Building A Sturdy Bridge

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One can choose many paths to take in life. We have the unique ability to flex our power in making choices and decisions. As a young child, we grow and learn naturally. Our curiosity is a fantastic teacher. We may choose one toy over another or we may prefer to bang on the kitchen pots and pans over building mud houses in the sand box. Our power of choice is strong, and our parents allow us this freedom, until they don’t. Choice and freedom slowly start to erode somewhere in childhood, usually by the age of 5- when we enter compulsory education and the probationary life begins.

Our choices are now limited and narrow because now we are “expected” to participate in school. What we need now is to be taught. By an expert. Who knows more than we do. But didn’t we show our parents that we were and are capable of learning and growing on our own? What suddenly changed? Did we give any indication of short comings in our development? Why is school then the answer?

Life in school, is like being on probation. Probation is defined as “the process or period of testing the character or abilities of a person and subject to a period of good behavior under supervision.” We punish, guilt, shame and emotionally manipulate them when they don’t oblige us. We ask them to conform, follow directions, not ask questions, and perform to unreasonable standards and testing, year after year until they graduate. This way teaches children to doubt their own minds and their worth as a person when the grades don’t measure up and it creates adults who will then tolerate emotional manipulation and abusive relationships because that’s been their model.  If we are to raise free thinkers and confident individuals, we must create an environment that provides a healthy model that benefits the child’s well being, personal integrity and autonomy.

We have seen first hand what happens when a child is given freedom to learn on their own, follow their curiosity and study their interests at their own pace. They build the bridge of their choosing to cross. By doing this they take responsibility for themselves at a much younger age. Being personally invested in the process makes a huge difference!  Alfie Kohn, American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior said,

“The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”

Let’s choose to get out of the child’s way and allow them the space and time to develop their talents and inclinations and encourage them to express who they are as individuals, in an environment that will not stunt their passions and curiosities and spirit.

 

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Fitted For Freedom

 

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“An education is truly “fitted for freedom” only if it is such as to
produce free citizens, citizens who are free not because of wealth or
birth, but because they can call their minds their own. Male and female,
slave-born and freeborn, rich and poor, they have looked into
themselves and developed the ability to separate mere habit and
convention from what they can defend by argument. They have ownership of their own thought and speech, and this imparts to them a dignity that is far beyond the outer dignity of class and rank.”
~Martha Nussbaum

 

Abundance In Learning

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“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

People would think me crazy for buying “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education” for my then ninth grader in high school. In fact, I was totally sane when I purchased it. It was the best book I could have got her. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

A terrible, pit-in-my stomach feeling was the wake up call. School was changing her in a way that was of growing concern. Before attending school, she was very excited about her learning- my eldest daughter loves to read and stay up on current events. She enjoys thoughtful conversation, challenge, loves art and music and performing in theater. School took her away from these things. She had no time. The usually gregarious, happy-spirited kid with a positive outlook became sullen, uninterested, moody and anxious. The stress about the homework,

the grades and the pressure her teachers put on her was taking more than it was giving.

As I began to look at her “work” being done in school, I felt a huge let down. There was no real learning happening. It became cramming  for the test, then quickly forgetting the information. It didn’t spark any joy. It didn’t excite or engage her. The work was pointless, busy work designed to break the spirit into submission, and that sadly, is what it did.

She would dread having to get up and go every morning. There were many mornings when I would look at her tired eyes, her nearly in tears. She spent many, many nights up until 2:00 or 3:00 am, working to get homework done for the next day. So I had to ask myself, would it be that bad for her to quit school and start to have a life that had some purpose, where she could choose to learn the things she was curious about, where learning would “stick” because she would have the power in the decision making? She would take control back of her time and would be liberated from the institution of school. She would take charge of her own education. So…

What conditions are present when learning really “sticks”?

For starters, you need a safe and positive environment, a personal investment, real world application, fun, relevance to life, social interactions, the ability to question everything, a passion and drive, teachers and mentors available to help when needed, autonomy, and no time constraints. Look at that positive model…

Now, here’s what we do in classrooms…

We sit in rows, our time is constrained to block periods, a one-size fits all curriculum, same age grouped co-learners, no real world application, teacher controlled, someone else’s questions, not allowed to question anything, standardized assessments, emphasis on grades, no choices in what to study, lack of relevance.

Somewhere along the way we got disconnected from the true purpose of education. To learn. The disconnect happens between what we believe and what we actually do in our classrooms. Part is nostalgia. We went to school, we appear to have turned out fine, it’s like a rite of passage. But the truth is, we didn’t really learn anything too. The method’s haven’t changed. The sad thing is other people like policy makers are setting the standards and expectations for us. We’re just doing what were told. Time to change all that.

It’s time we align our practice to our beliefs.

Most of us weren’t productive in school because we weren’t engaged in the process. Most kids will forget what they learn in school. We know this because we have forgotten most of what we learned in school. We cannot ignore this any longer. We learn when the interest is something we are invested in. All of us carry the narrative that we have to go to school, take a set number of classes, learn the way its taught, get good grades, attend with same age kids. We own that narrative.

The narrative now is that traditional schooling in breaking down.

The disconnect in schools aren’t built for learning, learning on one’s own looks different from learning at school. We have to acknowledge this huge contrast. A recent Gallup pole asked students from elementary school to high school their level of engagement in school. In elementary it was 76%, by the time high school rolled around, it went down to 44%. So at this point,

56% of high school students are not engaged in school.

What does this mean to you, as a parent? Is this acceptable to you? Are you “OK” with this?

We live in a time of ABUNDANCE– sources for learning are everywhere, virtually at our fingertips. We need to talk honestly about education. We don’t discuss them because if we do, they put the entire experience of schooling into a conversation that many of us don’t want to have. This is going to be a hard conversation, and one I hope you are willing to have. Our kids’ future is at risk. Their world is changing everyday. Every child wants to be a part of this changing world. They want real experiences that have relevance to their life. They want passion and a personal investment beyond grades. They want autonomy. They want control.

If we can successfully give them that, they are only limited to their imagination!

Asking Better Questions

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Image found via Pinterest

We have home-educated our children for the last eight years. Early on, I felt an overwhelming need to measure, test and push to make sure the kids were on the right path. I was teaching them everything I thought they could possibly need to know to “make it” in their life. Was slogging through years of Latin really going to make a big impact on their life? Probably not.

I have attempted to answer the same questions, over and over, year after year for my own children. Whose path is it? What do they want? What is their idea of a life well lived? Every revisit of these questions has brought me a little closer to having a better understanding of what is truly important; for me and for my kids.

Our oldest, just turned sixteen. She has explored her own definition of living a life of purpose and happiness (notice the removal of the word success). She continuously asks hard questions of herself, she’s spoken of and written down her wants, her wishes and her dreams- and these continually change, but she understands that her future is up to her. Her own influence and decisions are bringing her closer to the kind of life she imagines for herself.

For so many her age, they feel helpless about their future. We must allow kids to imagine and have experiences that help them to define their own meaning of purpose and happiness and engage in conversations around this idea. One of my favorite quotes, and one that I have up on a board at home is a quote by Hunter S. Thompson.

Beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.”

In our house we do thought experiments based around questions. We talk about these questions in an open way-Sometimes they chose to share their response, other times, its simply for them to explore. Better understanding of oneself leads to and influences motivations and beliefs and shows us that we are the creators of our life. Making it in the ever changing world means that we have to ask intelligent and more thoughtful questions. Now, my worries about the direction my kids take is nil. I don’t think there is such a thing as the “right path”, it’s the path that you make that is worthy.

If you’re curious to know, here are some of the questions we ask:

What does one think is living well?

How do we want to be in the world?

What do we want our world to look like?

Am I worthy of this or is it worthy of me?

What is the difference between living and existing?

Do you find yourself influencing your world, or it influencing you?

What is worse- failing or never trying?

Should one worry what others think of them?

If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be?

What does happiness mean to you?

What would you do differently if you knew no one would judge you?

What are the top five things you cherish in your life?

How should one handle anxiety?

What is the purpose of money?

What would you say is the one thing you’d like to change in the world?

What makes you smile?

Tomorrow is shaped by the type of conversations you have with yourself today.” Emily Maroutian

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters…

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Japan Adventures: Toyama

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Traveling to Toyama
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Bento box lunch I chose for train ride. It had 50 different things to try!
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Our room at the Kadokyu ryokan
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Giant persimmon tree outside the window of our room
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Innkeeper dressing Natalie in kimono
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Natalie and Olivia in kimono
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Dressed in kimono outside Buddha of Takaoka
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25 foot bronze Buddha of Takaoka
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Flowers on alter inside Buddha of Takaoka
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Wonderful lunch with good friends
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Aikido group when Doshu visited Budokan and taught. I’m sitting to the left of the man in the suit in front
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Greenwood Aikido students who traveled with us to Japan
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Beautiful chrysanthemums at Kureha Heights hotel
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Traditional dance and music performance
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Gorgeous dinner
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Carre and I at celebration dinner
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Chikako, Roger and Yoshida Sensei making toasts
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Everyone having a fun time!

 

The next stop in our Japanese adventure was to Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture. Here we joined our Aikido Sensei, Koji Yoshida to participate in a three-day aikido seminar taught by Nishio style aikidoka from all over the world. People traveled from Ukraine, France, Mexico, Sweden, Czech Republic, Russia, Malaysia and more. It was organized to commemorate Yufukan Dojo’s 40 years in Aikido.

A special class was taught by the current Doshu of Aikikai. Guest instructors, including my husband, Philip each taught a class.

Our first accommodations were at the Kadokyu ryokan (traditional inn) for two nights. We very much enjoyed our stay here! Our family had our own room and it was spacious and had a beautiful view of the gardens. We slept on futons and had buckwheat pillows for the perfect nights sleep.

The ryokan had a great soaking tub and breakfast was delicious too. One of the highlights from our stay at the ryokan was the sweet innkeeper. She made sure that our every need was met. Upon arrival I told her that I noticed outside our window a giant persimmon tree. She excused herself and came back with persimmon slices for us to eat. This small act made my heart swell, but there was something else that she did for Olivia and Natalie on our first night stay. She asked them to come into a room where she asked if they would like to be dressed in kimono. They agreed and she proceeded to dress them both. I had never watched the careful and detailed order of this art. Each of the girls had three under garments and each of those under garments were accessorized with thick belts and topped off with a haori (jacket). So many layers. So much attention to detail. Just being witness to her care and consideration really touched my heart. I thanked her many times and the girls went to dinner with our group feeling like princesses.

Across the street from the ryokan sits the Buddha of Takaoka, or Takaoka Daibutsu. This 25 foot bronze statue is the third largest Buddha in Japan. The Buddha of Takaoka was originally built in 1221, and there have been many reincarnations of it as it was originally made of wood and burned down several times before being re-built in bronze.

Our second accommodations in Toyama were at Kureha Heights. A beautiful hotel with an amazing view and onsen. After our aikido seminar we quickly rushed to get back, bathed and got ready for the beautiful night Yoshida Sensei had prepared with traditional dance, music and a feast to celebrate that was incredible. I have to say that dinner was the most beautiful Japanese dinner I’ve ever had.

We said many toasts, celebrated our good friends Chikako and Roger on their recent wedding. Yoshida Sensei arranged for them both to be dressed in traditional Japanese wedding attire and surprised the 100+ guests. They looked so happy! We had a great night and sake was brought in that our late teacher, Nishio Sensei loved. We had good food, good drink and great company to share it all with. All in all it felt like a celebration of love and happiness. Sounds corny, but everything just felt like it came from love. I am grateful to all who planned and made this an experience to remember!

 

 

 

Alternative Schooling

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I have been reading some interesting books like (this) and (this) to learn more about alternative schooling. Our family has been homeschooling for nearly seven years and have been really happy about our decision. However, more recently, through curiosity, I discovered the Sudbury Valley School model. The idea is to let kids lead their own learning through self direction-without the coercion of adults. I was interested to know more…

At Sudbury Valley School, children arrive at school and have no agenda. There’s no set curriculum, no classrooms with rows and rows of kids being “schooled”. They are free to do anything they want (this is a democratic school, so there are some rules to abide by). If they choose to play outside, they’re free to do so. Play cards with friends, same. Visit the library and read-they can do that too. Here, children decide what they are going to give their time and energy to. Adults are on hand if a student should inquire about further study in a particular subject. Only then does an adult help them understand what it is they want to learn more about.

Daniel Greenberg, Founder of Sudbury Valley, says “It’s the hardest school to be in because they have to ask themselves what they really want to do. Children need to prioritize their time. This allows them to find out who they are.” It’s about discovering the self. Isn’t this what we want for our children? We want them to discover who they are and to follow their passions and dreams until ultimately, they are living a real life that they created; not a life where they have been told/manipulated/coerced to go down some superficial “safe path”- get good grades, get accepted into college, get a high paying career, and spend the rest of your existence living up to others’ expectations or in some un-fullfilling job that you hate. Through unschooling, like the Sudbury Valley model, children learn on their own by making decisions for themselves. Not by adults force feeding them their own ideas of what they think is right for them.

The most interesting point Daniel Greenberg makes is that “When you wanted to learn something, how did you do it? You found something you were curious about, and you immersed yourself in studying it. You had a desire to progress in your learning.” For me, all of the things I have ever become interested in I have done because of a natural curiosity. No one has forced or manipulated me into thinking I “needed” to do something.

I’ve seen this with my own children. They have their own wills, their own internal compass. My girls are so different from each other. I have witnessed through homeschooling my girls, how they get frustrated when it’s time to do a subject they don’t care about. They are not interested. They just “get it over with”. Over the years I began to understand their learning styles. I thought this was important. Truthfully, I thought by knowing this, I would be better able to teach them. I have come to the realization that it’s not my job to “teach” them. They will do it for themselves.

Over the last week we’ve been unschooling, or rather, deschooling. The funny thing is, it’s been rather enlightening to me. The kids are less emotional. Less fussy. There is less tension in our home. The girls laugh together, play together. They have been spending a lot more time outside, riding skateboards, exploring ponds, catching tadpoles, playing Scrabble, learning calligraphy, drawing more, reading more. I see no absence of learning happening. I’m simply allowing them to do what makes them happy. Ultimately, isn’t this, as a parent what we want for our children- to be happy? I think it’s a worthy endeavor for all of us, especially children.