I loved school. I could never understand why anyone hated it at all. Now, as I get deeper into John Taylor Gatto's book, I'm starting to understand. I was never really exposed to "school" as the majority of kids and teens are. In fact, I can recall only three classes in 14 years - all of which were negative experiences for me. Let me share a little of what my education looked like.
There was little structure and much liberty given to myself and my classmates. Freedom to learn according to my interests, explore the questions I had, and to share the things I learned in meaningful ways.
1. The Paper Airplane Project - My grade 5 independent study project was just that - completely independent. We could choose absolutely anything the interested us. Perhaps influenced by my father who worked in the airline industry, I studied paper airplanes. I devoured books on different models. I built them all and studied how they flew. Then I gathered my research and created an "optimal" airplane based on different criteria. No one else in the class was doing anything to do with paper airplanes. It was my interest and my project.
2. Scrap the Essay - Grade 13 English Literature class, reading the play "A Man for All Season's." The "curriculum" dictated all 30 students read the play and write an essay based on one of 3 topics. As the teacher read the topics, I put up my hand. "Can we do something instead of writing an essay?" My question was not based on laziness or inability - I could have written an A paper overnight. The question stemmed from boredom. "What do you want to do?" the teacher inquired, entertaining my idea. I looked around the classroom, surrounded by students talented in many different areas of the arts. "Can we mount a scene?" Permission granted. Over the next two weeks I directed the pivotal jail scene. Our presentation included actors, set designers, musicians who wrote a score and costume designers. Everyone had been compelled to read the play more closely, research the time period, and really understand the message and themes.
3. Beowulf at age 10 - The inclusion of this text in my grade 4/5 class caused a stir among students and parents alike. It was "over our heads" and a "waste of time". I can still remember my frustration in trying to find imagery in the old English lines. I remember my teacher's frustration when I concluded there was no imagery to be found. I also remember his response, that the colour red was representing blood and violence. To this day I am acutely aware of the use of colour in imagery, and used colour prominently in all my filmmaking. All this stemming from that one lesson.
4. Games during class time - My time spent in grades 6/7/8 included a major game tournament each year. One year was V-gate, one year was Risk, (and the last game eludes me). We spent many hours in big tournaments. We worked hard at learning strategy. We interacted with follow classmates. One year we even designed, built and packaged our own board game, of whatever style and whatever topic we pleased. All during class time.
5. Schedule-shmedule - One of my elementary school teachers realized the futility of learning in hour long blocks, forcing kids to drop everything in one subject in order to start another. (He probably also recognized that we didn't need to respond to the sound of a bell, and that the constant shift in activity might lead to attention deficit issues). Instead, he gave us a blank schedule each week. On the side was noted the amount of time we needed to allot to each subject. Each student could fill in the schedule however we liked. If I wanted to read a book for English all day Monday, that was fine. If I was knee-deep in a science project, I could work on it all morning. The freedom was exhilarating.
6. Go beyond - I wrote my first essay when I was 10 years old. The assignment: to research an ancient civilization - any one of interest to me. Look into its political structure, model of society, the presence and influence of art, and more. But my essay wasn't about Ancient Greece. The topic was: was this ancient civilization more or less civilized than we are today? This meant I was going beyond regurgitation of facts from library books. I had to process what their lives were like, what our lives were like, compare and contrast, draw a conclusion, and then coherently express my opinion. Now that's education.
I bet you're wondering if amid all this chaotic, open, libertarian education I ever actually learned the basics. Well, I read "Les Miserables" at age 13, took Grade 13 calculus to raise my grade average, and wrote several short stories, books of poetry, a few plays and a musical before high school graduation. (I don't say that to brag about myself - just that open-ended learning doesn't mean sacrificing essential learning tools.) For the record, I should also include the three isolated examples of schooling that marred my otherwise exciting years of education. Also for the record, these three experiences were my exposure to what most children are exposed to day in and day in schooling.
1. You know as much as I do - This is how my grade 11 biology teacher introduced herself on the first day of class. She was a math teacher told to teach science, a subject she had barely studied past high school herself. She self-admitedly didn't want to be there, which didn't spark much excitement in her students.
2. Just read it. Grade 13 English. Our class reading assignment was a book dreaded by all high school students. I don't know one person who ever read it that liked it, or found anything to related to in it. I have no problem with "hard" texts (and this one was particularly challenging) but was it this teacher's mission to make us hate reading? Literally, not one person I ever met liked reading this book in high school. Pay attention a little, teacher!
3. I'll read it. Grade 13 calculus. I took it to boost my average for university admissions. The teacher spent 10 minutes reading from the text book on how to solve a problem, then dismissed us from class to complete the pages of exercises. The only class I ever considered skipping, but as we only had to be there for 10 minutes anyway, what was the point in ruffling the administrative powers-that-be with that behaviour? (By the way, my plan to boost my average with this class failed. I went into the exam with a 98%, completed the simple exam in half the allotted time, then gasped when I saw my final grade in the mail 6 weeks later: a 72%??? Yes - that meant I had scored about 14% on the exam. Yeah right. But my wonderful, caring, attentive (ha) teacher didn't notice the discrepancy. I didn't bother with a fight - I was just glad to be graduated).
So now you know what my years of early learning looked like, why I was a huge advocate of schooling, and why I'm scared to think of the schooling my boys might get in the "mainstream" class. I only wish all students could (and firmly believe they should) have the type of education experience I got.