Thursday, February 24, 2011

A totally free education

I don't like to pay for things that are actually free. Education should be free. And, make no mistake, "free education" is not really free. As we're finding with Danny's preschool experience, school is an investment of time for the entire family that we foresee becoming more intrusive if our children move forward in this system. School tends to follow kids home and often leaves little private time for them to fashion a whole self. And when just one kid goes to school, the whole family's time and energy gets sucked into school and school-related activities.

I haven't written much about education lately. I used to write about it more when our decisions about education were not staring us in the face. Actually, my opinions seemed stronger and more certain when the issue didn't effect us so directly. Danny is 4 and we will have to decide soon what to do about school for him. And, of course, that decision will factor into what we do for the other children. We're opting out of preschool next year because of cost and the time investment. Four half days are too much for him and for us to commit to an institution that we don't feel will have much bearing on his future happiness and productivity as a citizen of the world. Practically speaking, hauling three young kids in and out of the van and into the preschool twice a day, the van ride, the getting ready, the "homework" and the volunteer hours were all too much for us. These things may not have become the burdens they did if I felt preschool was critically important.

The only thing I do know for sure is that, for me, educational philosophy is as personal as spirituality and should be treated as such. Every individual experiences spirituality and education in their own unique way. That is why I feel so strongly that the one-size-fits-all K through 12 schooling -- the predominant model in this country -- is a grave disservice to children and families. I know many will disagree with me on this point. That's okay. I actually would be fine with the K through 12 system in place if it were just one of many educational options available for families and children that is supported by public funds. Here it seems diversity extends only as far as skin color and culture and is not applied to the vast variety of learning styles.

Homeschooling is something we are interested in but, as for most people, will have to be balanced with the financial needs of our family. I've been reading a bit about unit studies and curriculum that pull multi-disciplinary lessons from literature. It sounds easy enough but seems like a lot of work if you actually commit to following through on it. Spontaneity seems to work well here so far. A few instances recalled from just one day prove this point, if only to me.

We read "If You Give a Moose a Muffin" at story time one night. The next day, Danny pulled out the book. A few minutes later, he came in and said, "We've got to make sock puppets. We've got to do a puppet show with a moose and a mouse."  He ran around closing curtains and asking to make sock puppets for a few minutes.

For those who don't know the story, a moose is given a muffin which makes him think of something else he wants which, in turn, leads to another train of thought. Actually, he's kind of like Danny, scrambling to put on a sock puppet show, now that I think of it. Very cute book, as are its companions, "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,"  "If You Give a Cat a Cupcake" and "If You Give a Pig a Pancake."

The puppets are one of this creature's fantastic ideas. I gave it a few seconds thought. I got out some holy socks, the glue gun, some googly eyes, some red puff balls and a brown pipe cleaner and came up with these crude looking things.

We played with them for about 15 minutes. He wanted me to chase him around the house with them. His sister tried one on. His poor teething brother thought they were hilarious and then tried to bite it off mommy's hand.

Here Danny displayed reading comprehension, reading recall, imagination, initiative. If this were a classroom, it would be a unit study on this book, all kids doing the same thing planned by the teacher, all projects looking nearly the same. Whatever it would look like in a classroom, I doubt my son would be quite as interested.

Later that same day, we were outside playing in the back yard. He went over to his trapeze and asked me if it was made of plastic. I felt no need to quiz him or ask him what he thought. I just told him, "No, honey, it's metal."

"Oh, it's magnetic," he said excitedly. That gave me an idea. We have a magnetic learning lab that Nana bought for Christmas with magnetic wands, ball, chips, etc. They both love it and it is a late afternoon go-to activity when neither have napped. I went in and got magnetic wands for him and his sister, red for him, pink for her, of course. He ran around the back yard for 15 minutes trying to find magnetic objects. He felt the pull in a few rocks, some of our deck furniture, door hinges and screws, the trapeze and even the chains on his swing. Trees, the ground, the dog's bowl and matchbox cars? All not magnetic. Now I'm curious as to why the dog's metal bowl and matchbox cars aren't magnetic and plan to look it up. What I loved about this was its spontaneous nature. And if I were to have to classify this by subject for some bureaucrat somewhere (as it appears I may have to in a few years) I could file it under science and physical education. But, really, learning can't and shouldn't be classified and quantified.
I like your sweater, Danny told his father later that night.
It's wool, Jim replied. Do you know where wool comes from?
Sheep, he said, without skipping a beat.

Where did he learn this? One book that he likes, "Ice Cream Cows and Mitten Sheep." One question, one answer. No unit study, no quizzes or drilling, no field trip to see farm animals. Did he retain it? Of course. But the real question is do I want him to spit back random facts learned in a sterile environment or do I want him to learn about his world in a context that is meaningful to him and in a place that is safe and familiar? The latter, of course.  

The lesson being if you give a kid books and access to nearly everything in his world, answer his questions to the best of your knowledge and look it up when you can't, he's going to learn, he's going to ask questions, he's going to get his own ideas and feel free to act upon them within reason.

This takes all the time in the world, of course, but very little effort. This is my kind of learning. And it's free.

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