list of laws, time there seemed so simple, so… un-bureaucratically just and efficient.

School meetings
The school meeting proved to be the finest decision-making process I have ever been witness to. All free schools have a weekly school meeting (Summerhill has two) in which school rules are discussed and voted on (or come to a concensus on in some cases, depending on the school’s decision-making process) and at Summerhill, where members of the community can be “brought up” by other members for breaking laws or personal grievances. I have been to the school meetings of perhaps a dozen different free schools and by far Summerhill’s was the most impressive. Sixteen year old I. ran the meeting both times I was there (meeting chairs at Summerhill go through chair training and then rotate weekly upon election by the school meeting each Friday) and the meeting secretary, G.– with the kindest smile– who was about the same age, sat next to her keeping the meeting minutes.

Discussion included voting the international guests into the meeting (so I was told, as I stood outside hoping to get in!), a discussion on one student who was brought up for saying mean things to another student (who was given a “strong warning,” which was recorded and could result in, for example, a work fine if there were subsequent offenses), a request to use £15 to buy a cake to celebrate the 70th anniversary of UNESCO (the organization that wrote the Convention on the Rights of the Child), announcements of the pool opening, and many other topics. Each meeting I was at lasted about forty-five minutes and was run so smoothly, I can only hope the United Nations takes note.

Getting to know students and staff
I spent my mornings sitting at a picnic table front and center on the school grounds, painting a picture for a friend’s children we were to visit in London once we left Summerhill. I secretly sat there hoping children would approach me, ask to paint alongside me (with the many extra canvas boards I consciously brought along with me on the trip for just that purpose) and strike up conversation. On day one M. approached, a ten year old or so boy, and at the moment, the only student from the United States. He had just started attending the school half a year prior. He unfalteringly painted his vision on his canvas (a city skyline that cleverly reversed itself when held upside down), asked if he could keep it, cheered when I nodded yes, and ran up to his room to assumingly hang it. Our conversation consisted mainly of how he got here, how he felt about the school (he loved it but missed his family), and many bad jokes by both of us that continued throughout the week (and somehow lost me fifty pence in a fixed game of rock, paper, scissor, where M. pulled out “bazooka”).

On the soccer field (football pitch), I secretly laughed to myself as I struggled to figure out who was staff and who was student. The game was intense and serious but aside from keeping score, I heard not one competitive remark amongst the players (even despite the fact that my team was crushingly defeated 11-1). In capture the flag the next day, I found myself most seriously stomping through stinging nettles on the enemy grounds, only to be discovered by Michael, one of the staff, who assured me he was not playing. It was at that moment that I, the forty year old adult I am, looked into the eyes of another adult who laughed at me in the bushes that I realized that I was finally fulfilling my twenty-five year dream. I had made it to Summerhill, warmly and kindly invited to share in a moment here.

 

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At the picnic tables with some of the Italian visitors.

The next day I had great success at the picnic tables, where a group of Italian girls joined me and painted sun filled skies and flowers while others stood around and braided colored wire into bracelets. At lunch Amanda and I met F., who spent the rest of the meals that week giggling as she stole Amanda’s seat when she got up for a drink and would poke me in the arm and say “dead.” That evening, Philipp invited us to his house’s bedtime, which was the warmest, most nice moment of the trip. Bedtime simply consisted of having perhaps a cup of tea and toast while sitting around and sharing stories before the brushing of teeth and the Beddies Officers coming for the lights out tuck-in.

The highlight of the week, however, came most unexpectedly at dusk on Thursday evening, two nights before we were set to leave. Sitting with Amanda in my usual spot on the picnic bench but now listless, since I had finished the painting for my friend’s children, we were approached by F. and E., a friend of F.’s, who inquired if we had been up Big Beech. We followed their lead after they saw our blank faces, anticipating not much more than perhaps a silly joke. We were led behind Class 2, the building housing the classrooms for the second youngest group of students at the school, where we looked up, and then up further to see the most giant beech tree I have ever laid eyes on.

Like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, the two girls led Amanda and I up a ladder and sat with us out on an enormous branch twenty some odd feet in the air (I did not dare climb to one of the higher branches that our young counterparts more confidently walked along like trained tightrope walkers). They told us how the tree had been here since the school had begun and about the boys in the past who had presumably climbed to the highest branches, I want to say, a good fifty or sixty feet in the air. They told us of their time at Summerhill and of their families at home and made up stories for us. And as we walked away to attend an adult get together in the staff lounge we were invited to (again discovered by Michael, smiling, looking up at us in the tree, “I heard your voices…”) we overheard one girl say to the other, “I like them.” And my heart warmed as I felt, for a moment, as an accepted part of something bigger, something wonderful.

 

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F. on a branch up Big Beech


Goodbye Summerhill!
We postponed our plans to leave for London Friday afternoon to attend the last night party in honor of the international guests. A campfire and marshmallows and dancing and limbo and goodbyes followed. Early Saturday morning Amanda and I zipped our tent for the last time and jumped in a taxi we had reserved the day before (we learned!) right after one last look at the school grounds and one last cup of tea. We sped off to meet old friends in London and to take a marvellous charge at a rope swing at Glamis Adventure Playground, a junk playground in London that supports free-play for children, but that’s a story of children’s freedom for another day.

- Alexander Khost

Where Are They Now? Insights from Grown Unschoolers

MustangsAlternatives To School contributor, Gina Riley, Ph.D., follows up with many of the grown unschoolers who participated in the research study on grown unschoolers that she and Dr. Peter Gray conducted last year. Here is the second in a series of interviews of these grown unschoolers. (Click here to read the first interview.)

Laura Ellis is a former unschooler, Master’s student, and experienced horse trainer. She was kind enough to share her amazing life experiences with Alternativestoschool.com:

Tell me a bit about yourself…
I’m 28, live in Santa Fe, NM, and will graduate with a Master’s of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine this August. After I graduate, I’m going to stay here for a few months to de-school, then move to Pittsburgh, PA to be with my family, where I will practice Oriental Medicine. I’m also a horse trainer and plan to (somehow, financially) continue training captured wild mustangs to be adopted. I also currently work at a craft brewery part time.

Were you homeschooled or unschooled or both? For how many years? Did you attend public or private school? Why did you switch?
I attended public school through the 2nd grade. Because of a particularly inflexible teacher, my (apparent, though I don’t recall this) love of math turned into a hatred of math, so my parents decided to homeschool us. Because of our family’s nature, this quickly became unschooling. In high school, I decided that I wanted the equivalent of a PA high school diploma, so I signed up for twice-weekly high school classes with the homeschool co-op that we belonged to. You might say I was “homeschooled” during this time, since I had homework, but I always considered myself to be unschooled through this time because of my learning philosophy and because all of the choices that we made educationally–classes and otherwise–were from the unschool mindset. Slightly more formal classes (with teachers and homework, though with flexibility that homeschoolers expect) were the way I wanted to achieve my goal. So in short, I unschooled for 10 years, 3rd-12th grades.

What, for you, are the main advantages to unschooling?
One main advantage, which I think is the foundation for the others, is that unschooling taught me to trust myself and to question the traditional paths. Not to scorn or dismiss traditional paths, simply to question. I have always been able to look at my life situations and decide on my next step based both on what mainstream says I should (“You graduated from high school? Go to college!”) and on out-of-the-box options. Being used to choosing less traditional paths and trusting myself to know which path is best for me have opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had the courage to look for otherwise.

Another (related) advantage is that my parents taught me how to pursue the scarier options–that is, how to ask strangers for help learning something or for internship/jobs, and how to look for and take advantage of opportunities.

Also, I developed a sense of self-confidence, a sense that I have something to contribute, and a realistic sense of my limitations. Together, I think that these three things are what has made my previous employers pretty unanimously fall in love with me. I can see my own potential and expect myself to live life, I try hard to succeed at new things, I expect myself to be valuable to the team/society (not only because I personally believe it’s important, but because I do believe that I am valuable, and being less is a disservice to myself and my community), and yet I know that there are certain things that I am not good at (not valuable for), and I can be honest about it from the start. I believe that all of these qualities (advantages) can be attributed to having been unschooled.

What are the main disadvantages?
This is always a hard question for me to answer because I think I sound particularly rosy and probably self-deceptive when I say, Nothing. Honestly, I cannot think of a single way I am not better off from being unschooled. But that’s me personally: I know that unschooling doesn’t work for some people, and that’s due to the beauty of human variety. Nothing is going to be the right path for everyone, and unschooling is no exception. I couldn’t tell you why, though.

Ugh! The social question…(Sorry! But so many want to know…). How did you make friends as an unschooler? Would you consider your social life healthy (as a child and now)?
Lots of other people will say it, too, but I think that my social life was much healthier than my peers as a child. My friends’ ages ranged at one point from 5-50, and they were people I considered personal friends, not just “my friend’s little sister” or “my mom’s friend.” My social life now is just as healthy because I know how to relate to people of all ages, including co-workers, bosses, fellow students, etc.

For socialization, we belonged to a few different homeschool/unschool co-ops. I was also involved with Girl Scouts until I was a teenager, I played with neighborhood kids, and went to summer camps. I also often made friends on family vacations–not that I kept in touch with them, but that’s how easy it was for me to make new friends.

Tell me about your first job (Paid or unpaid). How did you obtain it? Did being an unschooler assist you in any way?
My first job was at the riding stable where I took dressage lessons. I was about 11. I don’t remember how exactly I got the job, but I suspect my riding instructor suggested it, since they had a working student program where students could work in the barn for credit toward additional riding lessons. Probably the only part of being an unschooler that helped me get that job was flexible hours, but since I remember often working with other public-schooled kids, I doubt it was a huge factor.

What about college? Did you attend? If so, how did you get admitted?
I attended college after a gap year. Getting in was the same process as public-schoolers, only we had to write a transcript for me, showing the classes I had taken (both through the homeschooler co-op and the “classes” we made up when I pursued something far enough to warrant mention and “credit”), and one college required a portfolio of my activities (which they waived after my interview). Most colleges were very impressed at my educational background and experience, and I felt that the admissions interviewers were quite receptive to the idea of admitting a homeschooled student. (And yes, we used the word “homeschooled” for the sake of ease.) I got into four of the five colleges to which I applied, including Mt. Holyoke and Earlham College (which is the one I attended, partly for its reputation for academic challenge). The one that I was not accepted into (Kenyon College), I was told, had a massive influx of applicants that year, and I was told that I was the right caliber of student that they were looking for.

What about your current career? What do you do? Is your current career somehow associated with what you did as an unschooled child/teen?
My current career is “student,” although by the end of the year I will be a licensed practitioner of Oriental Medicine. I had hardly any idea of what acupuncture is and even less idea of energetic and whole body medicine until sometime in college. I did, however, always have an empathetic heart for human suffering and knew that I needed to be of some service to humanity.

I’m also a horse trainer, and working with horses is a love that began when I started lessons at 9 years old. I worked at that barn for several years, and then, when my family moved to the country, became the primary caregiver to two horses that we boarded in our pasture (their owner was a grown unschooler, actually, who became like a big sister to me, and was an influence in the ways of growing into an adult unschooler). I started to learn training with these two horses in the style of natural horsemanship. Then, when I moved to Santa Fe, I started studying natural horsemanship in earnest with a man who trains wild mustangs to be adopted out, and he (and the horses) are my inspiration for continuing this work.

What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?
The future holds….too many things, and it’s a good problem that many unschoolers have. After I graduate, as I said, I plan on enjoying Santa Fe for a few months, then moving back to PA to be with my family. I will also be going on a month-long trip to China through my school in August 2016, assuming I can raise the money to help me go, and will be traveling around Asia for an unknown amount of extra time while I’m over there. In PA, I’m going to start my acupuncture and herbs practice, but how that will manifest is not yet solid for me.

I plan on bringing one of the mustangs that I’m working with and have developed a strong bond with back to PA with me and perhaps another green mustang to train.

I have also played with the idea of going on a 6-week intensive Spanish language immersion program to Peru next spring, but it looks like I’ll need to postpone that pursuit for now. I also desperately want to move to Alaska for a year, and I have the connections to do it (including housing and getting a job as a commercial fisherman, which I am mostly interested in because of my unschooler self shouting, “Something new!“), but again, my family is trumping my options, so I’ll be moving to PA instead and save Alaska for later. I was also thinking about moving to Oregon, and plan to settle in that region eventually.

I am equally excited by all of these things and sometimes despair that I can’t do them all now.

 What advice would you give parents who are thinking about OR making the choice to unschool?
It’s more work than it sounds like: you have to be present, attentive, and willing to devote a lot of time to driving and actively doing things. But it is also probably the most rewarding thing you can do for your kids (possibly for you, too, but I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t know by anything but hearsay). As long as there is respect and communication (and I reiterate, respect), you’re going to have amazing relationships with your kids, your kids with each other, and your kids will know and appreciate your efforts.

Insights From A Grown Unschooler

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Alternatives To School contributor, Gina Riley, follows up with many of the grown unschoolers who participated in the research study on grown unschoolers that she and Dr. Peter Gray conducted last year. Here is the first in a series of interviews of these grown unschoolers.

Ben is a 19-year-old musician and college sophomore who was home educated throughout his life. He considers himself a “relaxed homeschooler,” and is a highly self-directed learner. Ben talks about his experience with self-directed learning here:

Tell me a bit about yourself!

I am a 19 year old musician. My main instrument is guitar (acoustic, electric, and classical), but I also play bass and mandolin and am a singer-songwriter. I have completed a master certificate in guitar at Berklee College of Music and currently am a sophomore at a small college in New York, where I am working towards a Bachelor’s of Music in classical guitar performance. I play lots of local gigs in the New York area.

Were you homeschooled or unschooled or both?
I would say that I was “relaxed homeschooled,” meaning that we (my mom and me) did use a curriculum, but it was never forced on me and we didn’t do “school at home”.

Did you attend public or private school during any time in your school career? No. I was homeschooled from K-12.

What were the main advantages of homeschooling for you?

Looking back, the biggest advantage for me was that I was able to explore my own interests freely and was never stopped because of time constraints. For instance, if I wanted to study Ancient Greek culture for three hours that was actually encouraged, whereas if I went to school I would have to follow a set schedule. As a result, I had many different interests in various subjects. From age 5-8, I was obsessed with rocks and studiously collected and labeled hundreds of rocks and read lots of books on the subject. From age 8-10, I became very interested in coins, especially old coins. I collected, read about, and looked at them all the time. From 10 to about 15, I got into playing golf, and eventually got very good at it. I won 21 local tournaments and for a couple of years thought of golf as my future career. However, when I was 14, my mom started taking guitar lessons at a local music shop and asked me if I wanted to learn how to play too. At first I was resistant, but after a couple of weeks I would start to ask my mom to show me how to play. Since my mom probably only knew a couple basic chords, she instead signed me up for a month of lessons with her guitar teacher. After about a year, I truly fell in love with playing guitar. I do think that playing, studying, and writing music is my calling, but I would have never found that calling if I didn’t have the time to fully explore my different interests.

What were the main disadvantages of homeschooling for you?

I had a great experience with homeschooling, and the only disadvantage for me (especially as a child) was dealing with other people’s reactions to the fact that I was educated differently than my peers. As soon as my mom decided to homeschool me, and the neighbors never saw the school bus come, there was nearly a riot! Almost all of our neighbors fiercely questioned my mom and me, and sometimes they would actually test me. I was a very smart kid, so those neighbors that tested me were probably pretty disappointed that I did so well on their “tests.” This went on all the way until about age 16. After that people would gradually bother me less about it, and by now some of our harshest critics now actually encourage and support homeschooling as an educational choice! Random people in public would ask “why aren’t you in school today?”, and when I told them that I was homeschooled, they would ceaselessly question me, and not always nicely. As a kid, it sometimes felt that the world was constantly trying to get my mom and me in trouble for choosing a totally responsible and legal educational choice. One of my favorite things about being an adult is that no one asks me why I’m not in school. Sad but true.

Ugh! The social question…(Sorry! But so many want to know…). How did you make friends as a homeschooler?

I’ve been asked this question way too many times, but I do understand that as a researcher you have to ask. I never had any trouble making friends. However, I tried to pick my friends wisely (and still do). In fact, being homeschooled gave me many opportunities to make friends of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities since I wasn’t stuck with my same age peers all day or peer pressured to make friends with people that I didn’t like. I made friends through activities, and normal day to day interaction with other people. I did tend to have more adult friends than same age friends because I was around people of all ages, which some people had problems with. Once, a doctor told my mom that I had Asperger’s Syndrome because I had obsessive interests and seemed to be friends with a lot of people older than I. She was obviously misinformed…and now Asperger’s doesn’t even exist! I’ve never had trouble making friends and I feel that being homeschooled has actually helped me to meet many more interesting people than I would have if I were in school.

Would you consider your social life healthy (as a child and now)?

As mentioned in the previous question, I definitely had a healthy social life as a child. Now as a college student I have made more friends than I can keep up with despite being somewhat introverted. I never have had issues with having a social life.

Tell me about your first job (paid or unpaid). How did you obtain it? Did being a self-directed learner assist you in any way?

Though I have volunteered for almost as far as I can remember, I would say that my first job would be as a dog walker for one of my neighbors. I have done many different jobs both paid and volunteer in nature. I have been a camp counselor, eel monitor (DEC volunteer project), Meals on Wheels volunteer, and have played numerous paid and unpaid music gigs both with a band and as a solo artist. Being homeschooled definitely helped me in terms of being more flexible with hours than my school educated peers could be. I also was used to working with adults and am good at coming up with creative ideas and solutions to problems, which definitely was and is an asset.

What about college? How did you get admitted?

Since my mom is a college professor, I am used to the academic environment, so even if I chose not to go to college I would know what a life steeped in academics looks like! When I was 16 I successfully applied to Berklee College Of Music’s online school and completed a 24 credit master guitar certificate at age 18. From there, I chose to apply to a small college in New York because I liked the school and they have an excellent music department. I successfully auditioned and the application process went relatively smoothly, except for getting federal financial aid. Specifically, when I applied for TAP, I was denied because I didn’t have a high school diploma, which resulted in a hold being placed on my financial aid account. However, I had no problems obtaining other financial aid and I also earned two scholarships. I am going to college so that I can study my field of choice (music) in depth before I start working in the music industry. So far I am having a great experience at college and already have a clear reputation as a very talented and hard working student.

What about your current career?
Is your current career somehow associated with interests you had when you were younger?

As I mentioned earlier, I am a musician. As I am currently in college, I gig mostly in the summer and during breaks from school, but once I graduate I plan on pursuing music as a full time career. Since it will probably be hard to make a living at first, I might also teach music or work another job until I am able to make a living as a full time musician. Being a relaxed homeschooler gave me the time to explore my interests and get very good at my various interests. I started playing guitar at age 14, and I would definitely not have been able to practice nearly as much as I did if I was in school…it gave me more flexibility to play gigs, which was a big advantage.

What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?

Playing and studying music is my main passion, and I am very excited to try to make a living at what I love to do. It will probably be difficult, especially at first, but life is not a rehearsal and it’s too short for me to settle for a more respectable office job that I won’t enjoy.

What advice would you give parents who are thinking about OR making the choice to homeschool or unschool?

My main advice would be to make an educated decision and to read a lot about the different types of homeschooling/unschooling that are out there so that you can determine what is right for your child/teen. Homeschooling is not for everyone, but for me it has been one of the best choices that my mom made for me. Being homeschooled allowed me to stay curious, open minded, and creative and not be stifled by time constraints or an over-scheduled childhood. Most importantly, it gave me the time and freedom to follow my passion. Read books that are both pro-home education and more traditional education-based, stay open-minded, and don’t forget about using your intuition!

Student Resistance Handbook: A Review

51rQK3CDU8L._SL210_by Pat Farenga

More than one educator has said or written publicly that they have misgivings about forcing children to learn on demand in school; however, this is a minority view and students are viewed now, more than ever, as little learning machines to be tinkered with. Children eat, socialize, go to the bathroom, think, read, study, move from place to place, and, if they are lucky, exercise when school says. Further, school doesn’t just dictate what students can think about and ranks them on how they present those thoughts, it also justifies student captivity by claiming that it is necessary to treat children this way in order to create good citizens, and it uses the law to compel school attendance by children. Since the compulsory school system was invented many people have criticized these claims by educationists (my favorite is from the 1920s, when a schoolmaster claimed that school is vital for democracy, and Rita Sherman, a homeschooling mother, replied, “How can one learn about democracy in a place where it isn’t practiced?”), yet school continues its dominion over children’s lives and parents’ imaginations as to what children are capable of achieving.

Today school is more encompassing of children’s lives than ever, but school has little tolerance for children acting like children being kept in tight quarters; they are routinely drugged, ridiculed, mistreated, and punished harshly for offenses that no adult would tolerate in civil society (for some examples see, “19 Crazy Things That School Children Are Being Arrested For”). If that statement seems hard to believe, please view the documentary The War on Kids so you can see how unjust the school system can be to children. Cevin Soling, the filmmaker of The War on Kids, has written a new, brief, and powerful handbook that is bound to anger those who view children as a restive population in need of subjugation by educationists: The Student Resistance Handbook.

Soling opens the book with this quote, “Those who expect students to willing endure compulsory schooling, and the associated deprivation of rights and assault on dignity, have no regard for the human spirit and no respect for the souls of children,” and then he notes that “the purpose of this handbook is to promote the most basic civil rights to youth by empowering them to change the structure of compulsory schooling that denies these rights to them. . . . The philosophy of this handbook is that the primary task of those unjustly deprived of liberty is to engage in the struggle for liberty. Knowledge without liberty is meaningless.”

Soling is well aware that students who engage in the actions he describes may suffer serious consequences and,“Given the hysteria in schools and abject contempt for youth in American society, it is reasonable to expect that reactions could be wildly disproportionate to the acts perpetrated.” A quick view of the article or film I mention in the preceding paragraph show how true that last statement is. But then, what to do? For those who disagree with such institutional practices and are in a position to remove their children from public school and have them learn in a private or home school that promises a different learning environment, the answer can be clear. But for the vast majority of children in America there are no such choices and so they must endure the 12-year sentence of schooling we impose upon all people under a certain age (which used to be ages 6 to 16 but is now being stretched to 18 and as young as 4 as some states compel school attendance for even longer stretches). Soling writes directly to an audience of elementary and high school age students. By removing the patina of caring for children that school uses to justify its existence, he also exposes how our legal system hypocritically supports “student rights”:

Fascism is defined as an autocratic system of organization where dissent is suppressed and loyalty is demanded. Clearly, public schools are fascist institutions. Children are required by law to be in a state of captivity where they cannot act in any way that disrupts the process of indoctrination. Arbitrary rules must be followed at all times and abstract rewards and punishments are dispensed in the form of grades. Justice is dispensed arbitrarily by the teacher and the school administration. In many states, teachers have immunity from prosecution.

. . . The fundamental problem is that most people believe that schools dispense valuable information and willfully fail to comprehend that even if that were true, the fascist environment poisons every constructive intention of the school. . . .

. . . The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that schools have the power to act against student behavior that interferes with their “educational mission.” The spirit of this was first asserted in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Consistent with the Supreme Court’s hypocrisy, the decision that schools may punish and prevent any kind of disruptive behavior was heralded as a major student victory because it allowed for innocuous nonverbal gestures. Even today this abusive dictum is hailed as a significant landmark for the protection of student rights. . . .

. . . The most fundamental and important learning experience is to engage in opposing fascism in any form whenever it rears its ugly head. Fascism is a cancer that threatens liberty everywhere. Any act that directly challenges or undermines fascism is heroic. . . .

. . . Any institution that demands the surrender of one’s will, for any purpose, is irredeemably corrupt and must be taken down. Dialogue with teachers and administrators is a waste of time because they will either deny they are in a position of complete power or they will insist that it is necessary for the good of the students.

. . . Schools make children believe they are defective because they suffer when they are placed in an oppressive environment. That is just plain sick. In addition to approving the torture of children held in a captive environment, the defenders of schooling blame children for the mental health consequences of the abuse they endure.

Soling peppers his chapters with cartoons and clever quotes to engage the reader, such as these by Thomas Paine (“The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes”) and Benjamin Franklin (“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority”), as well as from students themselves (“I’m wearing black for my first day of school because it’s actually the funeral for my happiness”). In short, snappy prose Soling outlines the tactics for nonviolent protest and persuasion, how to use public statements, symbolic displays, systemic disruption (“Foment Dissent within Faculty Ranks”), resistance and non-cooperation, overload the system, target individuals, and how to handle punishment (this section suggests that the student record conversations and take notes about the punishment, and offers ways to cope with questioning, strip searches, spanking, paddling, corporal punishment, and quitting school).

This is not a timid book, and it is certain to raise the hackles of many supporters of school who feel children must be seen and not heard, and that teaching them to disrupt unjust situations in school and advocate for themselves is just not the good, polite behavior school expects from children. However, when adults like John Taylor Gatto write and talk about the destructiveness of school upon children and how he, as a teacher, subverted the school regime to help his student’s learn what, when, how, and from whom they wished, he is applauded by adults and some educators. When Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools kill creativity he is awarded with accolades from school people and millions of views of his YouTube video. But if a child talks about how school demeans him or her, or if they simply say they don’t like school, he or she is most likely told to put up with the situation because “that’s the way it is.” The Student Resistance Handbook is a strong dose of real action wedded to rational thought that any student can benefit from, even if they are unlikely to act upon any of its content other than agree with the chapter “Bad Arguments in Defense of Schooling.” At least they’ll know there are others who think as they do about school.

It is the potential for action that makes this book scary for adults who think, “Do we really want students to petition local school boards, renounce school honors, or target individual school personnel as a way to resist school?” (I want to note here that John Holt refused not only school honors later in his life, but he also refused to tell people where he went to school and what he studied as one of his practical, small actions to reduce the power of school in our lives. You can read more details about why he did this in his book Instead of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better.) Rather than work with the play toys of power—student government—Soling wants students to work with the real objects of power to achieve real goals that have repercussions in the world. This is something homeschoolers have leveraged for their own children—helping them to engage in real work in the world, rather than imagined tasks in a text. Homeschoolers are known to involve their school-age children during school hours in public, political protests against unfair rules for homeschooling and other political issues. I applaud and fully support homeschoolers for doing so, and I hope homeschoolers will support school students who can also benefit from such actions.

The big difference is school students won’t have many, or any, adults and teachers on their side. Soling makes no bones about this: “If teachers and administrators want to reach out and negotiate with you, it will be based on a lie. They will only want to negotiate the terms of your surrender;” or “While some teachers might appear sympathetic and want to actively engage in dialogue, despite their sincerity, their intent will always be to make you compromise your principles.” Soling provides many ideas and resources to students to “fight back and make those who support schools experience the same misery that they make you endure, and thereby enable you to attain some degree of control over your own life.” Soling defines victory as no one being forced to attend school and notes, “Given the rise of viable alternatives to school, this endgame is not completely far-fetched.” Though I doubt the shift to alternatives to compulsory schooling will happen in my life, I do have great hope for such a victory and I agree with Soling: “Engaging in the struggle for these minimal expectations is a form of victory. The only failure is abandoning your ideals or settling for less.” Soling’s hope is that if school continues to become unbearable for students, and students make school unbearable for teachers and administrators, that will force it to change.

If we truly believe—as John Taylor Gatto and Sir Ken Robinson believe today—that school debilitates personal initiative and abilities and, in addition, as John Holt and Ivan Illich noted in the 1970s, that school perpetuates class-based social problems, then we need a new system, or concept, of education to replace the factory-model schools we continue to use. We should be listening to what the students claim school is like for them today, and support student efforts to make school a more humane and equitable place for learning. Soling offers a clear roadmap for students who want to engage in civil disobedience, not illegal activities, in order to gain agency in their lives beyond being a “good student.” He is careful to show how repealing school policies like Zero Tolerance and random drug testing can be done using legal and administrative means, but if those fail then, “Make their lives as hellish as yours.”

This isn’t nice behavior by students, of course, and that’s the point: school isn’t being well behaved towards students, either. Some of the ideas Soling presents have been attempted by individuals in real life or have been depicted in movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might be viewed as an instructional video supplement to this handbook), but I think Soling is the first person to collect and codify these ideas into a course of action for students. If you’re a dissatisfied student in school I suggest you read this book to discover what you might be able to do to improve your situation; if you’re a parent or educator, I suggest you read this book to consider what school can be like to children and to see that their statement of “I hate school” can be based on being marginalized by school. If you’re a homeschooler or alternative school student, I suggest you read this book to see what you’re missing or what you left, and then to share it with your school friends who want to resist school.

Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends. 

 

Homeschooling from the Middle

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Albert Einstein (image: wikimedia commons)

by Lisa Renee,The Synapse

 

When I began this home education odyssey, I had read all the requisite inspirational literature regarding the endless possibilities. Examples of exceptional homeschoolers are everywhere — the Colfax family, with their star academic progeny, the national spelling and geography bee winners, the kids who sail the world and live to write about it. And we’ve all seen the lists of famous homeschoolers, from Ben Franklin to Leonardo da Vinci. I was duly inspired. Homeschooling offers the freedom and independence, the creativity and the time to let talents blossom.

Many years later (and still in the trenches), I realize that I may have been under the spell of false advertising — delusions of grandeur, unrealistic expectations — common in American life, really. Akin to the idea that I will be sexier if I drive the right car, and even closer to the myth that life will be better with the right brand of university degree. Please don’t misunderstand — homeschooling has been a wonderfully rich and eye-opening experiment and has provided us all with a surprising amount of experience and education. I count it as a smashing success and would do it all over again.

But — we are undeniably normal.

There, I said it. My kids are all brilliant, accomplished and marvelous individuals (of course), but there isn’t a Mozart or an Einstein among us (both homeschoolers, by the way) — not yet, anyway. This revelation — that success isn’t necessarily defined in superlatives or related to fame and power — would have been a welcome relief to me twenty years ago, early in my tenure. It would have somewhat assuaged the intimidation whipped up by the many accounts of frenzied super-achieving that goes on in some homeschooling quarters. It has, unfortunately, taken me years to realize that my approach — basically just learning to live in the world kindly, responsibly, and with curiousity — is perfect for me and mine.

I have endured (yes, endured) many relationships with homeschoolers who insist that the project is about rising to the top — the Phd in education whose kids were so tyrannized by her forced march to success that they begged to go to school, the 15-year-old lunching with Hillary Clinton, the 14-year-old performing Bach at the Ivy League school, and the family that does everything better than you. I ran into their 13-year-old daughter at a book sale — she was wearing a stunning, floor-length crocheted dress of many colors. “Emily, that’s gorgeous — where did you get it?” Silly me. She made it, of course. This is the same family whose young daughters arrived at a dance, each topped with a jaunty, one-of-a-kind hat. “Where did you get them?” (You would think that I had learned.) Yes, they sheared the sheep, carded the wool, dyed the wool, felted the wool, and made the hats. On the weekend. Probably before I got out of bed.

I’m sure that some of you see yourselves in this. One of the great things about home education is the lack of limits — go where your curiosity, motivation, and determination take you. High achieving, accomplished homeschoolers are fairly common, I think. I applaud you and am endlessly impressed by your kind. But someone needs to speak up for the rest of us. I tried to keep up with the race-to-the-top pace for awhile and it wasn’t working for me. I learned that we needed less running, less competition, less friction, less pressure. We opted for more open spaces, more time to think — another great thing about home education. Perhaps that is why there are so many high achieving homeschoolers. They’ve had time and space to let their ideas grow.


Here’s what we do: cook, read, write, play, watch movies, argue, paint, draw, garden, noodle on instruments and dabble in life.

And here’s what we haven’t done, yet: write concertos, build barns, chair committees, cure diseases, keep bees, or save the world.

We may, but we haven’t yet. My kids are all bright and capable, each in a perfect quirky way, and are finding their own interesting and promising paths to success. The possibilities of homeschooling are truly endless and that alone creates a broad, open approach to learning and growing.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING.

When the mainstream mentions homeschoolers, we hear about the winners and the losers — the fringe dwellers, the prodigies and the problems. Most of us, however live somewhere in the middle — we live proudly in the middle. We’ve had shining moments of triumph and crashing bouts of failure — just like most of the kids in the schoolhouses. Not every member of the school population can have the lead in “Oklahoma”, or win a national science competition or give the valedictorian speech. And, of course, not every homeschooler will be Einstein.

Speaking from the middle, we are happily toiling away in the world, finding paths to illumination, passion, kindness, and — ultimately — ourselves. This is something to encourage and celebrate.

There really is plenty of room for all of us.

 

If you appreciated reading this, please recommend and share it so others may, too. Thank you, from Lisa Renee and The Synapse. Be well.

Published in

The Synapse - Transmitting a range of voices to explore the essence of learning, teaching, and education.

Self-Directed Learning: Passion, Skill, Market

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illustrator: Shona Warwick-Smith

(An excerpt from the new book, The Art of Self-Directed Learning, by Blake Boles)

Carsie Blanton grew up in rural Virginia where she played on the rolling grassy hills, hunted salamanders, read books, and fiddled around with musical instruments. Seeing a happy and engaged child, Carsie’s parents decided to simply never send her to school. They supported Carsie’s interests, made her part of adult discussions at the house, and gave her large blocks of undisturbed personal time.

At 13, Carsie discovered a deep love for guitar and songwriting. At 16, she moved to Oregon to join a group house with other artists, where she met a funk band who invited her to sing backup and tour the United States. As she traveled, she began building her own body of musical work.

In her twenties, Carsie independently recorded and released a few albums, leading to new gigs and a few big breaks (like opening for Paul Simon). She worked in coffee shops to pay the bills before her shows and CD sales became profitable.

Instead of going to college, she trained with top musicians, struck up friendships with interesting people she met on the road, and continued her lifelong habit of reading lots of hard books. She fell in love with swing dancing, started taking swing classes whenever possible, and eventually began teaching her own classes.

Then, at age 28, Carsie mobilized her fans on Kickstarter with the goal of raising $29,000 to produce a new jazz album, offering preorders of the album, personalized songwriting, and other interesting rewards in exchange for donations.

She hit her target and then kept going, all the way to $60,000, enough to produce her album, pay a few big-name jazz musicians to contribute, hire a publicity team, and take her entire band on tour across the United States.

* * *

Running a Kickstarter campaign is essentially like starting a business in an incredibly short time span: you’ve got to develop a product, create a compelling story, attract an audience, and then deliver. Like most business startups, most online fundraising campaigns fail. But Carsie, an unschooled young woman with no formal training, nailed it on the first try. How?

Having traveled, performed, and danced all across the United States, Carsie had built one heck of a social network, an important element for fundraising success. But I don’t think that was the main thing.

Carsie carefully planned her fundraising campaign, studied other musicians’ campaigns, and asked for lots of feedback before going live. Those actions certainly helped, but I still don’t think they explain everything.

Instead, I believe that Carsie received an early and powerful education in applying her self-directed learning to the needs of others.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING, CLICK HERE!

With all of our talk about self-directed learning, it’s easy to assume that our educations should focus only on ourselves. But people who, like Carsie, want their hobbies to fund their lives know that focusing only on yourself is the fast path to going broke. Instead, we must take what we love and figure out how to use it to inform, entertain, educate, or help other people.

Tina Seelig of the Stanford Design School masterfully explains the idea with the threefold concept of passion, skill, and market.

  • If you’re passionate about something, but you’re not skilled in it, then you’re a fan. (Think, for example, of a beginning guitar enthusiast.)
  • If you’re passionate about something and skilled in it, then you’ve got a hobby. (Think of a guitarist with some training and experience.)
  • If you’re skilled in something, there’s a market for it, but you don’t have any passion for it, then you have a job. (Think of a guitarist who is good enough to play gigs, but he lost his love for guitar long ago.)

Combine all three elements—passion, skills, and a market—and you arrive at Mecca: meaningful work that also pays the bills. (Think of a musician, like Carsie, who loves playing gigs and can make a living doing it.)

Self-directed learners are typically very good at identifying their passions. They build skills when necessary. But finding (or creating) a market? That’s the hard part, because it means they must stop thinking only about themselves and start trying to understand other people.

Understanding the needs of other people, I propose, is exactly what Carsie was doing in her adventure-filled youth.

Playing music shows? An exercise in discovering other people’s tastes.

Working in coffee shops? An exercise in providing value to an employer.

Teaching swing dance lessons? An exercise in helping people learn something complex.

By paying close attention to the needs of others while also building her skills and deepening her passions, Carsie created a self-directed education that wasn’t just about herself. So when it came time to launch her Kickstarter campaign, she didn’t make the rookie mistake of focusing on me, me, me. Instead, she created something that other people actually wanted.

Do what you love, but also keep an eye on the needs of others—that’s how self-directed learning can turn into self-directed earning.

Blake Boles (blakeboles.com) builds exciting alternatives to traditional school for self-directed young people. He directs the company Unschool Adventures and is the author of The Art of Self-Directed LearningBetter Than College, and College Without High School.

Autism and Overdiagnosis: A Q&A with Dr. Enrico Gnaulati

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Reports of autism cases per 1,000 children grew dramatically in the US from 1996 to 2007.

Reports of autism have exploded over the past twenty years, leading some to believe that doctors are overdiagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder on a large scale. In the interest of spreading awareness about common factors that lead to the misdiagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),  Dr. Enrico Gnaulati, clinical psychologist and author of the recent book, Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, shares his answers to common questions about autism over-diagnosis:

Q: Why do you think Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is overdiagnosed? Where’s the evidence?

Dr. Gnaulati: The latest statistics out of the famed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that 1 in 68 children are now affected by autism. That’s a 30 percent increase in just two years. In 2002, 1 in 150 children were given the diagnosis and, in 1991, 1 in 500. The spike in diagnosis is mostly accounted for by “mild” cases of autism, where the afflicted child has acquired decent communication skills and has average, or above, intelligence. Many of these milder cases go on to shed the disorder—upwards of 30 percent, according to a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill study, making one wonder if the diagnosis really applied in the first place. Remember, ASD is generally considered to be a life-long, disabling neuropsychiatric condition that a child does not shed as childhood progresses. Consequently, with a sizable percentage of children supposedly shedding the diagnosis in the course of childhood, we have to start questioning the validity of the diagnosis in many cases.


Q: If a questionable diagnosis of ASD gets a kid some services he or she needs, even if the diagnosis just loosely applies, or is arrived at according to a more conservative standard, why is that a bad thing?

Dr. Gnaulati: What the average parent does not understand is that a diagnosis of ASD is a severe diagnosis that teachers, outside professionals, and the lay public still very much view as a serious, disabling condition. Applying a diagnosis of ASD can immediately classify your child in the mind of others as “impaired,” or “severely limited” which can then impact how they perceive and interact with your child. Others may then expect less from your child, or “talk down” to him or her, which your child then might internalize as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where he or she then think him or herself as less capable or limited.

When a diagnosis of ASD really applies a child’s limitations need to be accepted, worked with, and worked around. This is the most realistic and humane course of action. But, when a diagnosis does not really apply it can have untoward effects on a child where he or she might then create false self-limitations.

A child may have a cluster of speech and language, fine- or gross-motor delays, social and emotional difficulties which get lumped together as a case of mild ASD. That child may actually need services to address these developmental problems. However, separate, milder diagnoses can be used such as a Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, a Communication Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and a Developmental Coordination Disorder, and an Adjustment Disorder.

Parents are often unaware of how a severe diagnosis like ASD can follow a child and have unfavorable effects as that child enters adulthood, such as being denied, or having to pay more for, disability and life insurance, be prevented from pursuing certain careers in law enforcement and the military, or be denied a trucking or pilot’s license in many states, as well as a host of other restrictions.

If an ASD diagnosis applies it can be effective in getting a child much needed services and lead to a child’s limitations being accepted and worked with in humane, realistic ways. If, on the other hand, the diagnosis does not really apply your child may face false life limitations and restrictions.


Q: In your experience, what childhood phenomena are most likely to be confused with mild cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Dr. Gnaulati: That’s actually a more complicated question than it seems! Sometimes it’s as simple as a “perfect storm” of everyday circumstances that make a child look autistic-like. I have had cases where a child is being raised by non-English speaking nannies, who anticipated that child’s every need, thinking that to love that child is too do everything for him or her, like feed and dress and baby-talk to him or her beyond an age where it is appropriate. These same children did not attend pre-school and, as such, missed out on the rich array of social and emotional learning that entails. Then when they entered kindergarten sirens went off and teachers and school personnel went straight to assuming the children were autistic because they seemed to lack basic communicative and social skills.

Otherwise, delayed language development, a proneness to tantruming, fussy eating, a preference for isolated play with objects, being “slow-to-warm,” or introverted by temperament, are, in my experience, the most common aspects of children that get confused with a mild case of autism.

Also, in our “politically-correct” ways of trying to be gender neutral we may overlook how boys develop differently than girls,on average, setting many boys up for a false diagnosis of mild ASD. Girls learn to point as a communicative gesture earlier than boys, are more empathic, acquire language sooner, and engage in social play to a greater extent than boys. It is not until around age five that the average boy catches up with the average girl in these areas. Without a firm knowledge of this professionals can falsely diagnose boys who are slow-to-mature in these areas.

Q: Is there any advice you can give parents who are thinking of getting their children assessed to help them prevent a false diagnosis from occurring?

Dr. Gnaulati: If signs of autism are clear—minimal or no language; extreme withdrawnness; limited eye contact; very infrequent shared emotional reaction; frequent disinterest in playing with peers; bizarre self-stimulatory behavior such as swirling around in a chair or staring endlessly at a ceiling fan; tantruming often when fixed routines are not adhered to—the earlier an assessment is conducted and services implemented the better. However, when the signs of autism are vague, mild, or unclear, parents need to be aware that the conditions surrounding a typical autism assessment can contribute to a struggling child appearing more autistic-like.

For instance, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the inventor of the highly-effective Floortime approach to treating autistic children, conducted a study several years ago of 200 autism assessment programs around the country, many of which were located in prestigious medical centers. He discovered that only 10 percent emphasized the need to observe a child along with a parent or guardian for more than ten minutes as they spontaneously interacted together. He, himself, tended to observe a child playing with a parent for forty-five minutes or more, waiting for choice points to enter the interaction to engage a child directly to see of he or she was capable of more eye contact, elaborate verbalizations, or shared emotional reactions. Dr. Greenspan believed that these conditions of safety and sensitive interaction were essential in order to obtain an accurate reading of a child’s true verbal and social skills.

So, it is extremely important that parents insist that the person doing the assessment allow a parent to be in the room for an extended period of time to put the child at ease so that the assessment is being conducted with a child when they are at their best, emotionally speaking, and not unduly stressed. Young children vary in their ability to part from a parent and be in the presence of a stranger without being unduly stressed. You want to make sure that a stressed child, who is also possibly slow-to-mature, does not then get a false diagnosis.

Enrico Gnaulati Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, The Atlantic, and Salon. He is the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.