Thursday, October 23, 2014

Small towns and Gideongate: two years later

The leaves are turning gold and crimson, we've fired up the furnace the past three mornings, and my kids are counting down the days to Halloween, a holiday that retains plenty of charm and old-fashioned fun in our small town. Door-to-door trick-or-treating is still a big thing, and because we live just up the street from downtown where merchants hand out goodies on Halloween afternoon, we typically welcome over 300 trick-our-treaters to our porch come Halloween evening.

As I enjoy the seasonal beauty and anticipate the approaching festivities, I'm also struck with sadness and too-vivid memories of the events now known in our house as "Gideongate." Two years ago this month, my public challenge of our local schools' cozy relationship with the Gideons International and of prayer at school board meetings resulted in a frenzy that reached the media, shook up longstanding friendships and acquaintanceships, and affected my family in ways that I couldn't have anticipated. And though I shudder at the memory of a city council candidate/proud Christian physically restraining his son on the sidewalk in front of our house to prevent the poor kid from getting hold of some atheist M&Ms, I don't regret taking a stand.

Earlier this week, Beau Dure explained Why Millenials Are Avoiding Small-Town America and why we should care ("Because small-town America won't survive without an infusion of fresh blood"). Acknowledging the problem of insufficient job opportunities, Dure goes on to blame small towns for failing to create the "walkable neighborhoods and traditional town centers" that Millenials desire. And while I (a Gen Xer) agree that having a downtown coffee shop, sidewalks in good repair, more shops selling needed items instead of third-hand junk, and some kind of evening arts scene would dramatically improve the quality of life here, I wish Dure had addressed the ways in which religious fundamentalism is driving Milennials from small towns.

One of the unexpected outcomes of Gideongate was being contacted by many Milennials who had left my town for large metro areas because they could not stand the religious intolerance, which includes intolerance of gays and lesbians. My town now has a tourism office that does some good work promoting our musical heritage (namely thumbpicking and the Everly Brothers) but last year used its Facebook page to promote a local church's production of Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames, a "hellhouse" play typically performed around Halloween that demonizes gays and lesbians, among others.

A marquee on a local church currently proclaims, "IF MAN EVOLVED FROM MONKEYS WHY ARE THERE STILL MONKEYS," recalling a certain school board member's public comments during Gideongate. While appalled by the anti-intellectualism and ignorance about evolution's basic tenets reflected in such comments, I fully support the constitutional principles that allow churches to say virtually anything on their marquees. The pastor of this church, on the other hand, once told me in an online discussion that his faith doesn't permit him to support church-state separation.

As the comments posted to my blog during Gideongate reveal, small-town residents are often quick to defend provincial attitudes with snappy replies like, "Love it or leave it!" The problem is, many young adults are leaving, and too often they are the kinds of involved, educated, and principled people small towns can't afford to lose.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

On leisure and busy-ness

For both the adults and children in our family, one of the biggest challenges to forming and sustaining friendships is that nearly everyone seems to be busier than we are.

Other people's weekends are crammed with children's soccer (or baseball, basketball, etc.) games and church; their weekday afternoons with homework, soccer practice, and, on Wednesdays, more church. School and church alone, with their offshoots like family reading nights and science fairs and vacation bible school and mission trip fundraisers, take up a huge chunk of other people's lives.

I sometimes feel I should apologize for not being busier. Instead, I offer our flexibility as a way to make it easier to get together with others. "Name a time," I say, "and we can probably make it happen." Or I speak sympathetically about my own three children's scheduled activities, which currently are ballet, karate, drum lessons, scouts, and gymnastics, though actually they leave us with ample time to get together with friends, read books just because we want to, make homemade meals, and, most of the time, get enough sleep. We sometimes rush out to the car with me worried we won't make it someplace on time, but the hurrying is because I have mismanaged time, not because our lives are overwhelmingly busy.

Privilege is a big idea these days, and I acknowledge that our family is very, very fortunate to make a go of it on a single salary. We are also fortunate that my husband and I have had the life experiences to make us confident about unschooling.

And yet.

For at least middle-class families, factors other than family economics play a big role in chronic busy-ness. In his 2012 op-ed "The Busy Trap," Tim Kreider laments:
Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another's eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

While acknowledging that all latchkey children might not have as easy a time as Kreider (a Gen Xer like me), can we recognize something that has been lost here? Might children who spend all day in school and after-school care benefit from a couple of evenings a week just hanging out at home? Will a child's chance of succeeding at high school baseball or softball be destroyed because he or she does not play t-ball as a four-year-old? Can we recognize that playing in adult-directed sports leagues doesn't bond children in the same way as throwing dirt clods at each other?

After connecting his own decision to become a writer with the leisure time of his youth, Kreider reminds us of the relationship between leisure and creativity. His argument recalls one of my favorite passages from school-reformer-turned-unschooling-advocate John Holt's book Learning All the Time:

Real learning is a process of discovery, and if we want it to happen, we must create the kinds of conditions in which discoveries are made. We know what these are. They include time, leisure, freedom, and lack of pressure.

I love many things about the life we have created, but one of the things I love most is that we have the time to experience each day unfolding and to pursue interesting avenues of learning. Because our children are accustomed to sane lives, I suspect they will, like their parents and Kreider, gravitate toward ways of supporting themselves and their future families that aren't soul-sucking. I am more than okay with that.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Can we please stop repeating this "fact" about reading?

A foundation in my county has done all sorts of great work to improve the quality of life for local citizens. Thus I hesitate to criticize any of their efforts, which I think are mostly well-intended. But when I came across this promotional piece about the foundation's efforts to increase "kindergarten readiness" among local children, I must admit I was gobsmacked.

I could write a very long post about all the claims in the piece that make me uneasy, but instead I will focus on one statement that I find particularly dishonest:
"Until third grade, children are reading to learn to read. From there on, they are reading to get information."
To be clear, this statement is not original. It can be found, in slightly different form here and here, among other places. You can probably find some document from your local school district that makes this claim. It has become a predictable component of the "kindergarten readiness" speech parroted by school administrators, grant program overseers, and testing company representatives.

But it's not true, and more of us need to stand up and say so.

For my children, and for every other child I've known, reading has emerged from a complex mix of motivations. To say that beginning readers are reading solely to "learn to read" is reductive and insulting. It does, however, explain why so many schoolish beginning texts are incredibly boring. Why would content matter if learning to "decode" is all that beginning readers care about?

Do you know what my eldest son carried off to bed every night during the couple of months he crossed that magic bridge from not reading to reading? Transformers graphic novels intended for older children, and the Kentucky State Driver Manual. Why was he willing to expend effort, night after night, on these books? He wasn't attending school; no one was pressuring him to learn to read. He expended effort because he was interested in Transformers story lines, and fascinated by the hidden meanings of road signs, especially the unusual ones. In other words, he was reading to get information, even though he was five years old and, if schooled, would have been in kindergarten.

My daughter is nine, and homeschooled like her brothers. If she were in school, she would be in the third grade, and by now supposedly "reading to get information." But, in fact, her reading skills continue to improve the more she reads. Like her older brother, who has been reading for five years, she is learning how to read (better) as she reads, picking up new words as well as a more complex understanding of how structure, tone, punctuation, figurative language--the whole kit and kaboodle--create meaning.

And what about all the other reasons that people--children and adults alike--read? What about reading to escape our present difficulties, reading to be entertained, and reading to be inspired? No sane educator would disagree that people, including children, read for these purposes. So what does the current educational establishment really mean when it proposes an imaginary change in reading intent that occurs precisely before third grade?

It means that starting with third grade, you are expected to be a fluent reader as defined by the current educational establishment. It means that starting with third grade, if you aren't reading to the current educational establishment's standards, you are on your own. It means that in some states, you will be held back in third grade until you are a fluent reader as defined by the current educational establishment--that is, unless your parents take you out and homeschool you, or put you in a private school that is more tolerant of individual children's unique learning schedules.

The current educational establishment likes to cite evidence that if children aren't reading fluently by third grade, they are screwed. But this appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy driven more by the withdrawal of teacher support for later readers than by a brain-based missed window of opportunity. Just because one isn't yet reading fluently doesn't mean one is incapable of learning about all kinds of important things. Peter Gray's study of unschoolers provides a compelling look at unschooled children who learned to read later than the schools now deem acceptable, without lasting negative consequences, and with plenty of positive ones.

Administrators, teachers, and the parents of schooled children should read Pam Sorooshian's description of her "late" reader jumping up and down at the mere idea of reading The Borrowers and ask themselves if public education might possibly learn something from unschooling families, rather than spreading made-up facts about reading.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Three books for critical thinking

I have many reasons for thinking my children are better off learning at home than at school. One of these is that schools are notoriously poor at fostering critical thinking. Critical thinking is hard to assess with multiple-choice tests, and finding time to nurture it may seem impossible to those charged with teaching kindergarten students to identify pronouns, or with keeping kids from walking on the wrong color square in the hallway.

As Chris Liebig at A Blog About School has written, "Real critical thinking always involves challenging someone's authority--not an easy skill to teach when you're otherwise busy sending the constant message of 'do as we say and don't talk back.'"

Adults who agree that critical thinking is important might be interested in three books, appropriate for older children, that embody the spirit of critical thinking. These books also make useful resources for those trying to figure out how to expose children to religion without indoctrinating them.
Mapping a Changing World by Yvette La Pierre
Essentially a history of maps, Mapping a Changing World is packed with facts about cartography across time and cultures. Some of its finest passages, however, are more philosophical in nature, raising important questions about how we know what we know, why we tend to mythologize to fill in gaps in our knowledge, and what happens when we make decisions based on incorrect maps.
Describing the oldest known map of the world, a fragment of a Babylonian clay tablet dating to 500 B.C., La Pierre says, "You'll notice when you look at the tablet that Babylon is in the center of the world. Early mapmakers commonly put themselves in the center of the universe, just as we can be self-centered in our view of place today." Even children are capable of heeding this warning. 
You Can't Read This: Forbidden Books, Lost Writing, Mistranslations & Codes by Val Ross
Any of these eighteen stories about reading is fascinating on its own, and collectively they illustrate the complex relationship between literacy and power. Recurring themes include censorship, legal prohibitions against reading, reading as tool of and threat to religious authority, and the struggle to decode unknown languages. The chapter on girls in Afghanistan is dated (because of the Taliban's resurgence) but still likely to help children understand the precarious nature of rights.
This is another book whose strength lies in the questions it poses. Ross asks, "[A] language that expresses the thoughts of one culture may lack words that are vital to another. In that case, how can the translation ever be accurate?" and "Sooner or later, we come across a book that we decide we should not read because we think it is false or dangerous. But do we have the right to make that decision for other people?"
The Brick Bible: The Complete Set by Brendan Scott Powell
It may surprise some to learn that Powell's The Brick Bible has both a strong atheist and a strong fundamentalist Christian following. Powell brings the books of the Bible to life in an easy-to-read translation of his own, illustrated with some of the most imaginative Lego builds ever seen. The book of Revelation is just . . . well, really something. 
From a critical thinking standpoint, Powell's book is better than the typical children's Bible because it doesn't edit out the stuff that makes Yahweh and Jesus seem a little nuts--thus the atheist appeal. And some fundamentalists don't see a problem with this (presumably because they are okay with God's vengeful side), and flood Powell's inbox with requests to reproduce pages from The Brick Bible for use in Sunday School classes. Also, Jesus isn't the implausibly light-skinned, blue-eyed guy from the typical children's Bible. He's a bright yellow Lego mini-figure.
While some of the most graphic passages have been cut from the print version of The Brick Bible (they are available at Powell's website, with a warning about mature content), there is still plenty here to give children a broader exposure to the Christian text than they are likely to get in most Sunday School classes. And while parents will need to take into consideration the age, temperaments, and existing knowledge of their children, they are likely to find that the crucifixion of Jesus on a plastic Lego cross isn't likely to inspire Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ-style nightmares.
Because I believe that children should be able to choose their own reading material (with parents available to provide assistance when it's wanted), I don't recommend assigning or even pressing kids to read these books. What I have done with the first two is to read them myself, then refer to passages or illustrations from the books when it seemed appropriate. For example, my daughter recently became interested in Helen Keller and sign language, and when she asked for help locating some more sign language videos I casually mentioned that the Ross book has a chapter about how Braille was developed. She replied that of course she was interested! Similarly, she has been learning about the Holocaust, so I referred her to several maps in La Pierre's book that trace the changing national boundaries in Europe from just before World War I to the present.

These are the kinds of books that don't have to be read in one sitting. And I know from past experience that once my children are exposed to books in our house, they tend to search them out later when seeking information.

When it came to The Brick Bible, I engaged in what Sandra Dodd calls "strewing." In other words, I left the books on the coffee table, where they were eventually discovered.