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Monthly Archives: March 2011
I once read Stephen King’s book, On Writing in which he relates how a reporter once asked him how he got his story ideas. His response was that ideas were like fossils in the ground, all you have to do is dig them up.
Marvelously simple, and so true. One of the benefits of homeschooling is the quick realization that learning opportunities surround us, much as ideas for writing do for Mr. King.
The other day, Emily approached me, flashlight in hand. “Mama, can you make this turn on?” It was a cheap flashlight, one that I had regretted buying ever since I took it out of the package. It is nearly impossible to use, requiring some kind of freaky finger strength that I apparently no longer have to slide the mechanism back and forth and turn it on or off. As I took the flashlight from Emily and examined it, I saw that it had been left in the ‘on’ position and since the light was not on, it appeared in need of new batteries.
“The batteries are dead, honey,” I tried to turn it back to the ‘off’ position and was unsuccessful, “And it is such a piece of junk I don’t think it would do any good to try and put new batteries in, sweetie. I can’t manage to even turn it off!” I handed it back to her and turned back to what I had been typing on the computer.
Later that day, I ran across the flashlight, partially disassembled, sitting on top of the hall bathroom sink. Seeing it there, in several pieces, reminded me of a story my husband had told me of his childhood.
At age seven, he nearly electrocuted himself after wrapping two ends of wire around a lightbulb and then plugging the other end into the wall in an attempt to light the lightbulb. The resulting shock and short-lived fire brought his father running and ended in a detailed lesson on how electricity and wiring works, along with how to repair a broken breaker.
It was a learning experience he has never forgotten, and I have always found it an especially poignant story, his father took the time to explain how Dave’s experiment had gone wrong and then involved him in the steps required to fix the damage.
Emily’s interest in getting the flashlight to work to very similar, and I pointed out the pieces to Dave and asked him to work with her to ‘fix’ the flashlight the next time he had an opportunity.
Recently I had an opportunity for a second learning opportunity. I was emptying out the freezer and inventorying all of its contents before returning the items in a more organized manner. Emily is still quite young, and while she can count to twenty with only a few hiccups, she is not able to write all of her numbers yet.
As I dove into the freezer project, Emily was right there, under me, around me and generally in the way. In other words, a typical curious four-year-old. I stopped myself from snapping and instead handed her the pen and pointed to the list. “Okay, when I point to something on the list, I want you to put a mark like this (I illustrated a hash mark for her).”
Her face lit up and she was eager to help. Later I explained further, “Okay, we have four of those, so #5 looks like this (I drew a diagonal line across the four hash marks). After you have five, you start a new set.”
Were her hash marks nice and neat and easy to read later as I was typing the list up? No. But I managed, and so did she. She was excited to be included in what was obviously big people projects and when I thanked her for her help the pride on her face was evident. She had helped, and that made her feel GREAT.
What are some learning opportunities you have had recently? Where did they lead?
The plugged toilet, at a cleaning client’s house no less, said it all. I could get as mad as I wanted to, but Emily’s plugging the toilet was my fault, not hers.
Here we were, at a client’s house, one of my many clients who graciously allow me to bring my preschool-age daughter along with me when I clean, and Emily had just caused the toilet water to rise to an alarming level, a huge mass of toilet paper and…well…crap, swirling about.
I cursed quietly under my breath and went to find a toilet plunger, hoping they had one, because otherwise, it would end up being my hand in that mess, something I was so not cool with.
As I cleared the toilet, Emily stood and looked on, “I think you should wipe me, Mama. Then the toilet won’t get clogged.”
Toilet trained since she was 2 1/2, and wiped for another 1 1/2 years after that whenever it was #2, I was done with wiping. Unfortunately, I had not taken the next obvious step…training. I had simply assumed that she saw what I did and could do it herself. And Emily, with as many poo issues as her dad, was determined to wipe, and wipe, and wipe, and WIPE until clean. This apparently manifested itself into tremendous amounts of toilet paper…and resulted in several overflowed toilets before I got the message loud and clear – I needed to train Emily better.
At home, with her dad in earshot, I said, “Okay Emily, from now on, whenever you go poo, your dad or I need to supervise your wiping. You will do the wiping, but we will supervise.” Emily, who seems to really like to involve us in her visits to the bathroom (I don’t understand it, it must be a preschooler thing!) was amenable. This is a kid who gives us blow by blow updates on just how much poo or pee she has managed to produce will sitting on said throne, so I’m sure she was thrilled with the idea of our presence there in the bathroom!
As she would head to the bathroom we would ask, “Pee or poo?” If she indicated the latter we would tell her, “Let us know when you are done.” Perhaps she will be a game announcer, because it’s never as simple as that, constant updates, thoughts and musings on the status of poo are broadcast through our house as she conducts her business. Finally, it would be time and one of us would head in. “Okay, count off four pieces of paper…now fold it, and fold it again…now wipe…okay…now fold it and wipe again. Great. Get another piece…(rinse and repeat).”
A few weeks later and all is well. No more plugged toilets, no more frustration, and we aren’t blowing through an entire toilet paper roll in one attempt or going about unwiped – so it’s a win on all sides.
Whether it is a plugged toilet that gets your attention, or untied shoes, or a scorched pan – taking time for training not only makes sense, but it reduces stress and resentment. What may seem like a no-brainer to us, might not translate to our kids, and it is important for us to keep our eyes and ears open (and our patience broad) for those times when it is obvious we have given the training short shrift.
More times than not, our kids want to do the right thing and they want to learn. It simply doesn’t occur to them to ask for help in learning how to do something. Or should I say, they ask, but sometimes we simply aren’t listening!
What are some of your memories of your own childhood, or of raising your own children, where taking time for training might have helped you avoid a frustration situation?
Welcome back to the fifth installment of my review of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. If you have missed any of the previous chapters, simply click on the Book Review page link and find the link you missed. We will be returning to Mr. Gatto’s book each week for another chapter.
*Note: Typical book reviews are ONE post, but Mr. Gatto’s book was so chock full of information that I decided to take it one chapter at a time. Believe me, the wait each week is worth it, but if you grow tired of waiting, you can purchase this book through the link below.
Chapter Five: Hector Isn’t the Problem
Mr. Gatto starts out this chapter with the words, “I Quit.” And quit he did, by first writing an essay titled “I Quit, I Think” to the Wall Street Journal. He quit on July 5th, 1991 and the essay was published on July 25th, 1991.
With that out of the way, he tackles the subject of dumbness, writing: “…mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.”
This really stuck with me, in no small part due to my upbringing. There was a certain elitism in my family, intentional or otherwise, that informed my younger years. I was told I was smart, and I knew both of my parents were quite smart, and there was a certain expectation from them for me to behave the part. Nothing was ever said outright, no judgments or all-encompassing assumptions of others’ lack of intelligence but still the inference was there. I was smart, they were smart, and as for others? Well, maybe not so much.
But I noticed something very interesting as I have moved through life and met scores of people…few, very few, are what I would consider ‘dumb.’ At least far less than I had been raised to expect were out there.
If this sounds elitist, fine, color me guilty, for I’m surely guilty of being in a family that at least inferred that we were better than others. As I grew up and became a mother, I did much of the same thing. Especially since I was still young, and still under the impression that a majority of the world were average thinkers at best.
Mr. Gatto points out in a stunning way how schools create and reinforce this belief system, and how mine and my family’s mirrors it. It makes me wonder, what it must be for those on the other side, the ones labeled dumb. The dumb ones from the dumb parents and the dumb families and the dumb parts of town. Those relegated to that dumb status long before they have had a chance to prove themselves.
Mr. Gatto brings up the example of Hector, rule-breaker, general malcontent – we all have known a Hector at one time or another in our lives. He posits that the problem is not with the Hector’s of the world, but with the schools who categorize and label them into “five strict categories: ‘gifted and talented honors;’ ‘gifted and talented;’ special progress;’ ‘mainstream;’ and ‘special ed.'” He points out that categorizing kids in this latter category gives administrators special incentive due to the additional money/funding their care engenders and “[provides] a genuine incentive to find fatal defects where none existed.”
Mr. Gatto ends this chapter by writing, “Important people believe, with the fervor of religious zealots, that civilization can survive only if the irrational, unpredictable impulses of human nature are continually beaten back and confined until their demonic vitality is sapped.”
I guess it comes down to the cold and simple fact that I don’t trust others to make judgment calls on whether my impulses (or those of my children) are irrational or unpredictable in their eyes. And so it follows that I also do not look forward to being continually beaten back or confined until my vitality (demonic or not) is sapped.
Chapter Six: The Camino de Santiago
It turns out that Mr. Gatto, at least at the time of the writing of this book, was on the board of advisors of an organization called TV-Free America. However he quickly found that warning kids of the negative effects of tv was just a drop in the bucket to the warnings and bad omens others had already filled their heads with. Instead, he realized a different approach was necessary, “a solution would have to be found in the natural proclivity of the young to move around physically.”
He went on later to add, “Sufficient activity, all by itself and aimed in any direction, would cause the kids to voluntarily cut back on time spent staring at lighted boxes.”
Mr. Gatto actually encouraged his students to escape for a day or two from school and walk about Manhattan, chronicling what they saw or learned. This included “extracting the hidden knowledge and points of view of old men and women, those confined to homes, and those who spent their time sitting on the benches in Riverside or Central Park.”
Reading his account of this I am struck with the clear vision of an intrepid, curious 13-year-old making their way through an heretofore unknown part of the city, exploring new cultures, meeting and learning from an elder. How envious I am of that child! How lucky they must have been to have the encouragement of a teacher to do such a thing!
Mr. Gatto goes on to point out that a great deal of the awards and accolades that came to him were not so much a matter of what he did as what he did not do. He writes, “Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and your get the same results I did. Maybe better.”
What he wrote next really struck a chord, because I swear he was describing ME:
“Some inner clock is ticking in every life, warning us we have appointments to keep with reality: real work to do, real skills to learn, real battles to fight, real risks to take, real ideas to wrestle with. And a desperate need to keep death present in your imagination, to never forget how short and inevitable is the arc of your life.”
Hot damn, amen, and yes, he is exactly right on.
Encouraging kids to get out and live life, to explore, to learn about life and nature and culture and history, without the crutch of television to inhibit them is probably one of the best concepts he has focused on in this book to date.
It is also a reminder too, that we need to step away from the screen (tv, computer, whatever) and LIVE life. He writes, “Since the advent of schoolrooms and electronic screens, many of us never grow up. Too much of our precious trial and error period is wasted sitting in the dark. Being a mature being means living with a purpose…it’s about welcoming responsibility as the nourishment a big life needs…finding ways to add value to the community in which you live…wrestling with your weaknesses and developing heart, mind and spirit – none of them properties of the spectator crowd.”
Mr. Gatto points out that for those who have become addicted to television or computers, the key to breaking the addiction is to show, not tell, them a different way. And as I wrap up this week’s book review with that thought, I pose to you this question…
How can you SHOW a child (or adult) something in the world that will pull them away from passive observation and into active participation in the world around them?
I’ll let you know how I managed it with my little one next week!
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Welcome back to the fourth installment of my review of “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. If you have missed the Prologue or Chapter One or Chapter Two, simply click on the links to read those first. We will be returning to Mr. Gatto’s book each week for another chapter.*Note: Typical book reviews are ONE post, but Mr. Gatto’s book was so chock full of information that I decided to take it one chapter at a time. Believe me, the wait each week is worth it, but if you grow tired of waiting, you can purchase this book through the link below.
Chapter Three: Fat Stanley and the Lancaster Amish
Mr. Gatto begins the chapter by defining the difference between schooling and education. He writes, “…schooling is a matter of habit and attitude training. It takes place from the outside in. Education is a matter of self-mastery, first; then self-enlargement, even self-transcendence – as all possibilities of the human spirit open themselves into zones for exploration and understanding.”
I found that to be an excellent definition.
Mr. Gatto then turns us toward the story of fat Stanley, a boy who would show up to class only one or two days each month. When he took Stanley aside and talked to him he learned that Stanley “had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before the age of 21. His aim was to follow in their footsteps.”
Fat Stanley was never at school because he was working, for free, “bartering labor in exchange for learning the businesses – and a whole lot more – working in the company of men and women who cared for him much more than any professional stranger would have.”
Mr. Gatto, upon learning this and also speaking with fat Stanley’s mother, who supported Stanley in his endeavors, actually began to cover for him, logging him as ‘present’ during his many absences.
To some this may seem extreme, even wrong, but Mr. Gatto was struck by Stanley’s tenacity and drive to succeed. He recognized that the lessons Stanley was learning outside of the classroom were far more important than the ones he was learning inside it.
How many of us have left high school or even college and felt lost in the world? Have you felt unprepared and wondered at what to do when faced with decisions and challenges that school never provided you for?
Mr. Gatto draws another disturbing parallel between consumerism and modern education practices. He writes, “The official economy we have constructed demands constantly renewed supplies of leveled, spiritless, passive, anxious, friendless, family-less people who can be scrapped and replaced endlessly, and who will perform at maximum efficiency until their own time comes to be scrap; people who think the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or round hamburgers versus square ones, are subjects worthy of argument.”
It is strikingly familiar to the “Story of Stuff” which I talk about in my organizing class when advising attendees to step back from this runaway consuming, to use a tv or cell phone until it is well and truly dead, not just outdated five months after purchase.
In schools filled with corporate sponsored books, teams and soda machines, kids are surrounded by advertising – not just at home when watching tv, but at school as well. Is it any wonder they grow up to be rabid consumers? Trained to consume, encouraged to overextend their future in credit cards they cannot afford? Is it any wonder our nation is in economic free fall?
And with that rosy picture, Mr. Gatto pulls in the Lancaster Amish. He points out that the Amish “ask for a broad competence and a spirit of self-reliance, for dependability, honesty, neighborliness, compassion, piety, and commitment to the common good. Were we to adopt Amish values wholesale,” Mr. Gatto asserts, “our economy would nosedive.”
In 1996, “Fat and Mean” reported that “while the American economy had grown massively through the 1960s, real spendable working class wages hadn’t grown at all for 30 years...purchasing power of a working couple in 1995 was only 8 percent greater than for a single man in 1905.”
Mr. Gatto turned back to the Amish to discuss the fight in 1976 of Yoder v. Wisconsin, where the state attempted to enforce compulsory schooling on the Amish. In the end, the Amish were able to secure the following codicils:
- Schools within walking distance of home;
- No school to be so large that pupils had to be sorted into different compartments and assigned different teachers every year;
- The school year would be no longer than eight months;
- Important decisions would be under parental control, not that of bureaucrats;
- Teachers hired were to be knowledgeable in, and sympathetic to, Amish values and rural ways;
- Children were to be taught that wisdom and academic knowledge were two different things;
- Every student would have practical internships and apprenticeships supervised by parents.
All of these were really amazing and hard-won concessions. The final two, however, really stood out to me.
I love how Mr. Gatto summed up the chapter when he wrote, “We need to realize what our fingerprints and our intuition actually proclaimed long before DNA: no two people are alike, all “averages” are lies, and nobody can be accurately contained by numbers and graphs.”
And this last quote hit especially close to home, “We need to abandon the notion – and punish those who retain it – that ordinary people are too stupid, irresponsible, and childish to look out for themselves.”
I noticed that the first few chapters are very long, and most of the rest are reasonably shorter, so I am combining chapters from here on out. Here is Chapter Four of Mr. Gatto’s book…
Chapter Four: David Sarnoff’s Classroom
This chapter is actually a letter that Mr. Gatto wrote to his Assistant Principal, Murray, in which he focuses, among other things, on the story of David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, who soon after immigrating here at age nine, lost his father. Suddenly, David was responsible for caring for his family. He learned to speak English and began to make a living as a newsboy in New York City. By fourteen, David had his own newsstand. He had taught himself English, and that included reading the papers he was selling. He ran across an ad for an office boy position at Marconi Wireless and, instead of politely waiting in line along with the other 500 boys jockeying for the job, barged into the office of the company president “unannounced and asked for the job.” He was hired on the spot.
By age 39, he had become president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
The streets were this kid’s school, and as Mr. Gatto points out, “Waiting your turn is often the worst way to get what you want.”
He points also to a famous alternative public school in East Harlem, well complimented, that fails in much of the same way that other public schools do – thanks to bureaucracy and ingrained thinking. He also brings up the idea of including community service as part of the curriculum and suggests that it shouldn’t stop at a couple of hours here or there or even two hours per week. Why? Because the paperwork, training and oversight involved in having a community volunteer for just two hours per week makes it more trouble than it is worth.
An interesting conclusion that certainly does cause me to think – how can I include community service into my own future homeschooling? I will need to keep in mind my goals for such endeavors – mainly that all involved benefit – the children AND the recipients.
It sets my mind to wandering, just thinking about it. I have visions of community and neighborhood gardens begun by kids and adults working together.
Okay, back to focus, back to focus!
As for the rest of this chapter, I didn’t get as much out of it as others. Not that there wasn’t plenty of information…
Where the money goes, blaming of teachers for behavioral issues, why the merit system doesn’t work, how gym and math teachers become school administrators, and more.
But all I kept thinking about was that this was an actual letter he had sent someone. The sheer size of it, combined with the ever-present vision of what the poor sod who had gotten this letter must have looked like, especially when Mr. Gatto announced he was going to circulate the letter to the entire school board. Which must have outed ‘Murray’ to some degree in his sympathy to the cause, which would have doomed his future with the schools as much as Mr. Gatto had done his.
And not to say that is bad. Sometimes it takes napalm to destroy the bridge, sever the ties, and start fresh. But I couldn’t help feeling a little bad for the guy who may have not wanted his name and his sympathy towards Gatto’s cause so well publicized. If someone were going to ‘out’ him, I think it should have been Murray himself.
Well, that wraps it up for this week’s review. Stay tuned, next Tuesday we will cover Chapters Five and Six.
Name: Aliyah F.
Family: Mom Victoria, Dad John, Brother Zach, 1 gecko, 1 rabbit, 3 dogs, and 15 chickens
Homeschool Group: KC Homeschool and Great Plains 4-H (not a hs’ing group, but does consist primarily of homeschoolers)
Homeschool Type: “Relaxed homeschoolers”
Educational Background: In a mix of public school and then a private Christian school until end of 2nd grade, homeschooled ever since
“Hi!” a vivacious, dark-haired girl opened the door wide and ushered Emily, my 4-year-old and me into the house, “Come on in!” She was barefoot and wearing a t-shirt that read, “I live in my own little world, but that’s okay, they know me here!”
I had found Aliyah thanks to my husband, who was doing research on egg prices through Craig’s List. My husband forwarded Aliyah’s Craig’s List post that offered fresh eggs at $3 per dozen and I immediately contacted Aliyah and asked her if she would be willing to do an interview.
A few days after contacting Aliyah, I was able to meet the entire family, including three affectionate dogs, a gecko named Geico who ‘plays dead’ when turned onto his back, a rabbit who my 4-year-old was able to hand feed a carrot to and later carry around like a baby, and a complement of no less than fifteen hens that clucked and warbled quietly as they followed us about the yard.
My visit lasted for a full two hours, there was so much to discuss and share, and I left Aliyah and her family with my mind whirling a mile a minute with ideas and possibilities. Perhaps it was our many shared interests (gardening, self-sufficiency, pets and more), but I left feeling excited – about homeschool, self-sufficient living and family bonding as a whole.
Aliyah’s mom and Dad, Victoria and John, described their life five years ago as ‘the American dream’. “We had the house, the cars, and the kids were in school.”
But by second grade, Aliyah was struggling to read. The school thought she needed glasses, but instead, it turned out that there was nothing wrong with her eyes. Instead, Aliyah, like her dad, suffered from dyslexia. At that same time, her mom Victoria had been learning about homeschooling and its benefits and Victoria and John decided to give it a try. At the end of Aliyah’s second grade year, and older brother Zach’s third grade year, both children became homeschooled.
John, Aliyah’s dad said, “At first, it was like school, just at home. Half an hour for each subject, then you move on.”
Victoria added, “That’s what we thought you were ‘supposed’ to do.” As time went on, homeschooling changed to what they now describe as “relaxed homeschooling” – not quite unschooling, but not as rigid as say, a purchased curriculum. Victoria said, “My husband likes to call us ‘lifetime learners’.”
Aliyah and her brother learn from an eclectic mixture that includes the computer and online learning sites, along with purchased books and sources rented from the library. Aliyah takes art classes from a stay-at-home mom and art institute graduate, and I saw a lovely horse head ‘sculpted’ out of bent twigs and natural materials that Aliyah had done.
They also mentioned reading together several times during the interview, and it is obviously a regular event in their household.
I asked Aliyah to describe a typical homeschooling day for me and she said that after they get up and eat breakfast, they do chores, then move on to reading, history, the Little House on the Prairie books (a series she and I both share a love for), and then memorizing bible verses for her youth group at church. After the verses, they do some math, then take some outside time, and have a little free time. “And then we have lunch.”
Wait a minute, all of that listed above, is before lunch?
Aliyah’s dad, John, walked back in the room and added, “We also tend to teach by season.” At my questioning look, they elaborated, describing how lessons often center around family activities such as wild edibles in autumn, or herbs in the spring and summer. It seems that the entire family is involved in incorporating herbal remedies (teas, tinctures and more) and in gathering the ingredients to make the different herbal products.
I was lucky enough to be offered a steaming mug of ginger and honey tea (amazing and excellent for digestion, it can also serve to strengthen the immune system or stop nausea) and later enjoyed a delicious glass of kombucha cherry soda, made from 100% cherry juice and kombucha tea. Given a week or two to ferment, the kombucha infuses the cherry juice with natural carbonation, which was amazingly tasty and refreshing. I am determined to make some of my own! (For more information on the benefits of kombucha, visit this site.)
I asked Aliyah to tell me about what benefits she gets from homeschooling and she said, “Mom can work with me better, and I get more specialized attention than I would in a group. I get to be around my animals, and I often draw pictures based on what I hear and this helps me listen better.”
When I asked her to give me a drawback to homeschooling, Aliyah had a difficult time answering, and finally she said, “Nothing really…well, I guess it’s easier to be distracted at home. Mom will read something to me and I will stop to think on it and miss the rest of what she is reading because I’m still thinking about that one thing from earlier.”
When I asked everyone for what advice each would give to a homeschooler starting out, this is what they had this to say:
Victoria: “It depends on your intent, what does your family need? We’re the crazy ones in the middle (Christian homeschoolers, and also sort of unschoolers)…take it one step at a time.”
John: “Tailor make the education to meet the child’s needs.”
Aliyah: “Don’t stick to just books if the child is like me. Or make it more rules and organized for others.” (in other words, what her dad said!)
When I asked Aliyah to describe to me her best memory so far of homeschooling, she described days early on in their homeschooling when they visited the park a lot. “I would climb a tree, with a pillow and my math book, and do my math in a tree.”
Victoria smiled, “I have a picture of her doing that.”
I could see it in my mind’s eye, and I have to admit it really touched me. I asked Victoria if I could possibly get a copy for this post and she dug it up and emailed it to me. To me, this picture of Aliyah, pencil in hand, a far-off look on her face, captures the essence of homeschooling – recapturing the joy in learning, and finding learning opportunities in the more unusual places.
Near the end of the interview, Victoria pointed to a book next to the sofa and said, “I’ve been reading this homeschool book and finally found my “in the middle” book.” It is written by a Christian author but embraces many unschooling principles. You can find that book, “Successful Homeschool Family Handbook” here:
A huge thank you to Aliyah and her family for allowing me to interview them for this post!
Do you know of a homeschooler who would like to be profiled? Are you a homeschooler, currently or in the past? Contact me for an interview!