I just returned from the Bay Area of California, where I spent a week enjoying the last moments of real summer vacation before entering heavy preparation mode for the new school year.  I breathed fresh air, slept in the mountains, saw wild horses, took a dip in hot springs, and met some interesting people.

While there, I crossed paths with two children who reminded me that there is no one right way to educate.

G and his parents live most of the way “off the grid” in the mountains of Ukiah two hours north of the city.  I met G in a room in a barn on “the Property,” that is part kitchen, part living room, part library and part music room.  He looked about 17.  He was fixing himself lunch and reading a thick, small print, college-looking book called “The Rules Of Writing” or something to that effect.  Also in his pile of reading materials were books on architecture and biology.  He explained that he was taking courses at Junior College.

In the course of conversation I shared that I taught 8th grade English.

“So you teach writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s sort of my weak point,” he said, and pointed toward the book on the Rules of Writing.

I told him, “The more you write, the better you become at it.”  He nodded.

Then his father said, “So, 8th grade…that’s about the class he’d be in if he had gone through normal schools.”  I was confused.  “Yup,” he said. “He’s fourteen.”

Wow!  He seemed much more mature than most 14 year olds I know, and in one way that especially caught my attention–he was mature about his learning.  His father said G had always loved learning because he’d learned through playing and experiencing the world, especially the outdoors, and through various types of apprenticeships.  A year ago, he expressed interest in taking classes, so he enrolled in a K-12 program at the Junior College.  He’d done well so far and seemed to be able to transfer his love of learning to the formal classroom context.

G’s path wouldn’t work for everyone.  He benefits from the unique environment of his upbringing and values and care of his parents.  But it’s a reminder that the lock-step grade levels and benchmarks we obsess over in public schools are quite artificial.

Another moment spoke to this very same issue when I met A, a friend’s 7 year old son, who is going into third grade.  I noticed that he seemed to have strong verbal skills and a wide vocabulary.  He was able to hold a conversation with us adults at the dinner table for a while without getting completely bored.

At some point, I asked A one of my favorite questions for kids: “Do you like to read?”  I was expecting him to tell me he just finished the entire Harry Potter series.

“I can’t read,” he said, matter-of-factly.  I paused in momentary shock, not sure how to respond. What was I going to say?  Then I remembered hearing earlier that he attended a Waldorf school, where I already knew kids learn to read in the third grade.

“Oh, that’s right, you go to Waldorf,” I said, feeling silly, (and a little relieved). He seemed unphased.

Then my friend asked him, “Do you like to listen to stories?”

“I love listening to stories,” he said, lighting up. “We’re on the third Lord of the Rings book now. I love Lord of the Rings.   

I thought about what this meant.  A’s mother had been reading to him since he was little.  He now had the patience and story background to sit through thousands of pages of dense prose and to fully enter the world of the books.  He got true enjoyment out of this.

I thought how strange it must be for him not to be able to read yet, not even signs or menus.  And yet, how exciting will this year be for him, when he finally gets to unlock the world of reading for himself. And how different it will be to do this when his vocabulary is already impressive, his knowledge of the world is as wide as it is.  I have a feeling his motivation to read on his own will be very strong.

The Waldorf way might not be best for everyone. It relies on strong parental buy-in and involvement, which is not a given for many children.  But meeting A was another reminder that there are so many different ways to learn, and to become an educated person.  But in the public schools, if a student cannot read by third grade, he’s almost definitely going to be labeled learning disabled.  The Waldorf schools turn that practice on his head.

Why, in public schools, are we so obsessed with rushing children through their education?  Why are public schools so averse to giving kids time to play?  To teaching through play?

It seems to me that we’ve picked up these habits of mind because we are charged with educating large groups of children as efficiently as we can.  In other words, the factory model.  I don’t think it’s coincedental that in this model students as young as third grade suffer from lack of motivation… and that when given time and space to learn in his own way, G is actually far ahead of most 14 year olds…or that A loves listening to Lord of the Rings while most 2nd graders, who can breeze through I-Can-Read books on their own, would not have the patience for such dense literature.

I believe that in the future we will move beyond the factory model of schooling.  But as for the present, one thing’s for sure: the direction we’re going in with yearly testing starting in early elementary school and going through high school (and losing half the country’s youth along the way, is taking children farther and farther away from authentic learning experiences and the joy that comes from them.

[image credit: www.elvincountry.com/ tags/volunteer-vacations]

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