John Taylor Gatto is one of the big points of inspiration for my work as a teacher and as an unschooling advocate. His Greatest history lesson completely changed the way that I saw the history of education.
I’ve written several blog-posts inspired by Gatto’s work. You can read one of them here.
Recently I asked John Taylor Gatto a question on his website. Here is his answer below.
I am a teacher working in a country where homeschooling is illegal. Moreover, it is a country where parents have a lot of faith in the education system, so much so that they often prefer not (or do not dare) getting involved.
I therefore work to introduce unschooling principles in my teaching––and I have seen tremendous changes both with my students and myself. I would like to share what I have found with other teachers, because I have realized that changing how one teacher teaches can make a tremendous impact on many children, exactly as you have shown yourself.
Changing the education system––and ultimately deconstructing it requires both systemic and political initiatives which require a big group of people who have seen the detriment of the current education system. I am not interested in disengaging with the system, but am instead committed to changing it from within. It is however a fine line––because one has to basically “be in the system but not of the system”––to be able to participate with it, while dismantling it at the same time.
Do you have any perspectives on this and how to go about it, specifically when it comes to supporting fellow teachers, who might instinctively know that there is something wrong, but who are dumbed and numbed by the very same system they represent?
Sincerely, with much gratitude and a commitment to keep walking and sharing your words, as they become mine and may grow beyond me as they grew beyond you.
You speak wisdom: to change the system from within, you need to be in the system (not threatening the jobs or peace of mind of your co-workers who accept the system) but not of the system. It’s a fine line to walk, but I did just that for over 20 years, so let me share my method––there may be other ways, but this is what worked for me.
I began by analyzing what the school big shots, and my fellow teachers, FEARED about using the “unschooling principles” (as you call them), when as you and I know, they produce better results and happier, more interested, involved students, so everyone––teachers and school institutions, too––benefits by using them. Opposition doesn’t appear to make sense, and once I tried to look at it from my opponent’s point-of-view the answer was immediately clear.
What they feared was being made to look so bad they would be fired, disgraced, or humiliated in front of the kids. So I circumvented those fears by determining––in selecting productive products around which to build curriculum––how to avoid taking credit for my successes, to avoid doing the “star” turn of self-congratulation and to 1) give credit for notable accomplishments to others, usually, for political reasons, to school administrators, and 2) to invite other teachers, wholly or in part, to participate in our project learning.
For a period in the 1970s, New York parks were being overrun with an invasive plant species from overseas called Japanese knotweed, which the Parks Department could not control because it couldn’t afford to uproot it, and when uprooted what was to be done to the piles of useless, now dead vegetation, and how was the disturbed soil to be restored?
Our school district had a large Oriental population and a little research showed me that in Japan many recipes exist for using knotweed as a useful vegetable or base for sweet jelly, so our “problem ” was a by-product of our own ignorance; populations existed––even in our own neighborhood––for whom knotweed wasn’t a problem, but a food!
Our job was an engineering challenge: to establish willing recipients of the weed, then to uproot it and transport it to the eaters, which we did in Riverside Park along the Hudson River between 72nd Street and 79th Street in Manhattan, harvesting 300 30-gallon bags of the stuff over a one week period at a location a mere 10 minute walk from the school, doing a valuable service for the City and neighborhood while learning in a range of areas.
We recruited “wild man” Steve Brill, a wild foods expert, to teach us that in the same area a dozen more free, tasty, nutritious edibles grew in abundance (my favorite was wild scallions and gingko nuts, raising the socio-political question why knowledge of this free bounty wasn’t taught to everyone today, as it had been prior to WWI?
Answer: Commercial food merchants protested the unwanted competition through their political representatives, raising the further questions of what other areas had such unseen influence at work and how exactly did such pressure get organized and applied?
Then, our knotweed exercise inspired rhetorical work in public speaking––as student teams traveled to other schools in our district, to daycare centers, and senior facilities lecturing on the edible weeds among us.
Plus, they were writing manuals about preparing wild food with a few illustrated line drawings for distribution, learning to write press releases to cause commercial media to resonate their work in published form, creating references for applications, such as college scholarship applications––from one of these, even the New York Times mentioned our knotweed work, and printed one of our recipes.
Our biggest such project was to launch a weekend flea market in our schoolyard 30 years ago––one still open––that earns the school over 100,000 dollars a year from table fees, and provides the neighborhood with an inexpensive source of fresh vegetables from nearby farms, inexpensive basic clothing (socks, jeans, underwear, etc.), part-time work for students and chances to launch small businesses for school parents and their children.
If curious, it’s called “The I.S.44 Weekend Market” and it’s located between West 76th and West 77th streets on Columbus Avenue and was designed and established by my students as an academic project with the priceless political help of my wife, Janet MacAdam Gatto, who at the time was Treasurer of School District Three (Manhattan) Community school board, who worked tirelessly to turn back political opposition to this spectacular project which benefited the entire community and provided exciting raw text for English, math, science and social studies lessons.
On a once-barren concrete playground, it was transformed by hard work and astute imagination into a school bonanza––in which monies were made available to all teachers for private classroom projects, and for which we turned over all credit to school administrators and to the entire Parents Association.
I hope this helps answer your question on how to marry systemic and political initiatives while transforming institutional schooling with unschooling principles––aim to ADD VALUE to ALL: citizens, fellow teachers, bureaucrats, students and yourselves by re-orienting your own perspective profoundly––do that and you will discover that the many you help WILL NOT ALLOW mischief-makers to shut you down… OK?
Love and hugs,
John Taylor Gatto
P.S. Doing this transformed my own life. Check out Animus High School in Durango, Colorado, where the entire school in a Rocky Mountain setting is attended by brilliant project learners and internships for hundreds more ideas how to function this way. It is within anyone’s reach, takes no money, only courage, and results, as Anna B. implies, are substantial.”
Please support John and his wife Janet who are both currently suffering from the aftermath of having strokes by donating to them here.
Re-Educate yourself here:
The Ultimate History Lesson with John Taylor Gatto:
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams
A couple of weeks ago I walked into a teacher’s lounge where a teacher in his thirties was giving advice to one of the teaching apprentices, a young guy around the age of twenty.
They were talking about a sports class that the young teacher would be giving to a group of 4th graders later that day. The older teacher promptly said to him:
“You’ve got to put them in their place, you’ve got to show them that you are in control. They are like animals, they will do anything to disrupt the class, and you know how kids are, you can’t let that happen. You HAVE TO show them that you are in control – you are the teacher.”
The younger teacher mumbled in agreement and I wondered whether he did in fact agree or whether he was merely accommodating the older teacher’s point of view to not get in trouble.
Now – several dimensions can be addressed and discussed in terms of analyzing the driving forces behind the older teacher’s words, but I will here focus on one in particular:
He was clearly coming from a starting-point of suppressed fear, as though he saw the children as savages who had to be contained to not break out into mutiny.
I imagine that it is similar to the psychological states of the colonizing forces who invaded Africa or India or North America, who believed that their fear was validated by the uncivilized nature of the natives, while in fact the fear came from a deep suppressed understanding that what was being done in the process of colonization was unacceptable on a very existential level – and therefore retaliation was to be expected.
It is tragic to consider how a teacher can be seen as someone reenacting the process of colonization casting the students as barbaric savages and himself as the militant, religious and political force of invastion, but is that not exactly what is being done to our children in schools, through a process of civilizing the wild and unruly nature that is a child?
A couple of days after the incident with the teacher I was visiting a preschool that I teach at. When I came, all the kids were outside and some of them had gathered around the ashes of a bonfire. They were giggling as they painted themselves on their faces and bodies with the leftover coal from the fire. I laughed with them as they explored different characters that they could play out with their painted faces, necks and hands.
At some point, a preschool teacher had seen what they were doing and abruptly marched down with a strict expression on her face. She lifted her right index finger and said to them:
“What on earth are you doing? You KNOW that you are not supposed to do that, will you stop this IMMEDIATELY!”
I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t actually angry or enraged or even indignant. As she marched down to scold them, she assumed the role of the ‘strict teacher’ and is otherwise a woman I know to be lighthearted and warm. So she assumed what she believed to be the ‘appropriate’ response to the children doing something they are not supposed to do, but that I don’t even know if they knew they weren’t supposed to do, or that she within herself disagreed with.
They had not harmed anyone, or themselves. They had not damaged property or deliberately misbehaved. At worst, it would require the teacher to take some time to wash the coal off their faces.. They were simply exploring their own expressions, their senses and their surroundings. This was something that could have been utilized as a stepping-stone for learning about the chemical compounds of coal or a discussion about acting and taking on various masks to change one’s expression. It could have been used to talk about how we utilize resources from nature to create paint. Instead it became a lesson of shame and regret.
After she walked away the kids looked devastated and confused. They had this expression of ‘knowing’ that they had done something wrong, but only because she had told them they had done something wrong – while inside themselves they knew on a deeper level that they were merely exploring and expressing in innocence.
When children are being scolded for expressing themselves, they learn that self-expression is wrong. They start associating self-expressing with fear of being scolded, with shame and regret. They stop expressing themselves. They stop exploring. When these children become adults they may develop social anxieties or fear of speaking in public. They may develop depression or eating disorders or have low self-esteem because the belief that there is something wrong with the core of their being, lingers like a perpetual dark cloud.
It is a shame that teachers believe that they must assume a role of being strict authoritarians to be able to educate children and it is an even bigger shame that they by doing so, teachers become nothing but lackeys for a system that has no interest in supporting the development of creative, whole, expressive human beings.
What must be understood is that we cannot as adults inspire children to grow and develop into their utmost potential, if we are not inspired ourselves. We cannot expect them to be open and honest if we ourselves carry a shadow of secrecy within our own lives. If we want transparency and trust and respect, we have to give it, but even more so, we have to live it.
It is conceited to believe that simply because we are adults and have more experience being in this world, we will automatically stand as examples of what it means to be an effective human being in this world.
Being an effective teacher or a parent for that matter requires constant self-reflection and self-evaluation and we must dare to expose our own weaknesses and mistakes so that we may be able to learn from them, work through them and take responsibility for them, so as to truly stand as examples for our children and the students we teach.
This is not an easy task. It requires courage to admit that we are not perfect; that we do not have it all figured out, that there are sides to us that are counterproductive and small-minded. But until we start facing and dealing with those aspects of ourselves, we cannot expect children to be anything more than the examples we show them.
It is interesting because it is as though we expect so much more from children than what we do from ourselves. We want them to be respectful, honest, open, corporative, generous and empathic, as though that is the standard of the principles upon which this world functions. But we all know that this is not so. And by teaching children that it is so, we are feeding them a lie. We are teaching them to live on a lie and in an illusion. It is no wonder that the world is in the state it is in when this is the example that we set forth, ambiguous at best and at worst, outright deceptive.
As a teacher working with towards implementing progressive solutions in the education system, I am particularly interested in dismantling the traditional student/teacher dynamics. I refuse to stand as a proxy for the colonizing powers of adulthood and instead celebrate the wild nature of each child.
To do that, I must first do it for myself. I must become my own teacher, because it is only that which I have developed in myself as a clear and authentic expression that I will be able to share with others. As the saying goes: children do not do what we say, they do what we do whether we like it or not. If we want them to do differently, we have to start with ourselves.
“After school, kids are devouring new information, concepts, and skills every day, and, like it or not, they’re doing it controller in hand, plastered to the TV. The fact is, when kids play videogames they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom. Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them. Doubt it? Just ask anyone who’s beaten Legend of Zelda or solved Morrowind.”
– James Paul Gee, Professor of literary studies, Arizona State University
I don’t play computer games. I find them to be too loud and too intense. So I don’t play. As a child I did play some games from start to finish but it was never something that I got hooked on. I played Candy Crush for about three months until I got tired of it. Then I deleted it from my phone.
This does however not mean that I cannot understand or appreciate why others play computer games. In fact, I have spent a good amount of the past couple of months exploring the world of game development and gaming in general. I have watched some amazing films documenting the resilience and genius creativity of game developers such as the documentary Indie Game: The Movie and two TED talks, one titled Gaming to Re-Engage Boys in Learning and another that inspired me greatly with game developer Jane McGonigal titled Gaming can make a better world. I have furthermore talked at length with my students about their favorite games and it taught me a lot about gaming. For example: Minecraft is the number one game among my younger students and one of my first grade students recently explained to me why it is so popular.
He said: “Anna, do you know why Minecraft is so fantastic!?”
“No” I replied.
“Because everything is square!” He said.
So there you have it, the mystery of why kids love Minecraft: solved.
The way I see it, because computer games happens to be the number one interest of my students, I have an obligation to honor and explore that interest with them – to latch onto their journey through life and through that assist and support them in any way possible to grow and expand, even if that growth and expansion takes them far beyond my comfort zone or realm of knowledge.
So I am not writing this to advocate why gaming belongs in the education system. There has been written thousands of reports and papers and articles about that, including the previous post I wrote on the matter.
In this post I will focus on the point of how we as teachers and parents can promote an educational environment of self-directed learning, where we as adults stands as catalysts and facilitators rather than as someone who is blocking learning opportunities because they do not fit into our preconceived ideas about education. I will do that through sharing an example from my work with gaming in class.
Ever since I started working as a teacher, I have tried to find ways to engage my older students (ages 11-15) to no avail. I have come to realize that they in many cases have been in the school system for so long that the school system in many respects have managed to ‘lobotomize’ them to the point where they will either go with the motions of daily school life in a zombified state or they will assume a position of reluctance and defiant apathy towards anything that is presented to them by the school system. They are not there because they want to be but because they have to be. Learning is not something they do to expand their horizons but because it is expected of them.
It has been a challenge to find a way to make learning authentic for them, as I to them am seen as yet another adult who does not understand what they are going through or what their life is like, but who nonetheless tell them what they need to know and when and why they need to know it.
When I embarked on the journey of using gaming in my work as a teacher, I had no idea just how far I would be able to reach the students through opening myself up to their interests. I had no idea that they had so many resources, so much passion and lust for learning – and that is in itself a disturbing fact.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the initial lesson plan was developed my one of my colleagues and I found his idea to use gaming to be so inspirational that I immediately took it, ran with it and developed it further.
In the previous post I described the projects I did with the younger students where we worked on developing board games inspired by computer games. With the older students however (ages 11 – 15) we embarked on a journey where the students created their own fantasy computer games. They got the task of coming up with an idea to a computer game where they were to write out a script describing the game environment, the characters and the background story.
We had a lot of fun talking about computer games, game music and game development and the students would share with me what games they played and what they liked about them. We talked about how their parents did not like them playing as much and they would share how much they learn from playing the games. What was interesting was that even though we did not actually play any games in class (we did look at trailers from games), and even though the students primarily had to write – they were more engaged than ever.
We also started playing with the idea of having their games produced as real computer games. We talked about how long that would take as several of the students asked if we could do it for real. I explained to them that it most likely takes several years (with the proper training) to create a computer game.
Then I had an idea: what if we got a hold of a game developer who could review the students’ games?
I searched online and within a matter of days I found a game developer who was more than happy to participate, having been a gamer himself and understanding the value of gaming in education. We set up a date where he was going to come to speak to the students and I told them that I was going to share their games with him and that we was going to come and review them. Knowing that a real game developer would look at their work completely changed their production process.
What they created was amazing.
All the students were engaged in their games and a fifth grade student who normally does not do any homework (in any class) would send me his scripts and not only that; he would edit them two or three times and send me the updated versions without in any way being prompted to do so by me.
Another student, a seventh grader who suffers from a learning disability and because of that normally only write a few sentences, wrote an entire page. At the end of one of our lessons he said: “by the way, I did some drawings at home.”
With an inconspicuous look on his face, he pulled four drawings up from his backpack and handed them to me. What he had done floored me.
He had drawn four drawings that must have taken him hours to draw, one depicting the character from the game, one the environment, one of the logo for the game and a portrait of the character.
He had done exactly what the other students had done in writing, only through drawing. And I had no idea that he could draw.
We had our meeting with the game developer once all the students’ games were finished. It was a huge success. He talked about his work, how games are created, how many hours of script goes into each game, how he became a developer. He showed us games he had developed and gave us the ‘behind the scenes’ tour into the world of coding and programming, much of which was presented in a highly advanced technical language that I could barely understand. The students nodded as they sat and listened in complete focused silence for nearly two hours.
Afterwards, the fifth grade student who normally does not do homework, have continued on to developing his own game, using a professional coding platform.
The seventh grader’s (the one with the learning difficulty who normally does not have many successful experiences at school) grandparents created a WordPress profile for the sole purpose of leaving a comment to his game on our blog where all the games are published telling him how proud they are of him. His mother had sent an email to their entire family sharing his game.
Another seventh grader created such an amazing story, with such rich detail and reflection on the inner lives of the characters that I suggested to him to keep developing it and maybe make it into a story. I eventually told his parents who had no idea how good a writer he was and who are now trying to convince him to write a book.
All the amazing results that came from this project can be contributed to the fact that I worked with something the students were interested in, something that is a big part of their daily life and that normally is not given any value or supported by adults.
I provided a structure and an idea in which the students could unfold and explore their creativity but all the work was their own. When they had an idea, I ran with it. When they wanted to change something in the lesson plan. I ran with it.
I have been amazed and astounded to see aspects of the students emerge that I had no idea existed and it has made me keenly aware of how much we as teachers and parents are missing out on by not engaging with children on a real and authentic level, to actually get to know them and understand them and what their life is like, without fear or moral judgments about what they ‘should’ be doing or becoming.
One aspect of this project that I am particularly satisfied with is how the project had a direct correlation with the real world. This is something that I have long advocated and this project underlines that perfectly.
When a real game developer became involved in the project, the students took the project seriously, because they were being taken seriously as having real and valuable perspectives to share with the world. They got to see a man who had chosen a career path doing something that their parents would judge as being a waste of time. It made a real impact on them.
This is something that could be easily copied to other subjects or themes or projects where, if a class or student is working with food as a topic for example, a chef can be invited to cook with them or taste their recipes. Or if a class is working with democracy as a topic, they can work with changing things in their local environment or school that they are not satisfied with. They can experiment with various democratic methods such as writing petitions or letters to the newspaper or even direct social intervention and investigate which methods are most effective for change.
Not only does it establish a direct and very real connection between schools (as life-preparation facilities) and ‘real’ life, it also provides the students with a entrepreneurial aspect that is remarkably absent from most schools.
If we are serious about making this world into a better place, we ought to be equally serious about the interests of our children, to listen to what they have to say, to support them to grow and develop their utmost potential, which may just be incrementally different from what we would have imagined or preferred.
I have stopped seeing myself as a teacher who’s job it is to transfer knowledge and information into the minds of my students. Instead I see myself as a sparring partner, as someone who has experience in various fields and who can assist them to develop and materialize their visions and goals into substantial and valuable content.
It is a position of honor and great privilege and it is a responsibility that requires the utmost amount of humbleness and courage because it requires us as adults to take a step back and admit that we do not know everything there is to know about the world. We have to be willing to let the children educate us and so transform us so that we may be fortunate enough to stand next to them as they direct their own learning and explore their potential in life.
Teachers all across the world are struggling to engage their students.
Standardized tests and archaic curricular that must be rushed through in a matter of months, are filling up the classrooms.
At the same time, we see a development in our society towards an increased integration of technology into our children’s lives. While struggling to stay awake at school, most kids will gladly spend an entire night in front of the computer, playing games, surfing the web or chatting to friends on Skype.
The question that many parents and teachers ask in concern, is whether the investment in technology is compromising our children’s education. They will say that it is hard enough to motivate them as it is, without some screen distracting them and pulling them away from what matters. While that may be true, I am here to share a different perspective.
A couple of years ago, I made it my mission to teach in a way that was relevant to the students. I started experimenting with various topics and methods with the aim of unlocking the students interest of learning rather than sitting across from them, one zombie regurgitating information to another – just because that is the ‘normal’ way to do things.
I discovered that every single person in this world wants to do something that matters; something that is real and that has a real impact in the world. No one wants to spend years on end in artificial facilities doing simulations of real life while being told that their perspectives don’t matter – and this is exactly what schools do.
I also discovered that what students care about, is the real world around them, that which they hear about in the media or read about in the news. Above all, something that almost all my students had in common was a passion for modern technology, the Internet and computer games in particular.
I decided to embark on an adventure with my students, an adventure into ‘their’ world, the world of computer games.
I have never myself played a lot of computer games. It is simply not something that I’ve found particularly interesting. I do however have a passion for modern technology and all the opportunities that the Internet opens up. So I make it a point to stay up to date with the latest technological developments, gadgets, social media sites and various apps coming on the market. So on one hand, I embarked on a journey into the world of gaming simply because it was something I respected that my students were passionate about. On the other hand, it was made easier by the fact that I was already open to the current developments of modern technology.
I know that many adults are cautious towards the current developments and that many parents worry that their children are gaming too much and that they do not spend enough time outside playing or spend time with their physical friends (rather than the ones they meet in cyberspace). I also understand that there are some pitfalls and dangers about the Internet, such as kids having access to pornography, issues with privacy and cyber bullying.
However, it is also my perspective that the current development of modern technology is unstoppable and that if you as a parent prohibit your child from having access to a computer or the internet, they will simply find another way to get on – because being online has become an integrated part of what it means to be a child today.
Because the development of technology and digital media is like rushing river of rapid development, the best way to approach it is through embracing it by going downstream with the flow, rather than trying to fight it or slow it down, which is virtually impossible. It is something that like a force of nature has its own momentum.
Our Gaming Project
The students and I started the project with the younger students (ages 6-9) working on creating board games inspired by their favorite computer games. I laid out the foundation of the way we would be working with creating the games by saying that my goal was for this game to be so fun and challenging that they would want to play it with their friends. I shared with them how I had created board games as a child that weren’t a lot of fun because they weren’t very challenging.
So the first few lessons we spent creating a plan of how we were going to design the game. We talked about various ways that board games can be structured and how they don’t have to go from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ but can be circular, like labyrinths or have a completely new structure entirely.
I started asking the students about the computer games they play and I could see how genuinely pleased they were with being able to talk about their passion in a ‘school setting’. Most of the younger students have Minecraft as their favorite game so they would tell me all about it and what they liked about it and what elements from Minecraft they thought would be cool to incorporate in our board game.
Many of the students had lots of ideas that incorporated digital elements, where I had to show them how it unfortunately wasn’t transferrable to a physical board game. Instead we had to ‘translate’ the elements of the computer games into the board game in a way that could work effectively.
One group for example decided to create a game where, during the game it switches from day to night and at night the monsters come out, just like in Minecraft. We then had to figure out a way to incorporate the day-to-night element into our game and together came up with the idea of using an hour-glass that, when it runs out, the game switches from day to night.
Another student decided that in his game there should be four different ‘worlds’ or ‘games’, each based on its own computer game, so there was a ‘Minecraft world’ and an ‘Spiderman world’ and to go into each world you’d have to go through a portal.
Throughout the process of creating the games, the students would speak and write, for example to create cards to use in the game or through writing instructions for the game. These elements are all included in what is my actual task as a teacher, to teach them a language. We could have done the exact same project focusing on math elements or art – or even all of these in a multi-disciplinary project. The point is that throughout this project there has been absolutely no resistance or boredom coming up within the students.
I call it ‘sneaky learning’ when I am able to incorporate elements like grammar that otherwise would be perceived as ‘tedious’ and ‘boring’ and the students don’t even notice that they are learning grammar. They are doing it because it is an important part of the game. Like one student said: “If you don’t have instructions, you can’t understand how to play the game”. So obviously we had to create instructions, but it wasn’t a deliberate ‘language learning lesson’ and therefore working with the language came natural and with ease – because it had a purpose, because it was a tool to be used to support something that the student was passionate about, proud of and invested in.
Through this project, the students have created the most amazing and inventive board games. They have come up with ideas that I would have never thought of. Throughout it all, I have stood as a sounding board to assist them to manifest their vision and to make suggestions and share perspectives that may support them to consider details they hadn’t thought of before.
The result of doing this project is that students go home and write more cards by themselves without being prompted to by me as ‘homework’. One first grader (7 year old) even continued to work on the game while he was sick at home. Another student considerately went to the store and bought an hourglass with her pocket money – again, without being prompted to do so by me.
It is my perspective that all learning is supposed to be like this, no matter how old you are or what subject you are busy learning. This doesn’t mean that learning will always be thrilling or fun. When you are passionate about something, it sometimes requires some hard work or that you do some tedious task, but the difference is that the students have not resisted this aspect of learning in this project, because what mattered was their creation process and their vision of a final result. The more I have stepped back and humbled myself as an adult, the more the students have stepped forth and shown me their potential, their strength, their passion.
Based on the example from this project, taking the students passion as its natural point of departure ought to be a focal point of all education. Because we have all been educated in the same wretched school system, we have come to take it for granted. We have come to accept (because that’s what we’ve been taught) that learning is not fun, that it is forced upon us and something we must learn to force upon ourselves. Learning in schools happens through intimidation, competition and force and the question is how much is actually grasped at a foundational level within the students. I mean, how many of us remember anything we learned in school? What many will say is that they remember specific teachers who were passionate or fun or they will remember specific projects where they got to work independently or choose their own topics.
With the day and age that we live in, it just happens to be so that modern technology, digital media and the Internet is one of the biggest interests of kids today. It would be a shame to not embrace that momentum and let the stream take us on a journey together with the kids, a journey where we can be there with them and stand as support along the way. Because one thing is certain; modern technology is not going anywhere anytime soon. But our kids are going places, that’s for sure. The question is whether we are going to be stubborn and stay behind in fear of the unknown or whether we are going to go on this journey with them and see where the river of modern technology takes us. Because if we don’t, we are holding them back. We are dismissing and diminishing something that matters to them. We are trying to force them to learn in unnatural ways through intimidation and then we miss the opportunities where real learning could have taken place.
There is not a single human being on this planet who is not aware of how much easier it is to learn when it is something you have decided for yourself, when learning is something you want to do. You do not only learn more easily, but you also remember it better. When learning is self-directed and passionate, it integrates into you and becomes part of who you are as a real time expansion of your being. It is something that never leaves you. This is what learning is supposed to be like.
“A child does not have to be motivated to learn; in fact, learning cannot be stopped. A child will focus on the world around him and long to understand it. He will want to know why things are the way they are. He won’t have to be told to be curious; he will just be curious. He has no desire to be ignorant; rather he wants to know everything. “ – Valerie Fitzenreiter, in The Unprocessed Child: Living Without School
When I started working as a teacher, I made a decision that would come to shape my work and my life in ways I could not have imagined.
I decided that I would become the best teacher that I could possibly
In striving to become the best teacher I can possibly be, my focus is to provide children with the best possible education, to be a sparring partner who respects them and listens to them and who values their insights and unique expressions. I am constantly reevaluating my teaching principles and methods and I keep developing myself as a teacher through the direct feedback from the children. I strive to see life from their perspective and to be a champion on their behalf, however I am also acutely aware of the humbleness required from me as an adult to take a step back and see the potential for greatness in my students and let them develop their own voices and become champions of their own sovereignty.
Why I unschool in the school system
Throughout my work I have found it particularly challenging to motivate children, especially as they get older, to do homework and assignments. They would generally do it the night before deadline and in some cases, the parents would sit down and do it for them, just to have something to show – as though the entire purpose of their education was to get a ‘pass’ from the teacher or to make the teacher happy and not to actually learn and develop themselves.
So I have been looking for ways to engage students, to make the work authentic for them as something they would actually want to do and find purpose in. Through this process I have found that a distinct problem with formal schooling is that it is set up as a simulation process where children are taught ‘about life’ from abstract textbooks that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. The entire purpose of formal schooling is to weigh, measure and categorize students, to apparently prepare them for ‘real life’ – completely disregarding the fact that they’ve been a part of real life since the day they were born. Children learn something about the world and about life every minute of every day, especially in those formative years where they integrate knowledge at a quantum level.
I have therefore been working towards making the subjects and projects that we do in our classes relevant to their real lives and to give the students assignments that does not just have the purpose of measuring them or proving themselves to me, but that would actually matter to them.
As I started to develop more of such projects I saw a distinct difference, especially with the younger students interest in learning, however with the older students and especially the teenagers, I was at my wits end. Nothing I did seem to spark an interest in them. They seemed distant and demotivated and saw me as yet another adult who wanted to put them into a simulated learning environment that had nothing to do with them or their real life. I struggled to get any form of authentic connection established with them.
Then about six months ago I discovered unschooling as an educational principle and strategy and since implementing unschooling principles into my work, it has completely transformed not only the way I teach, but also my relationship with the students.
I have taken an educational quantum leap that has opened doors and potential I had no idea existed.
Since I started working actively with unschooling I have come to realize that I have been ’intuitively unschooling’ all this time, and that I have basically been a proponent for unschooling my entire life – I simply wasn’t aware that there was a word for it.
So from a certain perspective it has not been that big of a leap to go from what I was already working with to now actively start unschooling. What has however supported me a lot has been to realize that what I naturally saw as common sense and that I struggled against because I thought I had to teach in a more formal way, had already been working for a lot of people for many years. So it has supported me to trust myself more and to throw myself more into progressive forms of education rather than deliberately holding myself back because I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was okay or not.
Results of introducing unschooling in the school system
When I started introducing unschooling into my classes, I was initially quite worried about how parents and other teachers would react and I can only say that the responses and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I get emails and phone calls from parents saying that there children come home elated with big smiles on their faces and that they can’t wait to go to our classes.
The older sister of one of my 5th grade students recently told me that he never does homework and that he hates writing. She was utterly surprised to hear that not only did he do the assignments for our class, but he kept writing so much that I had to tell him to cut it back because it otherwise wouldn’t fit to the project we were doing. He even send me edited and corrected versions of his assignment several times – without me instructing him to – before it was submitted for final publication.
After I have started to change who I am as a teacher to be (even more) relaxed, more myself and less fearful of not getting results, entirely new dimensions have opened up in my relationships with the kids. They are more considerate and gentler. I suddenly get more hugs and invites to come home for dinner or hear them play piano. They have started to tell me about their life and the things they struggle with or are passionate about.
How I unschool in the school system
The first thing I did, as I actively let go of the fear of what parents and other teachers would think was to stop trying to control the lesson. If the children want to go, I let them go. If they want to do something else than what I’ve prepared, we do that. I don’t force them to do anything anymore. I might encourage them to push themselves, especially if I see that they are resistant or reluctant because of lack of confidence.
I listen to the students, I’m interested in what they have to say, and I am engaged with them, meaning: I am not preoccupied with getting results or accomplishing things. Instead I am here with them and let the moment naturally unfold, (while having somewhat of a plan of what we’re doing/where we’re going). But I am letting go of the ‘need’ to control the situation – which I’ve realized mostly came from fear.
Because I’m letting go of that fear and that need to control and make sure they get results, I can also be more present and listen more to their individual needs. So if someone doesn’t want to do something, I don’t make them. (Which I used to do reluctantly out of fear).
Instead I talk to them about it and make sure that they really don’t want to do it and find out why. Then we do something else, no big deal. If I see that they resist because its something they find difficult, I encourage them to push through – and they do.
An example of that is from a preschool I recently visited. A little girl aged 3 wanted me to draw her a drawing. She started whimpering and talking to me in a manipulative baby voice. Her body language changed and she started becoming emotional. I actually found the situation quite funny and looked within myself at how I could best direct it, what would be best for her and for me in the moment.
So then I calmly said to her: “Okay, but then you got to talk in your normal voice”. What she did next was very sweet and moving. She tried changing her voice back to her normal voice. She struggled at first because I’m not sure anyone has ever asked her to do this before. So she wasn’t used to directing herself to move out of the ‘cry baby personality’. But she definitely understood exactly what I meant. As she tried a couple of times and reverted back and tried again, I could see how her body language changed and she started straightening herself up. She knew exactly what she was doing. She tried a couple of times more and finally got it, back to her normal voice – and I drew the drawing, not because she manipulated me to by being emotional, but because she had asked in self-respect and I wanted to honor that.
I focus more on getting to know the students individual needs and do things that they want to do/that suit them and where they are at in their process of learning. This doesn’t change the effectiveness of my teaching, because they still learn what they need to learn, but it happens naturally without any force. Instead it comes more and more from their own interest to grow and learn. And fascinatingly enough, the work they have produced since we started working with unschooling principles have been lengthier and so much more substantial. Several students have told me that they have been working all night on some of the projects that we do and the most amazing drawings and writings have come out of that process, so much so that it has even surprised me to discover the abundance of potential within the students that I had no idea existed.
Contrary to what critics of unschooling may believe, I also don’t let the children do what ever they want at any cost. If they are too noisy and it is potentially disturbing for another class I ask them to tone it down. If I have a headache or if I am exhausted I explain it to them and ask that we do a more quiet activity. Because the relationships are becoming more equal, because they see that I respect their choices and their needs, they respect mine equally.
The basic principle of unschooling is therefore not to just let children do whatever they want at the expense of everyone else. It is about empowering children to be equals in a partnership where I stand as a point of support and guidance based on a principle of doing what is best for all.
The relationships are becoming more real and more equal which means that I am also allowing myself to learn from the kids and how they see the world. If more teachers would do this, we could compare notes and perhaps together we could steer towards a paradigm change when it comes to how we see and educate children.
Working as a teacher with progressive principles I’ve come to realize how important it is that there’s a real life purpose with what the students work with. Most of what is being taught in school is either abstract or simulated to resemble real life. The students know that and they know that what they do only matters as to measure their performance. Every person wants to contribute to society, wants to do something that matters. When children are encouraged to work with something that has an impact on real life, they give it their all.
“The reality is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform. No system that discards millions of normal, healthy kids as failures – many of them extremely smart, by the way – will ever provide a lasting or universal solution to anything.” – Carol Black, filmmaker and educational activist
The potential is there that we, within the next fifty years will see a total transformation of the process of education and of educational environments – and that as a result, the world will be forever changed because of it. To manifest this potential, from vision to reality, we have to as adults push ourselves to go further than we’ve ever gone before, further than those who came before us, so that we can provide the future generations with a clean slate to learn and grow and explore from – a platform of learning that is unlimited and empowering in every way.
It is a new year and it is the 100th blog post on A Teacher’s Journey to Life!
So for this ‘anniversary’ I will share a reflection on what I have learned during the past 15 years working in the field of education. When I sat down to start writing this and reflected back on my work with education, it occurred to me that I’ve worked with education nearly half my life.
Before I started working with education I was a student myself and continued to be so for many years onwards as I progressed into higher forms of education.
I can therefore say that education has been a pivotal point in my life and one that is very close to my heart. I can’t stop thinking about and reflecting on education and how to improve the current school system. My heart breaks on a daily basis when I see children’s natural passion for learning being suffocated by an archaic system. It has therefore become a great passion for me, a calling if you will to stand up for the children in this world and in any way possible create a world for them where compassion, creativity and potential can thrive. Every day I humble myself as I realize that I still have so much more to learn and that is what this journey to life is all about.
But first, let me share where it all started:
I got my first job in the field of education when I was 17. It was an afterschool job at a local care center for elderly mentally challenged people. It was challenging to say the least, as it was my first real encounter with people on the margins of society, surviving only due to the constant care of professionals. There was the 6 feet tall 92-year-old man who would sit in the couch sleeping with a blanket over his head. He had been kicked in the head by a horse when he was 2 and had never developed beyond that age. I use to be amazed that he had survived all those years, considering that he had the mind of a 2-year-old. There was the lady with downs syndrome who would throw her knife and fork at me at meal time, not for any particular reason, but just because she could. There was another lady who I have thought a lot about during the past 15 years. She was deaf, mute and blind, which meant that her only contact with the world outside her was through physical touch. I would sit and hold her hand for hours just caressing it, wondering what it must be like being trapped inside yourself like that. I once read that blind people tend to have better hearing than seeing people and so I wondered if her sense of touch was heightened as well.
I decided to become a preschool teacher/social worker, with the tittle ‘pedagogue’ and become qualified to work with children in preschools, but also in afterschool programs, with drug addicts, at various forms of care facilities and with mentally challenged people.
Because I wasn’t entirely sure what group of people I wanted to work with, I made it my goal to try out all the various types of jobs that a pedagogue might have.
I first got a job as an assistant preschool teacher in a Ghetto where most of the residents were Kurds who had fled from prosecution in Turkey or the war in Iraq. I bonded with a young boy and I distinctly remember an older teacher instructing me to not get so close to the children. The boy had a name with a particular pronunciation in Kurdish that in Danish was translated into something that sounded silly. I decided to call him by his Kurdish pronunciation but the teacher insisted that he had to get used to being called by his Danish ‘name’.
I got my next job after I visited a pediatric oncology center in connection with some schoolwork I was doing. I signed up to become a personal assistant and for about a year I worked with a 7-month-old baby with leukemia. She had been born with leukemia, which is apparently very rare, and she would sleep close to 20 hours pr. Day. She had a big tube sticking out of her belly and her mother had been given a grant by the government to hire a personal assistant, as the child would otherwise require 24-hour care and there was no father in the picture. Interestingly enough, this child was very expressive and strong-willed. It was clear that she wanted to live. This taught me about the vulnerability embodied in a child, how fragile we as human beings can be and yet how strong a child is, even in the face of despair or pain and how the will to live is present even in the darkest moments.
I decided to go back to school to get a degree as a social worker/preschool teacher. At the time all I wanted to do was to protect children, give them some solace in a harsh and brutal world, so I planned on becoming a social worker working with abused children or troubled teens. I wanted to be the kind of adult that touches a child’s heart and shows it that all is not lost in the world, because I had met few of such adults in my life and the ones I did meet, made a lasting impression and a tremendous difference in my life.
During my training to become a social worker I had to take three different practical internships at three different types of facilities; one for younger children, one for older children and one for social work/special cases to gain experience and also decide which type of work I wanted to do after I graduated.
My first internship was at an afterschool program for older children. I remember going there with all the intent in the world to make a difference and when I left three months later I was disillusioned to say the least about my ‘chosen profession’ and calling. The afterschool program was located in a poor, working class community and many of the children came from broken or abusive families. Several times I encountered children that were abused, whose parents were drinking and every time I tried talking to the teachers about it, they shrugged, brushed it off saying that there wasn’t much we could do about it.
I quickly realized that there was a distinct problem in the group of colleagues I was working with. I had looked forward to learning from older teachers, but every time I met them in the teacher’s lounge they would gossip about other teachers or complain about the boss. See the boss was quite new there, he came from outside the school and for some reason the older teachers didn’t like him, or perhaps they didn’t like the fact that one of them hadn’t been promoted. So by the end of my stay there was a full on mutiny going on where several teachers constantly tried to threaten and undermine the boss, essentially to get him to quit. When I left I started wondering if I wanted to be a teacher after all, especially if this was the kind of work environment I was going to enter into.
My next internship was at a shelter for battered women. Again I entered into the job with the hopes that this time I would find my calling and be able to make a real difference. Contrary to the work at the afterschool program, the social workers and teachers that worked at the shelter were professional and sober. It was a fascinating world to enter into but also very tragic. Most of the women had children with them and most had been exposed to domestic violence at the hands of their children’s fathers. Nearly all the women were in a constant state of inner turmoil and many went straight back into the arms of the men that had beaten and raped them, children in hand. This taught me a lot about the complexity of the human mind and how difficult it can be to support someone who is so brainwashed that they feel safer with their abuser than without.
I got the primary responsibility of being the caseworker for a young woman with two children. She was only a couple of years younger than me. The youngest child, a small girl around the age of 1 was so under stimulated that she could barely keep eye contact, let alone sit or talk. The mother was in such a survival mode and turmoil that she never touched the children, never hugged them or caressed them, but most would yell, all the while changing their diapers and feeding them milk from a bottle. The older son had already started showing signs of violence as he would throw tantrums and bite and hit. He had witnessed the abuse first hand. He was two years old. Eventually the woman moved out and moved back in with her boyfriend, the domestic abuser. It was what most of the women did, and it made me realize and reflect upon how stubborn our minds are and how it takes much more than good Samaritans to support someone to change their perspective on life.
At the center there was a stark sense of disconnection between the women who lived on the center and the women who worked there. The women living on the center seemed to be suspicious towards the women working there, seeing themselves as ‘lowlifes’ and the women working there as these ‘posh’, ‘upper class’ women who would never understand them or their situation. It made me realize how ineffective it was that the workers would sit in their office all day, almost like they were holding court, rather than being out in the ‘common areas’ with the women and children. It made the environment sterile and institutionalized and I couldn’t see how it would help the women to break out of their abusive patterns. So I made it a priority to spend time with them, to cook, to play with their children. Eventually they started sharing stories with me, they cried, they opened up. I didn’t do much more than simply being with them and listening to them. Here I learned about what it means to place yourself in the shoes of another person and unconditionally and how important it is that, to support someone you can’t be in a position of superiority or distance. This obviously doesn’t mean that one can’t also be professional – but simply that one can stand equal with someone and listen to them as an equal, even within being a professional.
My last and final internship was at a preschool in a posh suburb. It was an experimental preschool where most of the parents were in some creative field or another. There was a movie director, a photographer and an actor to name a few. The preschool had a completely different structure and a different set of principles than I had ever experienced in any other school before. First of all, there was no ‘teachers lounge’ for the teachers, which I remember, came as a shock to me initially. The leader of the preschool was a charismatic and passionate man who, when I asked about it, stated “If we would need to take a break from the children, then we would be doing something wrong.”
See, in most preschools and other childcare facilities, the teachers will experience and indirectly express a constant need to get away from the children. The noise levels are almost unbearable, the workday is long and hard and most of the day is spent doing boring activities that somehow are considered ‘educational’ but that the teachers are for all intents and purposes detached from. What I realized, through reflecting back on my years in preschools is that the adults will go into the ‘teachers lounge’ to ‘escape’, to be ‘themselves’ – thus implying and indicating that they can’t be that while they’re with the children. Often when you see teachers at a preschool, they will be standing away from the children drinking coffee and talking about ‘adult stuff’. Very seldom will you see them engaging in play or immersing themselves genuinely in activities with the children.
At this particular preschool however, they had implemented the principle that the preschool should be enjoyable for all participants, including the teachers. One of the principles was to respect and honor the children’s need to play. Instead of having certain activities at certain times, the teachers would rather be available to assist the children to start activities. Instead of a fixed mealtime, they had organized a small ‘café’’ in the center of the preschool with a kitchen surrounded by small groups of tables and chairs. Here the children could come and have lunch whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, and if one of them accidently had eaten all their food by midmorning, an adult would be on stand-by in the kitchen to make them a sandwich or something.
This meant that the children didn’t have to break up their play or whatever they were working on to go and eat and it also meant that they were supported to learn to identify and express when they were hungry. Another principle employed by the preschool was to let the children go outside whenever they wanted to. At most preschools here in Sweden there are scheduled (read: forced) times during the day where both adults and children have to be outside. I can’t count the times I’ve seen crying children and freezing to the bone adults standing outside in rain and snow with a miserable look on their faces.
What I found remarkably different about this preschool was that many of the children actually wanted to go out. And when the noise levels got to loud or if they started playing soccer indoors, we would gently encourage them to take their activities outside. The children at this preschool learned to dress themselves fare earlier than I’ve seen in any other school. It gave them a great sense of independence to be able to choose when to eat or when to go out and I remember being amazed the first time I saw a three-year-old gear up to go out in the winter cold all by himself. From time to time we would spot a little one through the window without socks on or with the wrong shoe on each would and would go assist them, but to a great extent they would be entirely self-reliant.
The final principle that I learned from working at this preschool, that had a significant impact on me, was the principle of not yelling at the children and so in affect of that teaching the children to not get into fights. I learned that it was entirely possible to work with children without having to constantly shout and yell. I remember how embarrassed I was and how disillusioned I felt, because until then all I had learned was that it was necessary and normal to shout and scream at children.
Whenever there was a fight between two children we would go and sit down next to them with one on either side of us. We would ask them to explain what had happened – but more importantly we would ask them how they could solve their problems. So if for instance two children had been fighting over one toy, they might come up with the solution of sharing the toy or playing with it together – and so learn how to co-exist in a peaceful and supportive way with one another.
What I learned more than anything from working at this school was that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been just because that’s how they’ve always been. I learned how important it is that at least one person at a school has the drive, passion and dedication to move the school forward and be innovative in coming up with the best possible solutions for everyone.
At this point I had finished my degree in childcare/social work and I had decided to never ever again work in preschools or any other childcare facility for that matter. I had realized that there was something wrong with the entire system and that the changes required to be implemented, had to happen at a structural level. So a while later I decided to enroll in graduate studies to pursue a Master in Educational Sociology.
After getting my degree I was more passionate about education than ever, and especially the point of changing things on a structural level, both for teachers and for children – based on what I had seen in my years of working in the field of education. Not knowing exactly where to go from there, I accepted the opportunity to start working as a teacher, which is the job I’ve had now for nearly three years.
Through these past three years I’ve learned more about education than in all my years of studying education from afar – because I now have a voice, a voice that is able to verbalize, reflect on and put into writing the things I see on a daily basis. I’ve come to adore, admire and respect the children I work with and I no longer resist the teaching-environment, because I understand the circumstances with which it has come to be the way it is. That does however in no way mean that I accept it’s foundation or what it does to children – and I am fiercly committed to exposing and changing that.
There is no doubt within me that the education system has to change if we are to turn this sinking ship we call the earth, around. Education is the foundation of everything and we are all a product and result of it. Throughout my years working in and studying education I have learned that there are so many seemingly small things we could do that would produce tremendous changes, if only we would change our focus from prioritizing that which cost the least amount of money to actually focus on creating a sustainable future for ourselves, if only we would put ourselves in the shoes of our children, our students and see life from their perspective and actually listen to them and hear what they have to say. This is what I am dedicating myself and my life to. This is why I am here. This is my journey to life.