That’s what I meant to say…

I’m a big believer that things often come to you when you really need them.  In my life this has happened repeatedly.  I might toy around with an idea for a long time, but when I finally get serious and focus my thoughts, answers & solutions seem almost to fall out of the sky.   Sometimes it’s big stuff, like when we were looking to buy an apartment and had a definite budget that almost no one thought we would meet, and other times it’s smaller stuff, like trying to order my thoughts on schools and make sense of being told how much children are enjoying their school because of all the great ‘programs’ available.

Enter James Herndon’s book, How to Survive in Your Native Land, which I quoted from last night.  (Actually I quoted from the forward by Susannah Sheffer.)   Today on the subway  I may have been mistaken for a crazy person due to the number of times I exclaimed or agreed out loud with passages from Herndon’s book.     THIS is the answer I was looking for.   (It’s long, but worth it, trust me.)

As a lead in, you should know that both Herndon and his colleague Frank Ramirez had been teaching Language Arts classes in which they pretty much ditched any type of traditional curriculum and instead had their classes doing things like inventing their own heiroglyphic languages, writing letters to the authors of books they’d read and posting the responses, writing letters to the Peace Corps to find out about their work, keeping ‘mock’ journals as though they, the students,  were members of the Peace Corps, and so on.    As a result of their success, they developed a new class called Creative Arts which was meant to take them and their students to the next level in creative freedom and expression.    And then….

For most of that year Frank and I agreed that CA — as the school soon began calling it– was absolutely the worst class we could have imagined.  Nothing worked right.  We had a lot to blame it on, griping to each other, commiserating together, telling each other it wasn’t our fault.  It was the administration’s fault for one thing, scheduling things wrong.  Then it was the kid’s fault, for not being the right kind of kids.  It was also the school’s fault, for manifesting an atmosphere in which you wouldn’t do anything unless you were made to.

In fact, another two main things — of a quite different nature, and yet quite firmly connected — were at fault.  the first was what had seemed to us a detail and concerned leaving class.  On the very first day we issued Permanent Hall Passes, each with a particular kid’s name on it, and told the kids they could come and go in and out of our classrooms at any time, without asking permission or leave, and they could go anywhere around the school grounds.  If stopped they had only to show their passes.  We announced this casually; it seemed simple and obvious to us.  One of the biggest drags in a school is the fact that whenever a kid wants to go anywhere, or whenever you want to send a kid somewhere to get something or do something, you have to stop and write out a pass, sign it, date it, put down the time and his expected destination….

Being smart, we got around all that with the Permanent Hall Passes. The kids were ecstatic, and spent quite a bit of time that first day interrogating us as to what we really meant.  They kept it up so long that I finally got mad and yelled that it meant they could leave anytime, go anywhere on the grounds, that yes, once and for all yes, that was what it meant and if anyone said another word about it I was pulling back these passes and it was all off.  Then they believed it.

The second thing was that all the great notions we had, all the ideas for things to do, all our apparatus for insuring a creative, industrious, happy, meaningful class didn’t seem to excite the kids all that much.  Most of the kids didn’t want to do any of them at all, anytime.  They didn’t want to write to the Peace Corps, they didn’t want to bring cigar boxes and make avant-garde environments, they didn’t want to make plaster statuary, they didn’t want to write stories, they didn’t want to paint left-handed or make up new languages….they didn’t want to do a…thing except use that…Permanent Hall Pass in the way it was supposed to be used, namely to take it and leave the class, roam around, come back in, leave again, roam around and come back in.  When they went out they would say There’s Nothing To Do Around Here, and leave, and when they came back they would say There’s Nothing To Do Out There, and everyone would agree and say that awhile and bitch about the number of adults and narc Rally Boys who made them show their pass and brag to each other about how they told off the chickens@*t narcs of all sorts… and for the first few days we were besieged by teachers and Rally Boys asking were those unbelievable Permanent Hall Passes valid and we’d say yes, and then for a few more days we were visited by kids who had invented excuses to get out of class in order to drop by and ask us urgently if it were really true that we had given out Permanent Hall Passes to Every Kid in our Class, and we’d say Yes!… and after those gripes and narratives had run our of interest someone would remember to say There’s Nothing To Do In Here again, and out most of the kids would go.

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.  If you wrote a fake journal pretending to be Tutankhamen’s favorite embalmer, it was better than reading the dull Text, answering Questions on ditto sheets, Discussing, making Reports, or taking Tests.  Sure it was better — not only that but you knew the teacher liked it better for some insane reason which you didn’t have to understand and you would get better grades for it than you were used to getting in social studies or English.    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 vision of the truth.

We were in a new world.  Nothing can be worse than that.  We had to face the fact that all the stuff we thought the kids were dying to do (if they only had time away from the stupefying lessons of other teachers) was in fact stuff that we wanted them to do, that we invented, that interested us — not only that but it interested us mainly as things to be doing during periods of time when something had to be going on, when no one was supposed to be just sitting around doing nothing.   And not only things to be doing — it was things for them, the kids, to be doing.  Things we wanted to see them do, the results of which we wanted to see.  We wanted to see what symbols the kids would invent for English words; we didn’t have much curiosity about the symbols we ourselves would invent.  We didn’t write fake Peace Corps journals ourselves; we only told the kids to do it.  I don’t mean to criticize us harshly on these points; that is, by and large, the attitude of teachers and it’s a normal rationale for teaching.  You want to see what the kids can do, you want to get some idea of their abilities, their intelligence, their cleverness, their ingenuity, their — creativity.  You want to have something interesting to do during the class time.  It was clear that many kids rather liked the writing or the painting or the constructing or whatever it was, once they got started (since they had to do something) and once it was finished, once the other kids expressed admiration, once they got an A, once their work was shown in the room on Back to School Night.  Looked at that way, we were able to decide that we had a lot more ideas than the kids and the kids never knew what they wanted to do anyway, and if we made them do stuff we knew was interesting and exciting and all, they would be better off for it.  About the sixth week of CA, we laid that out to the kids and tried to establish a hard line.

Since no one is doing anything, then therefore, we told them, sat down in their seats and quiet, you’ll have to do assignments.  We told them how great the assignments would be.  That was going to be that.

Indignation, disappointment and sneers greeted my own pronouncement. I was told in plain words that I was being chickens#*t.  I was reminded of my brave words when I talked them into taking this lousy course last year (I’d thought no one was listening) and quite clearly informed that it was the same old thing — teachers promising “class participation in decision making” and then if it didn’t work out just like the teacher wanted, the teacher then unilaterally changed his ‘f-ing’ mind.  (I remind myself how things change when you give up your authority, officially, even if you really want to keep it, privately.  The kids begin to talk to you just as if you are a real person, and often say just what they mean.)  I was informed that the only virtue of the class was its freedom to do (to come and go) and not do; take away that and they all planned to see their counselors and ask for transfers.

I think I would have weathered that storm, stuck to the new hard line if it hadn’t been for Meg, Lily and Jane.   Meg, Lily and Jane were our heroes.  They were doing just exactly what Frank and I had figured everyone would be doing in CA, namely, they were doing stuff all the time.  The first day or so, one of the things the kids had in mind was to make a newspaper, a kids’ newspaper…as opposed to the boring, tendentious adult-oriented official school paper which was mostly written by the teacher in charge anyway.   Having decided that, most of the kids then made use of their passes to come and go and talk about nothing to do.  Meg and Lily started off immediately to make the newspaper.  Meg would get the material and edit it, Lily would type and run it off and figure out how to distribute it, and Jane would do the illustrations.   In the end, receiving absolutely no cooperation from anyone else, they had done it all themselves… Since that time, they had begun plans for a literary magazine called Infinity, and spent their time trying to persuade the other members of the class to write something for it.  Having no luck whatsoever, they complained bitterly during that first six weeks about the other kids, how they wouldn’t do anything, and how it was supposed to be a class project…

The point is, I had counted on support from these three in our new, reactionary notion of class.  Surely they would be in favor of making the other kids write and paint and draw and so on, thus supplying them with material — but in fact, they weren’t.  They too threatened rebellion.  Jane announced she would draw or paint nothing else that year if required to.  Meg agreed that it was too bad that no one else wanted to write for the magazine, but that it was obvious that “enforced writing” (she said) wasn’t going to be any good.  She might as well be taking Journalism, she said, with noticeable disgust.

…Meg, most brilliant and articulate of girls, told me that even in the regular journalism class there were only two or three people who really wanted to write for the paper and had any talent for it; the rest of the students, being forced to do so in order not to flunk, wrote only boring and rather stupid stuff.  That, she said, was probably what caused the journalism teacher to have to rewrite most of the dull, boring stuff, and what made the whole paper thus sound like it had been written by a teacher, and after all, dull, boring stuff rewritten was still dull, boring stuff.  Not only that, she said, isn’t it so that good magazines are really put out by these very people who have talent and the desire to put them out?  And isn’t it so that most people in the world do not write, don’t put out magazines, maybe don’t even read them?  But the magazines are good, sometimes, which was the point.  Why should it be any different in a class?

The fact that a magazine was good was the point.  The desire of the teacher that everyone “participate” was beside the point and would surely result in a bad magazine.  You couldn’t have both, she was trying to tell me, and so you had to decide which you wanted.

Just brilliant.  Lightbulbs going on all over the place in my head as I read it.   Herndon and Ramirez had unwittingly set up an unschooling class,  but still expected the kids to be excited about doing things the adults wanted them to do.  And to their immense and everlasting credit, the kids totally called the teachers on it.   And to the teachers credit, they agreed that the kids were right.   A rare occurrence indeed.

Even in the homeschooling community, I think much of the time the kids are doing stuff because the adults think it’s cool, or want the kids to do it.   And in a setting where the parent has made it clear that lessons must be done in some form or another, well, then the kids figure they have to do it and so go for the least boring option.   And even enjoy it.   Thus the transfer to a school setting ( a good school, of course) means the same thing only more so, with less options and creativity, but still – familiar territory.

I am not saying traditional homeschoolers have it all wrong. (Really, I’m not. Some of my favorite people are traditional homeschoolers.)  No matter how the learning happens outside of school, the kids will benefit far more than in a factory school setting.

There is no great, snappy end line for this post.  I’ll just implore everyone to read Herndons’ book.   As with John Holt’s work, it is every bit as relevant today as it was when written – maybe more so.

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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