July 2009

Next week at this time I will be on my way to the airport to catch an 8:45 plane to Seattle to visit my brother and his wife, traveling with the three kids, my sister and nephew, on a plane to somewhere other than Texas for the first time in my girl’s memory, no long drive this time, though from Seattle to Dave’s place in Anacortes is another while, will be a long day of travel, then a new world on the other side of the country, one coast to another in one day, one life to another in one day, first time I have been to my brother’s place, he having lived on the West Coast a very long time and me having wished to visit just as long, finally doing it.

While we are there, we will sleep all over the floors and couches, play with the dogs, learn about Dave’s plumbing business and Josee’s singing career, swim in the lake, some will fish, we’ll check out all his millions of projects, things planted, built, raised, his new second place with paddocks to board horses, a house he remodeled and rents, a place to keep his two cattle. We’ll no doubt drive around the place, meet his friends, go out into some new territory my mom and sister who have been to visit before have never seen, and to places they have and we haven’t. I will marvel at my brother’s energy and accomplishments, he will be good to my kids and me, his wife expecting their first baby will be happy and round and we will find some way to celebrate this new entrant to our family, kids will be happy, I hope, though no doubt also grumpy or short with me, and I with them, as is inevitable, I suppose, on a long trip in a new place with a lot of people.

I think about this in the morning and wonder if it is something to write on the blog. Then I think about the name of this whole thing, Living and Learning Together, and I figure this is it, all kinds of living and learning together bound to happen on our trip, every day of the week at home, too, the point I am studying on all year, the learning and living and how they go together, the wondering how they become separated in people’s minds and how to put them back together, my piece writing here and thinking and questioning and observing and writing and taking pictures, reading books, learning to use the computer and the camera, to find time in my day to do new things that make me grow. This morning’s fun is yoga, another thing I have wanted to do a long time, and will be doing for the second week in a row, makes me happy to learn something new. I hope everyone has that feeling and opportunity in life every day and that we can each see it when we do, kids and grown-ups alike.

This weekend the kids and I will spend most of our time at Nunziato Field, me sitting under the tent on a white folding chair, relieved of most of my responsibilities as prop mistress and stilt adjuster, as the kids are growing up, watching the kids hang around in what has become their second home in summer, talking with friends and neighbors, and watching lots and lots of shows, amateur performances by many kids I have watched grow from Tiny Tot Trio to Teen Helpers or whatever the name for the new trainee program Ben joined this summer, my nearly six foot juggler hardly the same guy who somersaulted across a tattered mat in the old circus place we recalled on our drive home tonight, a place off the beaten path with nailed together bleachers and a small stage, backstage the sidewalk and the street.

Tonight was the Dress Rehearsal, went smoothly, gave us time to come home, and watch two episodes of The Office, recover some family time after a week of late nights and long days. Tomorrow night is the first performance, then two on Saturday, one on Sunday, Ben due to leave for Seattle on a plane by himself at 8:45 Monday morning. Growing up is not so bad when it comes to summer, lots of time sleeping in, on the computer, Circus in the evenings, many nights going on the bus, or catching a ride as I finish work too late to do the drive and kids are old enough to be on their own around town, flying cross country alone, some steps gradual, some more sudden.

Fun to watch the three kids sort themselves out over the years of circus classes, one guy focused on juggling and devil sticks improving his skill and repertoire all day around the house, the other guy hamming it up in front of the audience in the miming and commedia d’el Arte, clowning, the girl finding herself in the whole body acts, hip hop, hula hoop, acrobalance. No circus skills so far for me, though many parents do and I may yet, not likely stilting, but maybe hula hoop, another something out of my realm to learn from my kid.

The conversation starts with a five telling us her dad rode to the store on his bicycle to get groceries. I wonder how he carries groceries on his bike. She tells us he has a backpack. I wonder what sort of groceries fit into his backpack. She shows us with her hands the size of the emergency milk that he can carry, adds the frozen corn. I imagine that would be nice, to carry frozen corn in a backpack on such a hot day. She agrees.

The three tells us about her bike which also has a way to carry things, a sort of bucket on the back. I wonder what she carries in her bucket. She tells me it is Curly, her lovey. I remember a book about Pippo and the Bicycle, about a child who wants a bike with a basket for his animal, wonder if the girl knows this book. She does not, but tells me about another book she loves.

Then we talk about her grandmother, who has a sore leg, and went to the hospital, came home, is better. I am glad that she is better and that the doctor could help her. Not the doctor clarifies the brother. Oh, the hospital, I adjust. Yes, that is right, the hospital, he says. I wonder if it is Mommy’s mommy or Daddy’s mommy. This takes some explaining, and the five year old brother of the three clarifies it is Daddy’s mommy. Then I wonder if this is the same grandmother who has a house on the Cape where these two vacationed last week. This mystifies the five, so I ask if it is the same grandmother who has a beach house. This makes sense. No, it is not, that is Mommy’s mommy.

Then we hear about the first five’s vacation and another five’s vacation, one to visit her baby cousin, auntie, and uncle in California, and the Alpine slide they will visit there that is so fun, and the other to visit her Vovo in Brazil, who will surely buy toys.

Happy talk most of it. Our two also tells us, pointing to the back hall behind our table, that the monster sprayed the skunk’s house. He says it with an expression of awe and excitement that draws in his table mate the five, who thinks that would be pretty bad. Awfully stinky, I think, and the two confirms, huge grin across his face.

And now we are ready to go to the park (teachers), but kids are busy with our form of literacy, chosen and directed by them. One five reads to a three and a five on the love seat. An eight reads to himself in a comfy chair nearby. Three fives and a three make pictures and books at the tall table in the kitchen, and the two tells a story on the floor near the readers, pushing two bits of something and pretending about things that go, his love.

And when the five gets tired of reading, Sarah takes over. The story is so long and the kitchen kids so curious, they take a break from their writing and drawing and book making to become members of her audience.

I do believe that choice can work for children. People will often say you can’t mix young kids of all ages together because the older ones will not learn to read. I disagree. Our kids read and write and talk and draw all the time, and we rarely, rarely tell them they have to do those things. We invite them, encourage them, provide books and materials and comfy, appropriate spaces to work, but they choose, and they do learn to read and write, and to talk and listen and imagine.

Contrast encourages me to write this am before I am off to work and look after my kids and family. Still thinking about Gilchrist, the beauty of the place, and my ability to focus on that each moment of the day, wishing each morning and evening to start and end my day with peace, inspiration, hope. Last night I had some time in the house alone, enjoyed fresh pesto made from Sidehill Farm’s basil and garlic scapes, took me back to my garlic scapes in Gilchrist, strong tastes I snipped with scissors into many meals of salad of fresh greens and goodies from my larder. I sat on the porch, enjoyed my city trees and leaves, the breeze, a guitar playing a few houses down, the quiet of the city in the early evening and read my new book Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, updated by Patrick Farenga, bought at the AERO conference, opened at the dentist’s office an hour earlier, to scrutiny by my dentist, who had wondered why I wanted to read a book about homeschooling, she tired, a hard working business woman, Arabic dentist in a lovely office, I wondered what she thought of me and my book, but alone on the back porch Patrick Farenga and John Holt talked to me about compulsory schooling, how children learn, living and learning together words they pair in ways familiar, and that was my time in Gilchrist on my back porch for the day. Then Isabel came home, and she joined me, and we talked, more good conversation about her day, swim camp, circus rehearsal, good food.

Then before bed, I read some more, from an e-mail thread I am on with Lynn Stoddard’s group interested in supporting his agenda of Education for Human Greatness. He is writing letters to public officials, this week an Op Ed, and getting feedback from a group which includes people whose work I have admired, like Deborah Meier and Nel Noddings, and others whose work I may not have known, but whose suggestions inspire and encourage me, make me hopeful that folks are headed in the right direction. This week’s letter is focussing on legislation to create uniform standards throughout the country for math and science, which sounds good to some on some levels, but the group highlights, and I agree, the importance of creating a society and a way of schooling that strives not for uniformity, but for individual greatness, for reaching potentials, for diversity, creativity, joy, imagination, for beginning with the students and teachers and going from there, rather than for starting with a set of standards or a uniform curriculum and making the students and teachers fit the mold.

At the AERO talk, Deborah Meier spoke and inspired and worried me. For the first time I heard her question our system of compulsory education. I had already begun this questioning in the fall as I made the hard decision to send our son to the Sudbury Valley School. Reading the material published by the Sudbury Valley Press I heard the assumption of compulsory education questioned again and again. Watching my child struggle in school, and wishing for him to be released from his obligations there, I wondered if school was doing him more harm than good. I thought about my grandfather, who left school at eighth grade, and of all he accomplished in his life, and of his wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and of Ben, and all he was capable of learning without school, and I agreed to follow his wish to leave public school the first month of eighth grade to go to Sudbury Valley, where students spend their days as they wish. I have not regretted it. I also questioned the wisdom of my daughter staying in school, allowed her to visit the Sudbury Valley School, decided against it with her for the time being, then in December, took her out of school for a week to consider homeschooling, decided against that, too. But as I listened to Deborah Meier, I heard her say that we need to be able to justify keeping our children in schools through age sixteen, that we are in fact imprisoning our children and young people in places that are not always doing them more good than harm, and that if we are going to require them to be in schools for thirteen years of their lives, we need to make schools places where students grow and thrive. This sounded very familiar to me, though Deborah Meier has a different view of the ideal school from Sudbury Valley, she shares their strong views (and mine) about the value of schooling to our democratic way of life, highlighting an ideal school’s potential to help students learn to share perspectives, to be in a community of people and to be contributing members of society, to have opinions, to be able to understand issues and to make and understand arguments related to living a good life and making informed decisions as an individual and a society. These ideas in Deborah Meier’s talk felt familiar and are the things I see my son learning to do in his school that is more like John Holt’s vision of unschooling than like his alternative public school.

And last night, to close the day, I read John Holt’s words describing his path to belief in homeschooling (unschooling). ┬áHe talks about the importance of learning from direct experience and observation of children and of ourselves, of his own learning process of being a teacher and working with students, then of working with adults attempting school reform, of what he saw as the futility of this hope for change within schools, in part, as I understood last night, due to the wish of most adults for children to be coerced to do hard, unpleasant things in school in order to meet the needs of the futures adults see for children in which work is similarly expected to be hard and unpleasant. Then John Holt talks about his realization that homeschooling might be preferable to reforming traditional schools or to creating alternative schools, and about the realization he came to that he could not support compulsory schooling, that students in fact are social beings and might learn best in contexts of family and community, in fact might become more social, and learn more and more joyfully in these settings than in schools.

Which is where I stopped last night and hope to continue later in the day, most likely at bed time, when I will have a chance again to retrieve some of what I had at Gilchrist, of what I have had much of this year, from the time I started learning about the Sudbury Valley Schools and questioning the path my work, my life, my kids and their schooling, our schools and society are all on, I will find time to follow my heart, to read and think and learn about stuff that makes me passionate, my treat for starting and ending the day.

who says childhood is all sweetness? what is it about a collection of patterned scarves that inspires children to become maids who look like babuskas? where did Bunny hide at nap time? how strong and brave do two and three and four and five and six and eight year olds feel when they can flip a stump and handle the creepy crawlies that live in the dark? what instinct or love is it that makes a child covering a doll or a stuffed animal with a scarf or blanket so completely tender? how powerful is a girl twirling fire? can all boys dream and build ancient ruins? how yellow does a tomato have to be before it is delicious?

(photos of the block building taken by the eight year old builder, who only yesterday marveled at how much film I must have to have taken so many pictures. nice to know these are free, though perhaps we are both getting carried away). And, the two best photos of the bunch will not upload, don’t know why!! always more to wonder.

Kids are going nutty in the back room, layering buildings on top of train tracks, fitting homes and people inside of shelves, lining up figures behind doors (almost couldn’t get in). I do love blocks, and stories.

One building is Poptropical, an ancient ruin. Another is a house for a family with two moms, a mom and a dad, or two moms and two dads all married together, depending on who you ask. The other is a house with many levels, with a very large family that rides around in the van and hangs out in a line on the street. My kind of literacy (story).

Kids sure are busy. This was the second half of the morning. Obviously, I was only in one place at one time. Imagine if I could capture all of the action all of the time…fun to watch kids making art, inventing projects, returning to yesterday’s digging and block and train buildings to play some more.

Today at lunch I had the pleasure of enjoying my meal in the company of five young children, ages two through eight, as they discussed bikes. The conversation went on a very long time, which might surprise some people who don’t have this pleasure regularly. The five and the eight talked tech, gears, riding up hills, coasting, which bikes have gears, hand brakes, which kids have which bikes, when each kid learned to ride, training wheels and their pros and cons. The two, who is the brother to the five, was quite pleased to have his new two wheeler in the conversation and listened intently to all the talk. The four insisted his bike has only one wheel. The five and eight said this would make it a unicycle, discussed unicycles, then skateboards, ripsticks, skateboard parks, roller blades, roller skates, roller tricycles. The four insisted his bike had one wheel. I asked if it had one wheel on the front and one on the back. He insisted only one wheel, on the back. And, he learned to ride it right away! The five clarifies to the eight that this two wheeler has no pedals, you push with your feet. The eight tries to picture this. When she finishes her meal, the two who was quiet all through the talk, busy eating many forkfuls of pasta and pouring her own milk, sits in my lap. She tells me quietly that her bike has wheels, too, because it rolls on the sidewalk. Very good for me to know this.

I love talking with kids, love kids talking to one another.

This week my daughter and I talked over breakfast about conversation and imagination and story and literacy. She is eight and going into third grade and tells me often she does not like literacy, that it is not her best part of school, she is more fond of math. For awhile I was wondering what to say about this, tried different things. This week I thought I would tell my girl about the other parts of literacy, how it makes me feel bad when she says she does not like literacy, and is not good at it, and how I think that is not true. She thinks it is true, but when I remind her that she tells stories all the time in her imagination, she acknowledges this to be true. I ask her how much of her life she thinks she is telling a story in her mind, and she says pretty much all of the time. I think that is true. Every bit of her life is filled with story and conversation, or music or action, which is often a story. She had just been telling me about her favorite thing to play and tell stories with of late, a collection of princess figurines dug out of a giveaway bag, given to her by her dad when she loved princesses, and a collection of tiny stuffed animals also out of that giveaway bag. They are arranged in a corner of her bedroom, or tossed across the rug, but in Isabel’s mind, they have lives. I also told Isabel about conversation as part of literacy, and asked if she thought she was good at conversation. This she was not so sure of, but when I reminded her how much I like to talk with her, how much she and her best friend love to talk to one another, of the great questions she asks and the way she can understand my ideas, she could see my point.

The problem for Isabel with school is that the conversations are not very real, she says, always about how a problem on the playground occurred, how it could have been solved, or something like that. And she does not see the importance of stories and imagination in school at all, or at least these things are not a part of literacy. I tried to explain that they should be, that literacy means story to me, and that talking and listening and imagination should be as important as reading and writing, but she was not convinced, nor am I, that these things will get their proper respect in school.

But for this morning I enjoyed the conversations of the children, about bicycles, tricycles, unicycles, splatter painting, Camp Kaleidoscope, the story and imagination of the kids pretending the family game, the talk that organized the dancing and the dancers, the talk right now in the back room of the eight, living in his own imaginary world, talking and walking and arranging figures and props, the four, five, and six in the project room talking about the art they are making. I wonder about how much they are learning, think of my carpool friend from SVS at his summer camp, and the reason he thought the camp was so good for learning, that there are people there from all over the place and you get their perspectives, makes you learn a lot. I totally agree.

Today there is sawing, splatter painting, dancing, pretending, swinging, playing in the back yard. Two big girls are away at swim camp, one boy out for the early morning at gymnastics. All my pictures are blurry. Kids are in motion all over the place. More happiness to capture.

We are camping in here. You have to be quiet cause there are tigers and monsters in here.

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