So what if just about everything you thought you knew about schooling was wrong. What if the structures, curriculum, behavioral expectations, student-teacher dynamic, daily scheduling, assessment methods and criteria, etc. –what if all of the stuff you had been told was immutable could be different…really different?
In my previous post “Is it a cop out to drop out?” I described my decision to leave public education having become disillusioned with the entire soulless endeavor. The next step for my family was to find ourselves the most beautiful place and the most welcoming community on the planet and restructure our lives to return to balance. We moved to a fairly remote island of 5,000 residents in north Puget Sound thinking we would share parenting more fully and look for a way to secure a modest income that would afford us a simple lifestyle. I was done teaching; that was for sure.
Within a short time of moving to the island, we came into friendship with a handful of parents with 3-5 yr old kids (our own son was 4 at the time.) These families had been hosting a small playgroup for the kids and we started some dialogue about education. Long story short, I was hired to teach a part-time preschool class. This soon grew into the founding of a small one-room school (and my work was no longer part-time). And, as these amazing kids grew over the next few years it became a two-room school and included primary grades.
In those days things were relatively easy. The parents agreed that they wanted a safe and nurturing environment for their young children. Aesthetics were important, natural materials and plenty of time for the kids to play. But as time passed things became much more challenging.
I was a neophyte in the world of educational alternatives and so followed my instincts and employed a smattering of the more or less progressive methods, which I had used in my public school teaching. But parents began having some questions about where we were going. What was the role of academics to be? How was I going to design curriculum? Shouldn’t there be homework? An emerging diversity of perspectives combined with my own desire for answers led me to start some research. I looked on line, I read books and magazines. I visited schools.
What I began to discover blew me away. School did not have to look like I was used to at all! Educators had in fact for centuries explored all kinds of radical alternatives. And the contemporary landscape included homeschooling, deschooling, unschooling, free schooling. Waldorf and Montessori approaches offered radically different ideas about teaching methods and educational purpose, with incredibly diverse spiritual notions of childhood rooted deeply in child development theories that I had no idea existed. I came across the Reggio Emelia approach. Folk education, Foxfire education. There were the Deweyan progressive schools, co-op schools, community schools and open classrooms. Quaker education, democratic education, Sudbury Schools, schools focused on experiential learning, expeditionary learning, place-based education ecological literacy, social justice and there were learning centers of every stripe, that didn’t even ascribe to the moniker of “school.” And, of course, all this was the tip of the iceberg.
I had gone to college, taken educational philosophy courses and plenty of methods classes before becoming a teacher (It seems they mostly focused on classroom management, from what I can remember.) I was certificated. I had worked for a decade in public schools. Why had no one told me about the plethora of diverse ways to understand and approach education? My own ignorance and naiveté was shocking really.
What a period of awakening for me. I had previously been a young idealistic teacher, but had been defeated by the crushing weight of the dominant standards-based Nation-At-Risk-No Child-Left-Behind monolith. Now, having previously left the system in utter disgust and contempt, precisely when I was not looking for anything in particular, I came to find out it was all a huge lie, a hoax. It was possible to educate differently, humanely, creatively. The roof was blown off! It seemed that almost anything was possible. And, at this very point of realization I found myself with a school! Unbelievable. We were in a lovely home-like school site we had just remodeled and I had a small cohort of truly incredible children and parents just waiting for leadership.
I looked in the mirror. I hadn’t planned for this, but look what just fell in my lap. YIKES! Was I up for it?
So what would you do? Could you design a utopian school? Would you want to try? Where would you start? What pedagogy would be your foundation? What Mission? What core beliefs? What methods, what materials, what curriculum? In a future post I’ll continue my story. But I’d love to hear your thoughts.