Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finding Balance

Often times revolutionary movements are reactionary (I don't have any data to back that up, but let's just go with it). The People become frustrated with the status quo and when they are sick and tired and had it up to Here, someone stands up and says NO MORE! We know this isn't right, we know there is another way, we know that we can all move closer to this working for more of us. We are now dreaming very loudly in public of a different way; a different world.

Some times we go overboard and dive headlong into the other extreme and that doesn't serve anyone either.

Then we sit back - or are deep in the trenches - whichever you prefer, and watch the pendulum sway back and forth until it comes to the middle.

Some times... if we're lucky.

I am in the middle of some pendulum action right now, myself. I wouldn't even try to deny that I began (might still be) in a reactionary mode to the ills and evils harmful practices of the current model of education. (By "current model" I mean the mainstream way.) It began as a movement against "The System" for me. I find now, however, that while i recognise the shortcomings of the school system, it won't serve anyone if we go all the way to the other end of the spectrum and create a new system that is completely focused on the child/learner. Children have rights, that goes without saying. Learners have rights - this does not go without saying. We really need to put the 2 and 2 together on that one.

What I hope to move toward is the ever-elusive Happy Medium (not mediocrity!) where learners have a voice; have time at the helm of their destiny while they become familiar with driving the ship WITH adults who lovingly guide and help the learners navigate through the tricky spots knowing when to hold on, when to help and when to let go. Like John Gatto, I do not believe that teachers need to be an accredited group. We need deeply passionate individuals who want to be there, who have something to share, and who know about the folding and the holding and the walking away and all that. [Edited to add: Like this fabulous teacher who's blog I read this morning and thought "AHA! Like teachers that!")

We need places of learning - spaces - where learning is directed by children and adults. Because, in my humble (maybe not as humble as it needs to be) opinion, there are so many things children would miss if we didn't gently nudge them into the places we believe would be good for them.

I have spoken to adult unschoolers and free school grads alike and asked them what, if anything, they wished was different. The most common answer I got was that they wished someone had sometimes insisted that they follow through with one thing or another.

You see, even though I believe in the inherent value of democratic education, I also believe there is a place for some benevolent dictatorship. But I believe that the balance is difficult to articulate -even in my own mind. I am, quite frankly, uncomfortable saying out loud that I think some "bossing" needs to happen. (By "bossing" I mean "pushing/encouragement to carry on" or "try this thing that I really think you'd benefit from".) Because I don't trust adults to use that wisely (myself included).

For now, my best version of a happy medium - even as the pendulum swoops dangerously close to my head and my ideals - is to mix the methods by incorporating a structural framework upon which to build curiosity driven, free-spirited learning. Sound paradoxical?

Yes please!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fan Mail!

I've gotten my first "public" response (that is, a person I know not) from the appearance on JCN.  I just had to share it with you as I was very encouraged and touched by the message.

Hello Cian T Sawyer,  Just touching bases with you after seeing you on JCN jus now.  I commend your thoughts and brains.  we need some more of you around here so bad...Keep it up, it will rub off okay...
I am a P.E. Teacher at [A Public School]...
Take Care.....
[Name withheld]

Yay!  There are people out there who resonate with Progressive Education - and they are already in the system!  I feel so positive and hopeful.  (I also know that I'd better hang on to this feeling because not everyone will be so "appreciative" of what I am saying.  Which is fine.)  

*giving a care bear stare to the whole educational system*

Can you feel the love?

The Public "I"

Last night I made my debut as a "Progressive Education Specialist" (as it appeared on the screen under my name) on our local TV station, JCN.  I am still a bit iffy about the term "specialist".  It was the best i could come with on the spot when the host, Etoile, asked me for a descriptor.  Nathan and I back-and-forthed about maybe using "advocate" instead but when we told Etoile, she thought specialist brought more of an air of authority on the subject, whereas an advocate comes across more as a person who simply believes in a cause without much inside knowledge on the workings.

That aside, it was a pretty good first interview.  Even though I was feeling like I did a terrible job after the taping in the afternoon, when I watched it last night (crticizing myself all over the place, though I was) I felt good about what I was able to say (mistakes, blunders and disjointed comments notwithstanding).  All in all, it was not a bad way to start the conversation.

We were able to show the IDEA clip as the intro, which was a perfect frame the conversation.  Then she asked me what Democratic Education was.  She asked me how old it is (90 years at least!) and I told her about A.S. Neill and The Summerhill School.  I mentioned that people are not given grades at the school and then we talked about how the children are assessed without letter grades and/or tests.  I explained the process of portfolio evaluation and peer accountability.  I mentioned that learning is not a sport (a quote I picked up in one of the thousands of pieces of literature I've read pursuing more knowledge and inspiration about progressive education) and that the focus is on allowing a person to be measured up to her own self.  I was happy about saying that because I think it's a very new idea for many people.  Later on she asked if we would have desks and I said no because we are aiming to create and environment that fosters Co-operative learning rather than competitive learning.

She countered saying that people who aren't graded in school will be shocked when they get into the real world where employees are constantly being 'graded' and evaluated.  I responded saying that people who experience self-directed learning recognize that what they put in is what they get out.  And that, because there is a lot of learning that is project and or group oriented there is a great deal of accountability (read: evaluation) by their peers.

She then pointed out that that set up sounded more like "real life" than the other.

We talked, too, about Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences.  I said that we only value academics and in so doing marginalize the other kinds such as musical, artistic, and kinesthetic.   She commented that some of the most highly paid professionals are musicians, actors and athletes and that maybe that was pay back (no pun intended) for them being undervalued in school.  Then I said that "jocks" are highly valued in high school (then Nathan said he couldn't believe I said that!).

I touched on the fact that people who are not academically inclined tend to be discriminated against in the traditional system; giving the example of three children in a give class - one with strong artistic ability (I, unfortunately used the words "good drawer" - eeek!), one with good reading skills and another with a knack for numeracy and the teacher comparing the artist to the reader implying that he was not good enough because he couldn't read as well as Hypothetical Susie.  I went on to say that the beauty of democratic education is that in this case, the learners would all bring their individual strengths together toward a common goal rather than be pitted against each other and/or made to feel inferior because they are not all excelling at everything.  This is a mirror of our adult society where we are currently competing to get more, have more, be more.  In my vision, we would, instead use our individual strengths in a cooperative manner to create a better version of the world we have now.

We soon segued into a conversation about The Village School.  She asked me about the process of starting a school.  She asked me what we had to offer The Bahamian people.  I feel I floundered a bit here as I was completely unprepared for those questions.  I basically said that if we can help a few people to know themselves and their passions we can begin to move towards a more whole society.   Then she asked me to describe three random days in the life of the learners at the school. (!!!!)  This was the ultimate curve ball as I have mentioned before on this blog that it is impossible to tell you what the days will be like because of the real life characteristic of democratic education.  I did pull something together giving examples from my life as an unschooling mom.  I told her about Lauryn's curiosity about making/cooking things and that she wanted to know about making donuts.  I explained that the entire process is multi-faceted learning from reading to measuring to budgeting to buying ingredients to cooking it to eating the fruits of our labour.  Side lesson - donuts have a lot of fat and sugar in them!  Then I said that we might want to learn about sharks on another day because of Ryan's interest.  That this would lead us to the library and to seek mentors in the community who know about sharks - a good reason to be connected to NGO's and businesses as they would give us ways to learn about things in real life without being bound to a desk.

She asked me what I wanted to say that wasn't addressed and I floundered trying to find the ONE most important thing that I needed to say.  After a bit of a false start, I finally closed saying that even in our small island nation we chase after the American Dream of the white picket fence, 2.5 children, two car garage and all that.  I said that this is NOT the way to happiness.  (I wanted to mention that it's not sustainable either.)  That we need to redefine our definition of success.  That joy and passion and loving what you do and knowing your place in the community are the real definition of success.  Maybe you do something that pays you a little or maybe you do something that pays you a lot, as long as you are happy and loving what you do, this is all that matters.   I quoted A.S. Neill saying he'd rather the school produce a happy street sweeper than an unhappy CEO.  For me, this summarises the ethos that informed much of my ideology about The Village School.

At some point earlier, I said that I believe we are all working towards a better society where people are all treated equally with respect of self and others and kindness being values that we hold in common.

I'll wrap it up now by saying that over all I am pleased because I was able to say a few key words, phrases, sentences that I believe will have sparked at least a little bit of a "Hmmm..." response in the viewers.  Which was my intent.

I just wanted people to stop and think and question.  I really hope/believe that I was able to do that.

My deepest thanks to Etoile for allowing me the space and time and opportunity to become a Public I.