7 Ways For Promoting More Choice within “Compulsory Schooling”

In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:

#1: It confuses students.

“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”

#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.

“The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic.”

#3: It makes them indifferent.

“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”

#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.

“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”

#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.

“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”

#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.

“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”

#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.

“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.

by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman, April 22, 2018

Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.

#1: Confusion Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.

#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement  Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.

#3: Indifference Make time for student inquiry such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.

#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.

#5: Intellectual dependence Put students in the driver’s seat as often as possible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details). 

#6: Provisional self-esteem  Implement Student-led conferences & blogging to allow students to clearly recognize and share their own learning.

#7: Lack of privacy  Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).

There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.

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6 Gorgeous Picture Books Capturing Magical, Independent Childhoods #TeacherMom

One of my all-time favorite childhood books is Gyo Fujikawa’s “Oh, What A Busy Day!” What I found most magical about it as a child was observing all the ideas those kids pursued — without a single supervising adult.

As recently shared on the LetGrow site,

“Once upon a time, kids were part of the world. They were allowed to go places, do things, meet people. They were active.

For “active” now substitute “activities.” Kids participate in activities created for them, not by them. We take them, show them, teach them, protect them in a way that most of us — given the choice — would have rejected in favor of adventure.”

To me, this comes down to a major break-down of trust and community. Driven by our fears of all that might happen if we don’t do what is described above, we teach our kids that no one — not even our kids themselves — are worthy of trust.

That’s why I adore the following picture books. May they inspire you and your children to cultivate greater trust & recapture the magic of childhoods filled with healthy independence & adventure.

#1: Oh, What A Busy Day! by Gyo Fujikawa

Published in 1976, this picture book was ahead of its time with regards to diversity. It takes children through the possibilities of every facet of childhood, from make-believe, to fighting with friends, to enjoying the different seasons. I literally spent years trying to recall the author or title before I finally stumbled across our original beloved copy at my parents’ house — I immediately bought a reprint. Her own words describing how she felt about her audience sum up her beautiful work:

“In illustrating for children, what I relish most is trying to satisfy the constant question in the back of my mind–will this picture capture a child’s imagination? What can I do to enhance it further? Does it help to tell a story? I am far from being successful (whatever that means), but I am ever so grateful to small readers who find ‘something’ in any book of mine.”

#2: Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins & Emily Hughes

This lovely read came from Colby Sharp’s recommendation. I loved it so much that I bought it for my daughter’s birthday book as it reminded me of her sense of adventure & creativity. Kids are shown the many dreamy ways they can enjoy treehouse goodness — even if they are still waiting on a tree.

#3: Windows by Julia Denos & E.B. Goodale

Go for an evening walk with a young boy as he learns about his neighborhood through his own quiet observations. I love the way this captures how much kids can notice about their communities when given the chance.

#4: Bertolt  by Jacques Goldstyn

A book that will speak to the introvert’s soul. A child loves spending time with his tree, Bertolt, more than anything else in the world. His quiet observations and problem-solving will win over the hearts of all that love to get some alone-time.

#5: Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran & Barbara Cooney

My friend Faige Meller first introduced me to Roxaboxen, and it has been a family favorite ever since! The Goodreads reviews are packed with nostalgia, but I think it’s important to note that kids haven’t stopped being capable of creating such a retreat. We as adults need to just get out of their way more often to let them make it happen. “Roxaboxen is always waiting. Roxaboxen is always there.”

#6: Raft by Jim LaMarche

A story filled with appreciation and self-discovery. Kids will love following Nicky through the woods as he comes to love a summer of solitude at his grandmother’s house.

What about you? What are your favorite reads that promote the independent and magical childhoods we are all nostalgic for (and that we can again support)!

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Can We Talk About Rationing Screen Time? #TeacherMom

First, let me be clear. I am not in favor of kids spending excessive amounts of time on their devices. The addiction factor, sleep issues, and even growing risk of depression/suicide are all well-known issues for me.

7th grade teacher Pernille Ripp has even recently gone #phonefree in her classroom for these last couple of months, a move her students seem to love as it allows them to more comfortably share vulnerable learning processes.

What I want to discuss is the impact of rationing screen time for our kids. I’m talking about bargaining for behavior, tallying minutes, and otherwise keeping such a tight grip on the amount of time our kids spend on screens that they begin to fixate on it.

It reminds me of what happens when we focus so thoroughly on “forbidden foods” that we end up binge-eating.

What if, instead…

…we regularly discussed the importance of balance?

…we explicitly taught even our young kids that tech can be a tool for empowerment, rather than just an device for entertainment?

 

…we created reasonable default screen time allowances our kids can count on so they don’t have to spend their days worrying when they will next be allowed to watch a movie or play a video game?

…we talked honestly with our kids about our screen time habits — both how we use it for practical and/or positive purposes, and how we are trying to improve not-so-positive habits?

…we set up rules and limitations in a shared manner, learning together about what helps us achieve balance and healthy lifestyle?

Our kids have been born into an remarkable and unprecedented age of technology. Let’s find ways to work alongside them as they work to develop healthy, positive, and balanced habits.

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In Which The 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments Than Mine #TeacherMom

Last week, my daughter came home commenting about a new bathroom rule at her school: all girls now have to use the restroom 2 at a time due to the fact that girls keep writing on the bathroom walls. As a teacher, I understand why the rule was implemented. As a parent, I understand why she feels frustrated.

Since she just recently asked me to help her set up her own “real blog” (ie, can be read by a real audience), I asked her how she would feel about blogging on the subject. She took to that idea right away — especially once we figured out the speech-to-text feature so she didn’t have to keep fretting about spelling (teacher note: I really like the way speech-to-text requires the kids to pause & reflect to figure out exactly how they will verbalize each sentence).

Once she had her post written, “Fair School,” I, of course, went ahead and shared it with my PLN.

She was amazed to watch the comments pour in, and even took action on a couple of their ideas. She has since shared the post with her teacher, and she plans to try and see if she can meet and then introduce her classmates to their custodian(s) to create more empathy (Thanks, Abe, and everyone else!!)

This has also led to a lot of discussion about how we can inspire people to do good things rather than just try to get them to stop doing bad things. Not an easy task for anyone, that’s for sure, but a very rewarding approach!

Once again, I have found this whole experience to positively reinforce the concepts of digital citizenship, flattened classroom walls, and #StudentVoice. When we provide opportunities for students to share their authentic voices on things that matter to them, powerful learning happens.

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On Baby Gates and Boundaries #TeacherMom

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Why do I return to this concept so often as an educator, a parent, and a human being?

The latest, more tangible, example consists of our baby gate:

We had taken it down when risks for falls became minimal for our youngest. But I recently realized that I needed it to return. I needed blanket forts and stuffed animals and cars and teacups to be contained to just one part of the house at a time.

Which made me start to wonder…

…do boundaries infringe on agency?

…where’s the balance in cultivating self-care as the grown-up & in cultivating ownership and agency in children?

…can creating boundaries be an authentically collaborative effort with the very people they’ll limit? If not, does it need to be more of a two-way effort in order to be truly collaborative?

After the gate was up for a few days, I began to find some answers.

One answer resonated with another portion of Angela Watson’s comments during the season 4 episode 2 of #IMMOOC I referenced in “When We’re Tired of Coming Up with It All Ourselves.” She stated:

“The overwhelm…comes from trying to do everything and trying to do it perfectly…We need to take that overwhelm seriously because it leads to burnout.”

Quite simply: it’s ok to establish boundaries that allow us to function to serve our kids.

I’m better able to care for my family when my sanity hasn’t been shattered with worry that my kids are climbing onto the counter, scattering (and/or eating) dog food, flooding a sink, and emptying the contents of every drawer, all while I’m rotating a load of laundry upstairs.

Of course, I’m also working on helping them comprehend why all the above behaviors are problematic, but meanwhile we’ll make very little headway if I’m perpetually exhausted.

This has classroom applications as well, of course. Establishing boundaries that allow us to be more useful as teachers is best done as an ongoing conversation with our students so they understand your needs as a teacher/human being. It also works when you’ve worked to cultivate mutual respect on a consistent basis.

But two words of caution:

1. Keep channels of communication open to allow kids to give feedback when they have outgrown certain boundaries. They will let you know if you seek and value their voices!

2. Beware taking this notion too far, as it can quickly devolve to something quite ugly. (see The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students). Again. leaning on students’ voices helps here.

My very small students may not be able to yet fully understand why I need some containment. But I know that as I keep sharing what I’m feeling, and give them opportunities to do the same, we’ll set the groundwork for mutual respect and the eventual removal of that baby gate.

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Instead of Keeping Them In from Recess, What If…

…we went out with them and played a bit?

…we told that one kid on their way out that we hoped they had a terrific break and could come in fresh to try again?

…we sat down with that child who will. not. finish. that assignment, and discussed alternative opportunities for him/her to practice/demonstrate learning?

…we spend those 15 minutes contemplating that child’s strengths and how we might tap into those in order to overcome the current difficulty?

…we found ways to create more flexibility within our own schedules so students don’t necessarily have to work on the same assignments simultaneously all day long?

…we created positive calendars, complete with “publishing parties” for kids to anticipate?

…we deliberately worked on teaching time-management skills, rather than assuming they are already developed?

…we worked on making our classroom a place kids hardly ever want to leave, rather than a place they can’t wait to leave?

Just a few questions from a teacher who has kept way too many kids in from way too many recesses. Inspired by Chapter 8 of George Corous’ Innovator’s Mindset. And still wondering…

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Who Owns Documentation? (Also, the 7 year old wants to blog) #TeacherMom

Last week, I wrote about the pressure we feel to do it all ourselves. Today, I want to follow up on another facet of this pressure that manifests itself differently for both parents (especially moms, it seems) and teachers:

Documentation of milestones/growth.

As moms, it seems we feel we must be these momento-keeping wizards/hoarders, which of course, includes a large dose of guilt when we inevitably fall short. But if somehow, we do manage to create the perfect scrapbook and trophy shrine, we’re put on a pedestal of “good moms.”

As teachers, we know that documentation is important, but it’s all we can do to stay on top of benchmarks for reading, writing, and math, let alone those special art pieces or project artifacts. But don’t parents love those Pinterest-worthy files at the end of the year packed with student work?

The common denominator in both scenarios? Absence of student ownership. If it’s all about capturing our kids’ growth, why not give it back to them? Why not have them document their own mementos and aha moments?

All this came to mind when my daughter came home from school to find me blogging. We’ve talked about what I do many times, and she told me, “I love that you share your writing with teachers around the world…Did you know I have a blog at school? But only my teacher can see it. I’d like a real blog.”

Of course, TeacherMom that I am, I immediately jumped on that opportunity. I got her all set up with her own Weebly, added her posts to my RSS feeds, set the comments to “requires moderation,” and reviewed safety. Then, equally important, we discussed what kinds of writing she might share!

But I’ve been blogging for 4 years now — why haven’t I tried this idea of helping her share her writing sooner? After all, she has loved writing for as long as she could form letters.

It seems that once again, it’s fear that holds us back from allowing our kids to take on this kind of ownership. From fear of loss of control (what if they miss documenting noteworthy items?), to fear of Internet safety issues (usually emphasized more than the positive ways kids can harness tech), we hesitate, and then we take on more than we should.

It’s time to ask ourselves how we can better help our kids share the load of their own learning process. We can teach them the skills and give them the tools to take more ownership. When we do so, we can alleviate many of the stresses we have unnecessarily taken on ourselves to begin with.

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