Who’s Schooling Who?

Marquez, 7, and Lucero, 5, are sitting with me at the kitchen table. Since Lucero has been obsessed with multiplication, I thought it would be fun to show him double-digit multiplication on paper since he is moving past what he can do in his head. Marquez is on the computer, watching videos about ancient Egypt, when I say “Hey Marquez! Check out what we’re doing -” and as soon as I show him the paper with math problems on it, he flinches as if he’s dodging a punch, and quickly clicks on another link about how cats were often mummified with their owners.

I have a gifted 5-year-old who has been to 6 months of preschool, and a slightly-above-average-intelligence 7-year-old who went to two years of preschool and one year of kindergarten – and they are very different learners. Where in the world is the classroom that can support them both?

In Missoula, Montana, public school is not the place for either one – Lucero is so far ahead, there isn’t a program for him, and Marquez practically has PTSD from the pressure in kindergarten that killed his desire to learn and makes him panic at the sight of anything that resembles a worksheet. So I am making a classroom for them at home where they can learn at their own pace and in ways that fit their individual learning style – and get this – a place that is completely centered around what they are interested in. That means that I may have to ask myself if I can find a math lesson in the context of ancient Egypt, not on a worksheet. The difference between a triangle and a pyramid? The value of an incline plane? Did the ancient Egyptians use math to construct the pyramids? Or maybe drop the math and just follow his unquenchable interest in ancient civilizations and just hang out there, trusting that math will come when he’s ready. I look to him for direction in his learning.

You’d think that my certification in child development and early childhood education from UCLA would have prepared me for this. It did, sort of.  I learned a conflicting blend of “classroom management” complete with how to give time – outs, and also about John Dewey and Jean Piaget and their lost battles to make Progressive Education the norm. I learned that although in preschool this model of child-directed learning and an emphasis on play was considered best practices, most of the kids would have to fit into the standardized world of public school at kindergarten. That if they have to fit into the system, we better prepare them, ultimately, even if  it means less play and more teacher directed learning – best practices or not. So, um, yeah, I went out into the world as a teacher. I taught for 2 years in traditional preschools in Los Angeles, then for 5 years at a progressive school in Montana.

Here was the crossroads – do I trust the traditional school system or trust the progressive school models? The former seems tried and true  (read: safe), the latter experimental (risky.) But as I delved into the research, the surprising truth is that what seems risky isn’t at all, and that the tried and true, well, isn’t so true. And actually being in that progressive school for 5 years made where to place my trust blindingly apparent

The progressive model may make us uncomfortable at first blush, but the learners that emerge from these give pause to that discomfort. Cooperative, mature, resilient, creative and seemingly “advanced” learners abound, ready for the unforeseeable future.  As  Jon Reider, Stanford’s senior associate director of admissions says, “Home-schoolers bring certain skills – motivation, curiosity, the capacity to be responsible for their education – that high schools don’t induce very well.”*

Educator, researcher, whatever – I am a Mama of two lovely boys that I want to be happy, kind, and living the kind of life that they determine to be successful. So sometimes I get scared. Even though I know that my boys are very intelligent and learning well, I worry that someone will judge them for say, not reading at the expected level for their age. That other adults will devalue my kids’ learning because it isn’t measurable with the same tools they use for their kids, that they used for themselves when they were kids.  I am always fighting the urge to make my boys “catch up,” even though I know that there is no value in learning something purely based on age.  And that, I think, is what will make this an interesting blog.

I will be posting our daily activities, my reflections, and my research on uschooling, democratic schooling, progressive education, child development, positive discipline and attachment parenting (phew!) So folks can come here for ideas about how to be a “facilitator of learning” (this will now replace “teacher”) ways to talk with children, project ideas and such. You can read what I’m reading, learn what I have learned and what I am learning. You can also hear the joys, hilarity and struggles of a teacher who is unschooling herself. Welcome.



PS since this blog is just for an interested few for now, I opted for the cheaper site with ads and other shenanigans. They are not in any way endorsed by me.



What is REALLY Non-Negotiable?

I am three days into my grand experiment to see what my kids learn when I am not interfering with them, and letting them follow their own interests exclusively. You will notice what I did not say was “I am three days into letting my kids do whatever they want, all day long.”

Because as much as I would like life to be that way, and I have no grounds to complain because our life is mostly that way since we homeschool and I work from home, sometimes we just have to be somewhere. At a certain time. It’s a non-negotiable.

Like getting my BFF’s child, Jake, from school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at 3pm. Tuesday went off without a hitch at transition time – “Time to get Jake! Finish what you’re doing please!” and we were out the door after about 20 minutes. Yesterday was Wednesday. Here’s how it went:

“Time to go get Jake in about 10 minutes! Finish what you’re doing please!” I called.

“GRRRR! UH! MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!” echoed down the stairs.

I was pissed. Indignant, self righteous thoughts of “YOU GET TO DO WHAT YOU WANT TO ALL DAY AND I AM EVEN GIVING YOU A WARNING AND YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE BESIDES YOURSELF AND WHAT YOU ARE DOING ISN’T THAT IMPORTANT ANYWAY!” rattled my brain, but luckily did not escape my lips. Breathe.

Time for an empathetic intervention.

Me first.

Why did I get so mad when they complained? I get tired of being the one to make sure that everyone has what they need all the time. I want everyone to do what I say without arguing just because it would be easier on me, instead of every frickin’ thing we do being an exercise in consensus. I want them to think about ME sometimes! Really, ultimately, I want children who think about others and sacrifice their own needs. Ah. I know from much research that children learn the most about relationships from what they see modeled for them. How do I model caring about others? By showing THEM empathy.

Okay, their turn. Time for me to think about how they must be feeling.

Now, when I am in the middle of watching Ellen, or creating a painting with music on and a glass of wine, or reading a book and have three more pages until the end of the chapter – I get really focused, feel good, and don’t want to stop. Even if it’s to get the boys a snack, or let the dog out, or go and see something the boys made that they are proud of, when I should care more about someone else than how good I feel at the moment. I know that feeling very well. I just don’t growl, whine, or yell about it (much.) I have had practice with balancing my needs and the needs of others for a long time. I still feel grumpy sometimes when I am interrupted, even with all that practice. They are just beginning, so they are going to be louder about it. This is learning.

I crouched down in a much better head-space near them. “That looks like a really fun game! It’s hard to stop doing something you are enjoying, I know all about that. Would it feel better to bring a toy along? Jake will be waiting and he loves you so much. Remember that great smile when he sees us outside the classroom? Maybe you can think of a snack to bring in the car to share with each other and with Jake.” I put their socks on for them, lovingly held their coats, kissed their heads, and did not for a moment judge them for not skipping out the door in glee. Getting Jake is not negotiable, being happy about it is.

We were in the car and I asked “What were you playing? Tell me about it.” I wanted to show them that I respect what they were doing, just like I want what I’m doing to be respected. I let them know that even though getting Jake is a non-negotiable, I could have given them more time, like I did on Tuesday. I would have been more calm if I hadn’t felt rushed, so I needed more time, too. We are learning together.

When they saw that sweet face, so happy to see them, they forgot all about their game. Marquez said “I know what that’s like Jake! When my mom would come and get me from school, I felt really happy! How was your day?”

Being empathetic makes the have-to’s easier. It helps us put other’s needs before our own – when we feel understood and respected, we can do the same for others. Empathy is the real non-negotiable.


PS to learn from my empathy-mentors, check out this blog: http://talkfeeleez.typepad.com/talk-feeleez/2014/02/emotional-dumping.html


Sneaky Learning, Veeery Sneaky

Lucero is 5. When he was 2, he brought me a book, and said “Look mama! W. O. R. L. D. That’s says ‘world!'” I grabbed my camera and had him do that again.

He has never been in school – except around 6 miserable months in the best preschool on earth (it was him, not them.) He has been read to, watched some sight-words videos, but no real formal “training”. He just really loves figuring stuff out, and has even done his brother’s kindergarten homework at age 3 (much to his brother’s chagrin.) He loves patterns of all kinds, so words and stuff like that are his thing.

Yesterday, he was watching Youtube videos about Minecraft and playing Minecraft in turn (Minecraft parents will recognize this pattern.) I realized that he was typing in the words for the videos he wanted to watch, and then he was reading the words to choose the video he wanted. Once in a while, he called out “Mom! How do you spell Ninja?” I replied “Why don’t you try it and I’ll see how it looks.” He spelled every word, except weird ones like “turtle”, correctly.

After observing this for a while, I asked, “Lucero – are you reading?” He said nothing, but smiled wryly. “Hmmmmmm.” I said and smiled back.

Later he asked – “Hey mom, where is the book called Meet Team Prime? You know, the Transformer book?” It was a brand new book that he had been flipping through and I had not read TO him yet. “It’s on the piano. Hey Lucero – You read the name of that book huh?” Again – big, silent smile.

I hunkered down to really pay attention – is he reading? Out in the car: “Does car repair mean that they help when the car breaks down or when it’s in an accident?” “Is Town Pump a gas station just in our town or is it a chain?” “Good Food Store is funny – it should be “GUD FUD” cause both words are spelled the same – how come they sound different?” Signs, signs, everywhere are signs.

Around the house: “Marquez! Can’t you see you’re getting a warning? It says 20% battery power!” “Marquez! You can skip the ad – just click here where it says Skip Ad!” “Mom I want to name my new skin (**In Minecraft**) Stampy. S.T.A.M.P.Y. Right?”

At bedtime we are reading The Never Ending Story. The first page has words printed backward to show what lettering looks like on a glass door from inside a store. “Oh! Can I try? It says something with a bunch of ‘C’s and also the word books!” I showed it to him in the bathroom mirror and blew his little mind.

I stopped in my tracks at that one – “Lucero – Can you read?” He smiled again and giggled “Mooooooom. . .I don’t know.”


Why do I have to pick reading out, among everything else he is learning, and treat it like something more special than all the rest? School – Head tells me, “Reading is GOOD! It means he’s REALLY LEARNING!” He doesn’t see reading as something separate from his life. It doesn’t mean that he is any different than his brother who isn’t into reading right now. It is just a part of his exploration of the world, it’s patterns he loves so much, and a key that unlocks some more mysteries in life, makes it a little easier. My trying to make it a big deal, a separate “subject” is ridiculous to him. He isn’t hiding his reading, he just isn’t pointing it out. Because there isn’t any reason to, really.


War Is Over (If You Want It)

I hate violence. It has been used against me and I am constantly signing petitions and rallying against it being used against others. My son, Marquez (age 7,) loves guns, battles, and all things warlike.

It scares me. But I know there is something natural about it (who hasn’t seen a child with a wooden sword battling a dragon? Guns are his swords.) So what have I been doing? Dancing back and forth between my fear and his freedom to explore, and my fear always leads. I tell him how I feel and why. I show him age appropriate news photos of sad people because guns took their loved one away. I tell him what happens to a body with a gunshot wound. I make rules “No guns!” He makes one out of a branch. “No shooting at each other!” Oh, I reason, but they’re Nerf guns. Every time I set a rule, or “teach” him about the suffering guns and war cause, I notice something. His fascination with war and guns doesn’t go away. It is still there, and what’s worse, our relationship suffers. I see him as a little perpetrator in the making, and he can feel that. I am no longer on his side, and he does what he wants in secret, making mistakes and having no one to guide him, and being judged when he’s found out. He sees himself as liking something that is “bad” so he must be bad. I am creating the beast I fear. That is what is really scary to me.

So, today, I noticed him looking at a youtube video about a game in which you build a battle ship and send aircraft off into battle.
“What do you like about this?” I asked, calmly, honestly, curiously, crouching down near him and rubbing his back.
“I really like the battle part. It’s fun to see the other planes explode and to hear the pop pop pop sound from the guns.”
“Would you like to learn more about guns? You’re not old enough to learn to shoot a real one, but maybe archery class would be fun?”
“No, I really just like guns.”
“How about a book about them and how they work, or a video about the wars that have been fought?”
“No. The movies may have too much violence really, and probably blood. How about a video game with fighter planes? I like battles like the ones when we play laser tag. And when I get bigger, can I play paintball?”
So in one listening session, I learn that he knows that his gun play and real violence are different. He knows that he cannot handle seeing real violence. He likes this kind of play for other reasons. Hmmmm.
So I got him and iPad game with fighter planes and no blood or gore, and let him have at it. I sat with him to watch and ask questions. Here is what I observed him enjoying/learning:
*Strategy (I will stay at the bottom of the screen so that I can see what planes are coming.)
*Decision Making (Should I shoot continuously, or only when I see a plane?)
*Goal Setting (I want to fly the plane that I cannot get without 12,000 points, so I am going to try to get 12,000 points.)
*Perseverance (I could get the plane for 6000 points, and quit early, but I really want the other one so I will keep going.)
*Math (How many more points to I need to get to 12,000 if I have 9,000?)
*Self- regulation (I need to take a break and watch a Minecraft video, then I’ll get back to it.)
*Writing (Let’s put 12,000 on the dry erase board so I know what I am looking for on the screen.)
*Accomplishment and Reward ( He was BEAMING when he got his 12,000 – “Mom! I did it! I never gave up!”)
He also got to be in a position of power and control, which we all crave and children have very little of, and not cause real harm to anyone.
And you know, because I opened up to ask, because I sat with him and dug into his world, we connected in such a strong way that he invited me into his world over and over again today. “Hey mom! I like this because it makes a cool sound! Come see!” “Hey mom! Can we play laser tag sometime?” and even “Oh Mom, this video is about a game with shooting and there may be blood – can you check it out for me?” WOW.

My dislike of this kind of play, and even (especially?) forbidding it won’t make his desire for it go away. If he is going to explore things that have risks, I want to be someone he wants to bring along (like real discussions about gun safety, and eventually teaching him how to hunt or go to the shooting range – if he is even still into guns by then.) And that starts with silencing my own fears, discussing reasonable limits, and really getting to know HIM. Like throwing on the lights in the dark room, it turns out there isn’t a boogey man under the bed, it was my imagination. I’m so glad I was brave enough to look.

* At the time of this writing, he is watching a video about soap box racers and designing one.  Done with guns for the day. This is such an interesting ride.


28 Days at a Time

This is my accountability statement.
And this is my mantra for the next 28 days – Hands off, Mama!

This is an effort to battle my fear that the boys aren’t learning what they need to learn (I am still de-schooling myself.) I have lost the momentum, backsliding them by freaking out a regular intervals and insisting “We will have reading time every morning!” and then going back to unschooling. They probably think I’m insane – well, more insane than I really am.

I am going to take Feb 17th to March 17th  to watch my boys for signs of learning in their everyday life. I am going to follow, and suppress my urge to lead. I will observe them, ask questions, join them, and find out who they really are.

I may, if I can be trusted not to take control (I’m not too sure. . .) look for ways to enhance what they are interested in. But I won’t take it personally or panic if they reject what I offer. Not into it? No problem. Your learning journey, not mine. (Breathe.)

I have heard that if you stick to it and trust the process, it is really amazing. I have seen it myself, this amazingness, moments of “Wow! They learned that without a single worksheet!” -yet this fear. This fear threatens it and makes it crawl back under the covers, and someday it may never come out again.

This is my whole hearted attempt to break my own habits, take the power out of my fear, de-stress, and really create the relationships and the learning life I keep dreaming of. I have tasted it, and now – it’s time to trust it.

So for 28 days, I will PAY ATTENTION. I will observe, notice, connect, and think. And then I will write it all down so I can have an honest gander at what this unschooling business is really all about. You’re invited to scrutinize it with me.


The Thinker

the thinker

Lucero (5): We aren’t alive you know.

Me: Tell me more.
L: Well, our brain controls our bodies and keeps everything going, so our bodies by themselves are not alive. Our brain is like a generator that keeps us “on.”
Another one –
L: A square only has one side you know.
Me: Tell me more.
L: Well, you draw it on a piece of paper, so it’s flat, even though you draw four sides. But a cube has six sides, because you can hold it.
Me: Do you want to know more about that?
L: Yes.
Me: I think you’re describing dimensions. Let’s find a website to show you.
Sometimes I just sit there with my mouth open.

Lucero is a Thinker. His mind is always working through ideas, constructing the world around him in a way he understands. Sometimes he’s right and sometimes he’s wrong in his pronouncements, but I do not “correct” him. I just ask more questions “Do you want to know more?” “How did you come up with 26?” “Tell me more” (not a question, but an “expander” – keeps the thinking going.) He finds the right answers on his own, and he giggles with joy when he does.

Why is a kindergartner thinking so much? Because I don’t teach him anything. Let me explain.

He has never been in a “top down” learning environment bent on depositing ideas and truths into his empty receptacle of a mind. We know it’s not empty. In a way, he lucked out because he was discovered to be “gifted” at three (side note – I actually believe all children are gifted in their own way, so I kinda don’t like this “diagnosis”.) He lucked out not because he was taught advanced lessons for gifted students – but because he was so young, no one ever felt any urgency about what he “needs to know,” so we’ve left him alone.* Lucero has been left to think, and to be delighted in what he discovers. To him, thinking, asking questions, getting it wrong and looking for the right answer is as natural and personal as breathing. If I sit him down because it’s “time to learn!” and try to “teach” him something he wants nothing to do with, over and over again, if I devalue his thoughts and ideas as “not part of the lesson plan,” and praise him for correct answers,  how long to you think it would take for him to hate learning or become driven by grades and test scores to get my approval, or define himself? I won’t do that to his lovely mind. If he wants to learn more about something, I help him find the resources. His learning belongs to him.

Lucero’s only sense of achievement from what he learns is that he now owns the knowledge. He lovingly files it away to bring out and expand on later (“Mama, I was thinking about times 5. All the numbers that are the answers have to end in a 5 or a 0, and then you know it’s times 5.” Satisfied with a nod of my head, he skips away.) There are no A’s, no tests, no pop quizzes and no adult he is trying to please, or anything like these that distract from thinking.

I want him to have a more rigorous education than all that. A friend of mine was over, and she was lamenting her “test and grade” driven school experience: “I would crumble at a 98%. All I could think of was what went wrong – where was the 2%?  I wasn’t thinking about what I was learning, my whole identity was in getting A’s on the tests. I remembered almost nothing after the tests, and even now with friends who are watching movies and dissecting them after, I am silent, I can’t think that way – I want someone to tell me what I should think to get it right.” She doesn’t want that for her kids.  As Gail Jones, professor of education at the University of North Carolina asks “The bottom line is, do you want to have a child who takes tests well or do you want to have a well-educated child?” (For example, studies have shown that kids who were told their work was for a grade were more likely to choose easy questions, while kids who were told they would not be graded took on more difficult questions and enjoyed the challenge.**)

Lucero is on his way to being well-educated, and I would say that he is well-educated. Marquez is recovering. His year at kindergarten shattered his ability to get joy from thinking. He has had breakthroughs, and experiences bursts of “Hey Mom! I figured something out!” but we have more work to do so that he can move past doing what he perceives of as “work” (anything that has even the scent of the Three R’s) just to get an adult off his back. By deschooling him, he is coming around, and it helps a lot to have a Thinker for a brother who models for him.

Do I worry that if Lucero only thinks about these ideas and concepts instead of having them “drilled into him,” he won’t get into college? Be able to start a business? No. First of all, you don’t need a GPA to get into Ivy League schools anymore (they actively recruit and retain home schoolers.) Secondly, if he wants to take on anything at all in his life, from college to starving artist (and college certainly doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be starving at this point,) his ability to THINK will serve him better than an SAT score. Thinkers look for solutions, for new ways to ask a question, for folks to collaborate with, they are undaunted by failing, they love new ideas, they are internally motivated to figure things out. If he pursues his current dream of becoming a wildlife biologist who studies chameleons, we can sit down together and find the resources he needs to get into a university program or just do his research (Classes at the U? At the local high school? A mentor? A tutor? Books? You got it, kid.) He sees me as a guide, as support for his endeavors, not as judge and jury about whether he is learning the right things at the right time, in a way that suits me, or any other system. And because we have a collaborative learning relationship where he knows his ideas are as valuable as mine, when I present subjects to learn about to him, he responds to them like a gift, not a burden. 

“Mom! Can we make a chloroplast that shoots sugar water out of a balloon? Let’s try it!” I have to go now friends, he’s thinking again.



* Lucero does not have autism, but the perfect case-in-point is made by this 13 year old – check out the video for more. It’s titled “Stop Learning and Start Thinking.” (And be patient, he is still 13 after all 🙂


** Harter, 1992 pp. 89-90 cites three studies. Also Elliot and Dweck, 1988, Maehr and Stallings, 1972 and Pearlman, 1984. Studies researched by Alfie Kohn in “The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards.” Houghton Mifflin 1999.

Many Wrongs Make a Right

“Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless.” Eleanor Duckworth of Harvard.

We got a piano. I am thrilled to have a new area of exploration in the house for the boys, and I secretly have always wanted to learn how to play. Of course, the first thought in my head was “Should we get a teacher?”

Remembering our mission – “child led learning,” I held that thought, rolled back the cover, smiled at the boys and got out of the way. A huge cacophony filled the room, some sounds making sense, and some not. While slipping their fingers up and down the keys, banging them or lightly tapping them, they used words like “Big.” “Small.” “Angry.” “Happy.” “Scary.” “Beautiful.” They heard “drops of water on a lake” and “Darth Vader is coming.” Satisfied with this exploration, they happily closed the cover over the keys and skipped away. First lesson: These sounds mean something, and sometimes they sound good together, sometimes they don’t.

The next day, Marquez sat on the bench, uncovered the keys and used one deliberate finger to search for notes. “Wrong,” he whispered. I could hear him finding the notes to construct “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” “Wrong,” he repeated under his breath, but he kept searching, listening carefully, stretching his mind to remember the notes he wanted among the ones he didn’t.  I stayed put, resisting the urge to help. Finally he had it all down. He clapped for himself, and I smiled at him. Second lesson: Hit a bunch of wrong notes to find the right ones.

“Mama! I can’t remember the keys I used to make the song. Can you put something on them so I can remember?” So I numbered the keys for him. He beamed – he got to “keep” his hard work.

His little brother heard him playing the song, and asked to learn how to play it. Marquez happily complied. He advised Lucero, “First get it right, then do it fast.”  Lucero played the beginning notes correctly, then “Wrong!” said Marquez. He tried a few more times, getting it “wrong,” but then the “wrong” notes turned into other melodies, so Lucero wanted to have some time alone to experiment. He played around, composed a little original song instead from the “wrong” notes, and had me write it down so he could play it again. Then they discussed how “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” were the same notes but you hit the keys more often. The piano was closed and that was it for the morning. Third lesson: Doing it right can play a song that already exists, and doing it wrong can make a new song out of that one, or create something entirely different.

Later, Marquez asked, “Mama, can I get a piano teacher? I want to play “I come from Montana, I wear a bandana” with BOTH hands! I don”t know how to make it sound right, and I need help.” So off I was to facebook, and a conversation began with my friends about who could teach him the way he wanted to learn – just the song, not finger drills. Lots of great replies came back, but it was amazing to see how hard it is for some folks to understand that we are okay with him learning his own way, that they were so concerned that he wasn’t learning “right.” “The basics are VERY IMPORTANT!” Well, maybe, but we don’t necessarily have to do them first. “Have him learn something to perform at Christmas!” If he wants to, but he may not be learning in in order to perform, and that’s not what this is about – it’s about a strange new territory to explore, that belongs to the boys. Many a great composer had no lessons, but music in their hearts. What if Lennon and McCartney had to spend hours learning “the basics,” were forced to perform “Hot Cross Buns” over and over to please family, to get it “right”? I am curious.

Being wrong is the chance to give our brains the exercise they need to meet all sorts of situations. When you just want the right answer right away, you’re nothing but a receptacle for information, a mental couch potato. You got there the easy way, and the brain got very little exercise – even though you may pass a test, you didn’t succeed at becoming any more “mentally fit.” The mental fitness exercises are at work in the minds of the problem solvers, the explorers, the resilient learners who use mistakes as a soil for curiosity. The minds that finally have to go to bed after a day of searching for the right answer and not finding it, and though they may not even find it the next day,  those minds are joyful  on their pillow and excited to get back to it at dawn. The straight road of “Basics First!”  can be as boring as a highway through miles of nothing but corn fields, only the road signs ensure that you’re still going the right way, you just have to trust the “experts.”  When wrong is celebrated, when challenge is encouraged, it may be a winding road to the “right” answer, but it is beautiful – we pick up a lot of new skills along the way – and we get there.

To quote Miss Frizzle – Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy, friends!


“The child is curious. He wants to make sense out of things, find out how things work, gain competence and control over himself and his environment, and do what he can see other people doing. He is open, perceptive, and experimental. He does not merely observe the world around him, He does not shut himself off from the strange, complicated world around him, but tastes it, touches it, hefts it, bends it, breaks it. To find out how reality works, he works on it. He is bold. He is not afraid of making mistakes. And he is patient. He can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion, ignorance, and suspense … School is not a place that gives much time, or opportunity, or reward, for this kind of thinking and learning.”

~John Holt~, (1923-1985) American Educator, How Children Learn

The Beowulf Principle

Today, Marquez feels free and happy: “Hey mom! Two times two is four!” “Hey mom! I can read this! Come see!” “Hey mom! One times any number is the same number – because it’s only one time! Get it!?”

This is the boy who a few weeks ago was literally shielding his eyes from a math problem on a piece of paper. Who would sigh and look the other way when his little brother read signs as we passed them in the car. Who sputtered and blurted out random sounds when asked to read anything at all, in a complete panic.

He needed to be De-schooled, big time. De-schooling is the process of letting a child (and the parents who are getting out of the school system) let go of the parameters that we used to accept for “real” learning.

De-schooling means that he has time to re-investigate what learning means – that it isn’t something that is timed, that is forced, that is laden with adult expectations and it’s value dependent on adult approval. After letting him be for weeks (playing Minecraft, watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, watching videos, lolling about – which by the way, all have plenty of learning in them) he had become bored with constant Minecraft, started enjoying a site his brother has been using with more “educational” material, and he got completely sucked in by ancient history. He watched endless videos about ancient civilizations and it was hard for him to turn it off. Then we just happened to go to the bookstore. At the bookstore, he found a thick, but abridged, book about history and asked to bring it home.

We read it to him most nights and he pouts when we have to stop. Two nights ago, he discovered two pages about Beowulf. The brevity of the description perfectly set up (although perhaps unintentionally) Marquez to want to know more. “Wow can I hear the whole story? Where was he from? Was he a knight? I want to know more about this. Can we get some stuff so I can know more?” I tried not to actually jump up and down.

We decided because it was written in a form of English we don’t use anymore it would be hard for him to read to himself and that my reading would be boring (it’s okay, I can take it.) So we were off to the library for a CD the next day.

The librarian said “He’s seven and he wants to hear Beowulf??? How will he ever understand it?” I said “Did you understand it?” She said “No, but I got the gist.” “Exactly.” I said.

So we put it on in the car. Every now and then we paused it to discuss what was going on and be sure that we understood it.
Marquez said “This is really good! I can understand a lot of it, but I wish the whole thing was in English!” Awesome.

When trusted, he chose something he wanted to learn more about. Something cracked. Something was put into motion that spurred on his wanting to understand and explore in all the places he was so afraid of, because I just let him be. In this house is has been dubbed “The Beowulf Principle.”

After he asked to do some of the math games that his little brother was playing and got a few wrong, instead of his typical response “This is too hard! I’m quitting!” he said, “I got some wrong, but I’m figuring it out.” I said “You don’t seem afraid anymore.” “No mama! I’m not!” He was beaming.

Because he understands that you don’t have to be fluent in Old English to appreciate Beowulf, he is a step closer to understanding that learning is messy and lovely that way. True learning is about being interested, making educated guesses, testing ideas, getting it wrong and thinking about how to do it right – it’s not about getting it right and doing it fast or you miss recess. He is one step closer to seeing himself as a thinker with valid ideas, and that not understanding something is the time to explore deeper, ask questions – not give up and walk away before someone thinks you’re dumb. His head is a bit higher today. Plus, his brother loves that he has a buddy who wants to talk about multiplication with him, and he likes Beowulf, too.

Fare thee well!