It’s almost Thanksgiving and I’m thinking about my son’s school year so far. Around this time in traditional schools there are parent teacher conferences, 1st quarter report cards have gone out, and the choppy month before winter break begins (where it feels sometimes like there are more breaks than school days).
But this year, neither my son nor I are experiencing those traditional milestones of the school year. For me, because I’m still out of work as a classroom teacher. For my son, it’s because this year we decided to run an experiment with his education. I described the choice in this post. In a nutshell, he’s unschooling. It is taking the form of 3 days a week at the Village Free School (modeled after the Albany Free School), and the other days at home.
I think it’s been a tougher adjustment for me. It took me a good two months to not be stressed by the lack of traditional schoolwork going on. I worried that he wasn’t reading a book in regular segments or doing regular math work. How will he keep up?!?! It was not until we met with his advisor that I began to transform my thinking about “school” for my son. He is 10 years old and she spoke to him with no condescension and no alteration of her language. She didn’t talk over him and she put him in charge of the direction of his own learning. It was so different than any parent teacher conference I’d ever participated in. She emphasized how important it was for kids his age to play, she asked him what HIS interests were and negotiated some interesting ways to support those interests. He spoke more about learning than I’ve ever heard him speak before. He was actually invested in what he wanted to learn and he was taking ownership of how that would happen. He has made great friends and he looks forward to his chances to see them and play and work with them. Unlike traditional school, there are no set classes or tests, no forced lecture time or sitting at a desk without moving. They can eat when they want, they can join together for projects and they can decide the direction of their own learning. They go on field trips every week and he’s learned to ride the city bus, to enjoy bowling, and to play in the park. The kids in the free school decide together, democratically, what direction the school will go in.
Last week, there was no school at all. But there was learning – we traveled to visit my brother in South Carolina. We visited Ft. Sumter and the state museum and we learned about the start of the Civil War and the USS Hunley and looked at actual guns from the war! History lesson in live action. He didn’t have to read a text book or take a test. And it was awesome.
At home, he doesn’t have to do particular assignments – but rather, we find fun projects or interesting things to do. He has been focused on creating video games, something he’s seriously interested in. He has to research how things work, how to troubleshoot how to create different aspects of a game, he learns physics and mechanics and math in order to create. And he creates. He has become more creative, more thoughtful and less stressed out about daily life. He is a joyful child, and he plays… All. The. Time.
And we’re playing together. We regularly watch Wil Wheaton’s Table Top and learn new games. We’ve become obsessed with Castle Panic, and I’ve even learned to play Magic: The Gathering (though I’m not very good at it). Gaming together has become its own magical gathering in our house. We are spending more time together than we ever have, and we’re actually having fun at it!
This Thanksgiving, I think I’m most thankful for the joy in my son’s heart that has emerged with the absence of traditional school. He is learning and he is growing, and so am I.