Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Since you asked: a post about Sami's school.

So, I've mentioned that Sami is going to a non-traditional, democratic school and it has been quite a learning experience for the both of us! Sami's cohort at the school is a group of seven children between the ages of five and ten. It is a very small school with three activity rooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen, plus a large-ish piece of property that includes a play area, a garden and a giant, wild meadow. The kids are pretty much involved in every part of the decision-making process at the school, which includes developing the school rules, determining what classes will be offered each year, and dispute resolution. This year the weekly classes include: cooking, gardening, science, art, reading, circus, gymnastics, video making, dance and the Native American stories. There is also a daily class on nonviolent communication and a daily meeting in which students, teachers and volunteers can discuss any issues and concerns.

I chose this program for a couple of reasons. I'm not wild about how "academic" kindergarten has become. It still seems to me that at five years old a child's primary learning should be done through play. And even though Sami is mature for his age, a full day of school, five days a week, at his age seemed too long. Oh, and did I mention that recess is only 20 minutes long in our district? In Virginia, Kindergarten is optional so I figured that I could keep him at home with me for another year. But since I also work from home, a program like this, where I could send him just two or three days a week, seemed to fit the bill.

What I had not planned on was how much time and thinking I would devote to re-examining my own thinking about the meaning of education and how I measure success for my kids. A big part of the philosophy at the school is a belief that kids are intrinsically motivated to learn when they follow their interests and that it is not the job of the adults to mold and shape the learning experience of the child. Guide and mentor, yes; Control and organize, no. Wow! Fantastic, I thought! Just what I was looking for! But then I found out that Sami was consistently turning down the chance to work on his reading in favor of other activities. You see, each day there is a schedule of classes that are offered but each child has the opportunity to attend or not. So I did what any control-freak mother would do: I nagged him. But even that didn't work -- and I didn't feel good about doing it -- so I did what I should have done all along: I dropped it all together.

Interestingly, Sami is learning to read even without formal instruction. When he comes home from school he often finds a quiet place to go and sit down with a book, then he'll come to me triumphantly sounding out a whole page of new words.

And on any given day at the school you'll see all sorts of planned and unplanned activities. One day last week the kids built an enormous spider web that spanned the entire playground. On another day they created a short play complete with costumes and a set. Yesterday, a gorgeous fall day, they spent a few hours making up games and creating an imaginary landscape in the tall weeds of the meadow. One observer skeptically asked me if this was a typical day. The answer was that there are no typical days. Grasping that has been, for me, revolutionary.

The thing about Sami is that he has always been so interested in learning about his environment. He wants to know what that bug is, what it eats and how. He wants to know what melts and why. He wants to figure things out, develop plans and make things work. When I think of how I will measure success for Sami I've realized that it has a lot to do with these qualities: if he can maintain this incredible enthusiasm for discovering all that the world has to offer, if he keeps his eyes open and full of wonder, then I will feel that his education has been a success. I'm still evaluating how this school fits in with all that. I like the freedom but I'm afraid of the freedom.

I plant to write more about this: how it has affected how I think about what I try to accomplish with Oliver and how I am beginning to see my role in helping my kids understand their place in the world. Overall, I just find it interesting that I'm having these kinds of conversations with myself. I never imagined how much this job of parenting would require me to examine and question so many assumptions. Is it like this for you?


  1. I love his school and I love your openness in going to this new school
    I question all the time too

  2. What a fabulous post, Christine!

  3. I've never heard of a school like this and I'm intrigued! I love that you took the chance and sent him. What does he say about his school experience so far? I bet he loves it!

  4. I feel that way constantly. I really like the unschooly model of learning, and I've seen it working, but it's a struggle not to feel like I'm not doing anything. Like my kids need formal lessons, or more encouragement to read, but when I try to push it we all end up frustrated. If I just sit back and make sure that there are opportunities for the kids they show me that they are learning every day. I love it, but it is an internal struggle.

  5. Yes! I agonize over it really, when I let myself. The inner free lovin' free spirit in me is drawn to the unschooling method. I'd love to just travel and give my children the freedom to explore what THEY are drawn to. BUT, my husband works long hours, I am tired, and often un-inspired. I need someone else to unschool my children. lol I have too much self doubt and Jack loves his preschool so for now, that is what we do. Will re-evaluate when it's time to enter the public school system!

    Sami's school sounds incredible (seriously) and the perfect introduction to "structure" for a five year old. Well done.

  6. This is a really interesting topic. The school sounds AWESOME, and scary (from my over controlling mother point of view) lol! I think you are totally on the right track, our education system and our expectations, ESPECIALLY for boys needs to change.

  7. Exactly why I'm having such a hard time for my 6-year old. Because I have spasms of "gotta get some real learnin' in." I give myself a heart attack every other day!