Friday, October 22, 2010

There's a Land That I See Where the Children Are Free

I'm not fond of formal education.  I don't believe it's necessary. I won't say I think it's awful, but I will say that I do NOT think it's a good thing.  

I feel so bad and conflicted saying this.  I TRY to be supportive of other people's choices. But do you have to like someone's choices to be supportive?  I don't think so....not really.  You kind of seek out the positive in that which you don't like. People might think our choice of unschooling is awful; but if they're polite, they don't blurt that out. They seek out the positives and comment on that. I do the same for school. No, I don't like that your child spends six hours a day away from home, is forced to study stuff that she's not interested in, and then comes home to do hours of homework.  I don't like the philosophy that children are empty vessels needed to be filled with information that most of us adults don't remember, don't care about, and don't need in order to function in our daily lives.  But I can downplay that in my mind, and gush about the cute diorama your child is making for her social studies class.  

I do wish more kids homeschooled. Although Tim says I shouldn't wish too hard about this. See schools trap  most of the kids inside, and then the world is less crowded for us homeschoolers.   When kids are in school, there're less lines at Disney World.  The zoo is nice....quiet. The world is peaceful.

I'm so selfish.

It's not really about school vs homeschooling though. To me, it's really about educational and learning philosophies. Some people believe learning is a chore that needs to be forced upon children.  It's awful, but everyone must endure it. If you're lucky you'll get some entertaining teachers who can make some classes less boring.  After a few tough years, you can graduate and life will get better.

Other people (like me) believe learning comes natural to humans at EVERY age. Not only is it natural, but it's one of the most pleasurable activities available to us. The reason we see it as a negative is it's forced upon us.  It's like chocolate. Most people like that.   Right?  But what if you were forced to eat a large bar of chocolate every day from the ages of 5-18. Not only that, but you couldn't even choose what bar of chocolate you ate. What if it was chosen for you?  Would we still love chocolate as much?  What would we do when we're 18....keep eating chocolate, or vow to never eat chocolate again?

Chocolate isn't a perfect analogy because you COULD stop eating it after making the vow. You can vow to stop learning when you're 18, but it's a promise that will be broken within minutes. Learning happens whether you want it to happen or not.   

Some homeschoolers follow the first philosophy I mentioned. Education must be forced upon children; but instead of sending the children off to a local school, the parents do the teaching themselves.  Other people (like us) give our children educational freedom.   

Educational Freedom doesn't have to be an option open to only homeschoolers. There are actually schools that follow the philosophy that children should be free to learn what they want.  

There's the Summerhill School in England.  I've had my eye on that boarding school since Jack was a baby.  By now, I'm thinking I wouldn't be too excited about Jack going off to live in a far away land.   If he wanted to, I think I'd be a good parent and support it.    But I can't say I'd heavily promote the idea.  And if I'm going to be honest with myself.....I think my fantasy is not to be a parent of a child at the school.   I think I'd want to be the student.  Or I could be a teacher.   Maybe our whole family could live a the school.  Living in England would be a problem for us though.  It's hard enough flying to Australia from America.  I really don't want to endure the journey from Europe to Australia. 

I decided to talk to Lord Wiki about whether there are such schools in Australia.  I don't think it's likely we're going to move there, and make Jack one of their students.    But....

Okay.   Here's the truth.  I've been thinking of these freedomish schools lately. I've wanted to read and write about them.   I figured if I looked at Aussie ones, I could turn my research into a blog post. That's my wicked game plan.   

Lord Wiki has a short list of alternative schools in Australia.   I don't think all of them provide the amount of freedom that the Summerhill School provides, but they might to some degree.    I'm going to check them out.  I'm going to skip John Marsden's Candlebark school because I already wrote about it when I did my post about him.  I KNOW his school is not a freedomish school because he explicitly (and somewhat unkindly) says this on the school's website.  

I'm going to look at the other schools now.

First, there's Preshil in Melbourne.  I'm just going to go through and find things that look appealing to me.  Maybe I'll also mention stuff I don't like .

They don't make the kids wear uniforms.   I'm not against uniforms because they're really cute.  If there's one thing I like about schools, it's seeing Aussie school kids looking adorable in their uniforms.  But if I was going to send Jack to school, I think I'd prefer one that didn't have uniforms.   The Preshil website says, Preshil students are asked to come to school in neat casual clothes of their choice. This encourages diversity, expression of individuality and responsible personal choice.   I like that.  At one point, Jack showed mild interest in going to school. I tried to be okay with that, but it became harder when I realized I'd have to buy the kid a whole new wardrobe.

Preshil DOES require kids to wear hats outside. I like that. I definitely don't think kids should have absolute freedom. I welcome reasonable rules regarding health and safety. That being said, when we're in Australia, we usually neglect to make Jack wear a hat.  Bad parenting there.

They don't allow thongs. This I don't like.  I like thongs.  They're cute. I will admit that they're usually not the best for walking.  But if you're not walking a lot in school, why not?  What I'd love is a school where you could go barefoot.  That would be AWESOME. Preshil isn't that school.   They require shoes.

Preshil's philosophy page has a quote from a past principal.   She says, Preshil is not a place where kids do what they like, but rather a place where they like what they do.  

WELL....I think there's more of a chance you'll like what you're doing if you choose to do what you're doing.  That's not saying that sometimes we're forced into an activity, and we end up liking it.   It happens sometimes.  But I think there's more chance of enjoying your activity if you chose to do it.

I do like what the say here.  The child is not a blank slate waiting to be written on but an active participant in the learning process who brings to the teacher/student relationship a depth of experience and a creative and intuitive mind. Thus the learning process takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, using inquiry, dialogue and discussion.    

I like that. I feel bad for children who spend a large fraction of their life in environments that don't believe in this.

This page of the Preshil site says that the school does not give grades.  Jack doesn't get grades.   He doesn't get tests. By some miracle the kid still learns.

Instead of having the teacher as a front-of-the-room lecturer, Preshil uses group discussions with the teacher as a facilitator. I like that.

Preshil uses mixed-age groupings for their junior school (ages 5-11)  Their reasoning: In this way we don’t impose grading divisions that serve only to develop preconceptions about what level children should be at and what arbitrary performance targets they must reach.   Amen to that!   I think it's still hard to place children though. What if you're really advanced in math, but you're behind in reading?

According to the FAQ's.....Although the kids don't get marked at Preshil, parents do get reports.   I wonder what's in these reports.  Maybe they just describe the child's progress?  Jack got a report thing when he took drama class.  I thought it was well done. The teacher was very positive, but she didn't shy away from sharing her concerns (annoyances) regarding Jack.  

All right.   I'm going to move onto the next school.  This is Allia College in Melbourne.  They pride themselves on being nonreligious and tolerant. I'm not sure if they give kids a lot of learning freedom.

Allia says they have a pleasant atmosphere.  Okay.  Whatever.  That's nice. Kids call teachers by their first name, and there are no school bells.   I like all that, but I'm not sure it's a huge thing.   I mean that alone doesn't create a school I'd like for my child.

They provide a standard mainstream education, but the teachers at Allia... are more cheerful, interesting and subject oriented.   Sure.   I don't know. It sounds like a commercial.   It sounds like something ALL schools would claim. What's so entertaining about Allia teachers? And why are they so damn cheerful?

There's no staff room.  During their breaks, the teachers mingle with the students.  Interesting.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.   In some ways, I feel teachers NEED and deserve a break from kids.  On the other hand, if the environment is truly a cheerful and comfortable one, maybe the teachers and children have the type of relationship where they don't need to escape each other. I guess what I'd want to know is whether the teachers LIKE not having a break room. Is it something not needed, or is it something not provided?

Their FAQ page has their views on rules.  It makes me a bit dizzy.  I think basically they're against arbitrary rules, but they do have rules.  It's hard to explain and understand the difference.  I'll try.  I think an arbitrary rule would be you must go to bed at 7:30.   The other type of rule would be You can go to bed when you want, but you have to be quiet so you don't wake up those who are sleeping.  

Allia has rules, but they try to have an environment that's not punitive.   I guess we have that in our house.  We don't really punish Jack. We don't ground him. We don't usually take things away. We don't spank him. But we do express our disapproval.  We let him know and understand that we don't like what he's doing. He does the same to us; and Tim and I do it to each other.  

I like what Allia says about learning disabilities: We don't necessarily believe in the existence of many so-called learning disabilities. If a presumed disability seems to disappear when you act differently towards the student; then did the disability really exist or was it merely something related to the way others reacted to it?

They don't see Aspergers as a disability. I like that. Just because you're different from the doesn't mean you're disabled.

I find Allia's website a bit hard to follow.  A lot of it sounds like bullshit public relations.  I think it's one of these cases where I'd actually have to actually experience the school to form a valid opinion.   Is it really a place of happy children, cheerful teachers, and minimal bullying?  I don't know. Maybe it is, and that would be nice.

There's the Village School in Croydon North Victoria. It's a northern suburb of Melbourne, pretty far from the CBD.  

The exterior of the school is appealing. It looks like a house. Does it feel like a house?

They have a maximum of 20 kids per teacher.  That doesn't seem especially small.  I mean it's better than some schools. But if I was going to pride myself on having small classes, I'd have less than ten kids per teacher.

Instead of using the term classroom, the Village School uses the term "home group".  Changing the word doesn't change the definition.  I think this school is big into giving off a home vibe.  But if a home had 20 kids, they'd get their own reality show on the Discovery Channel. I wouldn't call it a typical home.   

On this page of the Village School's website, they explain what's unique about their school (compared to the mainstream ones).  They say that teachers spend half of their time giving one on one instruction.  I like that. I think individual time with the teacher is more helpful than listening to a teacher address the whole class.

They measure children's progress by how much they have grown and changed within themselves, rather than comparing them to their peers. I like that too.  

They don't expect the same volume of work from every child.  I LOVE that.  I like writing excessively long blog posts.  Does that mean everyone should want to do that?  No!  Some people like reading five novels in a week, other people like reading one novel every six months.   We all work at our own pace.  Of course, you could take that philosophy too far.   It might not be a good thing if a student writes one paragraph the whole school year.  I think you have to have SOME amount of expectation; and I'm assuming the Village School has that.    

Oh!   I love this too.  They say they don't Withhold teaching a concept on the grounds of inappropriate age when the child is showing an interest in learning.   This is big in the unschooling philosophy   When a child is interested in something, you let them learn it. You don't tell them they're too young.  It shouldn't be about age. It should be about interest.

The Village School also does not...Give 'prescriptive' instructions that result in identical end products for art/craft, model making etc.   Amen to that! I'm not into cookie cutter art.

The school has a farm.  That's cool....well, as long as they treat the animals well.    The children sell horse manure and eggs. That's pretty awesome. I'm betting their chooks ARE treated better than those in factory farms.

I think the Village School is my favorite of the schools so far.

What's next on Lord Wiki's list?

Currembena School in Lane Cove, New South Wales.   This one could beat out the Village School as my favorite because Lord Wiki says it follows the philosophy of A.S Neil, the guy who started the Summerhill School in England.

Where is Lane Cove?

Oh!   It's in Sydney; part of the North Shore.  And here I thought the North Shore was full of mainstream people.  I'd picture a progressive school more likely being in a place like Glebe or Newtown. I love when my stereotypes are shattered.

Here's Currembena's website. They have only a preschool and primary school. That means the child has to find a new school when they get to a certain age. OR they could homeschool.   

The front page of the website has endorsements from the kids. I'm not too impressed with this. All schools could probably find a handful of kids who like their school, and would be willing to say warm and fuzzy things.   

Currembena  is another school with mixed age classrooms.   When children are ready to progress to the next class, they can do so. They don't need to wait for a new term or school year.

Instead of using tests, the school uses a more individualized type of assessment. I'm not sure of the details regarding that.  It sounds nice though.

There's homework, but the amount is negotiated by children, parents, and the teacher. I wonder how true that is. I mean sometimes we give children the ILLUSION that their input matters, but in reality it doesn't.  It's like the high school English teacher that told us when we talked about symbolism there are no wrong answers. Then one day I shared my idea of what a train symbolized, and he told me I was wrong.  

The Currambena site says that the children make their own rules for the school.  One rule they created was no sweets at the school. No sweets?!   That makes me a little suspicious. It makes me imagine that this rule was heavily influenced by the opinion of the adults in the room.  I could be wrong.....  Maybe.

I like some of the stuff they say on their philosophy page.  The nature of the child to be active. In a physical sense, this means the child freely moves within the school environment and does not spend most of the day being quietly seated. In intellectual terms, children actively create their knowledge. They are not viewed as empty vessels to be filled.   

At least twice my sister has reminded us that children should not get more than two hours of screen time a day. Children shouldn't be sitting that long! I wonder if she'll make sure her child's future school doesn't have more than two hours of sitting time.  Maybe typical schools have changed these days, but I remember doing a LOT of sitting when I was a child in school. If sitting in front of a computer is unhealthy, is it any more healthy to sit at desk for hours at a time?

Here's Currambena's policy page.

They say the topics for the class are chosen by the kids.  I like that. Although I think homeschooling is preferable in that regard.  If you have a whole class, how do you decide which interests to follow?   Do you vote?  What if you don't like the subject that's been voted on?   They could allow kids to work on individual projects.  I've seen schools that do that. It seems to work pretty well.

Most work at the school is done individually and/or in small groups. There's not a lot of whole class instruction. I think that's good.

Currambena seems like a lovely school when I compare it to typical traditional mainstream ones.    But I don't think it's that similar to the Summerhill School.  I'm impressed, but not overly impressed.

The Melbourne Community School is VERY small....less than 25 students.   It was started by parents.   It sounds kind of like a homeschooling co-op type thing.  

I sort of like what they say on the homepage of their site.   Education of the children does not rest solely in the hands of the teachers, but is also the responsibility of parents. It is not confined to the school hours, but also extends to the home so that there is a continuum between home and school life.   I agree with that.   Learning shouldn't be seen as something that happens solely in school (or while doing homework).  However, I dislike the fact that they didn't include the most important person in the equation....the children themselves!   Tim and I teach Jack, but for the most part he teaches himself!  Crazy?   Impossible?    Nope.   I don't go to school anymore.   I don't have my mom and dad constantly around to teach me.  But I still manage to learn.  Jack does the same.

I think the focus of Melbourne Community School is parent involvement.   I'm not sure if that's a big deal, because most schools claim to strive for that.  I do like the size of the school though.   With less than 25 kids, you probably will get a family atmosphere. Still, I'd rather homeschool....personally.

Collingwood College is ANOTHER Melbourne school.  This one is in/near the CBD.   A lot of these alternative schools are in Melbourne, unless Lord Wiki just didn't want to mention schools elsewhere.   I don't know.   Maybe Melbourne is the place for alternative education.    I do remember that when we were thinking of moving to Australia, and I was looking at various state homeschooling laws, Victoria's seemed the most lenient.  

Collingwood is a government school.  That sets it apart from the previous schools. I'm pretty sure those were all private.

On this page of the site, Collingwood says they use a Reggio Emilia style approach for kids up to year five.   I like Reggio Emilia, and I think it's inspired the way we homeschool Jack.    It involves letting children learn about what interests them; and it also involves interest and documentation of a child's work and progress. This is DEFINITELY something I do with Jack.  Our upstairs walls aren't filled with store bought art.   They're filled with Jack's artwork and stories. We don't keep EVERYTHING he's done, but we do keep a lot of it.

Do you know what your child currently loves?  Do you know what his favorite movies are?  His favorite toys?  What are his catch phrases?   What projects did he work on today?   If you can answer these questions, you're a Reggio Emilia parent. If you have no idea...and are thinking more about what fantastic knowledge you can pass on to your're probably not a Reggio Emilia parent.

Collingwood has a kitchen garden program.   Each week, the kids in year 3-6 spend 40 minutes gardening, and 90 minutes working in the kitchen.  Now THIS is one time where the school beats out our fantastic homeschooling set up.   We unfortunately don't have a garden.   We're not green thumb people.   We do cook though.   Jack gets a fair amount of kitchen time.   Tim's the chef in the family, so he does most of that type of educating.   I do some though.   Yesterday, Jack and I made rock cakes.   They weren't very traditional because we didn't have raisins and I was too lazy to go to the grocery store. We used chocolate chips instead.   

Well, guess what.   This post is very long, and I'm getting tired.  Plus, these schools are starting to sound all alike.   

I think I'm going to shut a few minutes.   I will first list the links to the other schools that Lord Wiki mentioned, so I don't feel like I'm neglecting them completely.    If anyone is interested, they can follow the link.   

1. Fitzroy Community School  (Another Melbourne one!)

2. Lynall Hall  (Melbourne!)

3.Berengarra (Queensland....just joking!   It's Melbourne) 

4. Brisbane Independent School (Melbourne.   Just joking.  This one really IS in Queensland).

I'm going to point out one little thing I like here.  They say, The children are free to use the toilet, get drinks and have a snack when their body tells them although we do have a set break time at midday to ensure that the teachers get to eat too!   I like that.   When I talk to Jack about school, I think the thing that bothers him the most is the idea that he can't eat when he's hungry.   I mean sometimes I make Jack wait if he wants me to make him something and I'm busy.   I'm not his on-demand slave.    But if he's THAT hungry, he can go grab a snack for himself.   I think it's sad for kids to have to ask permission to go pee, and to have to wait until a certain time each day to eat.    I like that this Brisbane school gives kids some basic human rights.  

5. Pine Community School (also in Queensland)

6. The Pavillion School  (Melbourne)   This one looks interesting.   The students have 2-3 classes a week, and each of those classes last only about two hours.  There are no more than six kids per teacher, and they start each class session with circle time. It's like preschool!   Brilliant.    I think ALL schools should be modeled after preschool.  I LIKE least the good ones.  But instead....preschools are becoming more and more like elementary and high schools. I think that's sad.

If Pavillion students want, they can have more school time by filling up their schedule with electives.   That's really cool.   I think some kids might benefit by having more classes.   Other kids don't do the extra classes, and instead use the time to work or participate in other outside programs.

If I'm reading this right, Pavillion is not geared towards anyone who's interested.   It's for kids who have shown that mainstream education is not working for them.   Their site says, The school is designed as a transition and/or re-integration centre for young people of secondary school age who wish to access educational support that is tailored to meet individual needs.   Well, I think MOST kids would benefit from a program like Pavillion's.