Sure, My Kid is Starting First Grade This Year.

Its summer and it always seems that by the time we really get into the swing of summer everybody is already talking about the school year starting up again. They are already setting up the “Back to School” displays at the stores and I’m already getting asked “What grade will Mark be in this year?”

More often then not I straight up lie to this question, because I realize its not about the question. People really don’t care what grade your kid is in, unless they are going to the same school as their child. This question is the same as “What are you doing for Christmas?” It is a polite seasonal conversation maker. More than anything they are trying to relate to my child’s age.

There are times that I am close enough to someone to give them the long full version. It usually starts with, “There are no grade levels at my child’s school.” Then maybe I’ll explain how children are grouped based roughly on age into three “rooms” and how my son will probably stick with room A this year, but that will be up to him and his teachers.

Democratic schools do not arbitrarily divide students up based on birth year. We know from experience and studies that dividing children up this way isn’t even the best way to educate children and people really struggle grasp how radically different a democratic school is from any public school. Its harder to explain than unschooling most of the time. Its easy to tell you what there isn’t. Its much harder to communicate what there is and how magical the environment can be.

In a democratic school there are no grade levels, there are no grades. There are no tests. There are no report cards. There are no traditional classrooms. There is no age segregation. There is no ability segregation. The only times the kids are divided up is for a short morning meeting, and then for classes they choose to sign up for. There are no punishments or requirements.

In a democratic school there is community, and freedom, and respect in a way that just isn’t possible when teachers must coerce children to comply to state standards of learning and testing. At Village Free School there is extremely little the children must do and values that are held highest are taking care of yourself, taking care of others, and taking care of the school, and when it comes down to it there is always a community surrounding you ready to help you do those things so you are never alone in it.

One of the biggest daily challenges is getting the kids to eat (which falls under ‘take care of yourself’). With the youngest kids (room A) they put lunch on the whiteboard with the plans for the day (none of which are required, unless its an all-school trip). They talk about lunch and then give the kids reminders when 12:30 rolls around that they should maybe take some time to eat. I often check my son’s lunch box when I pick him to find it mostly full. No one makes him sit in a lunch room for 30 minutes, so he’s still learning to find the discipline to listen to his body and feed himself. Luckily the car ride home is a great time to catch up on some eating.

My son spends his days playing with people of literally all ages. There aren’t a ton of babies and toddlers around (becuase the school starts at age 5) but they are there. Younger siblings and teacher’s kids are welcome and there are at least two toddlers that are regulars and the kids adore them. The teachers are often right in the thick of things playing with the kids or are nearby for when the kids need help, usually when a conflict arises.Thats when things get really radical.

If there is a curriculum it is human relationships and learning how to be decent person though listening to others and solving problems together. Much of the day is spent solving conflicts or working out things in groups. What to play, where to play it, what will the rules be, will we let this late comer join in, how to we keep it fair for smaller kids? The kids spend a lot of time working though these questions. Justice and fairness is a high priority for most of the kids, and they will become very passionate when there is a real or perceived injustice towards themselves or one of their friends. This is where the amazing adults can step in and guide them though “challenges” using various peaceful techniques to solve the problem to the best of everyones ability and satisfaction.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is always happy. Sometimes kids walk away from challenges feeling like they didn’t get the outcome they wanted, sometimes kids cry or get angry, sometimes the adults don’t know exactly what to do. But the focus on respecting each other and letting everyone feel heard and cared for goes a long way all on its own. The lack of hard structure to the day allows lots of time to work though challenges with no rush and this is key. Real conflicts don’t get solved in five minutes and kids have real conflicts.

My son is not starting first grade this year. He is beginning his second year at the Village Free School. Where he will spend his days playing and learning though play. He will have time to read books and be read to, he will engage in art whenever he chooses and to whatever extent he choses, he will be surrounded by capable loving adults who are available to help him explore any questions he has. He will have the opportunity to participate  in “offerings” taught by teachers, fellow students, and outside instructors. Last year he choose no to sign up for any, and that was perfectly acceptable. He still occasionally jumped in and participated when he saw something fun going on as an offering. He will be part of a community that accepts him for who he is today and has no expectations or timelines for his growth. They understand that children grow all on their own when given the fertile environment to do so. Some flowers grow faster than others, some grow tall slowly, but they all are beautiful flowers deserving of sunshine, water, and fertilizer.

But sure, yeah, my kid is starting first grade this year.

VFS2
Village Free School!

How I Almost Hated Writing

Most of school came easy to me. Too easy. So easy it was incredibly boring. I would live in my head until recess and lunch came along and allowed me to talk with my friends without being chastised. I usually hung out with the other nerdy kids. We didn’t know we were nerds at the time. The few friends from the K-8 school I attended (starting in 2nd grade) that I’m connected with via facebook are pretty proud nerds posting about what Harry Potter houses they are their favorite Magic the Gathering cards. We aren’t all the same flavor of nerd, but we are nerds none the less.

Yet I struggled in two specific areas at school, early on it was writing. Putting my thoughts on a page was hard. I didn’t have great fine motor skills and even though grammar was something I had mostly mastered in speech translating that to periods and commas on a page didn’t make any sense.  The confining rules of grammar and the obsession with correct spelling nearly destroyed the love of writing in me.

I remember being in second grade and being told I was spelling too many words wrong and being made to write the words I misspelled over and over on a page until I got them right. I remember my mom drilling me on spelling words at home. No matter how much I practiced I would only get about half correct on the spelling tests. I still don’t understand how to figure out how a new word is spelled at 31. All those spelling assignments and punishments did for me was make me HATE writing.

By 3rd grade my mom was spending me to a tutor over the summer who was teaching me spelling and grammar. I hated that I was going to school over the summer, but at least this teacher was nice. She let me write about things I cared about and was gentle in her corrections. I was so torn on those lessons. I loved and hated them all at once, but she helped remind me that writing could be a good thing. I started journaling not long after that.

In 4th grade I started my first journal, writing mostly about the boy at school I had a crush on. Turns out he’s really into guys, but in Catholic school that wasn’t really something he could be honest about. He was so nice to me, and his last name was next to mine alphabetically, so we were always next to each other in line and often had our desks next to each other. We got in trouble for talking a lot and became close friends for a few years. He thought my mom was cool, it was hard for me to see it.

At school writing continued to be a challenge while everything else (except math) came easily. I now believe I had an undiagnosed learning disability, probably stealth dyslexia, which contributed to most of my struggles. Even though I could never articulate them well the rules of grammar eventually came naturally to me. I’ve since learned that good writing bends those rules too its will and I don’t worry about them. Writing is a tool, like music, to make someone else feel a little bit of what I feel. The point of learning the rules is to learn how to break them.

In Jr. High we learned how to type properly on computers. I hated those lessons, but they opened up a new world for me. Having a word processor that spell checked for me changed my life. It freed me to simply write. Teachers still made big red marks for my run on sentences and missing commas, but spelling was much less of an issue and the struggle of poor fine motor skills was completely gone. By that time we had a computer at home on which I was writing for fun regularly. By age 12 I was writing for a now long defunct website called sk8radio. I wrote product reviews and contest recaps in exchange for free stuff. It was awesome! I was a kid featured right there on the site with all adults and no one made a big deal about it. I was a competent writer who knew skateboarding and thats all that mattered. There was an editor for the site who made very small changes to my work and gave me feedback. No big red marks from teachers.

In High School things were mixed. I was constantly forced to write papers on things I just didn’t give a shit about. It wore me down. I journaled a lot. Its hard to go back and read those journals becuase they talk about being bullied, being scared, and my weird hyper spirituality. Believing in an all present, very involved God got me though the hellish days of Woodstock High School. But there were bright points. Some teachers gave a lot of freedom in their assignments and I could find something I really loved to write about. Of course there were always the fun classes, music and the sciences, which both were oases in a long hellish day of boredom, bullying, and self-hatred over my inability to do any math competently.

One class in particular really set in stone my love of writing, and it wasn’t even one of the “fun” english classes I took. My guidance counselor pushed me hard to take “College Bound Composition” at the honors level my senior year.  She noted my consistently high scores in english and wondered why I wasn’t already in honors classes. I reluctantly took the class and in it we wrote of mixture of fun and terribly boring assignments, all very practical.

One day a few weeks into the class my teacher, Mrs. Aavang, took me aside and told me I was a gifted writer. I thought she was nuts. She told me that she rarely saw people with such a natural writing voice, and that I was particularly good at writing my own story and that I should keep cultivating that voice. I didn’t really listen at the time. I just thought, “Is this going to get me into college? Probably not, lets work on that stuff.” But her encouragement stayed with me. It rung quietly in my mind and I continued to journal and eventually blog in various places.

It stayed with me back in my Xenga days when I would write long personal stories mostly about my youth group and spiritual experinces, throughout college in assignments that I cared deeply about. At that level most of the assignments were meaningful, and the teachers engaging. That encouragement is with me now and I’m expanding on how I share that voice publicly and more vulnerably.

I’ve now learned to really love writing and let those awful early memories be separated from the fulfillment it brings me now. I’m even working on my hand writing. I now own a fountain pen and practice my hand writing. Its finally improving a bit and doesn’t look like a six year olds anymore. It took till my thirties to be self-motivated in that regard. I believe it would have come much sooner had it not been forced upon me too early in my development.

Now my own son is six and learning to write. I’ve made the mistake of pushing him to practice his letters in the past. He pushed back, HARD. I backed off and eventually he started writing all on his own.

The other day he wrote a list of all the words he knows how to write, completely on his own, entirely self-motivated. Writing is a big motivation for me to stick with self-directed learning for my own son. He won’t be pushed to do spelling lists and writing exercises. He will find his writing voice in time, probably sooner than I did without the baggage of being forced to do something within confining rules too early in development. Six year olds should be writing what they love and not worrying about grammar. There is lots of time to learn that along the way, which frankly is how I learned most of it. The lessons about sentence structure never meant much to me. I learned to write mostly by reading and I’ve always loved to read. My son loves to read already and started reading at an earlier age than I did. I’m excited to watch him develop his love of writing as I continue to cultivate mine.

IMG_0751
My Lamy Safari and relearning cursive as an adult.

Unschooling is Working

We are those weird parents who not only decided to homeschool, but to unschool. If you are not familiar with unschooling it’s homeschooling with out recreating school at home. We do not have any set curriculum that we make our son sit down and work through. He learns though life or learns what interests him.

Some would say we aren’t even homeschoolers or unschoolers becuase our son also goes to school three days a week. The school he is attending looks nothing like any other school I’ve ever been to. It is a “free school” or “democratic school”. These schools are an evolution of the Sudbury School model. Free does not mean it costs nothing. Free refers to the freedom of the students. The school is a private, not-for-profit school and most students pay full tuition, though the school does its best to provide opportunities for families that can not afford the full cost to attend.

From their website:

Free School  usually refers to a school in which the students choose for themselves how to spend their time.  At the Village Free School, there are no required classes, no compulsory evaluation and no strict age separation.

Since this fits so well with our unschooling mindset and our son enjoys his time there, I don’t see this as a conflict with unschooling. This is unschooling in wider community for part of the week so that Ace and I can get some work done, and its awesome!

The benefits from the free school have been more than we expected. His confidence has grown significantly. There’s no way to know that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but I think being in such a supportive environment where he can be himself without being punished or shamed has been huge for him. Mark is incredibly sensitive, and I fully believe that even under the most wonderful public school teacher he would suffer in a public school. There simply are not enough resources to support a kid like him who would not qualify for any kind of special ed or special support, but is very sensitive to so many things.

In the free school there are teachers who focus on each age group, but any adult who is around and available will support a child who needs it at that moment. The teacher to student ratio is low enough that kids who need extra adult support (like my kid) are able to get that. I’m pretty sure Mark hangs out with the adults more than the other kids most days! Everyday when I pick him up he has to do rounds and hug every single teacher he can find. They are gracious and never complain about being interrupted, even if he is clearly interrupting something. In his few months there he has created deep bonds with people outside his family, which is a new thing in his life, and I think that is what has really helped him to become a more confident person.

At the same time Mark is learning more than I can quantify. I’ve been sitting here writing and watching him teach his grandmother how to play King of Tokyo, a game listed for ages 8 and up (he’s 6). He has a full understanding of the rules, and explained them. In the game you roll dice and need to get multiple of the same number or symbol to collect resources. You get two rolls and can re-roll any number of dice to try and get the combination you want (think of poker).  He’s quite good at understanding what to save and what to re-roll. He’s already won most of the games he’s played! In the game he’s reading confidently out loud, doing math, and strategizing. Even if he wasn’t able to do all this at this age, I’d still be happy with unschooling becuase…

Children are naturally curious!

They do not need to be coerced and bribed into learning and we are disrespecting them by reducing their accomplishments to a grade level! What does grading children at school accomplish? Competition, shame, pride (often not the healthy kind), burnout, anger, frustration, low self image. (tell me more in the comments!)

Children will learn if we allow them to and support their natural interests, no matter what those are. Shutting down one interest in the name of learning something that an external force deems more important can damage the love of learning. I experienced this in my own life, and see it in both kids and adults all the time. Think back to all the times you were bored in class either becuase the material didn’t interest you or because you had already mastered it. Non-compulsory education will always outweigh compulsory education in quality and efficiency. Its how free adults learn all the time and it can work for children as well.

I wasn’t totally sold on unschooling when I first learned of it, but the longer we allow our son to be free in his decisions of what to learn and when and how, the more convinced I am that almost all children would learn better this way. With modern internet and libraries all a child needs is a supportive adult to walk besides them in life and help them navigate the world, sharing some wisdom and learning alongside them. Unschooling totally works and we will be unschooling for a long time to come!

Feel free to ask your unschooling related questions here or on my Facebook page and I’ll do my best to answer them!

img_9033
Building robots out of legos during one of our many snowy days this winter!