Thursday, December 5, 2013

More reasons to like screens

Some people are convinced that the Internet and social media are making us dumber. I am weary of this argument. It seems obvious to me that my children know more about the world than I did at their ages, and that technology has much to do with this.

One of the cool things about being 41 years old is that I remember when remote-controlled televisions came on the market. Serendipitously, my family's black-and-white set broke down around the same time the local Radio Shack got its first shipment of remote-controlled televisions. So our first color TV came with a two-inch chunk of a remote that was the fascination of the neighborhood. This is especially remarkable given the fact that my dad was practically a Luddite, with a special fondness for rotary-dial telephones.

Anyway, as remotes caught on, parents worried that children would become lazy (or lazier) because they no longer had to get up off the couch to change the channel. I actually remember teachers and other adults voicing this concern. As I don't know a single person who chooses to change the channel manually, I think it's safe to say that we got over our fear of remotes.

Worrying about the moral effects of technology is not a new thing, and even pre-dates remote-controlled television. Apparently Socrates fretted that the high-tech act of writing would have fatal consequences for traditional Greek dialectic. This information comes to us via a new book, Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson. A book review in The New York Times commends Thompson for
avoid[ing] both the hype and the hand-wringing so common among digital age pontificators . . . He comes across as a sensible utopian, tending toward the belief that our digital devices and social networks are, on balance, enhancing our lives and improving the world in the same mixed-blessing sort of way that writing, paper, the printing press and the telephone did.
"Sensible utopian" also aptly describes teacher Andrew Simmons, who recently took to The Atlantic to consider (and mostly praise) the effects of social media on high school boys' writing. His argument is anecdotal but worth considering, especially when paired with Thompson's claim that social media and blogs have meant an increase in writing for most Americans.

It may seem like I'm all about "screen time" these days. After all, my last post was something of a tribute to the learning possibilities represented by the television-DVD player combination. Even I am surprised by my enthusiasm for screens, as I began life as a homeschooling parent with the grim determination to keep electronics in the background as much as possible. (I also began homeschooling with a firm belief in the inferiority of practically every activity to reading books. I'd like to blame this on time spent in college English departments, but it may well have been my own problem.)

The writings of Sandra Dodd and other unschoolers helped me to reconsider my suspicion of digital media, to rethink the very notion of "screen time," and to stop arbitrarily limiting the time my children spent using the television, DVD player, computer, and other devices. It was only a matter of time until I was noting the very real ways in which my children were using screens to learn.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

We all love Lucy: why my husband and I are thrilled about our daughter's TV watching

This summer, while education experts were going on morning talk shows to bemoan "summer learning loss" and to suggest preventive strategies, my eight-year-old daughter was watching I Love Lucy. She was watching lots of it, in fact: the entire first five seasons, or 154 episodes. Many episodes she watched twice; a special few she watched five or even ten times each. Obviously, my husband and I allowed this Lucy Fest. We allowed it not because we are lazy, but because we are unschooling parents who believe that learning is everywhere, and that having a personal interest in a subject, and parents who support that interest, is the best way to ensure that learning will take place.

Neither my husband nor I can remember exactly why it occurred to us that Hadley might like I Love Lucy, but I think we'd noticed how much she enjoyed other examples of physical comedy, as well as movies set during earlier periods, and how many questions she had asked about the collectible I Love Lucy Barbie dolls in her cherished Barbie collector's guide. Regardless, sometime in early May, I ordered the first season on DVD from Amazon, opened the box in front of Hadley when it arrived, and asked if she'd like to watch a bit of it with me. She was instantly hooked.

Subject classifications, while unavoidable in schools, can actually hinder natural learning; thus I am reluctant to cram everything my daughter gained from I Love Lucy into neat boxes that would satisfy some curriculum committee. Yet a little borrowing from the language of schools might be useful to those who find unschooling a questionable educational approach, or to those who are attracted to unschooling ideals but can't help worrying, "But what about the math? What about geography?"

So here, in very broad subject terms, are some of the topics Hadley learned about this summer via her favorite red-haired comedienne:

  • The United States' "Good Neighbor" policy toward Latin America
  • The coup that brought Batista to power in Cuba and the resulting immigration of Desi Arnaz's family
  • Castro's Cuban Revolution and the exodus of Cubans to the United States
  • The gay nineties
  • The flapper of the 1920s
  • Discrimination against African Americans and their virtual absence from 1950s television comedy
  • How constitutional monarchies work
  • Changing of the guard at Buckingham palace
  • Reign of the current Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth II)
  • Edward VIII/Wallis Simpson abdication crisis
Sociology and Psychology
  • Why people get divorces
  • The differences between public personas and private lives
  • How changing domestic technologies in the 1950s affected gender roles and women's lives
  • Mid-century social games: bridge, canasta, mahjong
  • Mid-century gender roles and stereotypes (e.g., women are irresponsible with money, men aren't good at taking care of children)
  • Public perception of and discrimination against multi-cultural families
  • Why there were only 48 states in the early 1950s
  • Methods of patrolling international borders
  • What a passport is and how to obtain one
  • Public transportation vs. car ownership in New York City and other major metropolitan areas
  • The Alps and avalanches
Cooking and Cuisine
  • Traditional Italian winemaking
  • Traditional Cuban foods
  • Breadmaking
  • Etiquette surrounding escargot
Art, Drama, and Design
  • Use of facial expressions, stunts, and special effects to make physical comedy
  • Mid-century clothing, including garments rarely worn today in the United States (e.g., girdles, slips, smoking jackets)
  • Costuming and how often particular items are repeated during a season
  • Makeup techniques
  • Set design, including architecture, props, set changes between episodes and seasons
  • Popular furniture styles of the 1950s (mid-century modern, early American, modern Chinese)
  • Vaudeville performers
  • Advantages and disadvantages of filming before a live studio audience
  • Sponsors, advertising, and product placement
  • Child actors and child labor laws
  • Aesthetic differences between black-and-white and color film and implications for set design
  • Old Hollywood (actors/actresses and significant Hollywood locations)
  • References to I Love Lucy in the contemporary movie Rat Race and people who act professionally as Lucy impersonators
Literature and Language Arts
  • How puns work
  • Figures of speech
  • Plot devices and narrative patterns
  • Narrative differences and similarities between radio shows and early television sitcoms
Economics and Math
  • How checking accounts work and what it means to bounce a check
  • How store credit works and why it's rarely used in the U.S. today
  • Meaning of the adage about not mixing business with friendship
  • How the value of collectible items is determined
  • Rights and responsibilities of landlords
  • Home-based businesses and the importance of correctly figuring one's profit
  • Currency exchange rates
  • Counterfeit money
  • Inflation
  • Minimum wage
  • Exporting of American jobs in second half of twentieth century
  • Operetta as a genre and how it differs from opera
  • Traditional Latin music and Latin jazz
  • What bandleaders and conductors do
  • Square dancing and rockabilly music
  • References to I Love Lucy in popular music (Jimmy Buffet's "Pencil Thin Mustache" and Weird Al Yankovic's parody song "Oh Ricky")
Health and Biology
  • Health effects and changing public perception of cigarette smoking
  • Physical and behavioral effects of alcohol consumption
  • Changing medical advice and social norms surrounding childbirth (e.g., mid-century bottle feeding, homemade baby formula, Dr. Spock)
  • Biological causes and emotional effects of miscarriage

While television watching is often characterized as "passive" and a withdrawal from "real life"--especially when children are the watchers--Hadley's I Love Lucy-thon was neither. Would a passive viewer bother to pause a program two or three or five times an hour to ask her dad to explain some word or name or concept, or wait excitedly while her mom searched the internet for more information? Would a passive viewer replay a scene over and over until she was certain she got the joke? We had some deep hour-long conversations, just before going to sleep or in the car, after new ideas from I Love Lucy had percolated and given rise to new understandings or questions. And how lovely it was for my husband and me to snuggle with our sweet daughter on the couch and watch her face as she smiled and thought deeply and laughed! Those times will provide special memories when all of us are older, and when opportunities to gather on the family couch aren't so plentiful. Sometimes our family will be out and about and Hadley will say, "Do you know what that reminds me of?" and we all share a good laugh because we know exactly which Lucy episode she has in mind.

Critics of unschooling like to speak of the importance of "well-roundedness"--a characteristic they can't imagine an unschooled child possessing--and thus I find it satisfying to share that while watching 154 episodes of I Love Lucy this summer, Hadley still found time to attend weekly gymnastics and karate practice, enjoy the county fair, swim in our community pool, play with the neighbor kids, attend a few birthday parties, complete two challenging sewing projects, build with Legos, help in the garden, attend a week-long art day camp, hunt for fossils, tour a lighthouse, play on numerous playgrounds, compare and calculate prices of things she wanted to buy with her allowance, and visit a history museum. That certainly seems well-rounded to me.

The next time you hear parents worrying (or boasting!) about limiting their children's "screen time," or when you encounter experts bent on convincing you of television's inevitable addictive lure, I hope you will consider my family's Lucy experience. With a positive attitude and parental involvement, television can be just another great resource for learning, and a conduit for family closeness and joy.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reasons matter: homeschooling, unschooling, and priorities

Homeschoolers come to homeschooling for different reasons. I get that. But I do think some reasons for homeschooling are better than others.

It is better to homeschool because one cares about children's well-being than because one wants to exercise certain parental rights.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to help specific children learn well and happily than because one wants to give the government the middle finger, or make some other kind of political statement.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to make a child's world larger, with more opportunities, than because one wants to make it smaller, with fewer opportunities.

John Holt, the former teacher and founder of Growing Without Schooling magazine and the first to use the term "unschooling," was a great friend of children. I think it's safe to assume that Holt would be disturbed by the attempts of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to become the voice for all American homeschoolers. The HSLDA argues for the right of parents to use corporal punishment on their children and takes political stances on subjects like gay marriage that have nothing to do with homeschooling and everything to do with religion. The HSLDA has undermined decades of work by state-level homeschooling groups to secure reasonable homeschooling statutes, and the organization uses hyperbolic and distorted reports to scare parents into becoming dues-paying members in exchange for legal defense they don't need.

Michelle Goldberg's "Homeschooled Kids, Now Grown, Blog Against the Past" reveals much that is wrong with Christian fundamentalist homeschooling, and with the HSLDA. The article makes it clear that many fundamentalist homeschooling parents are not only harming their children, but actually making the legal right to homeschool shakier for everyone. The general public is rightfully concerned about homeschooling that involves abuse, neglect, sexism, and anti-intellectualism--that is, with homeschooling used to make a child's world smaller instead of larger.

Another threat to homeschooling, and to unschooling in particular, comes from a different place on the political spectrum. Certain unschoolers who see unschooling as inseparable from a libertarian or anarchist world view are actively courting media attention these days, in the name of bringing unschooling to the mainstream. (As with the HSLDA, both economic and political motives seem to be at work here.) Unfortunately, some of these advocates seem to think that any attention is good attention. They imagine that the portrayals of unschooling on shows such as Wife Swap are wonderful even if the privacy of their own children is violated by camera crews and their children's reputations damaged by unscrupulous editing. No matter what the media-seeking unschooling advocates say their intentions are, if the public is left with the impression that unschooling means children being left to fend for themselves in the name of "liberty," the legal right to unschool will be jeopardized. The kinds of media representations that are good for unschooling (and there have been some of these, though never on Wife Swap) look deeply at how people learn, and are thoughtful and nuanced in their discussion of how parents partner with their children. They are designed to be informational and not entertaining (which is to say, they don't include guests uttering bleeped-out words and ranting at each other), and generally don't offer financial compensation to the participants.

While I am glad to know some wonderful homeschooling families, I don't see myself as part of "the homeschooling community" or "the unschooling community." I am wary of homeschooling where the priority is not helping children thrive, and of homeschooling and unschooling advocates with political and economic agendas that can too easily eclipse actual children's needs.

*UPDATE*: Those interested in how priorities can help or hinder unschooling and/or peaceful parenting should check out Sandra Dodd's page on Priorities. I don't know anyone who has written more clearly, or helpfully, about the subject.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Better getting-to-know-you questions for unschoolers (and everyone)

A friend of mine who recently saw my children for the first time in over a year told me that she had trouble thinking of what to say to them on this particular visit. She said that she usually asks kids their grade level, or how they like their teachers, or what their favorite school subjects are. (In fact, I can recall her asking my kids some of these questions during a previous visit, and receiving a few blank stares in response.)

Because she has read my blog, and we've had some conversations about how unschooling differs from the kind of homeschooling that attempts to replicate school, she now realizes that those questions aren't particularly appropriate. But alternate questions didn't readily come to mind. After all, what kind of getting-to-know-you questions do you ask children who neither go to school, nor homeschool in a school-at-home kind of way?

I really appreciate my friend's honesty about this subject. And for the record, I think that the getting-acquainted questions adults ask each other often fall short as well.

My children enjoy talking about what interests them. "So, what do you enjoy doing?" is a great getting-to-know-you question. 

It is much, much better than the favorite school-subject question because the answer can be, "I like reading and watching movies about different U.S. presidents," but can also be, "I like playing Minecraft and watching YouTube videos about how to play it better." The answer can be, "I like reading the Little House books with my mom," which involves reading and history but doesn't need to classified under those headings to be both fun and worthwhile to the child. In fact, I'm quite sure that while reading the Little House books with me, my daughter is not thinking about which school subjects she might be checking off.

"Do you have any special activities coming up?" is another good question. A child asked this question can talk about an upcoming dance recital, or a birthday party, or a trip to the mineral museum, or the purchase of a new video game once enough allowance has been saved.

It's simple, really. The kinds of questions my children respond to with enthusiasm tend to be the same kinds of questions that I respond to with enthusiasm. Even when I had a paid eight-to-five job, it seemed strange to be defined so completely by my job title that it was the first thing I was expected to tell people about myself.

I once had a boyfriend who ended up seated on a plane next to a woman who said she was an artist. Things were all friendly and chit-chatty until the woman explained that she paid her bills working as a medical receptionist. You see, my then-boyfriend felt it was deceptive of her to call herself an artist when she spent forty hours a week answering phones and sending faxes. I mean, how dare she? (That boyfriend and I broke up not too long after an argument about the airplane seatmate, whom I defended.)

Here's the thing: If what you most want me to know about you is that you work professionally as a marketing consultant, and I say, "So, what sorts of things do you enjoy doing?" you can say, "I LOVE working as a marketing consultant!" and tell me about a big client you just snagged, or a great campaign you successfully executed. But if you are a marketing consultant who happens to hate your job, my question gives you an opportunity to share something positive about yourself--something about the person you understand yourself to be. You can say, "I love designing fondant cakes!" or tell me about how you volunteer Saturday mornings at the Humane Society, or how you're an avid reader of crime novels and are thinking about trying your hand at writing one. And instead of just performing some empty social ritual, I've actually given myself a chance to know something real about you.

Philip W. Jackson's 1968 classic education study Life in Classrooms reminds readers of "an important fact about a student's life that parents and teachers often prefer not to talk about . . . This is the fact that young people have to be in school, whether they want to be or not." While we may encounter a child who is thrilled to say that he's in third grade, or that social studies is his favorite subject, I think most children have more interesting things they'd like to tell us. We really should give them the chance.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Interview with Grown Homeschooler Amanda Scott

I recently had the opportunity to interview Amanda Scott, a grown homeschooler from Alabama who is also an atheist.  I met Amanda, who is nineteen, on the Freedom From Religion Foundation Facebook page, where Amanda is known for her extensive knowledge of First Amendment caselaw.  Amanda is also the administrator of a Facebook Group called "The Wall of Separation," dedicated to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, the Framers' intent, and Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Did you homeschool from early childhood on, or did you have some school experiences along the way?

AS: I attended public school until the fourth grade.

How did you and/or your parents arrive at the decision to homeschool?

AS: My parents decided to homeschool me because of my health.  I had a health problem that required me to go to the doctor at least three times a week which conflicted with my school schedule.  But my parents saw that I did better at home than at school, so they decided to continue to homeschool me for the rest of my school years.

Did your parents have any particular homeschooling philosophy or approach?  Did you ever use a formal curriculum?

AS: At first my parents used a formal homeschooling curriculum with homeschool textbooks, but later on they used an online curriculum and I did most of my studying online on various educational websites.  On a side note, I remember my first homeschool textbooks were published by a Christian company and included a Bible verse question at the end of each chapter. 

Were you raised in a freethinking home, or did you abandon religious ideas somewhere along the way?

AS: I was raised without any religion.  My parents never baptized me, took me to church, or sent me to Sunday school or vacation Bible school.  We never read the Bible.  I am not even sure we owned a Bible!  We celebrated Christmas and Easter as secular holidays.  We always decorated our house with trees, garland, wreaths, mistletoe, Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and snowmen, but we never put up a nativity scene, an angel, or even a star signifying the Christian origins of Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, when I became a teenager, I became interested in learning about religion, and I read the New Testament, the Torah, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, the Satanic Bible and a number of other religious texts.  But I was not interested in converting to any religion.  I am still not interested in converting to any religion now.  Religion is not for me. 

Some might find it hard to believe that a teenager would do so much reading if it wasn't assigned by a teacher.   How would you respond to those who argue that teenagers need formal incentives (rewards, sanctions, etc.) to learn?

AS: I think, to quote John Holt, that the human animal is a learning animal.   Children are naturally interested in learning.  But when you put children into the traditional public or private schooling system, teach them for eight hours a day, and then assign them homework and prepare them for tests, they lose their natural interest in learning once they leave school.   Fortunately I haven't lost my natural interest in learning.

And how did your parents respond to your researching various religious traditions?

AS: My parents encouraged me to learn about religion.  My mother took me every week to our local Barnes & Noble store and let me browse the Religion & Spirituality section and select a new book on religion.  I recall one interesting experience where I was looking for a copy of the Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey but couldn't find one and my mother asked the Barnes & Noble sales managers if they had any copies left in stock.  Their reaction was priceless!  I became a regular at the book store until it closed down two years ago.  Now I buy all of my books online through websites that sell used textbooks and ex-library books. 

Did you ever find that when you identified yourself as a homeschooler, people assumed you were Christian?

AS: Yes they did, and they still do.  When I tell people I was homeschooled, they assume I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household where I was taught that Jesus rode on the dinosaurs, but it was the exact opposite.
You are very interested in, and knowledgeable about, constitutional law.  When and how did this interest develop?

AS: Last year I discovered the Freedom From Religion Foundation after a local friend reported the city of Bay Minett's "Operation Restore Our Community" program which would have allowed misdemeanor offenders to choose between going to jail or attending church services for a year.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other national civil rights groups intervened and put a stop (or at least a halt) to the unconstitutional program.  I became very interested in learning more about the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.  I began researching the Supreme Court Religion Clause cases like McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948),  Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), 374 U.S. 203 (1963), and Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).  I also researched Circuit Court cases. 

Unfortunately, because I am not a law student (yet, anyway), I do not have a subscription to professional legal search engines like WestLaw or LexisNexis.  I use which allows me to search through legal documents including Supreme Court cases and Circuit Court up to about the 1930s.  For the State Court cases predating the 1930s, like State ex rel Weiss v. District Board 76 Wis. 177 (1890) or Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor, 23 Ohio St. 211 (1872), I use Google Books which allows me to search through digitally archived copies of case law reports like the South Eastern Reporter or the Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio.  I also bought a used copy of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation and learned how to cite court cases properly, quote judicial opinions, omit quotations, and use signals.  Because I was homeschooled/unschooled, I learned how to teach myself without a formal teacher.  But I understand that I need to have a formal university education and I am hoping to enroll in paralegal studies next year and apply for a legal internship with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the next couple of years.

You clearly seem to have learned to locate and apply information for yourself.  Are there any other ways in which you see homeschooling as having been advantageous?

AS: Yes.  My parents gave me access to the Internet as young as eight years old.  At a very young age, I developed the skills to efficiently use search engines to find information.  I also developed the skills to create websites by coding HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and create graphics in Photoshop which enabled me to open my own fansite for my favorite band at the age of thirteen.  I think being homeschooled has been advantageous to me because I developed skills that some people have to go to school for.

What, if anything, has been the downside to homeschooling for you, as compared to conventional schooling?

AS: I think the only downside to being homeschooled is anxiety.  I am anxious about going to college after being homeschooled for so many years.  I will have to adapt to sitting in a classroom next to other students listening to a teacher again.  However, my anxiety is only in a school setting.  I don't have any anxiety in any other social setting.

What was it like--and is it like today--being a nonbeliever in Alabama? 

AS: My family and I have done very well in Alabama.  Religion and politics are not topics that come up in our everyday lives.  When someone asks me where I go to church, I just politely respond that I don't go to church.  If someone hands me a religious pamphlet, I just politely accept it and say thank you.  I don't discuss my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or political views with strangers because it's none of their business.

What do you think are the most important qualities, practices, habits, etc. that secular homeschooling parents should model to their children?

AS: I think Dale McGowan's book Parenting Beyond Belief is a good place to start.  I think the most important quality parents can teach their children is charity, regardless of whether they are religious or secular.  My parents taught me to be charitable by example.  My mother and father would always do random acts of charity, like helping the person in line at the grocery store pay for their groceries when they came up short, or stopping by the side of the road and giving someone a ride when their car broke down, or letting someone stay over at our house when they had nowhere else to go.  When I was a little girl I didn't understand why they did the things they do, but now I understand why they did them.  Charity knows no religion. 

I want to thank Amanda for sharing her experiences and insights, which I hope are as interesting (and encouraging!) to other secular and unschooling/homeschooling parents as they are to me. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Unschooling-Atheism Intersection

While What to Tell the Neighbors was still in the conceptual stage, I wondered if it might be problematic to focus on both unschooling and atheism.  After all, not all unschoolers are atheists, and certainly most atheists are not unschoolers.  

Yet for me the two are linked in some important ways. 

First, both unschooling and atheism are significant departures from the typical, not only here in western Kentucky, but in most parts of the United States.  Unschooling atheist families may be viewed as doubly odd and thus must be extra thick-skinned when facing criticism.  Often, they must make a concerted effort to find the support they need to sustain them.  Blogs can be an important part of that support--both for writers and readers!

Second, successful unschooling (generally defined as an approach to homeschooling in which children learn without pre-designed curricula, grading, standardized tests, and other conventions of traditional schooling) requires parents who are convinced that children learn better from love than from fear, from being allowed to explore than from being forced, and from formulating questions than from memorizing someone else's answers.  Thus, unschoolers tend to be people whose worldview is not fundamentalist anything.  While not all of the unschoolers I've encountered identify as atheist, many do identify as atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, skeptic, etc. 

A few months ago, I "met" (in that virtual Facebook way) a young woman who is both an atheist and a grown homeschooler.  Her name is Amanda Scott, she is nineteen years old, and she never fails to dazzle me with her knowledge of constitutional law.  In addition to being an active participant on the Freedom from Religion Foundation's Facebook page, Amanda is the administrator of a Facebook Group called "The Wall of Separation," which is a great source of information on Supreme Court jurisprudence related to the First Amendment.  I thought it would be interesting to interview Amanda to see how her experiences learning outside of a traditional school environment influenced her atheism, and vice versa.  Amanda agreed to the interview, which will be appearing soon as my next post.  If you are an unschooling or homeschooling parent who is raising your child without religion, you won't want to miss this one.