I come from a family of teachers. So, so, so many teachers. And, I married into a family of more teachers. Public teachers. Heck, I have my Master’s in education and my prior work was almost all involving kids and learning. I’m passionate about young people and their potential, and I’m also passionate about providing space for them to learn. Notice that I say, “providing space for them to learn,” rather than “educating them.” Although I strongly believe in and support public education, my background and experience is in informal education environments, specifically after school and enrichment programs. When we decided to enroll both our kids in charter schools (and not even the same charter school) this fall, I knew it would not be a popular choice among certain people in our families. Although charter schools are technically public schools, they are under fire from the rest of the public school community for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here. A quick search can provide hours and hours of reading on that topic. The bottom line is that I knew that some would consider to be somewhat of a betrayal of the system. And I get it.
Beyond our family members, I suspect (although I can’t say for sure) that there are people in our community who feel the same way. They will think we’re taking money away from our school system (and their kids) and putting it elsewhere. And I don’t have a lot of bad things to say about our current school system. There are things I am not happy about, and a few things that I am extremely unhappy about, but overall, my kids are reasonably content, healthy, and educated. Sure, there are bullies. I think that except in extreme cases, dealing with challenging and mean people is a part of life that they might as well learn to cope with now. Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of drugs or violence or gangs or any of the the most scary stuff that some families contend with. Our schools are fine.
And this is where I need to do a little reminiscing. The schools I grew up in were fine, too. I learned things. I made friends. I dealt with bullies. I lived to tell the tale. But I was bored. So incredibly bored. I wasn’t being challenged. It was so pervasive that when I had to memorize multiplication tables in third grade and I didn’t succeed overnight, I just knew that I was horrible in math. Let me clarify – because I actually had to THINK about something, I assumed that meant I was bad at it. I didn’t know that that was what learning was supposed to feel like. I carried the belief that I was bad in math through college, where I studied engineering and computer science and eventually ended up majoring in anthropology. And part of the reason for that extreme shift in majors was that although I was doing extremely well in most of my courses and at the top of my class, I constantly felt like I was failing. Some of this is due to the bizarre way they teach and grade those subjects, but some of it stems back to the lack of challenge early in life. I didn’t learn how to learn and so I didn’t understand what it looked like.
There was a bright spot in my early education, though, and it was a magnet school that opened up in my city. It was a micro-society, which meant that we ran our own businesses, elected government officials, and learned how to manage and handle our own in-school currency. When I was in 5th grade, I transferred to the brand-new school and stayed there until I graduated from 8th grade. In retrospect, I can’t say that I was any more challenged by the curriculum than I had been in previous environments. They had leveled math, which helped, but there was no gifted and talented program in that tiny K-8 school with 200 students. But after we finished our core classes, our micro-society time would start. Legislature would be in session, the marketplace would open, news reporters roamed the halls, and we had a good amount of freedom to do whatever we wanted as long as it was reasonably productive. I co-wrote the school constitution, managed a bank, started a publishing company, ran a business selling greeting cards, wrote a novel, and produced a school play. We had a principal who typically said, “Go ahead and try it,” whenever we had an idea, no matter how bizarre it was. Literary magazine? Sure. Haunted house in the stairwell? Why not?
The lessons I learned from all of this freedom to explore my interests were numerous. I learned that my ideas had merit. I learned that I was capable of being a creator. I learned that there are applications to the mundane lessons in traditional subjects (try calculating compound interest without the ability to multiply with decimals). But most importantly, I learned to take my ideas, research what I needed to know, and put those ideas into practice. Later on in life, I worked with an after school program that was all about giving kids the space and tools to “explore their interests through the use of technology.” I saw from the other end just how powerful it was for them to hear the same, “Go ahead and try it.” And I saw how kids who were not necessarily excelling in school were learning how to use professional software and hardware to create amazing things. Passion promotes learning.
This brings me back to the point. My kids are doing fine. But they are bright and they are bored. My son (and several of his peers) spent part of his math class on most days reading a book because he was required to progress at the same pace as the rest of his class . When my daughter hits a stumbling block in her homework, she breaks down. Much like me, she doesn’t understand that learning is supposed to challenge you. These are not lazy kids. They are rarely bored. They come home and they create the most incredible things. Sometimes it’s a building in Minecraft. Sometimes it’s a movie they film and edit themselves. They build cars out of shipping boxes, design animal habitats in the backyard, and write their own novels. They’re smart and creative. I want to nurture that, not squash it.
We think our local schools are fine, but we think there might be something better out there. This year we’re going to see if we can find it.
My daughter is going to a regional charter that focuses on project-based learning. I’m a huge fan of of this because it’s less about memorization and more about understanding. Just in the way my micro-society experiences taught me about real-world applications, project-based focuses on using knowledge, rather than just amassing it. Moreover, they put the responsibility for learning back on the kids. Where I spent far too much time last year doing “Pair tutoring” with my 5th grader who was perfectly capable of studying independently, her new school engages kids in creating learning plans for themselves, and then proving progress toward their goals. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to want for our kids?
Charter schools fill by lottery here in Massachusetts and our son didn’t get into the same school our daughter got into. Instead, he’s going even further from the norm. He’s going to try out one of our state online charter schools. It’s a public school with teachers and a set curriculum (and even state testing), but he does it from home with support from an adult, i.e. me. We’ve done a lot of thinking/talking about how to keep up his friendships and give him the opportunity to make new ones.
There’s a lot of change going on for us as we move into the fall. We’re excited and nervous for how it will all play out. I’ll be sharing some of the journey with you.