Monday, March 23, 2009

Testing Reading

This op-ed shot up the NY Times Most Emailed List today, so it must be resonating with other people besides me. Before reading this, I hadn’t realized that standardized reading tests divorce the skill of reading from the content students should read at each grade level by testing comprehension of random passages, as if reading is a skill that exists in a vacuum. Yet another reason to be deeply suspicious of an educational system tied to testing. If the tests are content-less, then teachers have to spend class time teaching test-taking skills rather than teaching students how to read actual content, real texts. As a literature professor, I am especially irritated by the idea that anyone ever thought it was possible to test reading – and thus to teach to such tests – without actually reading a wide range of real, significant, important texts! Read books! Both reading to kids and helping them to read to themselves should simply be the major cornerstone of education. How complicated is that?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Unschooling College Writing

Since first learning about unschooling, I’ve tried to apply some of its principles to my pedagogy in the college classroom by encouraging my students to take responsibility for and to be fully invested in their own learning rather than to follow my lead passively. This can initially be perplexing for my students, but eventually many of them seem to find this approach empowering. Ironically, the skills and strategies that students must employ in most high schools to be successful and to get in to college are of limited utility once they actually get to college. A high school system driven by standardized testing doesn’t fully equip students for the independent critical thinking we want them to do in college.

When I teach a freshman writing seminar, one of my major tasks is to free my students from the shackles of the moronic Five-Paragraph Essay. Thanks to their training in the Five-Paragraph Essay, average students at the selective college where I am a faculty member begin their writing seminar thinking of writing as a magic formula replete with mysterious rules* (such as “don’t use ‘I’ in your paper”). In effect, I have to get students to think about writing from an unschooling perspective, though I never use that word with them. Their tendency is to focus on product (rules, paper requirements, due date); I want to shift their attention to process, to using writing as a way of thinking through ideas rather than simply producing a result.

Some of the ways I encourage students to focus on the process of writing include the following:
• Although I outline my general expectations, I do not give students specific questions, paper topics, or “prompts” to answer. They are responsible for writing about a topic that interests them.
• I encourage students to start with a passage of text or a narrow, focused idea that interests them and start writing about it, without any plan, outline, or thesis in mind. In other words, start in the middle, not at the beginning. You can’t know what you want to say until you start writing about it, so there’s no point in writing an introduction at the beginning of the process.
• I require (not so unschooly!) students to start early enough on their papers that they can abandon lines of inquiry that turn out not to be productive. Scrapping a paper draft and starting over is not a sign of failure; it can be an important part of the writing process. I am also somewhat flexible with deadlines when I know a student is really working out an idea (particularly at the major level); I care more about a student completing the writing process for a particular paper than about her meeting an arbitrary deadline.
• I ask students to list every rule they’ve been told is a requirement of good writing and interrogate those rules for themselves. Are there times when the passive voice is useful and appropriate? What is the effect of using “I” in an academic paper? (I also encourage them never to read Strunk & White again!)
• I vigorously encourage students to develop their distinctive writing style or voice. We read Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page, a book that both describes the history of the concept of style and examines a wide range of contemporary writers’ reflections on style.
• I try to minimize students’ fetishization of grades by meeting with them in a grading conference (about which perhaps I’ll write more here another time). By requiring them to meet with me, I hope to direct their attention away from a letter grade and toward our meaningful conversation about the content and form of their writing.

I suspect that unschooled students (I’ve never knowingly taught one) would already do many of these things, though perhaps unwittingly, so it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear about unschooled students getting into top colleges or even getting full scholarships. Although I enjoy opening the eyes of my traditionally schooled students to the joys of writing, I would love to teach a student with the depth and independence of the unschooler.

*Obviously the idea of writing as magic formula is enhanced by the advent of computer-scored essays. Ugh!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Learn A Lot More From Magazines

We parents aren’t the only ones who have to explain our decision to unschool. Kindly adults ask N.  directly where he’s going to kindergarten next year, of course. This evening I overheard bits and pieces of one such conversation while I was talking to another parent.

Neighbor: So, N., do you go to school yet?
N.: No.
Neighbor: Are you starting kindergarten in the fall?
N.: No.
Neighbor: Preschool?
N.: No. I'm not going to school.
Neighbor: [says something gently admonishing, along the lines of “Oh, but school is so important”]
N.: I learn a lot more from magazines with my dad than I would at school. [He elaborates on this point, but I couldn't hear exactly what he said.]
Neighbor: [seems a bit shocked, but I couldn’t hear what she said so I jumped in, a bit defensively]
Me: We’re homeschooling next year.

Later, on the way home, I said to N., “When people ask you what school you are going to next year, you can just tell them that you and Daddy and I are doing homeschool.”
N.: But I like to give people information! That’s not enough information!

I need to trust him to hold his own in these conversations! Clearly he is not nearly as self-conscious about “coming out” as a homeschooler as I am!

The New York Times Guide to Unschooling

Over the past year, The Paper of Record has been printing articles and opinion pieces that have provoked my thoughts about unschooling. Most of these are not explicitly about homeschooling or unschooling, but once I start thinking about something, I tend to see everything through that lens, so I connect it all back to unschooling! Here are some examples:

First, a feature from October 15, 2008, which describes the leisurely and luxurious experience of parents who have opted out of the NYC school rat-race (which for private and even some public schools apparently involves applications and interviews for pre-K and kindergarten) and instead enjoy the city itself – and its myriad cultural institutions – as their school. It’s funny that this piece was in the Home and Garden section rather than the Education section but the focus of the article is on keeping your kids home from school as a lifestyle choice. And this is a good way to think about it. Though life in our city is more laid back than in New York, keeping N. home makes all our lives much less hectic and gives us the chance to fully enjoy and experience the resources of our community (though at the same time, we have to work harder to build social networks).

Even though we don’t live in New York, we can think of our city too as a school. We have several very good though small art museums that we love to explore. One is an art collection in a grand historic house and N. loves talking with us about the furnishings, the old kitchen, the pipe organ, the gardens. Our city has lots of interesting old industrial architecture, especially tobacco factories, which fascinate N.; talking about these buildings develops his sense of history and place, not to mention health and economics. There are parks, a science museum, the library. We recently went to a train museum, and N. and I have even talked about taking a tour of the city sewage treatment plant in the near future! One of our favorite outings is a coffee shop where they roast beans on site. We’ve spent long hours there asking the roaster, a neighbor of ours, lots of questions about the whole process of growing and making coffee. I think these outings are so much richer than the typical school field trip because N. can absorb the information at this own pace, ask all the questions he wants, and stay as long as he is interested (usually very long!).

Several recent articles about the lives of kids who go to school are not about unschooling or homeschooling, but they affirm our decision to provide a different kind of life for N. Holly at Unschool Days wrote about a Times article reporting the shocking results of research “suggest[ing] that play and down time may be as important to a child’s academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.” Duh! We love how much time outside N. gets, whether working in the garden with us, taking long walks through our neighborhood, or simply playing and daydreaming outside. It makes me so sad that most kids spend most of their days indoors.

There has been lots of research suggesting the inefficacy of rewards and punishments in learning, yet as another article describes, many schools use rewards programs to motivate kids to learn, from pizza parties to cash for good grades or test scores. In our parenting we have worked hard to move away from this model of external motivation; we focus on providing descriptive rather than evaluative responses and praising effort rather than results. This approach, which is so important to us, would be in conflict with the rewards model of school.

Another recent article
covers the often reported concern that most American kids, from toddlers to teenagers, don’t get enough sleep. This has a lot to do with the industrial schedule of our culture. Parents work long hours so they keep their kids up later at night to have some time with them. Yet schools start ridiculously early, especially high schools, despite research showing that teenagers’ circadian rhythms shift dramatically in those years, making them naturally night owls and morning slug-a-beds. Tim and I are both night owls (though we have always wanted to be morning people!) and N. has never been a particularly early riser (8 a.m. or so). Though we help him to sleep at a regular time every night, he is able to sleep as long as he needs to in the morning. Keeping N. home, combined with my flexible academic schedule, allows us to live our life the way it works for our bodies.

Finally, a recent description of a study of strollers also made me think about parenting and unschooling and how our earliest practices can set life patterns for our children. In this op-ed, the study authors explain that their small study of kids in Britain in forward-facing strollers vs. those in backwards- (or “toward-”) facing strollers shows that parents interact far more with the children in the latter group, thus providing rich opportunities for language development and social interaction. In other words, when your child is facing forward in a stroller (and looking at the knees of all the adults walking by!), you don’t have as many opportunities to interact with her as when you can make eye-contact with her and talk to her as you go about your errands. This seems obvious, yet the majority of strollers are forward-facing, especially as children get older.

For me, the real question raised by this study is not whether forward or backward is better, but whether strollers are really necessary. The study authors write, “Of course, infants do not spend all their time in strollers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that babies can easily spend a couple of hours a day in them.” That is a lot of time to be sitting in a folding contraption without much physical contact. Tim and I didn’t have a stroller until N. was able to sit up on his own, and even then we rarely used it. We never had the “baby bucket” kind of infant car seat that fits on a stroller because we didn’t want to have to buy another car seat when the baby grew out of the portable one, and as a small person with rather weak arms, I didn’t want to tote that thing around. It was so much easier and satisfying to carry Norris in a sling or Baby Bjorn everywhere. We could talk to him and hold his hands or feet while we ran our errands, and when carried in the forward-facing Baby Bjorn, he could make eye contact with people who talked to us, and people always commented on how alert he seemed, how much he was paying attention. It is also much easier to get through doors, up and down stairs and escalators, and navigate stores or airports with a sling or Baby Bjorn than with a stroller! When he got too big for the Baby Bjorn, I went back to the sling and used it for support when I carried him on my hip (all this was a good physical workout for me too!). Though of course what makes us the way we are is very complicated, I’d like to think this practice of carrying N. fostered both his attentiveness and his verbal precocity, traits which eventually led us to consider homeschool and unschool.

Before reading Sears’ Baby Book and Meredith Small’s fabulous study in “ethnopediatrics” Our Babies, Our Selves, I didn’t even know about baby slings. Strollers just seemed like a given accoutrement of parenthood; when I fantasized about motherhood, I pictured myself pushing a stroller, living the life of a hip urban mama (although now that I think about it, I don’t recall my parents using a stroller for their 4 kids very often – maybe because we drove where we needed to go, such as church or the grocery store, and didn’t need a stroller when we got there). But I was inspired by the accounts in Sears and Small of cultures for which physical connection with their children was the norm. So much of my experience of parenting so far has been like this: rethinking (sometimes overthinking?) ideas and practices that were once so familiar, so taken for granted as to be invisible to me. Once these ideas and practices have been made visible and subject to scrutiny, I find my response to them to be totally different than I would have imagined before becoming a parent.