Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Teacher's Thoughts on Unschooling

I spent a year as a special education teacher in a classroom for kids labeled "emotionally disturbed".  What a terrible label, no?  But, as you would expect, these kids were not easy.  I did a great many things wrong that year.  I did a few things right.

One day, in the midst of a math lesson that no one understood, I stopped teaching, grabbed a hunk of clay from a cupboard, carried it to a table at the back of the classroom, and began to punch it, hard.  Stupid math!  I shouted at the clay.  I hate you, math!  I gave it a number of good blows, and then looked up at the class, and very calmly asked:  Who wants to go next?

Another time, after being teased mercilessly by my students for the state of my car (it was an almost twenty year old car covered in dents, and I worked in an affluent suburban district), I offered the following journal question on the whiteboard in the morning:  If you worked for Pimp My Ride, and my car came on the show, what would you do to improve it?  I prayed my principal would not enter the classroom and see the word pimp written at the front of the room, but I got my best creative writing pieces of the year that day.  One kid hooked me up with an aquarium full of live fish in my rearview window.  Perhaps not the best safety feature, but I have to admit, pretty awesome.

The best thing I ever did was to admit to my students, one day in a moment of dire frustration, that I, too, found their curriculum boring and stifling, and that if it were up to me, we would take off together in a bus and learn about what we saw while traveling.  I didn't plan to tell them this.  I blurted it out, because teaching fifth grade curriculum was boring, and stifling, and because it was true.  I'd have taken my chances in a bus full of students they called "emotionally disturbed", and to this day I'm convinced it would have been a good sight better than the classroom.  We had a long, engaging conversation about traveling, and learning, and we bonded as human beings, rather than in the roles we had been assigned, and poorly acting out, for the rest of the year.


The hardest pill for me to swallow would be to continue teaching, but not get paid.  Teaching is my profession.  I have two degrees, and four certifications!  I went to graduate school!  I would have a hard time continuing the work, but sacrificing the paycheck.  I say the hardest pill; that would be the only pill.  Everything else about unschooling sounds less like a pill, and more like heaven.  The more I read about it, the more I want, want, want!

Still, I think I probably won't do it.  I plan to send my son to public school.  To our inner-city public school, to be precise.  The test scores are rock bottom, and the graduation rate is deplorable.  But our neighborhood school is highly recommended by parents, and I think it's worth a shot.  I believe deeply in the ideal of a public education, and my son will learn to read on my lap, so I'm not afraid, at this point in time, of his being stunted by our city schools.  Now, if he starts off there, and I see the endless twinkle in his eyes beginning to dull, or his spirit beaten down by some rote, repetitive, curricular crap, I reserve the right to change my mind.  Only time will tell.


The motto of the program where I teach now is:  A parent is a child's first, and best, teacher.  We attempt to teach our parents, who spend most of their days honing the skills they need to survive severe poverty, to provide their young children with the experiences they require to develop strong literacy skills.  As with any skillset, some are better at it than others.  Some struggle, and some walk in the door and blow me away.

The first mother I met whose skills were so good she should be teaching the class instead of taking it was an exotic dancer.  She talked to her babies, and all the others in our classroom, like she was born to be a baby whisperer.  In another life, she could have had my job.  In another life, I suppose I could have had hers.

She won't homeschool, because she'll need to work, unless she meets a man who sticks around long enough, and has the skills, to provide her the financial security to make that choice.  It's unlikely, given the track record of the last two.  It's also a shame, as she'd make an excellent teacher, especially to her own children, who lit up her eyes like a Christmas tree every time she gazed at their little faces.

But she, and most of the parents in my program, are learning to homeschool their infants and toddlers, preparing them for the same supposedly substandard education my son will receive at the city schools I'm not sure what to make of yet, and hesitant to judge, as my experiences have shown me that conventional wisdom overlooks an awful lot of possibilities.  If, indeed, a parent is a child's first, and best, teacher, then we are all homeschoolers in a sense, and for a time.


Although I call myself a schoolteacher, I work mostly with the students who slipped through the cracks, the ones who were failed by traditional schooling.  I, myself, was well-served by school.  I'm cut out for it.  I like to sit quietly, and read, and write about what I've been reading.  School was a haven for me.  But if all those books taught me anything, it was that the most important thing to do with your life is to follow your deepest joy.  It might not be easy; it certainly won't be without sacrifice.  But it will always be worth it.

And so, despite the fact that a school district pays my salary, that I have - at this point - every intention of sending my children to public school, of marching into those old buildings to join the overworked, underpaid, sometimes wonderful and sometimes worthless professionals, to help educate all of our babies, in the very best ways we know how, despite my personal commitment to public education, to those parents who choose, for whatever reason, to homeschool their kids, I can only say:  Bravo!  I hope you find magic in those moments with your children, and I hope we're lucky enough to find some of our own, behind those old walls of brick and mortar.

And who knows?  It's never too late to take off in that proverbial bus, if the curriculum grows too boring and stifling.  Whatever the setting, I want our lessons to be alive, moving like a lump of clay under the force of a good, strong punch, swimming like a fish in the aquarium of a pimped-out car, connecting like a classroom of teachers and children who stop for a minute, to be human beings together, despite the sometimes steep institutional odds set against it.

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