Not School

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. -- Mark Twain

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

End of this blog

    I have started a new blog, which will include posts about schooling and homeschooling, but will have a broader focus. Some posts will be like the ones here, some will be about my other interests: alternative health / medicine, macroeconomics, a few bits of history, some stuff about our food supply and cooking, and politics.

    To me this all ties together because schooling teaches us not to think for ourselves, not to think critically, to trust the experts absolutely, to purchase services from specialists rather than attempt the work ourselves... in short, it erodes our personal competence. My new blog will be about trying to think for myself and get that personal competence back.

    The first post could've gone here, though-- it's on John Holt's How Children Fail.

    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    A born skeptic

      When my dad was a little kid, as our family tells the story, he never believed in Santa Claus. When he was 3 or 4, and relatives tried to talk him into believing, he couldn't be convinced. Apparently the whole thing seemed absurd, and he refused to play along. I think some of his "skeptic" genes have filtered down into my daughter.

      She did formerly believe-- or at least, it appeared she did-- in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the bunny who brings pastel-foiled Hershey's kisses. But she always had many questions, and it was getting harder and harder to answer those questions. She'd reason: "The Easter Bunny can't be huge because there's no such thing as giants, but if he's little how can he carry the baskets?" Or, out of the blue: "So how does Santa really get in the house? Because no way could he fit down our chimney, and anyway, lots of people don't even have chimneys." Or: "What does the Tooth Fairy want with my teeth?"

      [As an aside, the radio show This American Life, which I dearly love, once asked kids what they thought the tooth fairy did with all those teeth. One kid said she built houses out of them. The interviewer asked, "Why doesn't she just use bricks?" And the kid replied, "Because people don't grow brick teeth!"]

      So, my husband and I have been having these increasingly uncomfortable conversations about various imaginary characters who come bearing gifts in the middle of the night. I've developed the theory that this was a way for parents to give gifts on special occasions without having to deal with any requests or pleading afterward. Santa only comes on the night of December 24th, so if he brings you candy canes and you eat them all in 2 days, well, that's your loss. He's not coming again until next year and it's no use nagging Mom. Quite a tidy solution, really. But I was starting to feel like I was really lying to my kid, and not in a fun way. It was starting to seem like pointless deception which she found frustrating and which required mental gymnastics on my part. I was wondering how long I was expected to keep this up. And I was remembering how, when I was a kid, I pretended to believe in Santa for at least two Christmases after I had caught on, because I was afraid my parents would be disappointed if I revealed that I was in on the joke.

      Anyway, a few weeks back, under intense grilling about the Tooth Fairy, my husband finally cracked. He reluctantly admitted that no, there wasn't any Tooth Fairy. Within about 2 minutes Anya had reckoned that there wasn't any Easter Bunny or Santa Claus either. You might think she would have been disappointed or even peeved that we'd hoodwinked her all along. Instead she seemed relieved, and laughed and gave us a sly look, as in "Good joke and all, but give me a break-- a bunny who hides eggs?" Our claims about Santa and bunnies and fairies actually distressed her, I think. They were inconsistent and bizarre, not to mention that if Santa were real, then why not ghosts, dragons, and mummies?

      And then, a couple of days ago, we had this conversation:

      Anya: I saw this woman that had one of those necklaces on with that cross thing that means, "Believe in a god." [Scoffing noise and eye roll]
      Me: So, you don't believe there's any god?
      Anya: No. I mean, have any astronauts ever seen a god? No! There's nothing up there but the moon, and there's no air on the moon.

      Anya thinks of "gods" in the plural, because her first exposure to the concept of deities came from learning about ancient Egypt. To her the cross means you believe in a god, any god. And so far it looks like gods fall into the same category as poltergeists, elves, and goblins.

      Wednesday, August 02, 2006

      Why schools don't teach economics

      "The inability of the colonists to get power to issue their own money out of the hands of George III and the international bankers was the prime reason for the Revolutionary War." - Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography

      You may have heard it said that all wars are fought over economics. Certainly it is not possible to understand the history of the world without knowing something about economics, and I don't mean the simple concept of supply and demand influencing prices. Macroeconomics makes the world go 'round.

      "History records that the money changers have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over governments by controlling the money and its issuance." - President James Madison

      "Let me issue and control a nation's money and I care not who writes the laws." - banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild [then one of the most powerful men in Europe], 1790

      Yet they don't so much as say the word macroeconomics in most high schools, nor teach any of its principles, not even in history class when it is of critical importance. They tell you what GDP is, perhaps, but it's more of a vocab term than anything. Most people are never introduced to global economics in college, either.

      Here's one of the open secrets that are carefully not taught in the public schools: where our money comes from. I don't mean physical paper and coins. Of all the US dollars in existence-- in people's savings and checking accounts, in cash registers, in money market accounts and CD's, and sitting in foreign bank accounts-- of that enormous total, only around 6 or 7% actually exists as paper and coins. Most money is just a line in a spreadsheet somewhere. And even if you're holding a piece of paper, it doesn't represent anything concrete. It's not tied to gold or silver. Money these days is just zeroes and ones.

      The total Amount of Dollars increases over time. For one thing, the US population increases, and much of the time people are also growing wealthier. That means the Amount of Dollars (known as the money supply) has to increase, too. More obviously, there's inflation: that $2 loaf of bread used to cost 10 cents; so there must be more money floating around now. Presumably the American government "prints" new money to accomodate the growing economy, right?

      The Constitution would give a hearty "Yes!" to that question, but alas, the Constitution has been routinely ignored on this point since shortly after the Revolution. The US government does not make new money. The private banks make new money-- and they make it out of thin air.

      There are two ways this magical money creation occurs. Both of them are difficult to believe.

      Here's the first way [note: I edited this example in response to emtel's corrections in the comments; please see comments for further info]. Let's say I deposit $10,000 in a savings account. The bank can loan out 90% of what was actually deposited in its vaults. Thus, by repeated loans between various accounts and banks, they can multiply that original deposit by a factor of 10. I don't know how they decided on the 10 to 1 rule, but it's been that way since the 18th century. So, I put in my $10,000, and the bank can turn around tomorrow and loan $9,000 to my neighbor Joe. Joe then takes his loan and buys a car, and the car dealer deposits $9,000 in his account.

      I've got $10,000 and a deposit slip to prove it. The car dealer has $9,000 and a deposit slip to prove it. $9,000 just got conjured into existence because some loan officer entered the numbers 9 0 0 0 into the system. Bam! 9 big ones, out of nowhere. And, on down the line after a series of such loans, and the banks could be holding deposits of close to $100,000, all originating in my 10K deposit.

      And now Joe's paying the bank interest on that loan. You know... because the bank did all that hard work coming up with his $9,000. I sure wish I could conjure money and then loan it to people with interest-- whoo boy, I'd be rich fast!

      If the banks do this too much, of course, they flood the country with too many dollars and each individual dollar starts to be worth less. This is called inflation. People also use that money to buy tons of goods made in foreign lands-- buying way more, in fact, then we sell to them, because we Americans are so cash-happy. This is called a trade deficit. Both inflation and the trade deficit are now getting out of hand, which in this case is due to credit card and mortgage lending which definitely got out of hand. The banks have been grossly irresponsible, and it isn't going to end well. We may likely see the collapse of the dollar. The rich won't mind, of course, because their money isn't in dollars.

      The second way money comes into existence is when the government needs money. Let's say the government wants to spend more money than it's taking in. Let's say they're short by a billion dollars. The Constitution says they can simply create a billion dollars at will because they control the money presses. But J P Morgan says otherwise. The 1913 Federal Reserve Act which created the privately owned "Federal Reserve" says otherwise (the federal part is meant to be funny-- ha ha ha!).

      What the government actually does is they print Treasury bonds, which are government IOU's. They print Treasury bonds-- just pieces of paper, really-- and they take them over to the Federal Reserve Bank on bended knee and beg the Fed to please buy the T-bonds so they can have their billion dollars.

      The Federal Reserve is, let me say again, not a government entity, but rather a cartel of private banks. JP Morgan Chase owns the largest share of stocks (not that you can buy any stocks in the Fed, because it isn't publicly traded, naturally). JP Morgan Chase and Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs and the Rockefellers and some foreign banks all own the Fed. Yes, the government appoints chairmen and governors, but the appointees are bankers themselves, and in the end it's the banks that have to 'abra cadabra' the money into existence. As I said, that whole "Federal" bit in the title is just for laughs.

      These private banks take the government's IOU's (T-bonds) and give the government money, charging them interest. You will see, if you pull out a paper dollar, that it reads "Federal Reserve Note" at the top. John F. Kennedy attempted to introduce an actual government currency tied to silver, under sole control of the US government, known as United States Notes. He did this by Executive Order. They started printing this true US currency, but Kennedy was assassinated some weeks later, and LBJ reversed the executive order and destroyed all United States Notes. President Lincoln also tried to introduce a true US currency, the Greenback, but I guess we know how that ended.

      Not only do the banks control the issuance of new money, but the government owes interest to the private banks, because they've had to give them interest-paying Treasury bonds just to get their hands on some cash. It's exactly like my neighbor Joe owing interest on his $9K car loan, even though all the bank had to do was wave a wand. This interest the government pays on new money is a major reason we have a national debt. Have you ever heard someone say we owe that debt "to ourselves"? That's BS. The taxpayers owe that money to JP Morgan Chase and their ilk, because the private banks are the only ones who can issue money, and then they charge us for it! They charge us for doing what the Constitution says only the government can do.

      The banks are stealing from us, individually and as a nation. They are flat out robbing us.

      "The few who understand the system, will either be so interested in its profits, or so dependent on its favors that there will be no opposition from that class, while on the other hand, the great body of people, mentally incapable of comprehending [these] tremendous advantages...will bear its burden without complaint, and perhaps without suspecting that the system is inimical to their best interests." - Rothschild Brothers of London communiqué to associates in New York June 25, 1863

      "It is well enough that the people of this nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning." - Henry Ford

      You might ask what happens when the people come to the banks and request money, but the banks refuse. What happens if they won't make any more money?

      From 1929 to 1933 the money supply, the Amount of Dollars, shrank by a third. Milton Friedman blamed the Great Depression on this lack of money; he blamed the Federal Reserve. If there isn't enough money entering the system, people can't buy things, and the economy can't recover. Some people will tell you the rich bankers did this intentionally. First they threw money around like it was water throughout the 1920's, and then when their cash-happy bubble burst and money was desperately needed, they clammed up and gave America the cold shoulder. This allowed them to buy up other people's assets at pennies on the dollar. It allowed them to steal land gotten through foreclosure, foreclosure caused in part by their own misuse of the money supply.

      "Capital must protect itself in every possible manner.... Debts must be collected; bonds and mortgages must be foreclosed as rapidly as possible. When, through a process of law, the common people lose their homes, they will become more docile and more easily governed... by a central power of wealth under control of leading financiers." - USA Banker's Magazine, August 25 1924

      "If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations... will deprive the people of their property, until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered." - Thomas Jefferson

      What a singular success for the wealthy elites that knowledge of macroeconomics is not considered a necessary part of being "educated". The robber baron fathers of the public schools have made sure almost none of us know that we're being robbed blind.

      Friday, July 28, 2006

      Why we don't use a curriculum

        [This post started off as a comment I left on Hawksbill & Barbnocity's blog....]

        Most of the unschooling families we know use some kind of curriculum, albeit on their own schedule, and with modifications. I asssume that non-unschoolers are even more likely to use curricula. But I've been very resistant to the idea.

        For one thing, I don't believe in an academic canon that every educated person should know. The world is a gigantic place, and any canon is necessarily limiting. The idea of "universal knowledge" has historically been used for elitist and exclusionary purposes, particularly by the 19th century aristocracy in their attempt to cling to privilege in the face of the "new money" merchant class. I also think that defining the "important" knowledge is inevitably ethnocentric when it comes to history, geography, politics, or the arts.

        I've also accepted that my kids are going to specialize in certain fields long before they ever get to college, which means a curriculum could only ever be supplementary. When we first decided to homeschool, I read every homeschooling blog I could get my hands on, and for a couple of weeks I was freaked out. I would read about a 9-year-old obsessed with astronomy, a 13-year-old Shakespeare afficionado, the 8-year-old who loved algebra, etc, and I would conglomerate all these talents into one imaginary Genius Homeschooler. Eventually I realized that homeschooled kids have freedom to pursue their interests, and they retain more of their natural desire to learn, therefore there is no way they're all going to learn the same set of facts and skills. I had to let go of my old schooly idea of "education" as one particular set of knowledge, everything else being merely a hobby. I began to realize that my kids would know more than other kids in a few areas, and less than other kids in many areas. Just like adults. Who decided specialization shouldn't occur until college, anyway?

        I do encourage math and reading, but I see those as tools we are picking up along the way, not as the main topics of study. Anya can read words like "heart," "brain," and "caudal fin" because she's obsessed with her books about fish; other words and true reading will follow because they are useful to her. I've told her numerous times that scientists use a ton of math, and if she's going to be an icthyologist she'll need to keep learning math. These tools get picked up while she pursues her own particular interests, and it would be a lot harder to teach these things in any other context.

        I believe that learning is the weaving of new data into a sort of mental narrative of the world, a narrative which is unique to each person. This web of accumulated knowledge is most efficient if it is allowed to develop organically, using whatever connections come naturally to that person. A curriculum organizes information on your behalf; it draws connections between topics on your behalf. And if today's Study Unit is ancient Egypt, that discourages you from going off reading about the domestication of cats or the Aztec pyramids, because that would mean interrupting today's lesson.

        I am constantly noticing how everything relates to everything else. Recently Anya asked me about Canadian money; then we talked about why no women were on American coins; I explained that men have more power now but that was not true 30,000 years ago; then we Googled Queen Elizabeth II, which led to more Googling of famous crowns, scepters, and jewels; which took us to geology and mining, and touched on economics (rarity = higher value). Oh, and Persia came into it as well, as their crowns put European crowns to shame. I don't want to interfere with this intense linking of concepts (and neurons) which I witness on an hourly basis. Even the most Waldorf and informal curricula still imply that "Now is the time to discuss X, we'll get to Y later..." which is in some sense preventing connections from occurring.

        I know that unschoolers use curricula mostly for suggestions, but it seems to me that if you follow a kid's stream of consciousness you wind up touching on most everything. I can barely keep up with Anya's curiosity-- I don't need suggestions!

        Wednesday, July 19, 2006

        Some Anya quotes

          Yesterday the kids were playing together, getting riled up and being silly and laughing hysterically. Then it sort of died down, and from the other room I overheard this:

          Anya: You're a pretty nice baby, aren't you.
          Tristan: Uh-huh!
          Anya: Yeah, you're pretty nice.
          Tristan: Uh-huh!
          Anya: You're not a very smart baby, I'm sorry to say.

          I had a good laugh at that one....

          She uses this new tone now, best described as "let me break this to you gently." She used that tone a few weeks ago when we were getting ready for a family party at my parents' house. My dad had been outside doing some last-minute yard work and getting chairs out and so on, and he was still wearing his old grungy clothes. Anya came up to him and saw the holes in his jeans, and said: "Pop, those pants look really good on you, but I'm not sure they would be polite to wear to a get-together."

          And a few days ago I was brushing my hair and she came into the bathroom and said "Mom, you look beau-- well, you look pretty good." Gee, thanks, kiddo! =)

          Thursday, July 06, 2006

          Deschooling math

            This morning Anya and I sprawled on the floor with the Magnadoodle and I wrote out a math problem: 12 + 14, written vertically. We haven't done math in a month, but there was a brief time when she could do two-digit addition. In fact, she did a few pages worth. She'd draw a vertical line to separate the tens and ones, and add each column separately.

            But this morning she couldn't remember how to add 12 and 14, and I knew why. I had known all along that she wasn't understanding the tens and ones places, and she didn't see that 12 + 14 is just 10 + 10 + 2 + 4, or 20 + 6, or 26. She certainly didn't see that our vertical addition algorithm is nothing more than a short-cut for this regrouping process. So of course she didn't remember it. It takes more than three or four worksheets to memorize an algorithm that makes no sense to you.

            Interestingly, this morning she did attempt to break the numbers down into parts that were easier to add. She divided both 12 and 14 in half, and tried to add 6 + 7 + 6 + 7. Unfortunately, she was then stuck with 13 + 13, which got her nowhere-- but it was the right idea.

            Then she told me she was going to write down the "close answer" (close as in near). She said "It won't be exactly right but it's the close answer." And she wrote 24 underneath, because she knows two dozen is 24 and since 14 is close to 12, the answer must be close to 24.

            We did another problem, 35 + 43, and Anya tried to figure it out by determining how many fives there were in 43 and then trying to count up from 35 by that many fives. She did count that it took eight 5s to get to 40, but got frustrated by not knowing what to do with the 3, and somehow that idea fizzled out.

            All of these attempts (and other variations she tried) required more thought and more advanced math, such as dividing 43 by 5, than if she had remembered the cookbook rules. If kids memorize those rules too early, and spend their remaining time on mere quality control (speed and accuracy), this prevents them from understanding math. But most classrooms aren't designed for allowing the natural logic of arithmetic to be discovered. Math manipulatives are often used in early grades, but when "the rules" must be memorized before many kids are developmentally ready to deduce those rules or truly understand them, the manipulatives thing becomes lip service. Kids will learn to get the right answer the same way that I make my car run without knowing a thing about the engine. Follow the rules and forget what's happening inside the black box-- just like working the assembly line, not coincidentally.

            Going back to this morning-- at another point we were playing with marbles. I made a grid of 12 marbles, in 3 rows of 4, and showed it to Anya. If you look at it that way, it's obvious why 3 x 4 is the same as 4 x 3. One way it's 3 rows of 4 and the other way it's 4 columns of 3, but it's 12 marbles either way. (This also comes up with legos: is it a 2 x 4 piece, or a 4 x 2 piece? Either way it's got 8 dots.) I also showed Anya why 3 x 3 is called "3 squared," since you literally make a 3 by 3 square. Anya got some marbles and quickly figured out that she couldn't take ten marbles and make a multiplication problem using 4, because you can't make even rows of 4 with exactly 10 marbles. (I resisted using the term "divisible," since it won't sink in until she's run into this issue a number of times.) And a while back, she figured out (by playing with plastic circles cut into different fractions) that you can't make a fraction equal to one half unless you have an even number of pieces, which means the number on the bottom has to be even.

            In contrast, I don't think I understood multiple-digit arithmetic until at least three years after I had, as far as the school was concerned, mastered these concepts. One day I was thinking about dimes and pennies and I suddenly realized what borrowing and carrying were all about, that it was simply a matter of changing in too many pennies or changing a dime for needed pennies. It would have been a lot easier to have had that revelation at the start. Another example: it was only in the last year that I realized why the area of a right triangle is 1/2 the base times the height, and that is the simplest thing imaginable. A right triangle is always half a rectangle, and what's the formula for the area of a rectangle? Duh. It's embarrassing, but see, I had no trouble memorizing the formula, and then I just never thought about it again. I'd see a right triangle and "1/2bh" would leap to mind, and that was the end of that thought process. So, at best the rules are unrelated to real understanding; at worst, they prevent real comprehension.

            One of the more common questions voiced by those who don't homeschool is the whole "What about math?" thing. I suspect they believe memorization and repetition is the only way to learn math because, again, the rules don't make any sense and can't be arrived at organically. I suppose this is why most people hate story problems: because story problems make it harder to determine which set of memorized rules to apply. They try to make you think about the concepts involved, but many people never had a chance to grasp those concepts.

            Tuesday, July 04, 2006

            Death by a thousand conversations

              I'm someone who believes that in general, you shouldn't ask kids to do something unless you have a good reason. And that you should be willing to explain your reasons to them, for their sake but also for your own sake. I'm an Alfie Kohn devotee, and I believe from my own experience (and Kohn's books) that external motivations, i.e. threats and bribes, don't work well in the long term. So, I explain, and I explain, and I explain.

              And because we're unschooling, whenever Anya has a question, I explain... and explain further. She's a chatterbug, and I'm sure that this is helpful long-term, because she learns a lot from our conversations.

              But I get bone-weary from all this discussion. How do tornadoes happen? Why can't you make a cake out of only sugar and eggs and milk and no flour? What do spies do? What's a war? Oh, and could you make sure your answer is understandable to 6-year-olds, avoid anything scary, and condense your response to no more than 5 sentences?

              After a while my brain goes numb.

              Having given you that context, I had what you might call a 'parenting failure' today-- hardly a rare event, I admit. It happened like this:

              Me: Anya, you've been out of the bath for a half hour, will you get dressed, please?

              Anya: Why should I?

              Me: Because we don't want your butt showing all day.

              Anya: I think I have a cute butt.

              Me: You do have a cute butt, but I don't want to look at it all day.

              Anya: So don't look.

              Me: Listen, will you just put on underwear, at least? As a favor to me?

              Anya: Will you just do me a favor and stop asking me to put on underwear?

              Me: Someone might come to the door, you need to at least have underwear on.

              Anya: Okay, if someone comes to the door, I'll run upstairs and put underwear on.

              Me: Look, it's not normal to go around naked all day, all right?

              Anya: Well, it's normal for me!

              Me: You need to wear some clothes. People wear clothes for a reason.

              Anya: Like what reason?


              Oy vey.

              Sunday, July 02, 2006

              A different sort of learning

                Even though I consider myself an unschooler, there are times when I get antsy because we aren't doing daily math and reading lessons, or because Anya used to know where all 50 states were and has now forgotten half of them. For instance, my husband's relatives from down south are coming up to visit, and I find myself wishing Anya were reading.

                At times like that, I have to remind myself of all the stuff Anya's learning that doesn't "count" as learning in a school setting. Stuff she learns because she's with me all day, and can ask questions whenever they pop into her head. Stuff like:

                • What a "chain reaction" is
                • How to count using 4 vertical scratch marks + one diagonal mark, in groups of five
                • What an electrical outlet "adapter" is (e.g. one that converts 1 plug into 3 plugs)
                • That the water should be boiling before the noodles go in
                • What hit points, armor class, constitution, and charisma are (for you DnD fans)
                • How soccer is called football everywhere on earth except the US
                • What weddings and wedding rings are all about
                • What ear mites are (in cats)
                • Why hot and humid is worse than hot and dry
                • That heavier letters need more stamps
                • What a gift card is
                • What abstract art is
                • Words like violet, teal, chartreuse, army green
                • The Chinese symbol for "rain"
                • What "hold your horses," "fit as a fiddle," and "you're a goner" mean

                There are probably 200 other figures of speech I could add to that last item, if I could recall them. Lately Anya is fascinated by idiomatic expressions, and will stop you and ask questions if you happen to use one. Also, her choice of words is getting more creative, and often sounds strange to adult ears. She was dialing a phone number the other day and said "Mom, I can't remember how it goes... could you direct me to the numbers?" Or, when she was painting: "I made the symbol, and then I put my style around it." I made toast one morning and she called to me: "Mommmm-- the toast ejected!" She has a decent vocabulary, which is no surprise since she talks to me All. Day. Long. But I don't get to call that "teaching," and if I measure against a traditional school curriculum, creative word choice doesn't count for anything.

                Anya spends a lot of time watching her goldfish, captured bugs, bugs outside, birds in the yard, etc. She's absorbing a lot of information about animals, but not necessarily the kind of data you can form into multiple choice questions. I've learned a lot, too, including that science texts and our society in general tend to underestimate animals (including young humans, while I'm on this topic). Many insects, for instance, wash themselves in a manner that is not unlike a cat washing itself. They rub themselves all over with their front legs, including brushing off their antennae. Who knew? (Non-insect bugs don't do this, as they are dumb as a doornail in my experience.) And our goldfish are affectionate with each other. I am sure there is a scientific explanation for the fish remaining within an inch or two of one another, even though we have a 5-gallon tank; and for brushing each other with their extra-long tail fins. It's a schooling instinct, or perhaps it keeps the algae off their scales. I am sure there is also a scientific explanation for the fish zooming through the shower of air bubbles from the bubble wand at the back of their tank, then shooting through the rock tunnel and back into the bubbles again, one following the other. There's just more oxygen above the bubble wand, and they like the rock tunnel because they instinctively seek shelter. But Anya and I know that the fish enjoy each other's company, and that they play together. You'll never read that in an academic book, since academics have a positive terror of being accused of anthropomorphizing. (My father-in-law, a consummate academic, once accused me of anthropomorphizing when I was talking about a human being.) So, Anya's learning that you can't take a whole species and collapse it into three sentences in a biology text. Those texts are very useful, and we look stuff up in books and online all the time, but there is also the wonder of the natural world, which can't be scrunched into "Chapter 4: Aquatic Vertebrates." I count this as learning, too.

                But I still wish Anya could read. I just can't help it.

                Tuesday, June 20, 2006

                Destroying summer vacation

                  I ran across an opinion piece today, in the New York Times, which introduced me to the notion of "vacation homework" during summertime:

                  Last summer, for example, students at one charter school in the Bronx were assigned 10 book reports, a thick math packet, a report on China including a written essay and a handmade doll in authentic costume, and a daily log of their activities and the weather.

                  These were kids who'd just finished first grade.

                  And that daily log of activities-- yeah, so the school can snoop on your family all summer long. I don't think I could stand it. Possibly I'd keep a parody of a log myself, and have my kid turn that in:

                  June 23. Had a lovely breakfast with Father before he departed for work. Studied spelling words until 11am, tidied my room, made sandwiches for lunch. Took darling little brother out to the sandbox to give Mummy a bit of a rest. Jogged, did a few math problems, and set the table for dinner (delicious and healthy-- thanks Mum!). Read Dickens until 8:30 and then off to bed. Another blissful day!

                  I mean, what happened to privacy? Do the parents all get to read the teacher's daily log for the summer, too?

                  The NYT piece goes on:

                  And what about high schoolers — just a little light reading to ease teenage angst? One ninth grader we know was assigned a packet of materials on the Holocaust. Another must read a 656-page book on genocide, on top of three chapters of a science textbook followed by a 15-page take-home exam, prepare a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation and complete an English assignment involving three books and essays.

                  The authors point out that kids need vacation time to reduce stress, but even if we restrict ourselves to purely academic goals, kids still need down time for "consolidation." Consolidation is a psychologist's term for the period when recently acquired information gets woven in with what we already knew, linked up to our prior knowledge, and is therefore retained. If you never get a resting period where consolidation can occur, all you have is short-term memorization. In my opinion most of school relies on short-term memorization. Possibly this is why the "skills" students supposedly learn are so fragile and transient that they don't make it through the summer: because they keep you so ludicrously busy that there's no time to ever consolidate the new data. In any case, more homework isn't the solution.

                  Actually, homework is highly dubious even during the school year:

                  In fact, there's serious doubt about whether homework has any benefit at all. Most studies have found little or no correlation between homework and achievement (meaning grades and test scores) in elementary school or middle school. According to Harris Cooper of Duke University, the nation's leading researcher on the subject, there is a clear correlation among high school students, but he warns that "overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades."

                  . . .

                  In fact, most experts believe reading is the most important educational activity. Yet a poll released last week by Scholastic and Yankelovich found that the amount of time youngsters spend reading for fun declines sharply after age 8. The No. 1 reason given by parents: too much homework.

                  Yes, it's hard to get an education when you're living with ever-present schooling.

                  It seems to me that parents should band together and refuse to have their kids do any of the summer homework. If even a quarter of the class did that, they'd have to make some radical changes, and those kids would get a real summer.

                  A good old-fashioned work stoppage is what's in order.

                  Monday, June 19, 2006

                  You call that reform?

                    I wandered over to the National Education Association's website today, and found this:

                    NEA advocates for public school reforms that we know make a difference in boosting student achievement. Among them:

                    • free, universal preschool
                    • smaller class sizes
                    • a qualified and caring teacher in every classroom
                    • a challenging curriculum
                    • ample resources for all public schools, including those that serve poor and minority students
                    • involved parents

                    Wow. That is the most gutless, uninspiring piece of milquetoast I've seen in a while. The only new idea is universal preschool, and here the alleged benefits are not supported by research data. Children in poverty do benefit from pre-kindergarten education, but that's why we have Head Start. Some middle-class children may experience a slight academic benefit, but also tend to be hindered in their social development. And kids with highly educated parents do better, on the average, when they don't attend preschool at all.

                    The rest of the list are no-brainers. It's like a politician who says he supports More Jobs, Less Crime, and National Security. It's a pointless thing to say. It gets us nowhere in terms of real action. Sure, the NEA supports smaller class sizes. Who doesn't? The NEA supports ample resources-- what a novel goal!

                    How about these ideas:

                    • Stop using standardized tests.
                    • Fire a third of all school administrators.
                    • Use mixed-grade, mixed-age classrooms and lots of peer tutoring.
                    • Eliminate token economies, de-emphasize grades.
                    • Buy some houses, set up tiny neighborhood schools, stop spending millions on busing.
                    • Give students more autonomy over pacing and scheduling of subjects.
                    • Allow 10% of school time for kids to pursue their own academic interests.
                    • Build, say, four-week apprenticeships into the high school calendar.
                    • Stop making kids listen to other people reading out loud!!
                    • Let kids read the books they want to read. Set them loose in the library.
                    • Give parents and students some actual say in the classroom (not mere lip service).
                    • Respect students' first amendment rights.
                    • Make classrooms more comfortable. Don't tolerate bullying, allow healthy food/drink, let people take a piss without asking permission (for crying out loud!).
                    • Stop using history textbooks. Throw. Them. Out. Replace them with real history books.

                    At least that's an interesting list, even if some of the items would be hotly debated.

                    The NEA is apparently just like the Democratic party. Presumably benevolent, and the vessel for a progressive person's hopes and expectations-- but, for the most part, an enormous rhetoric-spewing disappointment. I don't think these people could drop the management-speak if you held a gun to their heads.

                    The amount of money spent on busing is absolutely ridiculous, and it's going to get a lot worse as we continue to run out of petrol. The problem is, you can't set up tiny little schoolhouses and maintain age segregation. And yet, eliminating age segregation is somehow too shocking a proposal to even be spoken aloud. People apparently believe that teenagers eat small children, if not closely supervised.

                    Furthermore, the number of school administrators per teacher has doubled since the 50s. This is a reversible problem.

                    Tens of millions are also spent in each state on constant standardized testing. So much is spent on the tests themselves and on the consequent additional administrators that I have to question whether it wouldn't be cheaper to forfeit federal funds, and just give the bird to NCLB.

                    * * *

                    A decade ago, I used to believe that there were simply an enormous number of morons out there. There were oodles of well-meaning idiots who would see the light if only we could sit them down and explain the truth to them. But now I think that when a system is failing, it is usually failing on purpose.

                    The reason we have almost 50 million uninsured Americans is that then, no matter how hideously bad and absurd your HMO becomes, you remain grateful to have any insurance at all.

                    The reason we don't have safe ports, safe nuclear facilities, safe subways, safe airports is that another 9/11 would benefit the glinty-eyed fascists within the current administration.

                    The reason they didn't save New Orleans is that they didn't want to save New Orleans. They wanted to destroy the Democratic and black metropolis within the red state of Louisiana, and they did so through intentional neglect. This was not a failure. This was a hidden agenda.

                    And the reason high school graduates are so ill-informed and unable to think critically is that K-12 education was designed by the robber barons to prevent true education and critical thinking. The schools aren't failing at all. They are succeeding in their historical mission-- in spite of the teachers who swim against that tide.

                    And the NEA surely isn't going to change that.

                    Tuesday, June 06, 2006

                    The Sickhouse

                      Someone needs to educate Connecticut educators on the concepts of infection and contagion (link):

                      WATERBURY, Conn. --A doctor's note may not be good enough for city school children who are absent because of illness under a tougher attendance policy under consideration by the Board of Education.

                      Routine illness, even with note from a physician, would no longer be considered an excused absence under the policy proposed on Monday.

                      The policy would excuse health-related absences only if a student is hospitalized or presents proof of a "serious chronic illness," such as diabetes or asthma.

                      The proposed policy was drafted by a committee of teacher, administrators and others, headed by Michael Yamin, an assistant principal at Kennedy High School.

                      "We now are looking for school to be the priority," Yamin said.

                      Best of luck next flu season.

                      Sunday, June 04, 2006

                      Thomas Jefferson on education: Part II

                        I found a great short essay about Jefferson and public schooling, similar to my last post but considerably better. It begins:

                        One advantage of interpreting the words of those no longer with us is that it is frequently possible to imply they said what we would like them to say. In that regard, no Founding Father is cited more favorably by the public school establishment than Thomas Jefferson.

                        Probably the most often cited is his statement, "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." That is not a statement about schools, of course. One can be educated without being schooled. One also can be schooled without being educated.

                        In 1814, Jefferson made a clear distinction between the two as he said, "I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies."

                        I've been writing about Jefferson because I sometimes see it implied that homeschooling is unpatriotic and antisocial. This isn't something I hear personally, but it shows up in mainstream media articles on homeschooling, as in the Time article. "Well, the Founding Fathers were in favor of sending kids to school, so you must be wrong," is sometimes written in between the lines. Homeschooling research generally indicates that homeschooled kids enjoy superior academic and social growth, on the average. Therefore, barred from more concrete criticisms, journalists sometimes fall back on giving a sniff of disapproval and dragging the Founding Fathers into it, as if they too would have tsk, tsked about homeschools. In fact, Jefferson wrote in 1780:

                        If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.

                        If I went around claiming that Jefferson fought for state-funded voluntary homeschool co-ops in every five-mile square, where every kid would get a total of 36 weeks to learn, with some tutoring, whatever they felt like pursuing within the language arts or mathematics, I would not be far off.

                        Furthermore, schooling is just one means of educating the public. A diverse and free press is also a very important mechanism (and one which we no longer have in this country). Jefferson wrote:

                        No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. (In correspondence to to John Tyler, 1804.)

                        The most effectual path to the truth is the free press, Jefferson wrote. Not schools. He also wrote that "The only security of all is in a free press," and "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press." School might insure that all men could read, but it wasn't schooling that would protect American democracy. This is really quite obvious, since schools can't tell you about the latest referendum or political candidates. And nor do today's schools, with their "One Authority" approach to teaching, help graduates to decide what they believe when they encounter conflicting claims.

                        Our public school system did not originate with Thomas Jefferson any more than atomic bombs originated with gunpowder. Some weak chain of historical events could be drawn back through the centuries, but it wouldn't mean much. The fact is, this really wasn't what Jefferson had in mind. And even if he would have approved of our K-12 system, all the schooling in the world won't help democracy one whit, in the absence of decent newspapers.

                        Wednesday, May 31, 2006

                        Thomas Jefferson on education: Part I

                          Way back in 2001, Time ran the cover story Is Homeschooling Good for America? It's a hideous piece, all in all. But there's one particular excerpt that I wanted to focus on, because it mentions Thomas Jefferson, and schooling proponents just love to cite Jefferson. Time made this claim:

                          Thomas Jefferson and the other early American crusaders for public education believed the schools would help sustain democracy by bringing everyone together to share values and learn a common history.

                          I've been reading some of what Jefferson actually said about public education, over at this compilation of Jefferson quotes, and I read him very differently. From what I've been reading, I'd call the above quote an outright lie.

                          For one thing, they're invoking Jefferson's authority as if he would have supported the current K-12 system we have now. In fact, his plan was to provide 12 weeks of school per year, for just 3 years-- less than 8% of the amount of schooling we require now. Secondly, based on what he thought students should be reading, it's clear that he didn't think schoolteachers would be teaching reading from scratch. You don't go from learning the alphabet to reading historical, legal, and philosophical texts in a mere 36 weeks. Clearly, Jefferson depended upon parents for at least introductory learning, and he had good reason to assume parents were up to the task. At the time of the American Revolution, roughly 90% of the population (excluding slaves) were literate. And very few of these people had ever attended a school.

                          Additionally, it might surprise those Time journalists to discover that Jefferson was explicitly against compulsory schooling:

                          It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father. (Note to Elementary School Act, 1817.)

                          He also defended individualized education:

                          The general objects are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. (Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782.)

                          Reading all this, one can only imagine his horror at our current system of forced mass education. Yet Time has no problem citing Jefferson in defense of the current public schools and in criticism of home schooling, which I find dishonest.

                          In stating that Jefferson wanted us to learn "shared values and a common history," Time is falsely attributing to him the motivations of later public educators. Certainly, more recent proponents of public schools had such goals in mind, such as the early 19th century Prussians, who used schooling to assimilate the populations of their newly conquered territories. Later in the 19th century, America also used schools to assimilate immigrants and Native Americans, often with such violence that it is no exaggeration to say that schools were a means of cultural warfare. The robber barons who created public schooling as we know it in the early 20th century also had the intention of creating a uniform, conforming, docile populace, one steeped in "The American Dream" and the American creation myths of Columbus, Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower, etc. Even more recently, Canada and Australia used schools as cultural warfare against their aboriginal populations, well into the 1970s. Both Canada and Australia now face the possibility of tens of millions of dollars in reparations to minority families whom they tore apart, taking their children away to be "educated" in the ways of the white man.

                          This history provides the context for the phrase "to share values and learn a common history." It's a potentially fascist goal, and one with little to no respect for local differences or a truly pluralistic republic. It was not Jefferson's goal, and to say it was is almost slanderous. Thankfully, we know his goals, in his own words:

                          The objects of... primary education [which] determine its character and limits [are]: To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing; to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment; and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. (Report for University of Virginia, 1818.)

                          To characterize that as the pursuance of "shared values" and "a common history" is to make something up out of whole cloth. A more accurate summary of the goals would be: 1) to know the law, one's rights and obligations; 2) to elect "delegates" (politicians) wisely and to demand fair representation, and 3) to run one's business intelligently. (I am reminded that, at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, early American money was imprinted with the slogan "Mind Your Business". ) The requirements of the fledgling United States were that the common people, who had been entrusted with unprecedented rights and governmental participation, would know what they were doing; that the law would be respected; and that the economy should be strong. Pretty basic stuff, really.

                          Another quote characterized his goals thusly:

                          In the [elementary schools] will be taught reading, writing, common arithmetic, and general notions of geography. In the [district colleges], ancient and modern languages, geography fully, a higher degree of numerical arithmetic, mensuration, and the elementary principles of navigation. In the [university], all the useful sciences in their highest degree. (In correspondence to M. Correa de Serra, 1817.)

                          I'm not seeing history in here anywhere, except in that he did say once or twice that if students were going to improve their reading, they might as well read historical texts, as that taught them what might happen in the future. As a rule, if you couldn't prove a subject's practical utility, Jefferson would have said it should not be taught.

                          Jefferson's pragmatism shows up elsewhere. One of the reasons he championed publicly funded education was that, to put it simply, he wanted more trained scientific minds than any other nation, in order to close the gap of expertise which he felt existed between the United States and her more established competitors. He wrote:

                          The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (In correspondence to M. Correa de Serra, 1817.)

                          In other words, there were brilliant but destitute men who-- in England, Spain, or France-- would see their talents go to waste, but he intended to cultivate these talents and put them to use for the betterment of the country. Again, this was totally utilitarian, geared mostly (as I read it) toward the advancement of the hard sciences and technology. Jefferson had little tolerance for the teaching of the arts, conceding only that music was a respectable amusement for those who had an ear (but shouldn't be attempted by those who did not). He called fiction "a poison" and said it was dangerous to read most poetry. So as I say, I view him as a man of science, above all other intellectual pursuits.

                          In fact, Jefferson viewed the American experiment as the natural outcome of scientific and rational thought, and wrote that "Freedom is the first-born daughter of science" (correspondence to Francois d'Ivernois, 1795). He wrote that "Light and liberty go together," (correspondence to Tench Coxe, 1795), and by 'light' he was referencing the scientific and rational Enlightenment. The first American penny was illustrated with a sun with long rays, as well as a sundial-- another allusion.

                          I also mentioned technological advancement. It seems that Jefferson was against enforcing a well-rounded education, finding it preferable to allow students to pursue one particular vocation to the highest level of understanding possible:

                          I am not fully informed of the practices at Harvard, but there is one from which we shall certainly vary, although it has been copied, I believe, by nearly every college and academy in the United States. That is, the holding the students all to one prescribed course of reading, and disallowing exclusive application to those branches only which are to qualify them for the particular vocations to which they are destined. We shall, on the contrary, allow them uncontrolled choice in the lectures they shall choose to attend.... (In correspondence to George Ticknor, 1823.)

                          So, consider all this: Jefferson's dogged pragmatism, his emphasis on the practical sciences, his insistence on parental rights, his respect for individualized education, and his own stated goals for primary education. Does this sound like a man concerned with the soft (and softly fascist) goal of "shared values"? Where do these Time people get off, throwing around the ghost of Jefferson without comprehension or respect?

                          [Next post: Jefferson on the relative importance of schooling vs. a free press in insuring an educated populace.]

                          Thursday, May 25, 2006


                            I hope to return to regular blogging soon, as I recover from what I'll call mom burnout. Not homeschooling mom burnout, because frankly we've not done that much that's educational recently-- I'm talking plain old mom burnout, where you feel like "Okay, if we can't do X or Y or Z without winding up with an exorcist-style tantrum and the older child simultaneously crying, then we're just going to STAY HOME and watch TV all day and forget it."

                            I know the stuff I'm dealing with is the same stuff all moms deal with, which is why I've so far resisted posting a whining burnout diary. It's just normal stuff: fish emergencies, eyeglasses missing a screw, tantrums, sandals that need exchanging for the correct size, stuff due at the library, constant requests for pizza, and pants that have mysteriously shrunk 6 inches in length (surely Anya couldn't have grown that fast!). That's the list so far today, as of 9:15am. (Oh-- and I've got to send that gift to my friend who had a baby a couple of weeks ago. Now we're up to three separate errands for the day and it's supposed to thunderstorm... sigh.)

                            Over the past 14 months since we decided to homeschool, I've been amassing all kinds of plans and ideas. Homeschooling blogs and The Unschooling Handbook and my own family all provide oodles of great educational ideas. And here I am with a toddler whom I cannot take across a parking lot without reserving 10 minutes for the resulting tantrum (because I didn't let him run around on his own, touching all the cars). The thoughtful folks at our local library put benches just outside the door, which have been useful as a place to hold my screaming 32-pound child until he can forgive me for carrying him across the blacktop, and settles down enough that we can enter the library. Afterward we have to wait again, this time in the car, until the tantrum subsides enough that I can get him strapped into the carseat. By this time, after trying to get books and videos while chasing Tristan around and after the two requisite tantrums, I am ready to go home and stick them both in front of the TV for a while.

                            I know, of course, that Tristan is 23 months old and that in another 6 months my life will be starting to get much easier. One of these days, he will accept the idea of walking across parking lots while holding my hand. One of these days, he will allow me to use the computer without having to play him the Pixar Cars movie trailer every five minutes. Anya and I will be able to play games without him wanting all the checkers, dice, dominoes or whatever. Art projects will be do-able because he won't be shrieking at his lack of access to Anya's paints. Negotiation will be possible, and I'll be able to get certain concepts across to him, like sharing and taking turns and the meaning of "Okay-- in just a minute".

                            Assuming we get through these 6 months with everyone's sanity intact, I've got big plans!

                            Sunday, April 30, 2006

                            Stop me if you've heard this one before....

                              I found this hilarious bit over at Our Unschooling Adventure, and since it's the kind of thing that travels rapidly all over the Internet, I hope it's okay to copy it here. Okay, so here it is:


                              How does a homeschooler change a lightbulb?


                              First, Mom checks three books on electricity out of the library, then the kids make models of light bulbs, read a biography of Thomas Edison, and do a skit based on his life.

                              Next, everyone studies the history of lighting methods, wrapping up with dipping their own candles.

                              Next, everyone takes a trip to the store where they compare types of lightbulbs, as well as prices, and figure out how much change they'll get if they buy two bulbs for $1.99 and pay with a five-dollar bill.

                              On the way home, a discussion develops over the history of money and also Abraham Lincoln, as his picture is on the five-dollar bill.

                              Finally, after building a homemade ladder out of branches dragged from the woods, the lightbulb is installed.