Sunday, June 12, 2011

Unschooling in public schools?

An interesting topic sprang up yesterday on the Unschool group on Facebook. We were talking about "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." It got me thinking about my own public school experiences. Honestly, I went to a pretty "average" school district. They weren't exceptional in any way. But along the way, I did have some pretty exceptional teachers. They were the teachers who really made an impact on me because they saw how I learned and worked with me to make the most of my education instead of trying to cram me into the mold of the other students.

I was a very motivated learner. Even a stifling public school couldn't crush that out of me. I did best with open-ended self-directed assignments. Math was rubbish for me and it wasn't just the usual math problems that most kids have (although I had my share of them, too). Verbal-oriented subjects were my best. Part of that is because I'm just a very verbal person. The other factor there, though, was that verbal subjects (language arts, reading, English, social studies, etc) were more suited to the ambiguous assignments that I craved. I fell off in English with teachers who gave assignments like "Read the section on adverbs and answer the multiple choice and true/false questions at the end of the section" and really shone when the teacher assigned "write a story using 20 adverbs." In fact, when I had those kinds of assignments, I often found myself working in 50 or 60 adverbs just because I could. I would experiment with adverbs which didn't end in -ly. I would deliberately not mark some of my adverbs and see if the teacher noticed them. It became a game of wits and some teachers joined in with enthusiasm.

Even teachers who didn't want to test wits with me are among some of my favorite teachers, though. By my senior year in high school I was burned out and didn't care much anymore. I only needed my English credit to graduate and was kicking myself for not having taken it at some point in summer school. You weren't allowed to take only one class but certain vocational programs allowed you to do half-days so that you could work the other half-day. I took advantage of that, dropped out of AP English in favor of "regular" (or in my social circle "stupid kids'") English, threw in a handful of technical/vocational classes (two of which were repeats of courses I had already taken for college credit) and pared myself down to a four-period school day. I went home at noon, killed time, and went to work at 3:45 in an after-school program for elementary kids. Because I greatly reduced the challenge of my English class, I discovered that I had already read all the books to be covered for the year. I started skipping English more and more often.

My teacher noticed after about 7 weeks that I attended only on test days and to turn in assignments, but I was acing those tests and assignments. So we had a little confab. If I didn't start showing up to class, she was going to be forced to fail me even though my average was a 99. What was the problem? I admitted I'd already read all the books and that the class discussion was boring and basic. She hatched a brilliant plan. I had to show up to class every day during attendance to be counted present. While she took attendance I was free to take orders and collect money and then go on a "doughnut run" for the class while they discussed the novels. I was technically present because I was there at attendance, I was doing everybody a favor, and I wasn't bored. The condition was that I had to keep my average above 95 and I was to double any numeric criteria on assignments ( ie if an essay had to be 500 words for the rest of the class, I had to write 1000 words). For the rest of the year, I did daily doughnut runs for my classmates. I finished senior English with a 98. I actually re-read several of the novels to keep my papers flowing. And Mrs. Wilkinson goes down in history as one of my favorite teachers ever.

I know that Mrs. Wilkinson would have been severely reprimanded and maybe even lost her job if our arrangement got out but she was willing to go out on a limb to nurture the fire for learning in me. I bet she never dreamed that she was also fostering the seeds of rebellion that would end in "unschooling" because there just aren't enough of her to go around in public schools.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You really had a cool teacher! I had a physics teacher my Junior year who was fresh out of college. He would rather take us outside or just goof off in the classroom than teach us by the book. It was all good with me because I really didn't understand physics anyway. I later found out that it is best to have taken Trig. before physics. Somehow I did manage to get an A in his class though.

    I dropped out of AP Lit the second day of my senior year, because I didn't read the 8 or so required books over summer break. By then I had decided I would rather persue my MRS than to go to college with no idea of what I wanted to study. She fussed me out and made me cry- later she pulled me out of my math class to apologize.

    She didn't have a 1 level class to put me in (1 step down from AP) So I ended up in a 2 level class. There was a world of difference- even with the same teacher! Hardly any of the kids in that class wanted to pay attention or behave. It was a zoo in there. That is the most out of place I felt in my entire school career.