Exciting Proposal for Public Schools in My State

In an effort to improve the quality of public education, my state is entertaining proposals for changes in the very structure of the system. I am quite excited about one proposal in particular– doing away with grade levels and allowing students to move on to new material once proficiency in previously covered material has been shown. As one district superintendent put it:

“I feel like our system locks students into spending 12 years in school, when some students might be ready for their next challenge in a shorter time frame. It also makes sense financially. Some students may need more than 12 years and some may need significantly less.”

Yes! This step is one of the changes I have wanted to see in public schools for years. Why promote students based on age instead of mastery of material? It seems that this change would lead to improved outcomes– students get as much time as individually needed to learn each concept, and are allowed to move on when they are ready instead of when the “unit” is completed. No more pushing some students ahead before adequate understanding is reached, resulting in frustration and decreased understanding of more advanced material. No more holding students back from the next step when they have understood the preceding material, resulting in boredom and loss of excitement about learning.

My opinion of the public school system in the U.S. has been that equal access to education for all is a noble concept, but structural change to the system is necessary before the goal can be reached. This change would be a very positive step in rebuilding a functional public education system. I dearly hope this proposal is adopted.




In Gratitude For Public Libraries

Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.  —Anne Herbert

I would like to take a moment to say thanks… for public libraries. Public libraries give all people access to the wealth of human understanding without asking anything in return. Obscure and out of print books, books too expensive for most people to own, books on any and every subject one could desire to learn about are freely lent for only a promise to bring them back. This is extraordinary! The support of a public library is one of the most important things a community can do and thankfully is a high priority. The existence of such wonderful places, though, seems to imply a responsibility for those of us blessed enough to have access to the books, music, journals, museum passes and such that the library provides. We have no excuse for not continually seeking self improvement. If we fund libraries through our taxes and then never use them we are impoverishing ourselves on a human level.

 A man who I belive to be a hero of educational philosophy, Mortimer Adler, educated himself at the New York Public Library after dropping out of school to go to work at the age of fourteen. He went on to become the only person to earn a doctorate degree from Columbia University without having the benefit of a bachelor’s degree, and then went on to dedicate his life to making a liberal education as widely possessed as possible. He founded the Great Books movement and contributed to the compilation of the Great Books of the Western World series, which put most of the most influential western books up until his time in one set– many of them accessible to the masses for the first time. None of this would have happened without the public library.

Residing quietly in our cities are repositories of the seeds of greatness. Libraries are unassuming places, never ostentatious, not resorting to flashy lights and catchy jingles to lure patrons. The library is there waiting to welcome all who desire knowledge and to share freely the wealth contained therein; jewels laid bare for the taking– jewels with the remarkable property of belonging to all who desire them and having the capacity to be possessed fully by many at once. There is great treasure available to us for the asking, the only price being the effort we put forth to acquire this treasure. Thank you, fellow citizens, for funding the public library. You are doing an immeasurable service to humanity.


Engaging the Sensitive Period for Language

According to Montessori, there are “sensitive periods” in which the child is intensely interested in and ideally suited to learn different skills. The earliest and longest lasting of these is the sensitive period for language, lasting from birth to age six. Doman also speaks of the incredible ease of learning language in this period, although he caps the range at age five. Others say that native-level fluency is most easily attained between birth and age three, with the window of ease closing around six or seven years of age. There is a general agreement, however, that earlier is easier when it comes to learning language.

We are fully utilizing this sensitive period with baby D. In addition to the reading cards, we make sure that he hears several languages spoken every day. His dad reads to him in Russian. One of the Russian language books we have is  Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia series.

I read French language children’s books aloud– this gives me a chance to work on correct pronunciation, also. Our public library has a small but well stocked foreign language section in the children’s department. Here is what we have currently:

It is important to us that he hear language spoken correctly. While his dad has near native level fluency in Russian and Arabic, and very respectable Mandarin, I have what I learned in high school french class. So I am listening to as much spoken French as I can, exposing baby D to recorded spoken French, and pronouncing what I read to him as carefully as I can. We are very happy to be able to open up the world of language for baby D. It will be fascinating to see how his understanding of multiple languages develops.

The Classroom of Life

Here is a link to a post on the blog The Parenting Construction Site explaining the Montessori classroom in action. The Montessori classroom prepares children for competency in life. Please check it out!

Preparing Children for the Classroom Called “Life”

Education and Personhood

One of the highest priorities for me as I anticipate the birth of my child is his or her education. I believe that a real education grants access to the collected discoveries and achievements of mankind. It also invites one to further those discoveries and achievements. This has been called entering in to the “great conversation” that links those who lived before with those living now and those who will live in the future. Essentially, a person who has been given access to education enters fully into the human experience.

That all sounds abstract, and I am interested in the concrete methods and benefits of offering my child a chance to become an educated person. Mortimer Adler said that to become an educated person is a lifelong endeavor, and a diploma is not the end, but merely a recognition that one has the tools needed to be a lifelong learner. To think that education is accomplished by the age of eighteen or twenty-two, he asserts, is to accept an emaciated imposter and to miss out on the real and beautiful original. Working from this view I see clearly that I am not an educated person, and my desire to pursue authentic education over the course of my lifetime is ignited. I also see that my experience in American public schools did not prepare me to be a life long learner, or even seek to foster that desire.

Unfortunately, the goal of K-12 schooling seems always to be to get into college. The goal of college seems to be to get a good job. I have nothing against employment, but when this is the main focus of sixteen or more years of one’s life it becomes an impoverished end. Shouldn’t the main focus of schooling, from early childhood through graduate school, be the development of the person?

Free and equal public education is a noble idea. Sadly, the education system in place where I live is not living up to that worthy goal. I truly believe that my time in the public schools stunted me intellectually and socially, and I have spent years undoing the damage. I can not in good conscience entrust the formation of my child’s mind and character to a system that I believe to be deeply flawed. What, then, are the alternatives? Private and parochial schools have much the same structure as the public schools. Some may be more rigorous, but they are based on the same system. I would consider a Montessori school, but the cost is very often prohibitive. I do not know much about Waldorf schools, but they do intrigue me and I will investigate them further. As of right now I am planning to take responsibility for my child’s education on myself. This does not mean that I think I am an extraordinary teacher, or that I have all of the answers. I do believe that I can provide my child with a better philosophy of education and the goal of human life than traditional schools. Due to the sad outcomes for high school graduates, I feel that I can afford my child a better chance at academic proficiency than can a public school.

I do want the public schools to improve. Unfortunately whenever education reform is discussed the answer seems to be to increase the education budget and/or increase classroom time. Spending more time and more money on the same flawed system will not improve results for students. I can not gamble with something as vital as my child’s education. I hope the public school system is one day improved, but I believe that will only happen once more and more families opt out.

I don’t like the term “home schooling”, because to me it implies that learning best takes place in a school and that school is being replicated at home. I believe the opposite: learning is an essential and natural part of life and schools exist to make it easier to provide large groups of people with access to that essential and natural learning. A school is a tool, not an end in itself. So, I prefer to say that I will take full responsibility for my child’s education. There are many curricula available for “home schooling” families, most of which I don’t like. I had decided to build my own curriculum, but then I found the Great Books Academy and its sister program the Angelicum Academy. Both programs are essentially the same, the Great Books Academy being secular and the Angelicum Academy being Catholic. The difference is that the Angelicum Academy adds Catholic materials to the curriculum. The core remains the same, based on a “good books” literature program for younger students and a great books program for high school. The core program was designed in conjunction with Mortimer Adler. This is the kind of curriculum I was hoping to put together, but I would not have been able to come up with something nearly as good or thorough. I am currently reading through the whole curriculum so that I can make an informed decision as to whether this is the route I want to take with my child’s education. I can say, though, that finding this curriculum brought real hope to me.

Has anyone out there found a good educational alternative? What works for you?

Babies and Reading and Math, Oh My!

      The Doman method. This topic inspires heated debate among parents and child development specialists. Is it developmentally appropriate to teach young babies to read, identify quantity, perform equations, recognize hundreds of “bits of intelligence” and learn facts about them? Is it safe or worthwhile to begin a program of physical development soon after birth? Is it safe or even effective to teach infants to swim?

      My gut instinct is to say yes it is possible– as evidenced by the many children actually doing these things–, and that as long as it is not forced or turned into a high pressure demand for the child to progress at a certain rate or perform on cue for the gratification of parents, worth trying. Glenn Doman and his daughter Janet Doman, authors of various books on the topic and directors of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, say that learning is and must always be a joyful experience for the child and for the parent. They contend that if information is presented joyfully– I really like that description– the child will learn effortlessly and be eager for more. They stress that the parent should always end a session before the child wants to, so that the child is always excited for more. In this way, they say, a very young child can learn to read, do math, have “encyclopedic knowledge”– which really is just broad knowledge– learn multiple languages, perform gymnastics, and really anything the parent and the child find interesting and enjoyable. They say that as much or as little time as you want to devote to teaching your child, as many or as few areas you want to cover, you can’t go wrong because spending joyful, loving time with your child teaching them exciting things is always good.

      I plan to use the Doman method with my child. My view is that to try it and find that it is not what I was hoping is better than to dismiss it without trying. So our child will have a crawling track from birth, we will introduce words when it seems appropriate (3 months seems to be a common time), then quantity, then “bits of intelligence” (cards with pictures of specific objects). I want to see where this goes and if my child derives any benefit from the program. As always, I’d rather give it a try then skip it because it seems unusual.

      I also very much appreciate the phrase “professional mothers” that the Domans use. Really there are professional mothers and professional fathers. The term refers to parents who devote the same time and energy to teaching their children as professionals in other fields devote to their careers. I like the respect for the seriousness of parents that this term conveys. To be a professional mother or father is a far cry from being “just a mom” or “just a dad”!

      Anyone who has experience with this system, positive or negative, is welcome to share the experience. I’d love to hear from others who have tried this!