Ignite Passion...Leave School Behind

By Lisa Cooley | Jan 03, 2013

Jackson — Mid-way through my daughter’s first term in 7th grade, she declared her desire to be home-schooled.

She made the announcement the day after she performed the last Nutcracker of the season with the Atlantic Ballet Company in Camden.

It’s always a jam-packed November for us leading up to the show. The Monday after it closes the family takes a breath, re-assesses what we’re doing (and gives a little gasp at how little time we have to prepare for Christmas). That Monday morning in early December, when my husband was driving them both to school, she made the announcement.

She has requested that I not go into detail here; suffice it to say that she was just not connecting to what her teachers were doing. It’s more than partly my fault; she hears me talk pretty much constantly about what I consider the ideal learning environment -- how students should choose their own learning pathways and discover and pursue their passions -- and I can see how that led her frustration level to rise above what she could easily endure.

At any rate, she’s home, and as I’m writing this she’s playing chess with my brother.  (We have lots of learning resources here at home...my husband and I work on her writing, she and I read together and write play scenes, my brother is a math teacher so they have plans to work together, and she’s chosen to learn the Constitution. We’re thinking about a foreign language option and she’d like to start designing houses and making models. Every day opens new possibilities as she explores the freedom of learning that she owns and controls, and there are never enough hours in a day.)

Both my kids have always had an option to homeschool that they are welcome to invoke at any time. My son, a sophomore at Mt. View High School, wanted to be able to enjoy algebra more, so he learns that at home (actually, my brother bears that responsibility). We have the kind of flexibility that comes from luck, lots of extended-family support, and a life designed around poverty-by-choice.  And I love having them home. (Read, “The Homeschooling School Board Member”)

What I want for my district is for every child to have these kinds of choices. It’s not good enough that I can provide for my own kids’ learning. But after nine years on the RSU 3 school board; after doing my best to learn what I can about public education -- about learning, children, institutions, teaching, assessments (formative and summative), learning standards, learning progressions, accountability, creativity, innovation, success, failure, neuroscience, meta-cognition, literacy, numeracy, technology, games, projects, proficiency, competency, mastery, practice, engagement, connection and multiplication -- and then taking a hard look at our own public education institutions, I’m allowing myself to consider the possibility that it simply cannot change.

I recently discovered the concept of “connected adjacencies.” It was conceived with business models in mind. Its creator, Saul Kaplan, says on his blog, It’s Saul Connected, ”Don’t go to war with current models and systems.  Too many are in love with them and you will lose.  Create the future through connected adjacencies.”

He goes on to explain, “Instead of going to war to transform an entrenched operating model, create real world sandboxes right next door in which a new generation of transformative operating models can be explored.” So what the heck am I doing this for?

Public education may not be significantly change-able--except possibly to allow in a fatally flawed system that will take the Common Core State Standards (a state-mandated K-12 course of study that was adopted by Maine in 2011), handcuff our schools to them, and throw away the key. This is the proficiency-based system that you may have some experience with if your children are students in RSU 3.

The proficiency-based system may be a well-meaning attempt to bring some measure of control to students over their learning path. But in reality, it’s an acquiescence to the juggernaut that is muscling its way through public education in the USA. We can hardly remember a time when schools were not held to learning standards imposed by the government -- before the Common Core national standards, we had our Maine Learning Results, instituted in the mid-90s. We barely remember pre-NCLB, when test scores were first attached to school funding and school curriculum contracted and shrunk and our schools became drill-and-kill test prep factories. So now we have the Common Core, and one by one, like dominoes, states are falling down and accepting what seems like the inevitable. We will standardize our children come hell or high water. Corporations are making too much money producing standards, curricula, supporting materials and, of course, national standardized tests, nicely aligned so our children can all be compared with one another, nationwide, like apples to apples.

The theory of connected adjacencies makes a lot of sense, if you are getting a bruised head from beating against the brick wall of the public education system, in an effort to create a system that truly values and respects the desire to learn that lives in each child. I can’t give up on the system...I won’t willingly give up my seat on the RSU 3 school board. As I told unschooling advocate Laurie Couture (http://www.lauriecouture.com) when she urged me to walk away from the system, “I have to keep fighting. It’s like a disease”.

But in these first few weeks of homeschooling Francie, I’m looking ahead to making more connections among the homeschoolers here. I want to start paying attention to what they have been building, right next to our public schools.

I wonder about the kids I’ve seen at expulsion hearings. I wonder about the kids who will never connect to stuff someone else tells them they need to learn. I wonder about kids who believe the lie that good grades are important to their learning. I wonder about all the kids who survive school by figuring out what adults want from them, and giving them that, hoping they won’t ask for more. I wonder about teachers who joined the profession because they love kids and learning, only to find that their abilities are not respected, and all they are allowed to do is deliver the Common Core to their students.

I wonder if we can create a model right next door; one that will explore learning, creativity, and innovation; a place or places where kids from all backgrounds can find their strengths and their passions and pursue the learning that is most meaningful to them as far as the resources of the world can take them.

If what’s going on inside public school building is failing so badly, and the system is giving us a kinder, gentler way of pushing standards into our kids’ heads and calling that progress...let’s build a fire in the vacant lot next door; kindle some real learning, and find a way to invite the whole neighborhood to join with us.


Shameless parental promotion: Francie's blog

Comments (2)
Posted by: Lisa Cooley | Jan 04, 2013 07:24

Thanks for your comment! it's always good to hear that despite my misgivings there are really good experiences to be had at public school. I know my kids have had some good things happen at their schools as well -- and maybe I should have said in my post that my daughter really loved Mount View Middle School. She just couldn't reconcile her dissatisfaction with classes with how much she generally enjoyed being there. Public education squanders opportunity after opportunity to connect kids to the learning that is most meaningful to them, in exchange for learning that they feel compelled to push at them. It's a systemic failure.


Thanks again for commenting.

Posted by: Stanley A Stalla | Jan 04, 2013 05:29

Ms Cooley, Many thanks for your thoughtful article on home schooling, and best of luck as you support your daughter's curiosity and zest for learning.  I like your idea of looking sideways at the sandboxes, to see what others are doodling as a way of garnering ideas.  As I look back on my four children's launches into the academic world, I still remember vividly how un-child friendly those early school structures and experiences were.  I've sometimes described them as "snuffing out the passion and personalities of my kids!"  Though we have been Maine (mid-coast) residents for almost three decades, my children all started their schooling overseas, traveling with their parents as a Foreign Service family.  So, my "snuffing out" comment has nothing to do with Maine public schools, and everything to do with how our "society" -- be it iin America or South America or South Asia or the Middle East -- values conformity over creativity, almost always.  A very pleasant exception occurred when our youngest child came back to Maine, to do her middle school years at Troy Howard.  I loved the way Steve Tanguay shared his love of experimentation and our ties to all natural environment, finding all sorts of ways to educate the mind and spirit.  Thanks again for such a thoughtful article, and best of luck to you.  If you care to have a dialogue (I'm now in Burundi, so it would be long distance), please feel free to write to me at  mainestan@hotmail.com   Stan Stalla

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