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Learning at its Best

Bridges: An Un-School Dad and a Public School Teacher

“Does fence have an e at the end?” Joel asks me.
“Yeah, why?” I ask.
“Then it’s not following the rules. It should be pronounced feeeeenced instead,” Joel says with a multi-syllable long-e sound. The day before he was upset that tomb and bomb didn’t make the same sound. So, I explained comb just to see how he would react.
“I agree.”
“But it’s not following the rules.”
“Language isn’t about rules. There are trends, but not rules. You can say that words ending in -e usually make that sound, but it’s still a description. Think of it this way, how often do I wear orange?”
“Almost never.”
“But is it a rule? Can I still wear orange?”
“When you wear a Giants shirt,” Joel points out.
“You’re right. It’s not,” I tell him.
“When do you follow the rules and when do you get to make your own?” he asks.
“That’s a great question that few people ask at my age.”

So we talk about rules and language.  It’s an uncomfortable topic for me, because I am bothered by how rules-based the school system is.  I want him to think critically and I’m convinced that conformity isn’t the best option.  I consider, at various moments, taking him out of school and choosing a home-school or un-school route.

Sometimes that last statement shocks people.  They’ve heard me rail against those “outside the system” trying to tell me how to run my classroom.  I admit that I need to be more specific.  What bothers me are corporate reformers hell-bent on buying my students’ minds.  I’m against Bill Gates trying to transform schools with a top-down approach and no input from teachers.

I’m good friends with several un-schoolers.  Often we avoid the topic of education – not because it’s uncomfortable, but because we’re talking about social issues, world events, novels or music. However, there is one un-schooling dad that I hang out with regularly.  Both of us have learned a great deal from one another.  The conversations haven’t always been “nice.”  We both get really passionate.  However, the tone is always respectful.  He’s never called me a prison-guard-slave-driver-child-abuser and I’ve never called him a negligent-uppity-head-in-the-clouds-hippie.

How He Influenced Me

  • He reminded me that kids need to move.  Initially, I was up for intellectual freedom, but I had a hard time with the notion of free movement.  He reminded me just how hard that can be for any human.  These conversations led to my standing centers and a change in our class rituals.
  • He helped me to see that choice is not the same as freedom.  He has pushed me toward more freedom.
  • He pushed me to see that personalized learning should be something all students experience regardless of perceived maturity, skills or mastery of standards.
  • Specific strategies: how to truly pull off the workshop model, how to guide children in self-directed projects, what it means to give formative feedback through reflective questions rather than judgmental phrases
  • He has pushed me to redefine holistic teaching and to get into the homes of teachers, understand the community better and take on an attitude of humble service toward parents.
  • He pushed me to back up my beliefs with my practice.  If I believed that there should be no standardized tests, no homework and no codified lists of rules, I needed to act on it.
  • He introduced me to un-schooling, de-schooling and home-schooling authors like John Holt

How I’ve Influenced Him

  • I helped him to grasp the reality that not every child is like his child and not every child comes from a similar background with similar parents.  For some kids, home feels like a prison and school feels like a place of freedom.
  • We both recognize that the real enemy is coercion, but there were some moments when I pushed him to recognize ways that he was failing to act upon his beliefs as a parent.  I pushed him to rethink behaviorist tendencies he had (just as he pushed me to give up many of my control-oriented approaches I used in the classroom)
  • I helped him to see that the issue is the system rather than the people who work for the system.  Blaming teachers or even principals denies the ways in which people are working to transform the system.
  • Specific strategies: how to implement project-based learning, what inquiry-action-reflection cycle looks like, ways to engage in social justice and critical thinking.
  • I pushed him to recognize that sometimes public school teachers have some great ideas to offer as consultants on an age group.  I admit that I don’t completely understand first-grade behavior, but my son’s teacher has a viewpoint that is sometimes helpful.
  • I introduced him to Paulo Freire and other education authors who understand social justice
My Hope
My hope is that if two people from very different systems (and, human as it may be, un-schooling is a system) can have conversations over pints and coffee (though not at the same time), this place can be a home to such conversations.  I’ve seen groups ban members who provided an alternative perspective.  My hope is that we embrace the alternative, whether the alternative is happening in a classroom or the living room. 

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


15 thoughts on “Bridges: An Un-School Dad and a Public School Teacher

  1. What a fabulous and honest post John! Thank you.

    Posted by Amanda Enclade | October 3, 2011, 10:31 am
  2. QUOTE:
    My hope is that if two people from very different systems (and, human as it may be, un-schooling is a system) can have conversations over pints and coffee (though not at the same time), this place can be a home to such conversations.

    This is exactly why I am so excited and honored to be a participant in the Cooperative Catalyst discussions.


    Posted by kidzmet | October 3, 2011, 11:50 am
  3. Brilliant piece, and such an important topic, especially in the US, where dialogue as become so difficult across a great many divides.

    In your setup discussion of language and rules, you missed two important points that I think your son (and your students) would benefit from seeing as part of the frame for these kinds of questions: when you say language is about trends, not rules, one of the most important aspects of language awareness is to point out historical shifts and trends, and another is to talk about borrowings and lendings among languages. False cognates provide great illustrations of the latter (look up the Spanish “bizarro,” for example), and the varying slang meanings of “hot” and “cool” illustrate the former.

    Posted by Fred Mindlin (@fmindlin) | October 3, 2011, 1:07 pm
    • I have those conversations with students and I’ve delved into that a little bit with my own kids (especially with regards to the evolution of “cuss words” and the arrogance of labeling common speech as “course” and “vulgar”). I’m just now starting to point out the linguistic roots of words. It’s been fascinating to see how someone as young as six years old responds to this.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 1:13 pm
  4. Thanks! I’d love to hear more detail from your conversations with this dad.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | October 3, 2011, 3:57 pm
    • Maybe I’ll add some of the conversations. It’s one of those tricky things of feeling like I need permission to share another person’s voice in “my” space. I often write about Javi the Hippie or Quinn the Business Bohemian because they’ve given me full freedom to share. My un-school father friend is a little more reticent (and rightfully so — he points out how slow it has been for home-school parents to gain their rights in this state).

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 3, 2011, 6:59 pm
      • Like talking about our children. We might all have an urge to share but need to find a way to do so with their permission and/or with respect for their privacy.


        Posted by Nance Confer | October 4, 2011, 4:33 pm
        • True. And sometimes I might cross that line. Definitely something to think about as they get older.

          Posted by John T. Spencer | October 6, 2011, 9:04 pm
  5. John,
    Those conversations over coffee and beer, is where real learning happens. I heard someone at a conference once say, “when we brought the university system across from England, it was developed on the idea of going to a gathering place and listening to a lecture, and then going out afterwards to the pub and discussing and dissecting the just aforementioned lecture, except in America, we forgot the going to the pub part.”

    I think that is where we have to get to, even though you are not an un-schooler, and he is not a public teacher, the topics and learning from one another that has happened, is my hope too and I believe, is the hope of most people of this world.

    Posted by caseykcaronna | October 4, 2011, 12:15 am
    • Teaching and learning are common. They transcend culture. They are human universals. If we can remember that, we have a shot at a decent conversation.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 6, 2011, 9:09 pm
  6. Thanks for writing about this. In fact I’ve been trying to find the time to write a post about the same subject—how can I, a nonteacher and unschooling parent, help transform schools? The discussions I’m finding at the Co-op are stirring things up for me (and my teacher-husband) in a very positive way, and I want to jump in with my own questions and observations. Despite the obviously warm, welcoming atmosphere here, I’ve hesitated just a little, wondering how a nonteacher such as myself might be viewed. I recently read a Harper’s article (“Getting Schooled”) in which teacher-author Garret Keizer states, “Like a war-wounded veteran unable to give his full trust to anyone who has never experienced the traumas of combat, I can find it hard to respect the opinions of anyone who has never taught school—not only in matters of education, which is reasonable enough, but also in matters of philosophy and politics.” I can appreciate the sentiment, but when I read it, naturally it also led me to wonder about discussions I’ve had with teacher-friends and discussions I would like to have here at the Co-op. This post of yours was the lift I needed. Many thanks!

    Posted by Mindy | October 4, 2011, 2:42 am
  7. John,

    I just love rules like, “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’”, which, of course, we throw out the door for even more exceptions. We break “rules” every day because the rules are mostly hokum.

    When does one have the “authority” to break the rules? I think it is when one finally exclaims, “¡Ya basta!” Enough is enough!

    Whether one considers education, teaching, democracy, the economy or other subjects, it is difficult to get to the point where one strikes out on a different path. This is especially true for children who have plenty of “rules” to adhere to – adults make certain of that. They also face the force of their peers who, collectively and individually, will do their best to assure they remain in line.

    No matter what we may think, we adults are little different from children when it comes to “following the rules”. We have, or at least we exercise far less power, agency and decision-making ability than we would like to think. It is easier to “go with the flow” than to break free from the pack. That “pack” need not be that of one’s class, professional or occupational peers, or family. The pack may simply be our personal knapsack, filled with goodies we learned as children.

    I hope you and your friend continue to cross-pollinate (or perhaps cross-contaminate) one another’s ideas. Keep up the good work.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 4, 2011, 7:45 am
    • I just recently watched “The Reader” and was haunted by the sense of “I was just doing my job” and “what else could you have expected me to do” throughout it. To me, the ambiguous picture it painted is what makes morality, truth and context so confusing.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 6, 2011, 9:08 pm
  8. “We both recognize that the real enemy is coercion, but there were some moments when I pushed him to recognize ways that he was failing to act upon his beliefs as a parent.”

    Careful. Now you’ve started to edge into “radical unschooling” territory, where all that freedom matters in the rest of your life too.

    Good for both of you. And your children. 🙂


    Posted by Nance Confer | October 4, 2011, 4:28 pm
    • I have never felt very radical, but I’ve been accused of it within the walls of the school. To me, radical implies a lack of nuance and openness. I’m beginning to think openness and nuance are actually pretty radical.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 6, 2011, 9:06 pm

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