Accountability, routines, goals…

For the past few months, I’ve pretty much dropped the ball on this project. Now back with reflections on what worked well, what flatlined, and how to come at it stronger this year:

  • Setting goals that are unrealistic (usually for me these are either too big or too vague), and then failing to complete them really sucks for personal motivation. Setting goals that are too minuscule or routine also sucks for personal motivation. Trying to find the sweet spot of challenging yet achievable is really hard, and probably impossible to get right every time.
  • I’m self conscious about what I share online, and that’s prevented me from sharing some pretty interesting things (like my interview with author Mike Males, which was a huge success and goal achievement for me)
  • I don’t want to host an Alternative Education Expo. This goal just dwindled in my brain for a while as something daunting/annoying, so I’ve decided to drop it.
  • Weekly check-ins via Skype with one of my project mentors were essential to my continued work. It’s a little push of extrinsic motivation (wanting to do what I told the other person I would, not seem like I’m slacking, not waste their time, etc) that is useful to me. And finding the 20 minutes to do it is not nearly as hard as my brain wants to say it is.
  • Why I want to do this project, overall, is a mixed bag of ideas including that: 
    • I want a clean way to show other people the products of my ongoing self education, and to demonstrate competency without a college degree.
    • I want to continue learning, and particularly to continue fine tuning my writing skills, reading content that is hard for me to digest and decode, and figuring out how to present what I know to others.

I’m trying to come at this project with more focus, clarity, and motivation this year. Right now what that means is:

  • Thanking my mentors from the past year and reassessing who I want to be helping me in the upcoming year.
  • Reconfiguring my goals, perhaps in a formation that’s less of a climb to a peak and more the building of a foundation.
  • Figuring out how I want to balance including what I naturally learn day-to-day in this project. Right now I am learning a lot at work that is tangentially related to my educational goals, but it’s not all of what I want to be learning.

Playground Politics: Revisited

About a month ago I posted on the differences in play atmosphere at the Philly Free School and at the after care program I work at. I ended my post by stating an intention to strategize new ways of playing and getting involved in play at the after care. Specifically, I wanted to be less disciplinary during play to provide an environment more free for the kids. What a success this has been!
After a full year of very little playground play with this group, my role has begun to flip flop with just a month’s worth of conscientious thinking.

This morning at summer camp with the group, I played an hour’s worth of tag where everything was base for the children and nothing was base for me. I caught on quickly that the idea here was not for me to catch them but for them to delight in tricking me for so long, and I think I played the role well. The entire group was laughing hysterically together for a good long while, and it was hard for them to settle down for the morning’s project. 

It’s amazing to me the way my patience can stretch with some critical thinking. An hour of chasing kids, intentionally not catching them, and being intentionally, hilariously upset about it is pretty exhausting. I could definitely have passed the game off by tagging them, quitting, or saying it was time to do something else (and on a day I was feeling less energetic, I almost certainly would have). But what’s amazing is how rewarding the game actually was, for me, in seeing the young people laugh and laugh and laugh together. I have to remember that every opportunity young people have to play or interact with adults who are respectful, mindful, and not oppressive is a cherished one. That makes it totally worth my energy. 

A Bit About a Book, and the Idiocy Behind Intelligence Testing

Weeks ago I went to the library to get a new stack of books to digest. One from the bottom of my selected pile, which I have now renewed twice (I can never read as quickly as I hope to), recently caught my eye- and I haven’t been able to put it down since. The book is called IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea by Stephen Murdoch. It provides a comprehensive overview of the history of intelligence testing around the world and particularly in the United States. I’m less than half way through with it but have learned a lot even just so far. The book is well written and the information is fascinating. 

For those of you who are perhaps mildly interested but know you’re not going to get around to reading the book, here’s a bit of what I’ve gotten out of it so far: 

  • Francis Galton reads Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and decides he wants to test people’s mental skills to manipulate evolution. He develops eugenics theory and is the first person to try to use mental aptitude tests to sort and categorize people.
  • Alfred Binet fathers the idea of testing mental aptitude by testing higher reasoning skills like vocabulary and abstract thinking after discovering his young daughters can perform equal to adults on tests of sensory skill.
  • Henry Herbert Goddard brings Binet’s tests to the United States in the early 1900s as a way to test people for mental retardation and separate from society those who are deemed retarded. The country believes these people cause crime and prostitution, and that separating them from the general public will help them all. 
  • Intelligence tests are used on Ellis Island to turn back immigrants who are not mentally fit and therefore pose a threat of crime for the United States. This despite the fact that travelers are met exhausted and with huge cultural and linguistic barriers at the time of their testing. The percentage of people being turned back at Ellis Island more than doubles after intelligence tests are implemented. 
  • In 1917 Robert Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association at the time, meets with a group of psychologists to discuss the use of intelligence testing in the army, as a way to help their country at this time of war. They begin this work with the army a month later, sorting recruits by mental ability using two tests (Alpha and Beta, one for the literate and one for the illiterate). 
  • At this time also, the idea of group rather than one-on-one testing is introduced (advocated for by Lewis Terman) as well as the concept of the multiple choice question with just one correct answer (by Fredrick Kelly, dean of education at University of Kansas) 


Sorry, “Sorry”. You’re Not Cutting It.

I believe it a universal hope that schools be a place where students and staff are safe, physically and emotionally. We want little Susie to recite the digits of pi without anyone telling her she’s a huge nerd who will never have any friends, just as we want Max and Maya to be able to understand how to play rambunctious freeze tag without any serious injuries. It is so particularly painful to hear about violence and harassment in schools because we hope for them to be sanctuaries of childlike wonder and freedom, free from harsh cold heartedness.

And yet, we do not teach so many of the interpersonal social skills that young (and all) people need to interact in a way that is kind, empathetic, and thoughtful. In most schools there is not even the physical time in the day to have students learn to mediate interpersonal issues and come to creative compromise, much less the curriculum to help teachers do it. Peer mediators or conflict mediation procedures are nonexistent concepts in the vast majority of classrooms.

The solution we seem to have come to is this tired line – “Say you’re sorry.”

Now, I can see why this is tempting. It’s quick. It’s nonviolent. It seems to require the involved parties to have some sort of communication, and earn the ‘victim’ of the scenario some sort of condolence. It even has an undertone of understanding that one should not hurt other people, and one should feel badly about this when they do.

That being said, I think forcing ‘sorry’ is totally useless. Perhaps we are underestimating the intelligence of young people when we require that they apologize to one another, because I can definitely remember being savvy to the fact that sorry was a meaningless, totally forced reconciliation by the end of first grade at the latest. Which meant that, not only was it not useful, but it lost it’s weight when it was true- I didn’t have different vocabulary for those times when I really did feel horrible for accidentally spilling your crayons, versus the times I had honestly no regrets about taking some of your snack without asking. Hey, it was seriously delicious, and all I had was a stupid apple.

Being sorry means feeling regret, even distress, about our action. It’s true that we would all like to hear our kids say they regret it every time they’ve hit us in the face or tripped their friends on purpose, but we don’t get to decide that for them. Part of teaching emotional intelligence is letting kids come up with their own emotional reactions rather than teaching them the ones we expect.

Usually when conflicts arise and there’s not enough time for mediation, I ask the ‘perpetrator’ to ask the ‘victim’ if they can do something to help them feel better. Sometimes I ask all the kids involved to ask this of each other, if it’s a less cut and dry conflict. Usually the solutions kids come up with are not ones I had in my mind- things like drawing each other pictures, tying shoes, or sharing extra snacks are all conflict resolutions I have seen young people use. ImageThese solutions, while small and often unrelated to the actual offense, are extra valuable because they are brainstormed and agreed upon by the involved parties rather than prescribed by some outer authority. When we force kids to ‘solve’ problems by regurgitating pre-determined conflict resolution lines to one another, we are teaching nothing.


Playground Politics and Principals on Swings

A few weeks ago, at one of my first visits to the Philly Free School, we took an afternoon trip to the park. From the moment we left the building until the moment we returned, curious students asked me questions, requested my help figuring things out, and encouraged me to play and join in with their games.

rock wall climbing and jumping

rock wall climbing and jumping

Whether they wanted me to play duck duck goose or help them jump down from the climbing wall, it was clear that these students were not intimidated by my presence even though I was a new addition to their school. I was overjoyed that it was this easy to get involved with the group and that the young people were so clear about how I could make myself useful to them as a volunteer. I ended up having a great afternoon of running, swinging, and laughing with them.

In contrast, at the after school program I have worked in for the past year, it seems very hard for the students to get grown ups involved in their games or make requests of adults. I have gotten to form some great connections with young people in the program who I care about a lot, but it is only more recently that they have begun inviting me into their games or asking for my help on the monkey bars.

I have tried not to push the matter, since I think it’s extremely valuable for kids to play and problem solve without adult “assistance” where they don’t ask for it. But, after the huge contrast in playing atmosphere at the Philly Free School, I have begun to wonder about how I can make myself more available or useful to the students at the after school.

snow day playground fun

snow day playground fun

My current thinking is that a lot of this has to do with how these two different groups of young people are taught to think about adults. At the Philly Free School people of all ages hold equal power and no staff member has any more right to punish a student as vice versa. Therefore, these students are socialized into a culture where adults are just as much peers, playmates, and helpful people as their age mates are. At the after school program, all of the students attend traditional schools where I imagine many of them learn that they are to respect adults and not bother them. While there are many amazing adults who work in traditional schools, the power dynamic set up is distinguishable even in the most relaxed classroom. When students and teachers play together, the teacher can get the student in trouble but the student has no equal power against the teacher.

Even more importantly perhaps is the fact that most teachers and school administrators do not do much actual playing with their students. I have never quite pinpointed why this is- my thinking is that they are just too tired or have to keep watch over too many children to get on the playground, but I have no memories of ever seeing my teachers actually playing with us when they took us out for recess. The image of the school principal, in their slacks and button down, on the swings or waiting for the slide is almost sadly comical.

swing bliss

swing bliss

When teachers don’t regularly get on the playground with kids, that sets the culture of play being only for the kids. Mottos about the power of play have somewhere along the line been limited to children, when in fact play is useful for all of us.

The playground politics between these two groups of young people, one who utilizes adult attention so well and the other who mostly ignores it, continues to perplex me. In the remainder of the school year I’m trying out some new strategies for getting involved on the playground at the after school program, like not asserting disciplinary authority during play. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Empowerment: Beyond the Buzzword

I have recently been thinking a lot about my career. My internal pondering is not so much about profession- I am fairly sure I want to work with young people in the field of education- but about work environment. I am trying to put a finger on just what sort of a place I would like to work, what sorts of things I value and what I find less important. I juggle the order of importance of salary, job happiness, ease of commute, and so on. One thing I do not juggle, though, is my value of autonomy and power in the workplace. That is to say, I feel it’s quite essential to my intellectual productivity at a job that I be able to try things I think of independently, have open conversations with my boss or supervisor, and give and receive meaningful, constructive feedback. I suspect these are ideals for most if not all career seekers, particularly those who wish to work intellectually and expand their minds.

These wishes, intellectual work and the expansion of the mind, are also some of the primary purposes of the schools we send our young people too. And yet, I do not see these same ideals adults look for in careers being paralleled in schools. If adults are able to recognize intellectual autonomy and real power at the workplace as crucial aspects of a good job, why are these aspects not visible in our schools?

Pass the power!  Photo courtesy of Upattinas School

Pass the power!
Photo courtesy of Upattinas School

Power and autonomy seem closely intertwined in our schools, in that we don’t give students much of either. We strive for both of these things in adult careers- no one likes to feel powerless at the bottom of a hierarchy or voiceless in a sea of bureaucracy. School teachers are often vocal about their loss of control and autonomy in their classrooms. Imagine then, for a moment, the feeling of being a young person in one of those classrooms in which you have absolutely no power. Students do not control the curriculum, the schedule, or the disciplinary process. They do not control when they can go to the bathroom, what they can wear to school, and what they eat for lunch. If the same powerlessness we force upon school children was paralleled in an adult workplace, they would struggle greatly to find employees (although there would be one key difference here- at least their employees would be choosing to attend). So what makes us think this environment is an ideal one for young minds to thrive in?

Offering opportunities for students to speak up, to ask for change, and to address issues within their school sounds great. In many schools this is the purpose the Student Council serves- from this platform students can enjoy some control of things like assembly topics, lunch menus, and perhaps a dance or two without gaining valuable power or challenging school administrators too drastically. There appears to be a clear line between power deemed appropriate to give to students and what should be left reserved for the adults to think about. However, in reality the more involvement in and power over their education we can give to students the more invested in it they become. It’s easier to get invested in something we have some control over, and it’s generally a more empowering experience.

“Empowerment” has become a buzzword amongst more progressive schools recently. I attended one of these schools for a number of my elementary school years. In fourth grade there, I protested a new policy  of the school’s- assigned lunch seats, by means of a petition I got my entire grade to sign. It seems that a school so interested in encouraging students to take action and speak up for themselves would jump to support such an act of peaceful and productive protest, but I was instead chided, punished with a meeting during recess, and unable to make a change to the policy.

Despite this defeat and my disappointment with student empowerment at many progressive schools, there are some places that are doing fantastically. Real power and autonomy amongst students in school is not unthinkable, it’s just not in the mainstream.

Student lead disciplinary committee at the Philadelphia Free School

Student lead disciplinary committee at the Philadelphia Free School

To truly empower young people, we need these schools where students create curriculum based on their interests, where disciplinary issues are handled collectively by students and staff, and where student power extends far beyond student council.

Why I Swapped Your Dream School for No School

In my eighth grade year of school I was given the opportunity by my parents to choose “within reason” what high school I would attend. At an affluent private school at the time, my peers and I were treated to visits by many reputable private schools in the area. The admissions processes for these schools were often much like college admissions- requiring scores from a special standardized test (the SSAT- Secondary School Admission Test), interviews, and teacher recommendations- not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition. My friends and I discussed at length which schools we preferred and hoped to get into, which we disliked, which we thought were too easy. In the end I chose a Quaker college preparatory school in the nearby suburbs of Philadelphia, an area called the mainline.

The school touted a beautiful, collegiate campus with multiple buildings for different areas of study. Brochures featured happy students lying in the grass together, playing lacrosse, and attending swimming competitions with the school’s reputable team. Academically, the school boasted talented teachers, small class size, a huge range of elective offerings, and exquisite college readiness. Each year, numerous students from the school’s graduating class attend Ivy League schools and nearly all attend four-year universities. The school seemed to embody an educational dream come true, for the ticket price of $29,200 per high school year. I enrolled.

It turns out, this school was not my educational dream come true. I found much of the work required to be draining, uninteresting, irrelevant to my current life and arguably to my future as well. I dreaded the unending college discussion amongst peers and faculty; the school seemed to assume each student would pursue a degree at a reputable university and left little room for exploration of other options. Course requirements were set up to create ideal transcripts for college applications, extra curricular activities carefully chosen to round out résumés. On top of all this, I felt stifled and unable to pursue any of the things I was beginning to think might be my own educational dreams- there was little time for recreational book reading, playing with my camera, or attending the yoga classes I was interested in.

Shortly into my second year at the school, tenth grade, I quit.

Whiteboard in one of my classes on my last day enrolled

Whiteboard in one of my classes on my last day enrolled

After reading carefully about educational philosophy and thinking constructively about what my knowledge and career goals might be, I had decided this school did not serve me. I felt, in fact, it might not be serving a great number of the bright and creative students it enrolled. I did graduate from high school at Upattinas School, a democratically run haven of a school in Philadelphia’s distant suburbs. I have gone on to a traditional college, where I am a straight A student. However, since that day I quit in tenth grade, my education has consisted not of dry textbooks or insurmountable homework assignments but of innumerable great books, Kahn Academy math lessons and tutoring, interning with a professional photographer, organizing empowerment events for young people, traveling the country, taking college courses, watching the stars, and so the list goes on…most importantly along this great journey, I have thought a lot about the education system in the United States of America today.

Since I left the restrictive bonds of traditional schooling, my freedom and curiosity in learning has been ignited anew. I read recreationally, a lot– something I never did while in traditional school. I listen to lectures online, write papers for the sake of it, attend presentations where I am regularly the only one under thirty in the room. I have figured out my passions and how to follow them, thanks to the freedom allotted to me in real life outside of school.

Some of my top recreational reading picks

Recreational Reading Picks

I have read and analyzed the works of great education philosophers ranging from Piaget to Kozol to Holt. I have spent hundreds of hours in classrooms and youth programs including public schools, democratic schools, free schools, college preparatory schools, preschools, and after school programs. As I continue to process and evolve my philosophy of education, I thought I might share my thinking with the world on this blog.