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Finding Mentors for Our Children Part 1

By Alison McKee

In my book, Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, I often discussed situations where my children worked with mentors. Since the publication of the book, many parents have asked how to go about finding mentors for their children. In answer, I say that finding mentors is not difficult if we follow the lead our kids give us. Here, I am going to explain more thoroughly what I mean. I will draw heavily on my children’s experiences.

Our intention, as parents setting out to unschool our children, was to immerse them in the life of our community from an early age. In some ways, finding my son’s first mentor happened quite by accident. One of our regular family outings, when the children were little, was to go to the library. When Christian was four or five, he developed a special relationship with one our librarians. That relationship was a very informal mentoring relationship. Christian simply enjoyed asking Roger, the librarian, questions and Roger enjoyed answering them. If he couldn’t answer them, Roger showed Christian how he researched to find answers to questions he didn’t know. It didn’t take long before Christian’s arrival at the library was met with a small stack of books that Roger had held aside, during the course of our week’s absence, thinking that they might interest Christian. Christian’s first mentor had been found and I’d done nothing to make it happen.

I think it is important to take a minute to explore this little scenario, because it is such an apt example of how unschooling works: Children direct the learning process while parents facilitate the learning that children seem to be interested in. Finding those first mentors for our children is as simple as that. It happens because, with our children at our side, we engage in activities in the community. For our family, the library was a vital resource. It was quite natural for me to take our children to the library and involve them in what I was doing there. I also included them when I made shopping trips to our local co-op. When the kids were old enough to hang out with me as I did my volunteer stint, I took them along on that trip too. Guess what?

The kids wanted to help out. Soon they developed special relationships with some of the employees. Those employees became informal mentors as they taught Christian and Georgina to stock shelves, package dry goods, arrange displays etc. Without any intervention from me, my kids found these mentors on their own. This scenario played itself out over and over during the first eight to ten years of my children’s lives. So, if you are thinking that in the near future you might have to start looking for mentors for your children, don’t panic. Simply think of the naturally occurring opportunities that happen in your day-to-day life and you may find yourself sitting on a gold mine. I’ve heard numerous parents tell me their version of the library scenario, and others tell me how weekly trips to the natural foods store, knitting store, and feed store all became fertile grounds for establishing a first mentorship.

Embedded into these first mentoring relationships are the seeds for growing more formal relationships in the future. Of necessity, our children grow in their need for independence as they get older. That growing need for independence, led by a child’s burgeoning interest in the world beyond the front door, is nurtured by the unschooling commitment to facilitating the learning of children. Inasmuch as the facilitation of a child’s desire to learn is the hallmark of the unschooled life, I always felt as though it was my responsibility to keep my eyes out for opportunities to do so. Those opportunities sprang up all over the place. Sometimes an opportunity might take the form of, “I don’t want to leave right now, can I stay here with Roger (the librarian) while you go next door to the post office?”

Those first quests for independence, although small in size, are significant stepping-stones along the path toward a future which might contain opportunities for our children to be mentored by total strangers. In the early years of this process, it is important to keep close tabs on the relationships our children develop. Once we have developed a trusting relationship with the individual with whom our child “works” we can “go next door” with a feeling of triumph: Our child has successfully found his first mentor.

Throughout my children’s early years this was how we accomplished finding those very first mentors. It didn’t happen only once or twice, it happened over and over again. Every time my children asked to stay put, while I ran an errand, offered them an opportunity to practice their skills of independence. With the development of those skills, came discussions about the “ground rules” of safe behavior. As my children demonstrated their ability to follow those rules they gained more and more autonomy.

If I am recalling accurately, both of my children, at the age of ten, requested to be able to do volunteer work in settings that I had never taken them to. Christian, at age ten, wanted to work at a radio station. Four years later, at age ten, Georgina was asking to work at a pet store. Suddenly we were being asked to find our children mentors, in environments we’d never been to, who would be willing to work with them as they learned skills that were of interest to them.

At this stage of the process, there is a very real shift in focus that we, as parents, need to take if we are going to be successful in finding a suitable mentor for our children. Whereas, in the early years, our children found mentors within the environments we exposed them to, the later years of working with mentors will be marked by their moving beyond what’s familiar. This is where we, as parent’s need to focus, at this stage of the process.

In the case of our son, things fell into place rather easily. As unschoolers, we felt it was our responsibility to facilitate what Christian wanted to do and to make sure he would be safe doing it. Our first step was to take Christian to the radio station and check it out. After spending time there, we were pretty sure Christian’s safety was not at risk. The next step in the process was that Christian had to explain his interest in working at the station to the volunteer coordinator. At that time (in the ‘80’s) it was unusual for a child to be at a radio station during school hours, and we felt it important that Christian explain himself so that the volunteer coordinator could get a grasp of how deeply interested he was in being part of the radio station’s mission. The face-to-face interview with the volunteer coordinator was the ticket to Christian’s success in landing his first volunteer opportunity there. Soon he was paired him up with someone willing to supervise him. Christian, having demonstrated to us that he knew how to comply with our ground rules for safe behavior, was then allowed to stay at the radio station for an hour on his own and do a volunteer task. This sort of limited independent volunteer work allowed us, as parents, to monitor the situation from a safe distance. As we all became more satisfied with the volunteer experience, Christian took on more and more responsibility at the station. Soon an adult stepped to the fore and mentored Christian in the rudiments of radio engineering. Simply stated, from a rather protected beginning, Christian was, by this stage of the process, well on his way to becoming an individual who would some day, without parental supervision, be able to select more mentors for himself.

Georgina’s first forays into the world of seeking her own mentors followed a somewhat different trajectory. In her situation she had no particular pet store in mind. Our task, therefore, was to scout around and find a pet store where she liked the ambiance. Not only did the ambiance need to be well-suited to Georgina’s needs, we as parents needed to be sure that the setting she chose was safe. So, with Georgina’s interests and our mission to facilitate her learning needs leading the way, we began our search. Within a week or two she found what she was looking for. Unfortunately, the owners were unwilling to have a child volunteer. For the next few months, whenever there was time to spare, we went in search of the perfect pet store. Georgina was unsuccessful in finding anything better than the first site that had turned her down, so we returned to that site to try again. The owners repeated their unwillingness to have her volunteer but offered that she might come to the store, any time she liked, and pet the animals. Little did we know we had just stumbled upon the key to building mentoring relationships: Take what you can and run with it.

Over the next few months we did just that. David took Georgina to the pet store, she petted the animals and chatted with the owners and then when she’d had enough, go next door to the coffee shop where David had stationed himself. Soon Georgina’s boredom with petting animals gave way to her desire to wanting more. (An important lesson is to be had here. As parents, it is not our job to relieve our children’s boredom or prevent boredom from developing in the first place. Rather, we should allow our child’s boredom be the motivation for them to move in new directions.) With coaching from us, Georgina approached the owners and asked if she might help out in other ways. Again, her offer to help out was rejected. Finally, David and Georgina went back to the owners and explained Georgina’s keen desire to volunteer. This was significant. The owners had concerns about using a “student” volunteer based on a previously bad experience. Georgina’s genuine interest seemed to shine through as the owners interviewed her and talked the matter over with David. At the end of the interview, Georgina was invited to volunteer. With behind-the-scenes coaching from us, Georgina soon learned the skill of asserting herself as a volunteer. A month later she was doing everything but running the register and answering the phone. From here on out, Georgina’s ability to find mentors — under our supervision — burgeoned. Like her brother, she honed the skills of finding mentors who could teach her more than her parents knew and eventually gained the skills of a life-long learner that have carried her into her adulthood.

So, there is no real mystery in how to go about finding mentors for our children, if we simply follow their lead. Unlike tutors and teachers, mentors are those individuals who meet our children at a place where interests intertwine and both the mentor and the mentored gain from the relationship. AMcG


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A Conspiracy Against Ourselves

by John Taylor Gatto, excerpted from “The Underground History of American Education”  [Copyright 2014 by John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved.]

A lower middle class which has received secondary or even university education without being given any corresponding outlet for its trained abilities was the backbone of the twentieth century Fascist Party in Italy and the National Socialist Party in Germany. The demoniac driving force which carried Mussolini and Hitler to power was generated out of this proletariat’s exasperation at finding its painful efforts at self-improvement were not sufficient. –Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

Two Social Revolutions Become One

Solve this problem and school will heal itself: children know that schooling is not fair, not honest, not driven by integrity. They know they are devalued in classes and grades, * that the institution is indifferent to them as individuals. The rhetoric of caring contradicts what school procedure and content says, that many children have no tolerable future and most have a sharply proscribed one. The problem is structural. School has been built to serve a society of associations: corporations, institutions, and agencies. Kids know this instinctively. How should they feel about it? How should we?

As soon as you break free of the orbit of received wisdom you have little trouble figuring out why, in the nature of things, government schools and those private schools which imitate the government model have to make most children dumb, allowing only a few to escape the trap. The problem stems from the structure of our eceonomy and social organization. When you start with such pyramid-shaped givens and then ask yourself what kind of schooling they would require to maintain themselves any mystery dissipates—these things are inhuman conspiracies all right, but not conspiracies of people against people, although circumstances make them appear so. School is a conflict pitting the needs of social machinery against the needs of the human spirit. It is a war of mechanism against flesh and blood, self-maintaining social mechanisms that only require human architect to get launched.

I’ll bring this down to Earth. Try to see than an intricately subordinated industrial/commercial system has only limited use for hundreds of millions of self-reliant, resourceful readers and critical thinkers. In an egalitarian, entrepreneurially-based economy of confederated families like the one the Amish have or the Mondragon folk in the Basque region of Spain, any number of self-reliant people can be accommodated usefully, but not in a concentrated command-type economy like our own. Where on earth would they fit? In a great fanfare of moral fervor some years back, the Ford Motor Company opened the world’s most productive auto engine plant in Chihuahua, Mexico. It insisted on hiring employees with 50 percent more school training than the Mexican norm of six years, but as time passed Ford removed its requirements and began to hire school dropouts, training them quite well in four to twelve weeks. The hype that education is essential to robot-like work was quietly abandoned. Our economy has no adequate outlet of expression for its artists, dancers, poets, painters, farmers, film makers, wildcat business people, handcraft workers, whiskey makers, intellectuals, or a thousand other useful human enterprises—no outlet except corporate work or fringe slots on the periphery of things. Unless you do “creative” work the company way, you run afoul of a host of laws and regulations put on the books to control the dangerous products of imagination which can never be safely tolerated by a centralized command system.

Before you can reach a point of effectiveness in defending your own children or your principles against the assault of blind social machinery, you have to stop conspiring against yourself by attempting to negotiate with a set of abstract principles and rules which, by its nature, cannot respond. Under all its disguises, that is what institutional schooling is, an abstraction which has escaped its handlers. Nobody can reform it. First you have to realize that human values are the stuff of madness to a system; in systems-logic the schools we have already the schools the system needs; the only way they could be much improved is to have kids eat, sleep, live and die there.

Schools got the way they were at the start of the twentieth century as part of a vast, intensely engineered social revolution in which all major institutions were overhauled to work together in harmonious managerial efficiency. Ours was to be an improvement on the English system, which once depended on a shared upper-class culture for its coherence. Ours would be subject to a rational framework of science, law, instructions, and mathematically derived merit.

When J.P. Morgan reorganized the American marketplace into a cooperating world of trusts at the end of the nineteenth century, he was creating a business and financial subsystem to interlink with the subsystem of government, the subsystem of schooling, and other subsystems to regulate every other aspect of national life. None of this was conspiratorial. Each step of it was purchased with coin and a keen understanding of human nature. Each increment was rationally defensible. But the net effect was the destruction of small-town, small-government America, strong families, individual liberty, and a lot of other things people weren’t aware they were trading for a regular corporate paycheck.

A huge price had to be paid for business and government efficiency, a price we still pay in the quality of our existence. Part of what kids gave up was the prospect of being able to read very well, an historic part of the American genius. School had instead to train them for their role in the new over-arching social system. But spare yourself the agony of thinking of this as a conspiracy. It was and is a fully rational transaction, the very epitome of rationalization engendered by a group of honorable men, all honorable men. The real conspirators were ourselves. When we sold our liberty for the promise of security, we became like children in a conspiracy against growing up, sad children who conspire against their own children, consigning them over and over to the denaturing vats of compulsory state factory-schooling.

The Fear of Common Intelligence

The fear of common people learning too much is a recurrent theme in state records around the world. The founder of the Chinese state, the Emperor Ts’in She Hwang-ti, burned the work of the philosophers for fear their ideas would poison his own plans. The Caliph Umar of Syria wrote instructions to destroy the perhaps apocryphal library at Alexandria, using this airtight syllogism: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”

Literary bonfires in Nazi Germany are often invoked as a vivid symbol of the deepest barbarism of the twentieth century, but extensive public reporting of those actions forced them to stop by causing worldwide unease. Much more effective have been those silent blast furnaces used by public library systems and great American universities to dispose of three million excess books yearly because of a shortage of shelf space. Why aren’t they given to schools?

There are other ways to burn books without matches. Consider the great leap forward undertaken in the modern Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk. Unlike Hitler, who burned only some of the past, Ataturk burned it all without fire by radically changing the Turkish national alphabet so that all the vital writings of the past were entombed in an obsolete symbol system. Not a single Turk voted to have this done, yet all accepted it.

From 1929 on, all books and newspapers were printed in the new alphabet. All documents were composed in it. All schoolchildren were instructed in it and no other. The classics of Persia, Arabia, and Turkey vanished without a trace for the next generation. Obliterate the national memory bound up in history and literature, sift carefully what can be translated, and you open a gulf between old and young, past and present, which can’t be crossed, rendering children vulnerable to any form of synthetic lore authorities deem advisable.

Turkish experimentation is echoed today in mainland China where a fifth of the population of the planet is cut off from the long past of Chinese literature and philosophy, one of the very few significant bodies of thought on the human record. The method being used is a radical simplification of the characters of the language which will have, in the fullness of time, the same result as burning books, putting them effectively out of reach. Lord Lindsay of Birker, a professor at Yenching University outside Bejing where I once went to see for myself the effects of Westernization on the young Chinese elite, says the generation educated entirely in simplified characters will have difficulty reading anything published in China before the late 1950’s. As said Plato, “First, wipe the slate clean.”

There are many ways to burn books without a match. You can order the reading of childish books to be substituted for serious ones, as we have done. You can simplify the language you allow in school books to the point that students become disgusted with reading because it demeans them, being thinner gruel than their spoken speech. We have done that, too. One subtle and very effective strategy is to fill books with pictures and lively graphics so they trivialize words in the same fashion the worst tabloid newspapers do — forcing pictures and graphs into space where readers should be building pictures of their own, preempting room into which personal intellect should be expanding. In this we are the world’s master.

Samuel Johnson entered a note into his diary several hundred years ago about the powerful effect reading Hamlet was having upon him. He was nine at the time. Abraham Cowley wrote of his “infinite delight” with Spenser’s Faerie Queen — an epic poem that treats moral values allegorically in nine-line stanzas that never existed before Spenser (and hardly since). He spoke of his pleasure with its “Stories of Knights and Giants and Monsters and Brave Houses”. Cowley was twelve at the time. It couldn’t have been an easy read in 1630 for anyone, and it’s beyond the reach of many elite college graduates today. What happened? The answer is that Dick and Jane happened. “Frank had a dog. His name was Spot.” That happened.

The Cult of Forced Schooling

The most candid account of the changeover from old-style American free market schooling to the laboratory variety we have under the close eye of society’s managers, is a book long out of print. But the author was famous enough in his day that a yearly lecture at Harvard is named after him, so with a bit of effort on your part, and perhaps a kind word to your local librarian, in due time you should be able to find a hair-raising account of the school transformation written by one of the insiders.

The book in question bears the soporific title Principles of Secondary Education. Published in 1918 near the end of the great school revolution, Principles offers a unique account of the project written through the eyes of an important revolutionary. Any lingering doubts you may have about the purposes of government schooling should be put to rest by Alexander Inglis. The principal purpose of the vast enterprise was to place control of the new social and economic machinery out of reach of the mob.

The great social engineers were confronted by the formidable challenge of working their magic in a democracy, the least efficient and most unpredictable of political forms. School was designed to neutralize as much as possible, any risk of being blind-sided by the democratic will. Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., writing of his grandfather, Senator Aldrich, one of the principal architects of the Federal Reserve System which had come into being while Inglis’ cohort built the schools—and whose intent was much the same — to remove economic machinery from public interference—caught the attitude of the builders perfectly in his book Old Money. Grandfather, he writes, believed that history, evolution, and a saving grace found their best advocates in him and in men like him, in his family and in families like his, down to the close of time. But the price of his privilege, the senator knew, “was vigilance—vigilance, above all, against the resentment of those who never could emerge.” Once in Paris, Senator Aldrich saw two men “of the middle or lower class,” as he described them, drinking absinthe in a café. That evening back at his hotel he wrote these words:

“As I looked upon their dull wild stupor I wondered what dreams were evolved from the depths of the bitter glass. Multiply that scene and you have the possibility of the wildest revolution or the most terrible outrages.”

Alexander Inglis, author of Principles of Secondary Education, was of this class. He wrote that the new schools were being expressly created to serve a command economy and command society, one in which the controlling coalition would be drawn from important institutional stakeholders in the future. According to James Bryant Conant, another progressive aristocrat from whom I first learned of Inglis in a perfectly frightening book called The Child, The Parent, and the State (1959), the school transformation had been ordered by “certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process.”

Conant himself is a school name that resonates through the central third of the twentieth century, president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953. His book, The American High School Today (1959), was one of the important springs that pushed secondary schools to gigantic size in the 1960s and forced consolidation of many small school districts into larger ones. His career began as a poison gas specialist in WWI, a task assigned only to young men whose family lineage could be trusted, with other notable way stations on his path being service in the secret atomic bomb project during WWII and a stint as U.S. High Commissioner for Germany during the military occupation after 1945.

In his book, Conant brusquely acknowledges that conversion of old-style American education into Prussian-style schooling was done as a coup de main, but his greater motive in 1959 was to speak directly to men and women of his own class who were beginning to believe the new school procedure might be unsuited to human needs, that experience dictated a return to older institutional pluralistic ways. No, Conant fairly shouts, the clock cannot be turned back! “Clearly, the total process is irreversible.” Severe consequences would certainly follow the break-up of this carefully contrived behavioral-training machine:

“A successful counterrevolution…would require reorientation of a complex social pattern. Only a person bereft of reason would undertake [it].”

Reading Conant is like overhearing a private conversation not meant for you yet fraught with the greatest personal significance. To Conant, school was a triumph of Anglo/Germanic pragmatism, a pinnacle of the social technocrat’s problem-solving art. One task it performed with brilliance was to sharply curtail the American entrepreneurial spirit, a mission undertaken on perfectly sensible grounds, at least from a management perspective. As long as capital investments were at the mercy of millions of self-reliant, resourceful young entrepreneurs running about with a gleam in their eye, who would commit the huge flows of capital needed to continually tool and retool the commercial/industrial/financial machine? As long as the entire population could become producers, young people were loose cannon crashing around a storm-tossed deck, threatening to destroy the corporate ship; confined, however, to employee status, they became suitable ballast upon which a dependable domestic market could be erected. How to mute competition in the generation of tomorrow? That was the cutting-edge question. In his take-no-prisoners style, acquired mixing poison gas and building atomic bombs, Conant tells us candidly it “was in the process of formulation” as early as the 1890’s. By 1905 the nation obeyed this clarion call coast to coast: “Keep all youth in school full time through grade twelve.” All youth, including those most unwilling to be there and those certain to take vengeance on their jailers. JTG


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Brain in a Bag – Develops Whole Brain Thinking



By Michael Leppert


Brain in a Bag is a simple but effective kit of unique items, designed to help the user develop Whole Brain Thinking — shown by scientists to explain why some students and athletes seem to function in the Zone more often than others. To be in the Zone is a right hemisphere ability — also called subconscious functioning. Most people don’t get into the right brain. Imagination is a right-brain function. These well-known people can see things unfolding in slow motion, seem to know what is going to happen before it does and perform with apparently less stress and effort while obtaining superior results.


Some of history’s whole brain thinkers are obvious — Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Bob Cousy, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Peyton Manning, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and other tennis players, Thomas Edison and many more. They all are, or were, ambidextrous and the good news is that anyone can become ambidextrous with the result being that s/he will be developing the right hemisphere and ultimately, the whole brain.


The key to this process is to become ambidextrous. Once you develop the right hemisphere, you are in the Zone most of the time in all aspects of your life. The smartest kids in the U.S. are at Naperville Central High in Naperville, IL. The late Phil Lawler was their P.E. teacher and he knew how to grow the brain. His kids had to run a mile every week and gradually improve their time. Running (along with music and art) grows the brain better than anything else. Naperville students also use a climbing wall, juggle, ride a unicycle — all activities that grow the brain. In an international competition for math and science, Naperville students finished 6th in the world in math and 1st in the world in Science.


Brain in a Bag was developed by Dean Brittenham, after many years of working with high school, college and professional athletes in baseball, football, basketball, Olympic bobsledding and tennis. Brain in a Bag incorporates the same working concepts as Naperville High, which Brittenham also discovered and put into practice after seeing great results. These activities grow new cells and brain connections, making the brain larger and more efficient.


Brain in a Bag offers drills, activities and exercises using the fingers, hands, arms and feet to develop the brain — especially the right hemisphere — more fully than average. The good news is that developing the whole brain also benefits the intellectual processes as well as the athletic, making it indispensable to anyone who wishes to become a great student.


The Brain in a Bag kit is a backpack with a 24-page instructional booklet and DVD and a complete regimen of skills, drills and activities using the contents of the bag: Tennis balls for juggling; ping pong balls and paddles; a jump rope; pool balls you use to rotate in your hands, clockwise and counterclockwise; sticks with ping pong balls — much harder to use than paddles — and many more items, all of which develop the brain dexterity you need to use your whole brain.


For much more information about Whole Brain Thinking and Brain in a Bag, please visit Dean’s website, and be uplifted by the possibilities he suggests! MjL


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The Root of “Education”

by Patrick Farenga  (Copyright 2013, all rights reserved.)

One can view the history of education as an ongoing struggle between those who feel education is something to be done for someone and those who feel it is something people do for themselves. Educationists love to point out that their job is draw forth the latent talents of their students, to push and expose them to ideas and experiences they feel are necessary for children to know. Educationists find the origin of the English word “educate” in the Latin word, educere, meaning “to draw forth.” Our English word, educe, has the meaning “to make something latent develop or appear” according to Word’s on-line dictionary, so it is not surprising that educationists find their justification for pulling out students’ potential in that word. Indeed the political idea of “universal compulsory schooling” and the pedagogical concept of “making students learn what we think they ought to learn” are rooted in the educational concept of “drawing out,” even by force of law. This model of education is all about doing something to someone ­ whether they want it or not.|

Though America is a democratic republic where “the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” are paramount, we school our children in a most undemocratic manner. Just over 150 years ago, America created compulsory school laws “for people’s own good” and these laws and educational customs have become so rooted in our culture that most citizens think they were ordained in our Constitution. However I think the political, spiritual, and ethical histories and reasons against universal compulsory schooling deserve a fresh look by we in the twenty-first century. Politically, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson did their best to argue the need for government-supported public schooling, but it is an argument they lost. Education was considered, in those days, to be a personal, local and state issue, not a Federal issue.

Spiritually and ethically, theologians and philosophers contend that it is wrong to compel someone to do something against his wishes, which is why God can’t make us always choose the right thing to do and why in a free, democratic society we tolerate weird ideas, alternative lifestyles, and odd religious practices. Today these issues get ignored or are dismissed with the arguments that compulsory schooling is, at best, the only way to ensure children become good citizens, or, at worst, a necessary evil because we have no place better to put children while their parents work. I hope we can create many more places and reasons for children to grow and learn in our society than the narrow options these arguments allow, which is also why I see homeschooling as a hopeful path for education.

What complicates my position is that I’m not calling for the de-funding or abolition of schools. I find it disheartening to continually have conversations about schooling revolve around issues of funding and curricula, which, to me, are conversations about the tickets and deck chairs for the boat we call USS Education. Instead, I want to talk about coming up with a completely redesigned boat! I challenge the need for compulsory school laws, not the need for places where people can learn. There have been schools, even in early America, of course, but they were ad hoc, short-term arrangements, not the womb-to-tomb credentialing bureaucracies we have today.

There will probably always will be schools, in one form or another, because it makes social sense to organize materials, knowledge, and gathering places in central locations for people to share. Indeed, as the home learning movement continues to grow it is creating its own types of schools, often called learning co-ops, learning centers, or resource centers. I hope these new forms of school will not just be replacements for brick and mortar schools, nor more educational institutions seeking to turn themselves into brand-names for privilege and prestige. I hope the creators of these centers will challenge the status quo of school and curricula, rather than gently seduce families into doing school-at-home. I want to remind people who feel compelled to build such places, and all adults, to be guided by the true meaning of the word “education,” rather than the accepted wisdom of what it means.

“Educere” is not the origin for our words “educate” or “education.” Educators who feel I am mistaken need only open the Oxford English Dictionary to see the origins and etymology of “educate.” Our word originated from the Latin word “educare,” which means to nourish, to rear, to bring up. Education’s roots are in the concept and image of breast-feeding, a moment when the child is an active recipient of nourishment. It is a moment of repose and sharing for both adult and child. Ivan Illich, who explained our modern confusion about the root meaning of the word “education” to me, noted that in early European Catholic monasteries one can find statues of Abbots that portray them as having breasts to dispense “the milk of knowledge” to the monks. This meaning of “education” is related to the word “educere” – drawing forth – but, in the context of a child drawing forth a mother¹s milk.

Over time we have forgotten not only our educational roots, but the roles of patience, love, and hope that should be integral parts of any educational environment. Indeed, the educational environment for children today is more workplace than home: Patience, love, and hope are replaced by time frames, curricula, and expectation. A parent is considered to be educationally neglectful if his/her children aren’ in school (and the younger they start school, and the longer they are in it, the better) or, if they homeschool, the parent is negligent if s/he isn’t hovering over the child, making sure lessons are dutifully tended to every day. To allow a child to roam freely and interact with people of all ages in their home and local community is viewed with suspicion in today’s world and borders on neglect to many authorities. But this is the way our culture developed and passed from generation to generation since the beginning of time, with children being part of their local community.

The root of education is nourishment from parent to child. Educationists will readily admit that children who do poorly in their classes probably come from a poor home environment where the parents are clueless about what their children are doing in schools, or they will blame communities that don’t support education. Yet rather than deal directly with the root issue of why homes and communities are not nourishing places for children to grow up in, educationists clamor for more school hours, as if mastery of state education standards can replace a lack of adequate housing, basic health care, and a living wage so parents can have time at home with their children rather than having to work more than 40 hours per week just to meet rent and expenses.

If we can keep the original meaning of education foremost in our minds when we discuss it, instead of focusing on more laws and techniques to draw forth what we expect from students, we can learn how to work with young people to create new solutions to the problems of growing up today. ■ P.F.


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Writing Skills the Unschooled Way

Alison McKee’s Unschooling Ourselves

When my children were little, I was often struck by what I saw. I didn’t understand how they accomplished so much with so little direction. For instance, I spent time wondering how my children would ever become writers without formal instruction. When worry got the better of me, I tried to direct the development of this process. At other times I simply let it be. It was during those times that I learned just how children learn to write.

Writing is a process that involves two distinct tasks. The first is the physical process of creating letters and the second is the process of learning to express one’s thoughts in a clear and coherent manner. Those of us who have been steeped in the rubrics of traditional education “know” that mastery of forming one’s letters must come first. Once that skill has been mastered, the emerging writer is ready to begin the process of stringing together letters to create words, words to create sentences, and so forth. According to the experts, this is simply the way writing develops. According to my observations and numerous conversations with other unschoolers, I’m not convinced the experts are right.

Like most parents who unschool, my husband, David, and I spent numerous hours nurturing our children’s curiosity and creativity. We didn’t do anything fancy, we simply exposed them to the community, provided them with toys (not video games or computer games), read to them, took them on walks, and let them be a part of our lives as much as we could. Our children, like most other children, wanted to be a part of the interesting world that these experiences offered. They had a genuine interest in being meaningful participants in all aspects of what they experienced. This meant that when our children, Christian and Georgina, saw David or me writing as we composed letters, paid bills, made grocery lists or left one another notes, they incorporated similar activities into their play. Well before Georgina could read or write she had set up a library in our living room. Using a stamp set and her own scribbles, she’d check out “library books” to anyone who would play the game of “going to the library.” At other times, long before he could write well, Christian would leave me notes telling me he was out playing with his friends. Back then, Christian was capable of printing a few primitive letters and nothing more. It didn’t seem to matter to him, though. He knew I’d understand his note, and I did. In these and in other ways, our children slowly became writers.

Like learning to walk and talk, writing is a process which will evolve quite naturally if we simply provide the opportunity for it to happen. There is no need to do anything fancy. Even more importantly, there is no need to invest in curriculum materials or mandate that your child do a writing lesson. In fact, this sort of approach to helping a child learn to write, and write well, seems to be counter-productive. I learned this the hard way.

When Christian was small, I tried to formalize certain aspects of writing instruction that I thought were difficult for him. Like so many children, Christian seemed to have difficulty with reversals. He often recognized this and became frustrated. I felt as though his expressed frustration was a plea for formalized instruction. With good intention, I’d set out to help him master the skill of writing. This frustrated Christian. I could see the expression on his face change from being a relaxed and happy one, to a look of tension and sadness. Eventually, I learned that Christian would directly ask me for instruction when he wanted it. At other times, I simply needed to lay low. Eventually Christian figured things out for himself. He got a friend to teach him cursive and the reversals disappeared! From that point on, Christian’s writing skills evolved with ease.

The stumbling blocks that Christian, and later Georgina, came up against as they set out to master the skills of writing were nothing to be concerned about. By the time they were demonstrating, through their own imaginative play, an interest in learning to write, David and I were becoming acutely aware of the necessity to give our children space to learn what interested them, rather than confine their interests in learning to our traditional, preset notions, of how children learn. A frame of reference we often used to guide this process was that of how our children learned to walk and talk. They children had taught themselves these two very important skills with little more than loving support from the two of us. In the best of times, when we saw them trying to write, we’d try to offer similar loving support.

At the outset, our children demonstrated, as I mentioned previously, an interest in emulating the adult activity of writing in their play. This meant that, when they were quite young, they’d use crayons or pencils to make very primitive markings on paper. Those markings were their stories. Just as one would never criticize a child’s first attempts at saying their first words correctly or taking their first steps correctly, we never criticized the first writings of our children. The kids felt pride in their primitive writings and we reflected that same feeling back to them. Over the course of months and years these scribbles became recognizable. Sometimes the scribbles were actual letters and sometimes they were simply geometric forms. When the children spent time writing their stories, using their primitive scribble, they wrote with intent. Pride in their work shone when they read their stories to us; our children knew the meaning of their written language. This was proven over and over again, when hours after a first reading of their story, they’d pick it up and read it to us again, word for word. These first attempts at writing assured us that, in their own time, our children would become writers, just as we knew they’d walk and talk when they began to babble and roll over so many years earlier.

As our children became more aware of the differences between their scribbles and our parental scribbles, they asked us to show them how to write letters and numbers. We were more than willing to help them learn to write and yet we learned, over the course of time, that when they asked us to teach them something we had better go only as far as they asked us to go. If we overstepped our bounds and tried to take over the process, we often killed their motivation.

Of course, during the time that our children were becoming writers, their awareness of their limitations as writers soared. Christian, an avid little reader, knew that he didn’t have the ability to lay down a story as authors do, yet he also knew that he had stories he wanted to write. This awareness surfaced when he was about three or four years old. In order to help him maintain a sense of the possibility of achieving the goal of becoming a writer we carefully stepped in and helped out. David and I became good at taking dictation and were providing support for our children’s emerging writing skills.

Taking dictation from a child can provide an opportunity for them to get a first-hand look at the process of writing. When I wrote down the stories that my children dictated, I often talked about why I was using particular letters or punctuation. This could be a problem, though. The minute I sensed that my child had no interest in knowing those things, I’d back off and revert to simply taking dictation. I learned early on that if I made a habit of embedding phonics/grammar lessons in dictation sessions, I risked the chance of causing them to lose interest in telling me their story.

I wanted my children to want to write, so I found other ways to help them learn some basic phonics. Sometimes we played formal and informal games that taught phonics skills. ABC Lotto, ABC Memory, read-aloud time, rhyming games or grocery shopping times provided many opportunities to work on phonics without having to insert phonics lessons into dictation sessions.

Young writers, like young walkers and talkers, are quite capable of moving through the developmental stages of becoming proficient writers with little interference from adults. From the primitive stages of scribbles on a page, and with a gentle guiding hand from time to time, children soon begin to write recognizable letters. Initially, these letters are scattered across the page. This is normal. Just as a child learning to talk babbles without any understandable meaning, so too will the emerging writer. As we all know, a babbling child, in our culture, will soon begin to pronounce the consonant sounds da and ma. Not surprisingly, the “babbling writer” soon brings consonants into their writing. Often times, just as with babies learning to talk, we adults can make sense of these early primitive writings. Messages like, I LK U (I like you), may be hard to decipher, but with a little study the message is clear. All our children need to experience is a smile from us and they are motivated to continue writing.

With time, writing with consonants gives way to writing with consonants and vowels. At this stage of the developmental process children may be becoming aware of the need for a capital letter or period, but again we need not correct spelling or grammar errors. Rather, we need to focus on helping our children become interested in sharing written messages with others. When my children were young, we devised opportunities for those things to happen. Our children were encouraged to write things on the grocery list, or write aunts and grandparents. When notes went to aunts and grandparents, I’d copy the notes so the message was clear to the recipient. In this way, our children were sure to get letters of response that referred to the letter they had written. Quite naturally, then, our children learned that being able to write had real value, in and of itself.

While observing my children master the skill of writing I learned and re-learned some significant lessons. First, learning to write is rather painless if we don’t force our children to move beyond where they are developmentally. In other words, don’t let schooled notions of how children learn to write, drive the process of helping your child learn to write. Second, spelling and punctuation should NEVER be the focus when children begin writing. The hardest thing for a writer to do is to develop a strong desire to want to get their words on paper. If they are constantly reminded of the fact that they cannot spell and do not punctuate correctly, they will develop a fear of trying to write anything at all. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling until the teen years. Third, with a few pointers regarding the use of punctuation, children will eventually develop an instinctual sense of where to place periods, commas, colons etc., if they are amply read to, listen to audiobooks and do some reading on their own. Fourth, children are quite capable of knowing which audience needs to have a proofread document. Not every piece that a child writes needs to be perfect, and insisting that they be so, kills the desire to write anything at all. If a child misjudges who needs to have a perfectly written document, let the recipient inform the writer — not you. In this way children will rarely make the same error twice. Finally, parents are best able to help their children become strong writers if they take the lead from their children. Focusing on errors rather than on the motivation to communicate with writing, will surely make the child fearful of trying to do so at all. Remember, keeping the desire to communicate with writing alive is your main objective. — A.Mc.


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What Is the Effect of a Classical Education?

People often associate the phrase “classical education” with a kind of elite intellectual endeavor, as if a classical education is only for especially bright students. I think this is because a classical education is perceived to be an almost entirely intellectual pursuit. It is not. In fact, an overemphasis on the intellect — and a narrow part of the intellect at that — at the expense of the rest of the human person, is one of the grave faults of modern education.

Classical education is concerned with the whole person — his whole intellect, his emotions, his passions, his appetites. These do not exist separately in a human being but, rather, are integrated in each person. A complete education addresses all of these attributes both in regard to the materials used in education and in the way education is pursued. If education is simply about knowing things we will go about it in a particular way. If it is more properly about understanding things, we will go about it in a very different way. Is it more important to know the facts or to understand what they mean? I suggest it is the latter.

That does not mean that possessing information is not important. To understand the facts one must first know them. But who better understands what a horse is, the girl who knows facts about horses — quadruped, single-toed, eleven-month gestation, vegetative diet — or the girl who lives with horses, takes care of them, touches them, speaks to them? Which girl would you want to take care of your horse? The second girl knows the facts but she also knows something else. Absent direct experience of horses, is there a way to obtain the kind of understanding that the second girl possesses? Or to obtain that kind of understanding about any human experience and about what things are whether we are in the realm of materiality or the realm of ideas?

A great deal has been written and said about the ways and means of helping students acquire information and develop particular learning skills — reading, writing, measuring, calculating, memorizing. Two skills that have been neglected, and that are essential to a classical education properly understood, are the arts of speaking and listening. I am not referring here to formal speech-making or to listening to speeches and lectures, though being adept at those activities is certainly desirable. I am referring to the arts of speaking and listening in conversation, or discussion, and in particular, to discussion about ideas and human experience. The exercise of these two human faculties, speaking and listening, in an effort with others to discover and understand what is true, activates the mind in a manner that simply reading or listening to lectures cannot. It also activates the emotions and passions and gives the student the opportunity to grow in intellectual and emotional maturity. Students who have the good fortune to participate regularly in such conversation in conjunction with reading the great texts of Western civilization can acquire a wisdom that is akin to the wisdom that comes with direct life experience.

I once read that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated person is that, if the need arose, the educated person could re-found civilization. This thought provides us with a useful measure of educational progress. Can the students coming out of our nation’s high schools re-found civilization, or further its progress? Will your students be able to do that? What is it that will most enable them to do it? Will it be their knowledge of the periodic table of elements?

The word “civilization” comes from the Latin word civitas, meaning city. Civilized people can live cooperatively and peaceably in large groups. These groups are formed for the benefits that can be had by participating in the cooperative effort. Uncivilized people cannot live peaceably in large groups. Barbarians do not form large peaceful cities of free men. Why not? In our cities there are areas where it seems that civilization has virtually disappeared. Just what is it that has caused this? Is it that there has been a loss of the knowledge of math or grammar? Or is something even more important, more necessary to civilization, being lost?

Imagine that the rest of the world is suddenly gone. Only you and your neighbors are left. You must rebuild civilization. What is most needed? It cannot be done without cooperation. What is needed in order that you and your neighbors can cooperate? Two essentials are that you be able to communicate well with one another and that you possess the virtues that make cooperation possible. The more skilled you are in the arts of speaking and listening and the more patient, temperate, and prudent you are in your relations with one another the more successful will you be. Reading and discussing the great texts of our culture foster both of these essentials.

There is something else that is fostered by this classical way of education. It is the realization and understanding that there is much that binds all human beings in all times and places. As students read about and discuss suffering, pleasure, disappointment, hopefulness, anger, revenge, love, and the whole array of human experience, they come to have a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to live a human life. They develop a compassion for others, a knowing that life is not simply about technological advancement and economic production. This is a mark of a civilized person and, consequently, of civilization.

Socrates said that the end of education is to learn to love what is true and beautiful. Why? Because that is what gives a person the best chance to live a good life, to be happy, and the end of education should serve the end, or goal, of human life. Even on the natural order that end is to be happy. Every man, every woman, every boy, and every girl wants to be happy. Is that not, in fact, why you go to all of the time, trouble, and expense of educating your children? You want to give them the best chance to have a good life, a happy life. Possessing the skills of learning — knowing how to read and write, measure and calculate, to consider and judge, to speak and listen — is important and helpful toward the end in view. But the acquiring of skills and learning what is true and beautiful [the facts] is not enough. Socrates knew that simply knowing things does not fill the heart of a man or a woman. A full human life, a happy life, is marked by love.

For our students to learn to love what is true and beautiful they must experience it — see it, hear it, feel it. They need to get a taste of it and after doing so, they are far more likely to pursue it. Conversation about ideas and human experience promotes this. A truly classical, fully human, way of educating, fosters this and helps to produce a civilized person. Might we say that a civilized person is one who loves what is true and beautiful and is able to convey that to others in a continual re-founding and furthering of civilization? Is that not what we try to do each day in our lives — to inform, to be informed, to be courteous, to build, to make comfortable, to appease, to love, to protect? These acts require more than a trained intellect and a truly complete education addresses more than a student’s mind. Classical education does this. S.B.


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