Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How I came to unschooling

I did well enough in school. I got grades that were good enough to not bring up or talk about (it's "not cool" to do well in school), but not high enough to actually be competitive with the top students of the class. I never obsessed about my work though, never understanding why people did things like pulling all-nighters for complete homework or projects. I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I took classes because they were required, or some sounded genuinely interesting (i'm very glad I finally figured out in high school that I do actually like science, after a 6th grade teacher had me convinced I couldn't stand the subject. Turns out I just couldn't stand her).

In college I kept going back and forth on whether I wanted to become a teacher. I could see myself teaching elementary school, but had also noticed enough problems with traditional school to feel unsure if I really wanted to go there. I remember when a long-time teacher i knew half-jokingly but half-seriously advised me to become a PE teacher, since they get paid the same but have a lower workload than regular teachers. I was taken aback by her cynicism.

It was around then that I was introduced to Montessori, since many of my close friends at the time were Montessori kids. My future mother-in-law gave me the book Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz, and I was sold (I also really love Trevor Eissler's Montessori Madness, but didn't read that till years later). I loved the idea of a school that allowed teachers and students so much more freedom, that respected each child's individual traits and that not all children learn the same way or at the same pace. I loved that Montessori (at least in theory) gave the teacher that flexibility to work with students who needed extra guidance, and involved the whole class of students in each other's education vs just a top-down teacher-tells-students-everything approach. Child-led learning. "Follow the child." After graduating from college my then-fiance and I moved to California, and I realized there was a Montessori training center in town, and I felt like I finally knew what my career path would be.

I finished my training and spent 1.5 years working as an assistant in a great little Montessori school in San Jose. I learned a lot, as the teachers I worked under had a couple decades of experience under their belts and really understood a lot about the nature of young children. Then life took my husband and I overseas, and then we had kids, and I've been home with them ever since. I've still been involved in Montessori, my kids have now both been in Montessori preschools (D for 3 years and Q just started this fall). I still love much about the philosophy and many of the teaching materials.

However... Part of me has also felt a little bothered by some aspects of Montessori. I don't think this is inherent to the philosophy, but I feel like in practice many teachers have a hard time fully breaking from the traditional education paradigms (many come from traditional school backgrounds) and still hold a view of top-down, teacher-to-student distribution of information. Sometimes hearing teachers speak among themselves there seems to be a lack of respect for those children and for their own ability to learn and figure things out. Sometimes there is still that pressure to make kids fit into a particular mold, to be the stereotypically calm and peaceful "montessori kids." It's that paradox where a philosophy or learning that is all about freedom and flexibility, gets paradoxically rigid about tis implementation when put into practice. And, many schools and teachers end up falling prey to the pressures to push academics. They give children lists of work they must complete each day, rather than leave them to freely choose their own. During D's kindergarten year his teacher seemed very concerned about him not progressing in his reading, writing, and math work at the pace she envisioned. And I can't fully blame these teachers and schools for it, as most of the kids in their classrooms will go on to traditional public schools that expect the kids to behave a certain way and perform at a certain level.

But, still.

So then I heard about unschooling, and it just kinda made sense to me. It feels like an extension of Montessori, really-- child-led learning taken to the next step. The carefully prepared environment here, is my home with access to whatever tools my kids may need to explore their world. And they have incredible freedom within that environment. In many ways it feels true to what Montessori is supposed to be, closer to what I think it would be if the constraints and expectations of traditional school didn't encroach upon it.

I still want to incorporate Montessori ideas into our homeschooling-- I have a plastic set of base-ten blocks and rods like Montessori's golden bead material, and want to try to get my hands on more of the math materials (which I love and made math make so much more sense to me, even as an adult, when I took my training). I have a book on Montessori Elementary curriculum that I will (eventually) read and gather ideas from. But I also have a wider perspective now-- I feel like that "follow the child" motto is more important than any one particular philosophy or set of ideals. Which, also includes unschooling. I may one day find or figure out something different that fits us better. But at this point in our journey, this is where we are.

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