February 2009


When I was a girl, my mom was a teacher. She substitute taught, and helped out in the title one room, supporting kids who needed something extra. Then she went back to school to become a reading teacher, won a national award for her thesis studying children’s drawing and writing, in the beginning of the era of whole language. I remember the work she collected from the children, the careful observations and analysis she did of that, and her insight into what the children knew and were learning, all based on their scribbles and their talk.

With her new degree, she taught reading to kids in middle school, I think, in a rural district who needed her expertise. Somewhere along the line, she worked with migrants as a tutor. I remember her describing one little boy with chicken feathers in his hair and another two kids who went to my school, their lives at home things I never would have imagined. When she tired of the nine to five of public school teaching, she moved on to community college work, again supporting learners who really needed her, young moms, students working two jobs and taking classes, some who had not found learning easy or much fun. She taught child development and reading, psychology and human relations, all the things I love now as a teacher she taught before me in her way.

I was thinking about this this morning as I was remembering my life in college, having written the last blog entry about falling in love with education, and remembering one of my favorite courses, which I had failed to mention in that piece, a course I took with Uri Bronfenbrenner, a famous child developmentalist, called Development in Context. I loved that class, found it utterly inspiring and challenging and right on. And I was good at it, too, got a decent grade, and from a teacher I so admired. We read research articles about children and their development, and then we critiqued the research, looking for flaws in the design, for alternate hypotheses that might not have been pursued, for conclusions drawn falsely, due sometimes to the wishes and blindness of the researchers. What Uri kept reminding us, over and over again, was of the importance of the connections between the child’s experience and the context surrounding him or her, of the inner being that the child was at birth, the affects of the genes and the prenatal care, of the mother and father’s history, of the poverty or wealth, the richness or bareness of the child’s existence, of the culture and family and time into which the child was born, of the challenge of teasing all these pieces apart, of making good design and research and drawing firm conclusions, of asking the right questions and looking truthfully for the answers.

That is the kind of thinking I want to remember as I live my life, as I raise my children, envision a school, make my marriage and my friendships, stay connected to my family and my history, head into the next phase of my life. The richness of it all is overwhelming, the details so many to consider, the conclusions so inconclusive, so hard to draw, in real life more so than in research, but the research is a good model just the same.

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I am thinking about what is at the crux of human beings, what makes us alive, what ties us together, gives us our potential as individuals and as a group, what pulls us along and pushes us forward. When I was young, I was Catholic, sat in church each Sunday, absorbed the rituals, let the words flow over me until adolescence, when I began to really listen, sang the songs, felt the goodness and the badness of it all, knew I was part of something larger in the world and in history just by being in a church on Sunday. Then I went to college, found the liberal version of the Catholic Church, the folk songs, priest in birks, social justice work, appalachia, a community on Sunday evening with friends from other places standing together in blouses and shirts, holding hands for the sake of peace, wondering if religion might still hold values I could espouse. And then there was learning and there was science, the bumblebees we studied in Bio 101, through a glass frame, then s gall beetles in a field, noticing how they had burrowed into certain plants, cutting open the galls to reveal the secrets, mapping out on a grid in a field which places had the most gall beetles, riding our bikes back to campus to compile data, do statistics, explain it all in a scientific paper, how the society of insects works, how it fits into the larger world, how science can explain the way things live. And then it was the learning that opened the world that I believe in, not just of science, but of drawing nudes with charcoal, for a prudish upstate girl, of creative writing and stories coming out from within, of international relations and comparative geography, of racism and America and the World Community, of politics and photography, of spanish literature, reading in another language thoughts someone in another culture dreamed, of biology and chemistry and calculus, of psychology and sociology and family studies, rural sociology, wines, education. And education was my love, though the others entranced me, still my love, my favorite thing to think and dream about, as much as I am able. For me, the reason society and people hold together, move forward, make progress or don’t. Or at least the reason I care about, want to think about, tinker with, fix, explore.

What would it be like if people could each and all reach their true potential, if we could achieve peace and justice for all, if we each could determine our destiny unencumbered? Could education lead us there? Could learning and nurturing the development of our children be shaped in a way that would put things right?

Clearly a dream, a fantasy, a wish, but still worth the effort and the energy of getting up each day to be with kids, to think and write and read and reflect with others who care and want to know how to make this generation’s life better, to pull things back from history that might be lost, to find new ways forward in the dark.

It might be that it all boils down to god, or to science, but for now I place my bet on learning, at least for people. I have the immense privilege of spending my days with our youngest, today even two infants in the mix at the bowling alley birthday party. I watched these two baby girls, held by their parents against their chests, reach across the air to touch one another and imagined them friends, playmates, someday mothers. I watched one’s big brother learning to bowl, the other’s brother and sister switch outfits before leaving, one of them the shy new girl who has been holding back, in day care without her baby or her brother, no wonder. I watched my 12 year old son smile and raise his hands to the baby and the baby answer him back with smiles and arms and facial expressions mirroring his, amazing. I watched my 8 year old daughter make a new friend, bowling the last of the birthday party lane’s games together, laughing and smiling and taking turns. Where do they learn all this stuff? How can they do it all together? God, bumblebees, learning? Something is holding it all together, making it work, keeping us alive.

This year music is alive in the day care. We have two living rooms, one upstairs for my family and the after school, one downstairs for the day care. Both rooms are ringed with comfortable furniture, and now on many days, they are full of music. Music is something people often ask about when they visit our program and in the past I have said that was not our strongest suit. I am thinking now it is, only things are not how I imagined. As a learner of music, I sat in music class, tried to read the music and follow along, went to lessons, failed to practice, faked my way along, never really feeling the music coming through me. Other times I remember now were different, singing hymns in church, playing pop music and show tunes on the piano in the basement, singing in the car on drives, lullabies and childhood songs sung to me by my grandma and my mom, even sometimes marching in the band, surrounded by the marching and the trumpets, playing my clarinet as though I knew the song, more part of the band than a player. 

We also have dancing and dress-up this year. For the first time on Friday one of our superheroes wore a shiny yellow dress. Many days in the afternoon a pair of school age girls has played the music on the cd player and the younger ones have joined. The older ones play teens, wearing black hats and shades and cool vests. The younger ones feel the music, moving in the middle, stepping back to watch, trying out their tricks. Our youngest one, whose dad loves music, too, has learned to get this action started in the morning by going to the CD player and bringing me to her. We find something she likes and the others gather round. Below the cd player is a bucket of bells, shakers, and drums. The kids have learned, after many years, to negotiate the sharing. They choose and play and return and play music off each other’s riffs and off the music that they hear. They sit round in the chairs, move a bit in their head or shoulders as they tap the drum, sit on the floor and ping along on the xylophone, or dance with shakers in each hand. It is coming from them, at last. No wonder it has taken awhile for us to get here, to remember that even music is not a lesson we can teach, but another way for the children to make meaning, to feel things in themselves and in their group.

This week after a long break from singing, we began singing in a circle with the kids. We now have two small rockers, two comfy chairs, a love seat, a big rocker, all interspersed with pillows on the floor. When we sang, the children were in this circle and they looked angelic. We sang Here We Are Together, using our names and telling the story of our day. We sang songs that are close to my heart, and which children love, Where is Thumbkin?, Tommy Thumb, You Are My Sunshine, Listen to the Water, another day we sang the lullabies I sang my children when they were babies, Hush Little Baby, You’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The children and I could look into each others eyes, knowing these songs were a sign of caring between us, not a lesson, but a shared feeling of comfort and emotion.

Upstairs the bigger kids are playing music, too. On Thursdays, we have a circle in the living room, no dress-ups or dancing, the instruments are too big. There is a key board in the corner, a trumpet, a violin, a saxophone, a clarinet, a drum pad, an acoustic guitar, various shakers, and this week, a bass guitar and speakers, thanks to the good will of my son’s teacher. A group of boys age 6 to 12 play music, trading instruments, making rhythms, sounding more like music every week. I wonder how they do it, hope it grows.

Tolstoy and the students of his school walking through woods and discussing beauty, Harry Potter in the last book discovering Dumbledore’s dark side, and Hermione’s question of whether what bothers Harry most is his mentor’s failings or his mentor’s failure to share his deepest secrets with Harry, her belief that even in this failing of the relationship there existed love, little warriors and angels and their caregivers, finding ways to know we know and show it, John Holt’s t-eacher and s-tudent in his model s-chool, in their unique, essential, personal relationship of sharing and trust, so hard to find in conventional schools, and what he sees as their ultimate failing, friends becoming closer as they discover one another’s stories and weaknesses, accept, and support them through their doubts and challenges, partners in love discovering layers and layers of life and failings and even hurting one another and going on, hopefully doing better than before, but never perfect.

Something about writing lights up the circuits for me, wakes me in the middle of the night to remind me of the patterns in the day, shines light on stories I hear, heightens sensations, puts me on high alert, makes me a bit high and giddy with supposed understanding. Sometimes this goes along with reflection, other times with jumping to conclusions, only later to be questioned.

All part of the same thing, maybe, getting to know something or someone or oneself, finding patterns, looking for weaknesses and strength, patching and healing and holding the stories, making something whole, creating love where before there was none, or not as much, both for self and other. Amazing powers people have, so seldom used in institutions, though when they are present, so real and bold. So much more common, I think, in homes, in families, in friendships, even between relative strangers on the street or between writer and reader, recognizing one another and providing help, a story, understanding, comfort, company on the journey, another way.

It is a sad and lonely thing sometimes to be a person, to wonder if your story makes any sense, to yourself or anyone else. It is scary to put the story out there, to let your teacher know that what you love is guns, that you are wondering if you will be loved at day care as you are at home, if you will be ok or if you will be rejected. The moments when you find out yes, little by little, they build trust and confidence to go on stepping over the lumpy ground, sliding down the stairs with a friend and stopping, making guns or following the rules, but feeling loved no matter what. And then it is not so sad or lonely when the driver on the cozy streets of Somerville in the beginning of the snowiest February we remember sees you coming and moves over, when the teacher holds you or looks into your eyes and sees your goodness, rubs your back or touches your hair when you are bad, when Hermione lets Harry know that she knows his inner thoughts and when Ron finds that Harry knows his, and when the friend or the teacher or the partner, or the driver or the writer can offer a more hopeful vision, pulling over, backing up, redirecting, next step, happy ending all laid out in a vision shared by both, the loneliness is diminished and there is hope.

That is the model for my school, which I wonder as I write, can it be a school or must it be a family day care, where loving is at the core, if we all admit our honest feelings, where holding children and parents and their stories and even the teachers and theirs is at the center of what we do, can we do that as a school? Can we hold the children, know their parents, build their trust, share our true selves, in a school or only in a family or is there a way to make the relationships and the community that we love right now, that supports us all in living and finding meaning in ourselves and in our daily lives that can be created in a school?

John Holt says no, except in his one ideal example, Nye Lilleskole, from the movie clip I shared earlier, and described again in his book, Instead of Education, instead we must create an Underground Railroad for children, leading them to liberation. Homeschoolers might also say no, a school is not a place for real learning, a family or a home or a community makes that possible in the truest way. Hogwart’s, in Dumbledore’s office or Hagrid’s hut or around the fire of the Griffindor dorm, seems to pull it off, though the adventures outside seem to reveal it, too. Progressives, or alternatives in education have had that hope, if Holt is right, and have tried and pursued the dream and failed, over and over again in history. Perhaps Tolstoy was one of the first to articulate this dream or perhaps others came before. Models like SVS, while the goal is not for the teachers to form relationships with the students, has at it’s core knowing oneself in relationship to others, to a community, and I see it working in my son, who yesterday, when I was tired and worn out as I drove in traffic to the Cape, asked me for the first time I can remember in his fourteen years of life, if I was ok. I think he learned it there, at SVS, or by being allowed to go there, being trusted to take a different path, to look inside himself, to be recognized for who he is, to be accepted, and to look back out and see and to wonder what might be happening inside of me. Of course, lots of us in his life have been leading him on this path since he was born, and lots of things have contributed, and many times we have been derailed, but yesterday in the van, it felt great to be asked and I felt noticed and understood. With him it was  a simple question, with my daughter it is questions, too, and touch. Yesterday she found the back massager at the birthday, and gave her dad a scratch before we left, some times when I am tired or worn out, she even strokes my hair or wipes my tears. I am amazed that she knows these gestures at 8, and then I think of the baby in the day care last Thursday, bringing tissues to the newest child to wipe her nose at the art table where she worked, and the toddler’s ability to go away when she was rejected and come back again with a paper towel, and to accept that even that was not what the new girl needed, and to move on, her own self intact even after the rejection. If even our socially and emotional savant at one can see inside the being of another, can have a stable and lovely sense of self, how is it that in so many places in life there are people who seem not to know, or who have lost their power to connect and feel ok? And how can we build that back into their wiring, see that potential and bring it forth again?

This week I have done caregiving, parenting, spent time with my kids, my friends, with folks from school and day care, with my family, even with my husband (!), alone, working, playing, resting, writing, reading, walking, thinking, driving. I also went to class and learned in a model “s-chool” in the way of John Holt, with teachers and learners who shared knowledge and stories in authentic ways, how to connect, how to understand and help and heal. Living and learning together, still the goal, taking on new meaning every day.

In the very beginning of the snowiest February I remember, I am overwhelmed. This Sunday on a walk to the library with my husband, I could smell again. Just enough warmth in the air to remind me the earth is alive. Today in the yard, three little girls so still in the snow, lying in the bed of powder, eyes closed, cheeks up against one another, two others displaying their holiness in their ways. One made her way bravely, a new girl in the yard, stepping and slipping over frozen things underneath, dropping her lovey, brushing off the stuffed animal’s fur without a tear, passing the thing to me to hold while she moved on to brush the snow off the edge of the porch and taste it’s freshness. Both of us watching the napping three and the one who cared for them, shoveling up snow with tenderness as they rested.

I don’t believe in God. I do believe in children. People. Grown up children who might be angels if they could remember. I am saved.

Two more. Catapulting snow with long shovels over their heads, watching it fall in the sunshine. I ask them to remember not to throw it on the resting ones. They listen and move on. Later, they begin again near the girl tasting snow by the porch. I ask for them to be mindful of her there. They listen, catapult in another direction. Later one is sledding down the stairs. I let him, knowing he is ok. His friend the catapult kid dives in front of him just as he hits the bottom step, and the sledder shouts, hurting the catapult kid’s feelings. I remind the hurt boy that his friend wants to play, worries he will hurt him if he gets in his way. He hears me and the two boys sled together down the steps. Sledding down the steps safely, then they stop. My eyes open a little wider at the power of the kids.

Inside the same superheroes and warriors find other younger ones making guns, breaking laws, toast artillery, duplo weaponry. Yesterday we found a way through, the duplos hide behind his back, I smile, we know we know. No more pretending we are enemies. I hold the warrior in my lap, kiss his cheek, we talk about why no guns, no hurting, feeling peaceful in my home. The warrior tells me no one likes to play shooting games. I tell him I know he does, but that for now, we are keeping things calm, and we are not. Today his bigger boy friend, the catapult kid tells me each time this younger one and another, his brother, shoots a gun, runs in the house. I remember with him when he was shy, when he would not tell me what he needed, milk from across the table, help with the shooters, new mittens. He says he can’t remember, but his friends at the breakfast table remember when they were shy, even the little one who in my memory was never, ever shy, remembers.

On the internet one teacher posts a message to the group with a story about one of our parents wondering how to give her child the things she got from religion, though she is no longer a member of a church. The teacher wonders if we can help. People offer stories of their struggles, finding god in our grandmothers, searching for strength to be a mother to our child, going to the woods. Later I send a message to ask if anyone would like to warm our winter with music, art, coffee, a potluck. Yes, many would. The children dance the next day. They find every instrument. One sings and it is so out of tune it reminds our teacher of drunks on the streets of Mexico. She bellows, holding a small songbook she has made from a random paperback, beckoning her friends to join the caroling. One does and the din is only louder. Another little boy sits and taps a beat firmly against a carved wooden instrument given to us by one of our parents, a professional percussionist, and I am grateful. I am saved.

I am trying to figure out why I want to do this school age thing so much. It feels so important to me, but also so hard. Also, what is it about Alternative Education that feels so compelling? Why does there need to be an alternative? Why can’t I go along with the mainstream? Who am I doing this for? Why does it feel so important?

Sometimes my answers point to my wish to save or protect children and families from things I think will hurt them. Other times I just want to do something in a way that feels right to me. These are two sides of the same coin. If what is mainstream feels wrong to me, it makes sense that I would see the potential for that way to hurt people. If I wish to help (help sounds better, less martyrish or holier than thou than save or protect!) then I might do so by creating another way.

This connects for me to the two ways Alternative Education is interpreted today. I have been warned not to use those words in describing my wish for change, as they imply programming for kids who have not made it in the mainstream. While part of what I want to do is to serve those kids, it is also true that I see Alternative Education as another way of doing things that could do less harm, and more good for all kids and families (and teachers).  

If we want kids to grow up taking ownership of their lives, we should start as soon as we can. If we want children to be creative as adults, they need to play and make things. If we want children to develop all aspects of themselves, social, emotional, physical, and aesthetic, as well as cognitive, we need to provide balance in their lives. If we want children to appreciate the natural world and to take care of the earth, we need to give them time outdoors. If we want children to maximize their potential, not just meet a set of uniform standards, we need to respect the many paths and ways children develop and allow the way they spend their days to meet their individual needs. If we want children to learn to care for others and to find their place in adult society, they must have chances to be with others in caring ways, to be deeply cared for themselves, to be with people of all ages, and to participate meaningfully in the work and decisions that affect their lives and the lives of those around them.

If we want children and their teachers to find satisfaction, humor, and joy in their lives, we must give them respect, time, self-determination, and support to live richly and fully.

I have spent most of my life attached in some way to public schools. I respect deeply the wish of many involved in public schools to provide the best possible lives for those who spend their days there, and especially for those children and young people who like me, have had no other option but public school education. I am disturbed by my own wish to break away from public school life and go my own way. I hate turning my back on an institution that has supported me through some of the toughest times of my life. I am trying to distinguish between the people who have provided that support and the institutions that may need fixing or replacing. I am thinking that may be one way to resolve my dilemma of feeling connected and wanting to be separate. Not sure if others have had similar dilemmas. If so, I would love to hear more. Is it possible to make another way outside the system, to be fair and equitable and true to those who have fewer choices and also true to oneself?