At the beginning of another great read

In A Life Worth Living, (John Holt’s selected letters)  Holt mentions a lot of other books;  books by George Dennison and James Herndon and Ivan Illich.    I’d read Illich’s Deschooling Society years ago, but other than that, the authors and their books were strangers to me.     Maybe all the other unschoolers out there have read them and I’m just way behind, but in any case I’m making it a point to catch up.

James Herndon authored 3 books dealing with his experiences as a teacher.     I am currently reading How to Survive in Your Native Land, originally published in 1971.   Though I have barely begun the book itself, the forward to my edition, put out as part of an Innovators in Education series, was written by Susannah Sheffer who also edited John Holt’s letters.   In it, she writes:

“How to Survive begins with [Herndon] as a successful teacher who has won the approval of colleagues, supervisors, and parents.  He comes to work ‘feeling good and ready to go,’ and he and another teacher plan an innovative class called Creative Arts in which they’ll be able to offer all the creative projects they never have time for in regular classes.  They decide to have no required curriculum, no behavior rules, no grades, and to issue permanent hall passes so that the kids won’t be continually interrupting with requests to go to the bathroom but can simply leave when they need to….   The experimental class didn’t go as the teachers expected it would.  Instead of participating in the projects, the kids mostly used the hall passes to wander in and out of the classroom, and then complained that there was nothing to do.  Herndon writes:

Well, as a lesson plan, there is nothing I can recommend quite so highly as a permanent hall pass.  After a while, Frank and I, on the edge of complete despair, began to figure out what was wrong with the ideas that had worked so well in our regular classes.  It was very simple.  Why did the kids in regular class like to do all the inventive stuff?  Why, only because it was better than the regular stuff…But that only applied to a regular class where it was clear you had to (1) stay there all period and (2) you had to be doing something or you might get an F.  Take away those two items, as Frank and I had done in all innocence, and you get a brief version of the truth.

That’s what Herndon gives us with this book; a brief and compelling vision of what’s really going on, how the conventional school structure actually affects teaching and learning.”

I’m going to love this book.   It is the perfect thing for me to read right now, because I’ve been puzzling over the accounts from several parents I know regarding their children who were homeschoolers but have gone into public school this year.  (All of them in either middle or high school)  These are families who seem to have thrown all the knowledge they gained about how children learn out the window and are now proudly wearing the school mantel, decorated with the badges of ‘have to’s’ and ‘good schools’ and ‘honor students’ and ‘getting A’s’.    According to them, their kids have happily given up their freedom in order to respond to bells, vie for the teacher’s approval and turn their homework in on time.

Not impossible, but….call me a skeptic.

Maybe these families always had in mind to send their kids to school, and so ‘school brain’ was an ever present entity in their homes.   Maybe homeschooling for them was not a way to avoid 12 years of factory-style programming but instead a head start to the front of the factory line.    Still, I think you’d have to work hard not to recognize the incredible growth, creativity and yes, freedom that comes from not being put in your place and told to stay there every minute of the day for years on end.

Am I being overly critical?   Probably.  Maybe.  If I’m honest?  No, I don’t think so.    Because when I read books from John Holt, James Herndon and John Taylor Gatto, all of whom were educators and not wide-eyed, naive life learners, they all agree that schools are not about learning, or freedom, or creativity or education.    I look back at my own public schooling and I think “Yes, that’s exactly right!”   What they say makes sense.   So how can a child go from freedom to captivity and not fight against it?

You got me.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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