The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Friday, May 23, 2014

My Other Job

For the past nine months I've been discovering what it means to respect the "No" of children. It's all Imke Spilker's fault.

An opportunity came up last summer to teach Latin two mornings a week at a tiny "Classical Education" school to kids ages 4 to 14. Thinking it would be fun to keep my Latin up, and not wanting to be a wimp, I rashly stepped forward. I am not a teacher. I home(un)schooled my children for most of their growing years, I've tutored a little, and I taught part-time for a few weeks at another little school before dwindling enrollment forced it to close. None of this remotely qualifies me as a teacher.

It probably seems like a really dumb idea for an advocate of unschooling to get involved in classical education. However, classical education has its merits, and I was quite impressed by some experienced CE teachers who came to our school before the year began to clue us in on how it all works. I won't go it into here, but somehow I developed a nice little fantasy of happy children chanting their chants and learning their lovely learning, eager to grasp whatever knowledge might be put in front of them.

So, here we are, nearing the end of the school year, and what am I doing? I'm unschooling these children. I tried. I had fun ideas, I wrote songs, I played the guitar, I made up chants, I developed hands-on materials. They liked some of this stuff, but as time went by, I realized: this is not what they want.

Just after the school year started, we had a faculty gathering where the principal asked each of us to say something about ourselves which would give an insight into who each person really is. It was a helpful and bonding exercise. Of course I said that the most important, recent thing about me was my discovery of the importance of respecting the horse's "No." Well, I fleshed it out a bit more than that, and I also added some details about a long saga which recently witnessed first-hand, involving some children I know being court-ordered into the custody of an abusive father against their wishes. So, yeah, my thing was... children and horses ought to be given a lot of say in what happens to them.

The school has been very tolerant of me and even asked me to stay on next year. This is likely because, despite my divergent ideas, I managed to get the 7th and 8th graders prepared for the National Latin Exam, and one of them was even awarded a merit certificate (with much less preparation time per week than most schools which take the exam). The other faculty are also just really nice people. However, I'm likely to be moving soon, so I'm opting out of next year. This is just as well, as where I'm headed is probably pretty much over the cliff as far as the school is concerned.

I should stress again that the other faculty are really good people. The kids are happy, and there's a positive atmosphere at the school.  The parents, the board, and the administration have the right to have the kind of school they want - it's not up to me to try to make the place over in my image. However, I can't be with the kids in any way other than that which seems right to me, and if I can't fit in, it's probably best that I leave. Also, given that the other classes are more conventional, this one class that they attend twice a week can't bear the weight of giving them everything they need in the way of self-determination while at the same time satisfying the school's desire to provide Latin instruction.

There are many twists and turns in the story of this past year. But one way into the heart of what has been going on involves the "problem" children. Now, this is a little school where all the children come from functional, devoted families; there are NO real problem children. There are, however, those who make it hard for one's nice little fantasy of education to play out. For example, an extremely bright, precocious boy, easily bored, can't sit still. Or a boy who struggles with reading, easily bored, tunes out what you say, thinks he's "stupid." Such kids can single-handedly undermine any plan you might have for the class. I don't know what the other teachers do with them - I guess they impose "consequences." Or maybe they just know what they're doing. I gave up using consequences and have zero classroom experience, so I'm powerless.

Or at least I was, until... until... I gave up. I'm not sure how it started. Possibly with allowing the 1st/2nd grade class to make paper airplanes. I realized that the old saw, "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile" was false. The truth is more like, "Give them a mile, and they'll only take a couple of yards." I realized that you can relinquish tight control without losing appropriate control. They all listened to me if I only asked reasonable things, e.g. time to tidy up, stop climbing on the furniture. Kind of like kids in real life, as opposed to in school, where normality does not apply.

Precocious Boy and Nonreader Boy are now cooperatively engaged in building a highly elaborate Clash of Clans village. We name items in Latin for the sake of appearances. They are focussed, calm, cheerful, and polite. But before this happened, and after I stopped trying to obtain compliance, we had to go through a period when Precocious Boy spent the class napping in the cupboard under the sink (he's very small) and when Nonreader Boy wandered aimlessly around the room, not quite sure what to do next. The Kindergartners are on a mission to be left alone to decide what they want to do. The preschoolers love anything you give them to make/do, as long as you let them do it their way. I do have some kids doing Latin projects - two girls translating Frozen into Latin (with a lot of help from Magistra), three boys making a board game with Latin prompts. A 7th Grader with an IEP who actually asks to translate Latin! (And does a good job.) For the rest, we throw in Latin wherever it'll fit. I teach the little ones to say, "Viridum cupio, amabo te" when they want the green marker.

The kids have settled into a routine whereby they come into my classroom, help themselves to what they want to work with (duct tape, cardboard, scissors, glue, computer, plastic lids, paper), and get busy. If they become noisy, I can make an appeal involving the plea that I find it personally disturbing, and they quiet down. It is not all sunshine and roses - sometimes they mix glue with sand in huge quantities. Had to put a stop to that. We often take votes on things: should we stop throwing paper planes as this is the second time one has hit someone in the head? (The answer was yes.)

I've discovered Alfie Kohn and his book Punished by Rewards, which details research showing that awards, grades, praise, gold stars, etc. all undermine students' commitment to and interest in the very behavior which the rewards seek to promote. Extrinsic motivation doesn't work. This is a well-researched concept which you can discuss with educators without sounding crazy and which ultimately may lead to serious education reform. Here's hoping. In the meantime, I told the kids that we were doing away with extrinsic motivation. They were confused for a minute until I compared it to your father giving your mother a token every time she gave you a hug. "Good job hugging your son! I like to see that! When you have enough tokens, I'll take you out to dinner!" They thought that would be really weird. And I said well that's how weird it is to bribe you to do Latin.

Several educators I admire have remarked on the same phenomenon which I observed - you can come up with the cutest, funnest, most innovative, creative, scintillating lesson plan in the word, but if the kids have no choice in whether or not to participate, ultimately it's just drudgery. At Summerhill, the lessons are informal, but pretty conventional. Because the kids are free to attend or not, the lessons do not have to be, in the words of the principal, "served up with jam." The kids who choose to attend are happy to become involved in the lesson which is offered.

I've discovered that there are a growing number of "democratic" or "free" schools around the world, many in the United States, modeled after A.S. Neill's above-mentioned Summerhill School in England, which was founded almost 90 years ago and is still going strong. I told one of my classes that it's fine for them to want to play paper airplane wars all day and that some schools would happily allow them to spend their days thus engaged. And that kids from those schools still end up becoming doctors and engineers and teachers and so on. They didn't believe me at first, but I assured them I Knew All About It. I wanted them to know that even if we sometimes ask them to follow our agenda rather than theirs, it's not because our agenda is the only one which leads to success in life.  I could probably find one of these democratic schools and teach there. But I'm not a teacher. I like these kids. If I wasn't moving, I'd want to stay with them.

Intrinsic motivation - how do you find it? I think the hard-to-swallow truth is that if you really commit to intrinsic motivation, you have to commit to a willingness to allow the child to refuse to participate. I think as teachers we can turn ourselves inside out, trying to develop wonderful lesson plans which will fit all sizes and lure each child into interest. Or else we blame the child, or the child's "problem," or ourselves, for their failure to get with the program. It says on the Summerhill website: "As a teacher you are there to do your best and create an attractive atmosphere but definitely not there to 'lure children' into your classroom." It all comes back to Imke Spilker, who says you go out to the pasture, you put a halter on your horse and invite him to come with you. If he doesn't want to, you take the halter off, give him a treat and go find something else to do, like play with your dog. Summerhill gives similar advice: "Since students do not have to attend lessons it follows that they sometimes won't. You should not take this personally....If you find yourself alone then do some creative work, some admin work, pursue a personal interest, or take a break and have a cup of tea or coffee!"

This has been a strange and challenging and humbling year for me. I don't know if teaching will cross my path again in the future, but I'm grateful for this year's experience.

For Teacher Appreciation Week, someone at school arranged for the kids to make bouquets of paper flowers, colored in crayon, and arranged in a paper vase for each teacher. On one of my tulips, one anonymous kid had written, "Thank you for the freedom." I hope Chloe would approve.

P.S. Here's a photo of George looking rather happy to have my daughter spend some time with him.

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