fearless education

There are good things about public schools. It's great for kids of different backgrounds to be together, curriculum coordinators and adventurous teachers come up with great learning activities, and the Common Core standards have some solid ideas about helping kids really understand math. But beneath all that, there's a problem: at its heart, the whole operation is driven by fear.

The other day I was passing by the Waldorf School in Lexington around mid-morning, and I had to pause on the bike path to let a class of first- or second-graders cross from the conservation land behind the school back onto school grounds. It was a chilly day, but they were all well-bundled up and seemed happy enough to be outside enjoying the November sunshine. As I understand it, all the classes at the school spend time outside every day. That would never fly in the public school.

For one thing, the kids might get cold! Kids being cold or wet is a huge concern of public school educators in the suburbs, and most of them are quite happy to disappoint kids' hopes of playing in puddles—or even going outside at all—in order to save them from the dangers of the elements. And even teachers who think that wet feet are their own reasonable deterrent hesitate, less they incur the wrath of parents. Would most parents be particularly upset to have a kid come home still damp? I expect not; but one might be. And that's enough to shut down any puddle fun across the board, and all spring the cry of "Stay out of the puddles!" echoes across Massachusetts schoolyards.

And then of course there's the concern that, if kids are outside—even to "take regular nature walks and observe the daily and seasonal changes in the natural environment"—they'll be missing vital pedagogical opportunities. We're not going to catch up with Singapore if we're wasting time in nature! As is the case with the fear of weather, it's not clear who first decided that first grade would set the academic tone and decide if a student would be able to gain admission to a prestigious college... but now everyone seems to think that. So there are no more toys in first grade rooms, except those to use during the 20 minutes of indoor recess a day kids get when it's colder than 25 degrees or so.

As it is now, no one seems able to step back and take a deep breath and realize that, provided the right circumstances, kids really like learning.

Harvey and Taya doing math, Zion painting

school work delight

And I understand how seductive fear can be. I fall prey to it in my own teaching, and when I think about what I'd do if I were in charge of educating a whole town's worth of kids—or even a dozen at a time—I start to have "responsible" fears about how ready the average child is to make their own educational decisions. That's nonsense, just like it's nonsense to think that eight-year-olds can't be trusted to decide whether they're cold or not. As educators, our job should be to accept kids as they are, and do the best we can to make learning appealing: not forcing facts and methods into kids' heads, but creating an environment where they can explore what interests them and make their own educational path.

It's possible that doing that on a large scale would be a disaster, or even that I won't be able to manage it for our tiny farm-school co-op. But maybe it can work... and I'm not afraid to try!

Harvey and Zion shoveling compost as school work

this is school work too!

Especially when I get free farm work out of the deal!


this moment

Harvey--a dragon in Flash costume--versus knight Zion

dragon against knight

A moment from the week.

the wilding of the suburbs

When I was a kid, it was a thrill to see a chipmunk. We had squirrels, sure, and voles, but a glimpse of any other wild mammal was rare and exciting. Not so much any more—there are mornings when I have to work hard not to run over any of the dozens of chipmunks running back and forth over the bike path.

And it's not just them who have apparently accommodated themselves to suburban existence. My trips along the path over the past couple years provide a representative sample of the animals you never used to see that are now definitely around, if not downright common: lots of deer, turkeys, and hawks; the occasional coyote; once a snapping turtle.

My Sunday morning baking this past weekend was interrupted by a fox in the yard (Rascal was very interested, and once we let him out he saw it off in short order). We apparently have a fisher living just about in our backyard—we haven't seen it, though we've had reports from neighbors (Leah did see one in the woods several years ago). There are lots of bats around, and an owl nearby that's been very vocal many of these late fall evenings. Last year I saw a porcupine.

Now, I don't actually know if all these creatures have always been around, and I just didn't pay attention as a young lad. I was certainly oblivious to lots of other things (girls, for example...). But my hypothesis is that they are, in fact, more common now. And I like it! If we have to live in the suburbs, I'm ever so happy to share them with the wild creatures who were here first. If nothing else they make my commute a lot more interesting.


studied uncertainty

Lijah is keeping us from sleeping much, and from doing much during the day besides entertaining him. I'm telling myself it's a phase; Leah thinks it's just the end of the world. But he is still cute, and his language development offers some small compensations. For example, last night—when he was wide awake well after the big boys were in bed—I was distracting him in conversation while Leah got some precious alone time. He was playing with the doll stroller, and I asked him where his baby was.

He answered, "uhhh..."

Now that I think about it, I shouldn't have started trying to tell this story in a text medium, because those letters can't do justice the adorable maturity and relevance of his utterance, the perfectly-tuned sound of a child who wants to convey the appearance of careful thought—it's his toy we're looking for, after all—while avoiding any effort at all, physical or even mental. He's clearly paying attention to his big brothers' example.

I have no clever wrap-up for this post, except to say that I'm with you, Lijah. "uhhh..."


almost winter fall fair

I don't know how we missed it the last four years, but it's not since Harvey was one that we made it to the Fall Fair at the Congregational Church. If I'd been paying attention we would've made more of an effort to get there, because we went yesterday and I stand by my 2010 assessment: it's fantastic!

the main hall of the fair, sparkling with yellow and orange decorations

shining fair

Unlike that last time, we had no advance notice that the fair was happening; I didn't notice the signs for it—on congregants' lawns all over town—until we were biking up to the playground yesterday morning. As suddenly cold as it was, so the playgrounding didn't last long, and after the library we were glad to have somewhere else inside to go. In theory, anyways; in fact the outdoor attractions caught our attention for quite a while. I didn't manage to photograph the petting zoo, but there was plenty of time for pictures at the bouncy house and the bean bag toss.

Harvey and Zion on the slide of a giant bounce house

winter bouncing

the boys playing at the beanbag toss

try and try again

Inside we perused the white elephant sale, where Lijah charmed the old ladies at the check-out table with his careful examination of the merchandise. We only had two dollars, so it took a good half-hour to decide on our purchases: a little car, a box of dice, a sword, and a silicone pan for baking donut holes. Well worth it.

Elsewhere, there was food—which sadly we couldn't afford—and more free activities for kids. Harvey and Zion were delighted to find a Battleships game: not really life-size, but certainly quite a bit bigger than anything we've seen before. They were still happy about it even after I beat them, and I was happy that, with a board of only 49 squares instead of 81, the game was well quicker than we're used to!

my side of the giant battleship board, mid-game

two of mine sunk

Before we left we had to check out the Christmas wing, four rooms full of lights and beautiful handmade crafts and baked goods. Once again we wished we had more money: for a tiny sleigh, and a loaf of english-muffin bread, and...

Harvey and Zion amidst hundreds of lighted Christmas decorations

next month's sparkle

Next year's fair is on the calendar, and I've made a note to budget $20 dollars for it. Do you think that'll be enough?