Part 1: “Snapshots from School” http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2006-12/12peters.cfm
Part 2: “Unenrolling My Daughter from School” http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-02/09peters.cfm
When Zoe quit school in ninth grade, one of the saddest things to me was the response of the kids she left behind. Some assumed she was pregnant or in rehab. One got angry with her for “throwing her life away.” But mostly, her decision was met with a deafening silence.
Once they couldn’t slot her actions into familiar categories (pregnancy, drug problems, truancy), then her actions became too difficult to understand. They responded the way any of us would if we were, let’s say, part of an English-speaking audience and someone stood up to give a lecture in Chinese. We wouldn’t bother listening. What would be the point?
It felt sad because so few of the students seem to be getting so few of their needs met in school, and yet when confronted with an alternative, they tuned it out. It’s understandable, I guess. It would be like me trying to tune into a lecture in Chinese. When I asked Zoe’s friends what they thought of school, many of them responded simply, “We’re used to it.” That’s a common response to even the most dysfunctional institutions. They seem immobile, so why hurt yourself more by crashing up against them? Better to get used to it. They seem unavoidable, so why pay attention to people who bushwhack a way out? Better to write them off.
For more on what I think is wrong with “getting used” to school, see Parts 1 and 2 of this series. This part, Part 3, turns away from school and looks instead at unschool.
First, let’s be clear that with unschooling, we have a real paradigm shift. Not only are we speaking a different language in this family, but probably even the hand signals don’t look familiar. Zoe is not doing any traditional schooling of any sort. Soon after leaving school, she signed up for a community Spanish class and a video class offered by a friend of a friend, and she considered having a math tutor, but she dropped out of the first two and ended up refusing the last. I was disappointed at first. It’s easier to explain things to the relatives when you can point to familiar activities like classes. “Taking classes” is shorthand for “learning,” after all. It was hard enough to explain why we let our 15-year old leave school, and now I had to confess that she hadn’t managed to stick with even the most minimal “school work.”
Why hadn’t she? I think her answer would be that the model wasn’t working for her. She didn’t want to know Spanish badly enough to sit through a class on it. For the video class, she wanted to be able to hover and witness and learn by watching, but she did not want to produce anything. “Too much pressure,” she said. My hard-working, Puritan ancestors turn in their graves at these words. But, yeah, that’s how she sees it, so that’s how it is – at least for her. Let’s look a little more carefully, keeping in mind the limits to the lessons that can be learned from one experience, but being open to those lessons nonetheless.
“Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!” – Pink Floyd
Zoe didn’t learn to read under pressure either. She liked stories and didn’t have a facility for deciphering text. She had parents who read to her a lot, so, from her point of view, what on earth would be the benefit of slogging through those dreadful “early readers”? Our gut feeling was that she would read eventually, but perhaps not on the school system’s timetable, so we took her out of first grade. She avoided being labeled. We avoided tense homework sessions and power struggles. She soaked up stories. We communicated a lot of trust in her abilities. She learned that she could be in charge of her learning. During the summer before what would have been fourth grade, she decided she wanted to learn to read, and so she did. She asked an adult friend up the street to tutor her, and within a couple of months, she was reading sophisticated novels. She started reading when her mind was ready and when she would be able to read at the level she was interested in. This last point is important. Reading held little interest for when she could not do it fluidly and at a sophisticated level.
At one point during the tutoring sessions, this friend up the street came to talk with me. She was worried Zoe might have some sort of dyslexia. We had wondered the same ourselves. How else could we make sense of her being so outside what the experts considered appropriate in terms of reading? We held off on taking her in for a diagnosis. “Let’s give it a little more time,” we said. After six weeks of minimal tutoring, Zoe was reading comfortably, and she has rarely been without a book since (except when she was in school, I should add, which she decided to try starting with eighth grade. Why did school seem to lessen her interest in reading? An easy answer is that with all the homework, she didn’t have enough time. But probably that is not quite true. It’s more likely that, having practiced tuning out all day at school, she didn’t have the energy to tune in enough to read a book.)
Once a friend asked Zoe how she finally learned to read. Her answer was, “My parents waited until I was ready.” Notice there was no actual mechanism that started her reading; rather, there was an absence of pressure. This is where you have to take a leap of faith into the new paradigm or agree to Chinese immersion. We think so often in terms of what we *do* to kids – what phonics program, what standardized tests, what homework, what toys, what preschool programs, what praise, what punishment, what treatment for attention deficit disorder – and perhaps not enough about how much we should *let them be.*
I don’t mean let them be in the commercial-culture, school-based, lack-of-community sort of way that most of our kids are subjected to. I don’t mean let them be so that corporate noise and teachers and loneliness fill up their lives. I mean be present for them, but not so directive. I mean making meaningful choices available, not layer upon layer of noise about lip glosses and video games. I mean allow learning and exploration to take place in multiple ways, not by some uniform method decided on by bureaucrats who are more driven by the (dys)function of large institutions than they are by the needs of actual children who have enormous wells of curiosity and energy.
“I’m trying to figure out what an education is.”
This was Zoe’s response to a friend who accused of her wasting time doing nothing. “At least I’m getting an education,” he had said. On the surface Zoe appears to resist pressure, but in the paradigm shift of unschooling, she’s taken on a lot of responsibility. She has no teachers or school system telling her what to do. She is not studying for tests or counting on a report card to let her know how she’s doing. She wasn’t interested in the stress of having to memorize Spanish verbs, and she had a bad case of performance anxiety in the video class, but in an odd twist, she has decided to bear significantly more pressure than most kids have to bear. Namely, she has taken responsibility for her own education.
Sometimes, I wonder if it’s too much for a 15-year old. Maybe we should alleviate some of that stress by “telling” her what to do and “making” her do it. I suppose we could, but we know from experience how poorly that works. We’ve learned from her how she excels when she’s ready. We honor our relationship with her enough not to impose our will. As her parents, we don’t have too many requirements except that she help out with the dishes, earn some money for the things she wants to do, and practice moderation (as well as be safe and responsible) in her explorations of the world. Beyond that we offer the structure of our lives, the communities we’ve forged in the neighborhood and in our political work, and our trust in her.
Maybe in the end, those offerings have higher expectations embedded in them than any exhortations to get on the honor roll. They include the radical expectation or fundamental belief that she is part of a community, that her ideas matter, and that her participation makes a difference. The organizer at the grassroots community arts center where Zoe volunteers wonders how she got along before Zoe started helping her out. Zoe’s work at Spontaneous Celebrations has connected her to the Bean Town Society, an organization led by neighborhood youth. She has helped organize festivals, written leaflets, input data, promoted events, and gotten to know a range of people working on a range of programming. Should I extrapolate the “educational” value of her volunteer efforts? I think not. When you dispose of a set of standards, you don’t refer to them in an effort to figure out how you’re doing. This is not to say, of course, that I have a problem with traditional academics. But most of the worthwhile stuff you learn in school, you could learn in a fraction of the time if it weren’t so lost in the mind-anesthetizing aspects of school and the pressures of institutional norms.
“I’m not sure what’s wrong with me. I just want to sleep.”
The absence of externally imposed pressure does not equal the absence of stress. You don’t work with a grassroots group and avoid stress. Racial politics in Boston have never been easy, and Zoe is in the thick of it. The essay she wrote as part of an application to work with youth doing social change work and study over the summer was all about her desire to explore the meaning of race. “Why does skin color matter so much,” she wrote. “And how can I work to solve that?”
She’s been helping to mobilize for an upcoming anti-war rally, and she’s turned her MySpace page into commentary on Bush. She struggles a lot with coherent but somewhat flailing anger. In December she attended a Buddhist retreat, and came back stunned by meeting Vietnamese monks – “who have more right to be angry than anyone else,” by her estimation – and yet who are able to be compassionate.
“No wonder you’re tired,” I’d like to tell her. “For one thing, you’re a normal teenager, and normal teenagers need to sleep a lot. And for another thing, look at what you’re dealing with.” Racism, white privilege, the brutality of our nation’s policies. Yeah, these things might be making her tired. Not to mention the plethora of other life changes that she has to negotiate, including becoming an adult, making and keeping friends, developing sexuality, and taking more and more responsibility for the world around her. These challenges make her no different from every other teenager in Boston; only, unlike them, she doesn’t have to be at school at 7:20 am. She gets to sleep more.
“It’s about trying to be happy.”
This was Zoe’s response when I asked her what unschooling meant to her. She’s sought happiness in engagement with her community, grappling with hard issues, as well as other things I have not talked about too much here – staying up until all hours reading, listening to music, spending hours on the computer, taking photographs, teaching herself photoshop, watching movies with her sister, hanging out with friends, experimenting with all sorts of things that she’d probably prefer I not get into. We certainly don’t have an absence of angst in our house. But we have more than our fair share of privilege. Zoe’s dad and I enjoy interesting, empowering work that approaches paying the bills, and we have had two decades in this community – developing ties, doing political work, helping to create (in some ways) an infrastructure that Zoe can use to “scaffold” herself into adulthood.
And that’s what I wish more kids and families had a choice about. Every time I read another article about education reform, I wince at the calls for extended school days, longer school years, more homework, more after-school enrichment, more ways for adults to tell kids what to do, spy on them while they do it, and then grade them on it. As a parent, I’ll tell you what I need: policy changes that make it possible for all adults to be part of building a community, for there to be more “neighbors up the street” who can pitch in with tutoring sessions, and for there to be more meaningful mentoring opportunities for youth. Decent schools would be helpful, too. Classroom learning works for some people, and they should have access to it if they want it.
A benefit of quitting school, we might find, is that kids find themselves feeling happier. They at least realize they can seek happiness, which is not true for kids in school, many of whom have instead mastered a *tolerance* for their everyday life. Other truly radical changes might evolve as well. Kids will look inside for direction and to discover what moves them, and they will be shaped, too, by a community that cares about them and trusts them rather than authority figures that threaten them with punishment or seduce them with praise. Their (non-sleep-deprived) participation, freely given, will not just be an opportunity for personal growth, I’m guessing, but there will be benefits for all of us, as we get to enjoy the autonomous presence of all the eager, curious, energetic, creative kids who are currently locked away in school.
Thanks to Zoe, who declined the opportunity to write this piece herself, but who generously read it and offered her comments. Thanks also to Mary Goodson for her comments. For more information about unschooling teens, start by reading “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Drop out of School and Get a Real Education” by Grace Llewlyn.