One of the awesome things about being an author is getting e-mails from readers. Mostly these are from kids and teens who love reading and maybe want to be writers themselves, and I love love love getting those messages. I was a total bookworm kid who wanted to be a writer, so when I hear from folks like that, I’m like, ahhh- my people!
But I think my very favorite e-mails are the ones that start out like this one does:
“Well I’m in grade 9 and I hate reading! I just hate it!
In our school we have reading time after a break and my teacher said I had to have a book and I didn’t because I HATE reading and he said i NEED a book so I went in his book bag and took inferno I read the back and I’m like this is awesome so I read the first chapter and I said I love this book!
My teacher wouldn’t let me take it.
And I said that is so not fair!
Each teacher has a book bag with the same books so I ask my next teacher and said can I borrow it she said yes and I’m like YES!
I’m on chapter 24 I love it! I have one question “Will there be another inferno, like Inferno 2 or something?”
Now e-mails like that give me a reason to keep on writing on the days when I feel less than inspired…
Most parents don’t question whether we should send our kids to school. Some of us might criticize the school system, worry about class size and whether our kid will get a good teacher this year, or even object to the amount of homework. Lots of us agonize about which school would be the best fit. But once kids turn five or so, the vast majority of us send them off to school to spend a good portion of their waking hours, for at least twelve years, in age grouped batches of twenty to thirty children.
And I don’t think that’s all its cracked up to be.
Before the rant, I have a disclaimer: I do understand that some kids love school, and I know that some kids are happier at school than they would be at home, and I realize that some parents need to work full-time or just genuinely love their jobs, and that for any number of reasons, home learning is never going to be for everyone. I support public education. I think that every child and family should have access to well-funded public schools with passionate and supportive teachers, fabulous libraries and science labs and playgrounds and outdoor spaces, flexible and individualized education for all kids regardless of needs and abilities. I really do.
I’d love to see more democratic schools and more free schools; less emphasis on assessment and grading; and more opportunities for self-directed learning. I’d love to see more multi-age groupings and more mentoring by adults and older students. I’d love to see schools working towards becoming true communities where people come together of their own free will to share and to learn.
If that ideal existed, maybe my kid would be going to school.
But that ideal doesn’t exist right now, at least not where I live. As the school system stands, in my opinion, it is not merely useless, it is toxic. It can damage our children’s sense of self and dampen their desire to learn.
To be clear– this post is not teacher bashing. I have friends who are teachers and without exception, they are caring, kind, thoughtful people who enjoy spending time with children and want to make the school a great place for the kids. In the one year that my son attended school, for kindergarten, he had a lovely teacher—experienced, gentle and kind. So my concerns are not about teachers not doing their job well. For the most part, I think teachers are hard working and well intentioned people who are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.
And despite this, school is often not good for our kids.
As I start writing about this, I am realizing that I am not going to be brief. So this is going to have to be a series of posts: one for each reason I don’t send my kid to school.
Reason #1: School kills kids’ interest in learning.
And that takes some doing. Because kids are learning machines. Like, from birth on. I remember when my son was a few weeks old, how he’d lift his head, strain to hold it up, let it drop against my chest. Over and over and over again, until I had bruises from his head butts and he was screaming in frustration. And then, at six months or so, how I’d find him wide awake in his crib in the middle of the night, rocking back and forth and grunting with the effort of trying to figure out how to crawl.
And when they are little, we trust them to learn on their own. Walking, talking… there is no separation between learning and life. They learn to walk, talk and reason without being taught- they learn through serious play and relentless curiosity and non-stop experimentation.
And then we send them to school, and they learn that none of this was really learning. Learning is something that happens in a classroom. It is something that you are taught- it is passive and it is prescribed and it has right answers. It happens on someone else’s schedule.
When my son was in kindergarten, I asked him what he thought the difference was between work and play. “Work is when you do something because someone says you have to,” he said. “And play is when you do something because you want to.”
In school, learning ceases to be intrinsically motivated, driven by curiosity. It becomes work. As if this wasn’t enough, school also introduces two new killers of intrinsic motivation: grading and rewards. Alfie Kohn has written some great stuff about this.
So I don’t send my son to school. And one of the first things that people often say when I tell them this is probably familiar to just about every home learner out there: “But what about socialization?”
Ah yes, socialization. That’ll be my next post.
We started unschooling almost two years ago now, after my son attended a few weeks of first grade in a local public school. Unschooling– which my son describes to people as “not following a curriculum and just doing whatever we feel like–” been pretty awesome. Awesome for him, which I expected, but also for the whole family, often in ways I didn’t expect.
So here’s a random list of perks of being an unschooling parent:
1. Living with a happy confident child who loves life, loves learning, and makes no distinction between work and play.
2. Not having to pack 1330 school lunches over the next seven years. Also not having to pack a similar number of peanut free snacks. (If you think this is shallow and petty, okay, fine. Maybe it is. Or maybe you don’t have kids. Regardless, I was more or less ecstatic when I realized I didn’t have pack any more lunches. Ever. Again.)
3.Visiting parks, museums, art galleries and science centres during the school day when they are empty and quiet.A also people look at you and your child and say, “oh, you have the day off school! How nice!” Which makes me feel sort feel gleeful, like I am getting away with something.
4. Travelling outside of peak travel times. Everything is cheaper. And quieter.
5. Not having your life thrown into chaos by spring break. Of course, some might argue that our life sometimes seems to be pretty chaotic every day.
6. Finding out about totally cool things that it would never have occurred to you to be interested in. (I’d never even heard of plasma cutters until this year. Or magnetrons. Or gluons.)
7. Staying in your pyjamas all day if you want to.
8. Going to unschooling gatherings and meeting interesting, unconventional people who are passionate about learning.
9. Getting to learn and play and explore alongside your child… and having six extra hours to spend with your child every day. (Okay, I admit that this does not necessarily feel like a perk every single day. There was one morning last week, for instance… But those moments aside, I am so very grateful not to be missing out on all those hours. )
10. And finally—and this is huge– rediscovering your own curiosity and love of learning. Turns out I am just as excited about exploring and discovering the world as my son is… And this unschooling journey has made me conscious of that in ways that I will always be grateful for.
How about you? If any unschooling parents are reading this, I’d love to hear what would make it on to your list…
Sometimes I love the internet so much. I love the way it makes it so easy to connect with people all over the world. Check out my latest interview – with a nineteen year old YA book blogger from Surianame!
A country which, embarassingly, I had to look up to locate beyond a vague “somewhere in South America” …. Like I said, I love the internet.
When people ask what school my son goes to, I generally just say that we homeschool. It’s the simplest answer. Most people have at least heard of homeschooling. But it can also be a misleading answer, as it often seems to conjure up images of worksheets and text books at the kitchen table. Besides, the conversation doesn’t usually stay simple anyway.
Because the next question people ask is usually one of the following:
-So does the school send you the curriculum?
-I guess that means you’re his teacher then?
-How do you make sure he isn’t falling behind? Does he have to write a test every year?
Or something similar.
And then I explain that we aren’t the kind of homeschoolers who follow a daily schedule, turn the kitchen into a classroom, or follow a detailed learning plan. We don’t have a curriculum. I’m not my son’s teacher. We don’t do lesssons. We don’t worry about falling behind. And no, he doesn’t have to write a test every year. Or, you know, ever.
I explain that we’re unschooling. Or that we just follow his interests, or that we believe in natural learning or child-led learning. Sometimes I go on a long philosophical rant about education and pedagogy and children’s rights.
And sometimes I just say, “You know what the weekend looks like with kids? We basically do that all the time.”
But then– being an obsessive worrier and also still rather new to this whole unschooling business– I then start ruminating about the possibility that they think I’m totally neglecting my son. Or- worse- I start worrying that they are right and I really am neglecting him.
Which is just stupid, really, because if I wanted to neglect him, I’d take advantage of the six hours of daily free childcare offered by the school system instead of spending my days helping my son build a submersible remotely operated vehicle, watching videos about velocity and force, reading aloud fantasy novels, playing high-speed bumper-bikes (don’t ask!), making stop motion animation videos, attending workshops on human rights, making a dictionary, going to the beach, learning about taxes, reading about the inner workings of insects (turns out they have air sacs- who knew?), creating QR codes, developing a website, talking about the Fibonacci sequence, launching rockets and visiting university engineering labs to learn about aeronautics.
And that’s just the last couple of weeks.
Today was launch day. Rockets, that is, not books.
I spent the afternoon with my seven year old son, his friend, and my father… launching my son’s new rocket.
It was a beautiful blue-sky day, cool but sunny, and we needed wide open fields so we headed up the peninsula until we found the perfect launch site. We did two launches with small engines, which made it to about 200 feet, and then– feeling more confident– decided to try a larger engine in the rocket. Wow!
Here’s our rocket launch. We’re guessing it made it well over 1000 feet high before it released its parachute and headed back down… to land in a muddy field half a mile away.
On days like today, I am so glad my son is not stuck in a classroom.
I also began the edits for my 2013 middle-grade novel, Record Breaker. Apparently I use the word “just” ridiculously often.
A few days ago, my seven year old son decided to make a dictionary. He got about six words in (Arsenic: A powerful poison), and gave a long sigh.
“Actually, I’d really like you to do all the work,” he said. “But I want to get the credit.”
Which sums up how I’m feeling about revising my latest manuscript. Anyone want to do it for me?
…According to the Resident Expert on Such Things, aka My Son:
1. Harry Potter, by JK Rowling. Just awesome. These were the gateway books to the fantasy realm for my son and so many other kids. Enough said. Oh… and Pottermore should be open any day now! Early April, they say… Sigh. We’re waiting!
2. Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan. I won’t say too much because everyone already knows all about these books, but it’s hard to go wrong when you have a cast of teenage demi-gods facing off against assorted mythological monsters that need beheading.
3. Heroes of Olympus series, also by Rick Riordan. Same as above, but with Roman gods instead of the Greek variety, and according to my son, even better than Percy Jackson.
4. Silverwing series, by Kenneth Oppel. Neither my son nor I usually go for talking animals, but these bats are… well, sheer awesomeness. This is a trilogy of gripping, fast-paced novels that sucked us right in and didn’t let go. We told all our friends to read them but took no responsibility for any nightmares that ensued. Those cannibal bats are SCARY!
5. Theodosia series, by R.A. LaFever. AncientEgypt, Edwardian London, and a highly intelligent and courageous young girl taking on the forces of evil. Very cool website too!
6. Raider’s Ransom, by Emily Diamand. Dystopian but not too dark. Gutsy and loyal Lilly, a fisher girl, steals a ransom to rescue the kidnapped Prime Minister’s daughter from the Raiders; and sails through half-drowned London with her sea cat… and it only gets better from there, with tough young Raider boy Zeph and battles at sea. Oh, and a computer with artifical intelligence plays an important (and hilarious) role! We both loved this book and even though I like paperbacks, we bought the sequel, Fire and Flood, on Kindle because we needed it IMMEDIATELY.
We are always looking for recommendations, so please, if you have a suggestion for us, don’t be shy– post it here!
It just feels a little too… personal. We’re very private people. Besides, who would be interested in reading about vampires, anyway?
I just got this poster today from the good folks at Orca. Looks like it should be a great night!
My friend Tom Ryan is launching his fabulous debut YA novel, Way to Go…. And my friend Kari Jones is launching Out of Season, her latest addition to the Orca Currents series.
And that’s my book on the top row. The one with the hummingbird on it.
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