Notes from the Elementary School Forum

I decided it was time to stand up and be counted so I signed us up to speak at the WPNS Elementary School Forum last week.   My daughter was so brave - wanted to come on stage with me while I spoke and even said her name into the microphone.   I felt my own public speaking jitters but we did it!   Here are the notes from our "2-minute pitch" : 

My name is Kristen Wong and I am in the very very early stages of starting an alternative school, called the Life Lived Freely Spirit Center.

It was actually my 7-year old daughter, and the issues that she had with traditional school, that helped me to think about what kind of school we would design if we were to start from scratch.

I think most of us can agree that the best way that babies & toddlers learn is through exploring their environments with minimal interference from us.  But for some reason, we’ve all collectively decided that we can no longer trust that natural curiosity once our kids hit grade school.  We’ve also all agreed that kids will be best prepared for the Real World, not by actually living in it, but by being extricated from it, in a place where their minds can be filled with information for a dozen years or so, and only inviting them back once they supposedly know everything they need to know to be well-rounded adults.

In our current model, kids really only interact with adults in 2 settings.  The first, is when their parents are home from work and are, for the most part, enjoying their down time.  Because children don’t have the benefit of seeing their parents at work, this idle lifestyle is the model they see of what it means to be an adult.  The other setting where children interact with adults is at school.  There, they spend each day with people whose job is to make sure that the children learn to perform on command.  And although the teachers do care about their students, this fixation on the children teaches them that the role of adults to control other people.   

It seems to me that these types of interactions with adults are neither natural nor healthy.
What we would love to create is a setting where the adults are able to let go of the explicit intention of teaching children, and instead simply model living our own lives with passion.  I think kids would benefit so much from interacting with community members who come to the school not to fixate on whether or not the kids are performing certain tasks, but instead to share their enthusiasm for their own interests and giving the kids the opportunity to do the same.

There are so many things that kids are naturally curious about.  But with school, homework, and other activities, there’s just not much time left in the day.  Imagine the message of empowerment and trust our kids would receive if we flipped that around and made school time the time for them to really dive into their passions.

In a lot of ways, the ones that really need training are the adults - to start to see children in a different way.  It can be helpful to look at our children as fellow souls on this earth who are here to teach us as much as we are here to teach them.  In order to pass down not just our knowledge but our true wisdom to the next generation, we need to be able to see and value their contributions as well.   I imagine this Spirit Center not just as a school for kids, but for adults too, for those of us who may have forgotten how to listen to our inner wisdom and allow life to flow freely through us, through deep present moment awareness.

I believe that what children really need is not more instruction & direction, but more practice in believing in themselves, trusting in their instincts, and developing the confidence that comes from the awareness that they each have a unique and important role in this world.

I want to bring that faith back into the educational system.  Faith in the ability of each person’s soul to effectively guide them through life.  The world is changing at rates we can’t even imagine, and we owe it to our children to set up an environment where they will be able to own their educational experiences and, really, to own their own lives.
For those of you that are interested in learning more, or if you know of others that might be interested, I’ll be giving an Informational Session on Thursday December 11th at 7PM at the Westchester Community Room. Feel free to go to our website at LifeLivedFreely.com to sign up for our mailing list for more information.  

I am so excited about the unpaved path that lies ahead and look forward to connecting with others who feel the same way.   For the record, I never thought I'd be starting a school, so if you're curious about the concept, please don't let the new-ness overwhelm you.   Come join us - these are such exciting times!

(More Thoughts on) Life Lived Freely

I posted the other day about my Life Lived Freely plan.   To recap, I am taking TheGirl out of school at the end of this year, at her request.  I plan to home school her and, ultimately, open up an Alternative School / Spirit Center.  Instead of a pre-designed curriculum, my goal is to focus on allowing the child's own intuition and inner voice to pave the path.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe that the motivation behind the current school model boils down to a lack of faith in each individual's ability to navigate successfully through their lives.  And my belief is that this lack of faith results in the systematic erosion of our ability to connect with the wisdom and guidance of our Higher Selves.  When our intuition is repeatedly validated and encouraged, and we allow ourselves to problem-solve in a more natural, less structured setting, I believe we are in a delightfully solid position of power and self-confidence. But before I continue on with my thoughts about the Spirit Center, I want to take a step back here.  After I wrote that initial post, I realized that in my attempt to bolster my position, I made generalizations that I don't really believe.  (What can I say - sometimes I dazzle myself with my flowery wording so much that I don't stop to think big picture about what I'm saying.)

In retrospect, I made it sound in my original post as if I believed that the only path to enlightenment is through freedom of spirit. But that is not true.  In the context of school, there is no "wrong" answer, no "wrong" school, no "wrong" model - for two big reasons.  First, the term "wrong" is subjective.  Where one child recoils, another child might thrive; it all depends on the individual.   Second, even a situation that is not "positive" for the individual can help ignite a spark in them that reverberates infinite goodness.  We need to experience darkness in order to appreciate the light.  We have all heard of spiritual masters who have come from quite the opposite type of background and learned to rise above their situation in spite of, or even becauseof their upbringing.  Jesus comes to mind.  From what I've read, "personal liberties" were not highly regarded back in BC, but did that stop him from tuning into his Highest Self and inspiring world populations for centuries?  No.  Another great and even more extreme example is Viktor Frankl (author of Man's Search for Meaning) who endured torture and the loss of his family during his time in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  One could argue that it was this very suffering that opened his soul to the revelation of “the last of the human freedoms” that his captors could not take away.   Based on this premise, there is no "one" path to enlightenment.  In fact many believe, and I agree, that every path is a path to enlightenment.

{Photo Credit: Reinventing64.com}

Now that we've established the baseline that each path has it's own merits by virtue of being a path, and that everything is happening exactly as it should, I want to clarify that just because this path feels right for me, that doesn't mean it is or should be the right path for other parents.  Something else wonderful and magical is in store for other children by the mere fact that their parents have chosen precisely what they have chosen.

And in my own life, I do believe that this winding road of my life has lead me to what I like to refer to as Enlightenment-In-Training.  I know that my past (both the experience of it and the act of working through it) is what has brought me to this point.  But although the axiom might be true that Adversity Breeds Character, I don't believe that the intentional infliction of adversity is a necessary component of childhood.

My daughter has been telling me since she started preschool 3-1/2 years ago that school was not for her.  At first, I trudged along, listening to "experts" like teachers, school directors,  parenting websites, and my own rationalizing.  But it didn't change.  The girl wants to be with her Mama.   What kind of society have we created that a child's desire to be close to her loved ones, is a quality that should be trained away?

It may be commonplace, it may be something most kids don't mind, but a mother in essence forcibly requiring her child to be apart from her parents is not natural. 

In many ways it reminds me of a subconscious equivalent to Fraternity Hazing.  I went through it, I survived, I am proud of my ability to make it through to the other side, so you should do it too.    I absolutely agree, struggles can build great confidence.  But who is to say that life will not present our children with their own set of natural struggles?  Why do we feel the need to force struggles prematurely in order to toughen them up?   Why not arm them instead with an arsenal of Unconditional Love and Acceptance so that they might be better equipped to endure the natural struggles that come their way?

You might point out, that this is easy for me to say, having the option to quit my job and keep her home with me.  I agree.  Many people do not have that option.  In our current corporate model, children are not welcome.  At all.

We extricate children from society; we separate them from the "real world" where they are not just quarantined as a group but very specifically by age.  For the most part, they do not intermingle at all.  We think they are best served by spending the majority of their days with people who are of the same linear age, learning in a hierarchical setting where their lessons are prescribed with great detail.  We assume that they will best learn about the Real World, no, not from actually living in the Real World, silly, but by learning about it off to the sidelines.  By learning about it in a vacuum.  We believe that they will not best learn how to live in the Real World by observing their parents living their lives on a daily basis or (even more controversial a topic) working and contributingalongside their parents on a daily basis.

Why do we do that?

Some of you have asked about my plans for TheBoy.  For the most part he loves school.  He's good at it, he's an incredibly thoughtful and fun-loving friend, his teachers adore him, and he is very happy.

But lately, there are a few things I start to notice that are just a little bit off.

Like when he broke his arm this past winter.   He received a ton of well wishes from his classmates, beautiful drawings and sweet messages.  But instead of being able to embrace the love and care sent with each card, he fixated on the spelling and grammar.  He couldn't help it.  We talked about the difference between being "right" and being "kind" so at one point, he saw a misspelling and just smiled at me with SMH-disappointment.    At first I tried to figure out what I had done wrong in my parenting to instill such a demeaning, uncaring quality.  I'm sure I've contributed to that, no doubt, but then it hit me: one of the things I've done is send him to a place where - for 7 hours a day - this is the paradigm: if you get it right you've done a "good job" and for each answer you get wrong, you're that much further away from a "perfect score" or "perfection."

I toured a Democratic School up in the Bay Area a few weeks ago and, during the Q&A, a student who had recently graduated from the program spoke about her experience.   She said she came from a traditional school, where she was quite shy which was compounded by the fact that she was really "good" at school and became a bit of a teacher's pet.  She then said something that really struck me.  She said, that because of that school construct, she thought that her aptitude made her "better" than the other kids.  It was something she had to unlearn as she moved to a model where there's enough success to go around for everyone.

Powerful.

Last week, on the suggestion of our Head of School, I started taking TheGirl out one day per week to give her a taste of what she will be experiencing next year.  That morning I overheard TheBoy & TheGirl arguing over what would be going on that day.

TheBoy: "Mom, is TheGirl going to be having fun or is she going to be working?" Me: "Well your question assumes that it's not possible to have fun while working.  We'll be doing both!" TB: "No, I mean like Math or Reading.  Will she be doing that?" Me: "Well when you do something like cooking you use math to measure the ingredients..." TB: "No, I mean like worksheets." Me: "No, we won't be doing worksheets."

I could tell he was confused.

But just like last year, when TheGirl came to me in tears, confiding in me how sad she was that I had revealed to her that Santa wasn't real, I wasn't sorry that I had told her the truth; I was sorry that I had ever told her the lie to begin with.  I'm glad he's questioning Who Moved My Cheese? now, instead of 50 years from now, trying to unlearn all the things he was taught were important throughout his schooling.

TheBoy told me the next day that when he has kids he isn't going to send them to school.

My plan, for now, is to respect my boy's wishes and keep him in school, with his friends and his love of solving all the educational puzzles that are presented at school.  But, once we have shifted Life Lived Freely from Concept to Reality, I suspect his curiosity will be piqued.   When he's open & ready, he can continue on with his love of learning in a way that allows him to fully own his Education and his Life.

Life Lived Freely

So...I decided to take TheGirl out of school next year and homeschool her. Actually what I plan to do is  called "Radical Unschooling" (surprisingly, yes, that's in fact a thing.)  I have changed my thoughts completely about school and I have her to thank.

She doesn't like school.  In fact, she hates it.

Every teacher I've ever told about her resentment of school has been shocked.  When she's at school, she is engaged, funny, sociable, and...happy.  Sure she has trouble dealing with the kids who get into her personal space, but for the most part she loves the social aspect and she is nourished by other people.  But there's one big problem with school:  She doesn't like other people telling her what to do.

I used to say that as a joke; as a badge of honor being the mother of a girl that doesn't like people telling her what to do.    I now realize that she was trying to communicate with me.  It just took me a while to hear what she was saying.

Let me back up by saying - this girl is amazing. Yes all parents say that about their children, and rightfully so - all children ARE amazing.   But sadly many children buy into the notion that society sets for them that their natural instincts are wrong.  They hear it over and over in their lives - from parents, teachers, siblings, strangers - all well-meaning but all misguided.   What ends up happening is that we become a society full of people who do not trust ourselves.  We don't trust our instincts.  We don't trust our hearts.  And, because we've been told so often that we are wrong, we start to believe that we are bad.

It's hard to say that our societal construct is anyone's fault.  We were all built into the same system.   We firmly believe that in order to succeed we need to be able to conform.  But I'm starting to question the validity, or even the sanity, of that notion.

As A People, we just don't like children.  A large portion of the population is slowly shifting toward DINK status because they just don't want the added inconvenience.   You can tell immediately out & about who likes kids and who doesn't.  Disliking a whole segment of the population?   But if you think about it, it makes sense.  We were all told that children should be seen and not heard.  We weren't really taught that children's opinions were valuable, certainly not more valuable than the grown ups' in their lives.  We assume they won't have anything useful to say until they become adults.  But kids who are raised to be disrespected do not magically grow into respectful, respectable adults.  They, in large part, grow into bigger versions of their child-selves that present an outward appearance of maturity, but without the underlying wisdom.  Adults these days don't know how to Like nor Honor themselves, so how could they possibly Like or Honor the souls of children?

Recently, I volunteered in TheBoy's class for Math Game Day.  I was so excited, because I like Math, I like Games, and I love spending time with TheBoy!  One of the 4 teachers was sick so it ended up being me + 12 children in the 2nd Grade Breakout Room.  We paired off the teams and they got to work.    As I walked around the room, I could immediately tell that one of them was struggling with math, because he covered it up by sulking and throwing the entire deck of cards across the table, upsetting his already-sensitive partner.  The loudest group were all boys and were actually all playing the assigned game the entire time and having a blast, but the echo in the room made their raucous very distracting to the other kids.  It was clear to me that I did not have control of this situation.

But, you know what?  That wasn't what bothered me.  What struck me was that These children should be outside playing, not cramped up in a room with no windows right after lunch.  Loud boys would not bother other kids on a grassy field because they'd all have the option to disperse.  A child that struggles with math wouldn't be feeling a panic about his shortcomings outside because he'd be doing something else (contrary to popular belief, not everyone needs to learn math, and the math they do need to learn - measurements, money counting, etc - need not be learned on a standardized time schedule.)  A child that was partnered up with someone who was acting out would be able to walk away and play with someone else. 

{Photo Credit:

The Old Schoolhouse Magazine

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Recently, I had a heart-to-heart with TheGirl about our options to make sure leaving the school was what she really wanted.  I told her I was thinking of taking her out and that she wouldn't be with her friends every day but that she would make new friends.  She said, "No, I want to be with my friends!  I want to stay at my school." I said if that's what she wants please show mebecause I didn't want to fight with her about going to school every day again next year.  Every day since then?

"I hate school."

This morning's exact quote was, "I don't want to go to school.  I don't have to go to school.  I don't like school."

The biggest issue with school is not the learning, she likes learning, it's the having to learn on someone else's timeline.   In my opinion, it's not the education system but the educational model that is broken.  You want to read in the library?  Oh no, silly, it's time to sit in a chair in a different room right now.  You want to spend more time playing that musical instrument?  Sorry, it's time for the Social Studies lesson right now.   Your creativity peaks after your family goes to sleep?  You best cut that out because we are tracking your Daily Tardiness.  Math doesn't interest you at this stage in your life?  Too bad, you're learning it anyway.

A school can be modeled with amazing precision to get kids pumped up about the subject matter, but any system that excludes an "Opt-Out" alternative will be missing the mark.  Why?  Because the underlying premise still remains: the students must be controlled.  Free will is out of the question.

The world does not need more successful people.  It does not need more people who would rock on Jeopardy!  It does not need more straight-A students who end up at Ivy League schools.  It does not need more people who figure out how to subvert their own sense of self in order to "win the game."

The world needs more people who believe in the ability of their own hearts to guide them.

{Photo Credit:

LiveLoveQuotes

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This quote by The Libertarian Homeschooler sums it all up perfectly:

 Sometimes I really want behavior that is not appropriate to my child's age to come out of my child. And I want it NOW! (Stamps foot.) I want This fruit, from This tree, and I want it to be Sweet and I want it to be Pretty and I want it to be Fragrant and I want it NOW! Because of Me Me Me looking Good in front of Other People. Or because of Me Me Me being selfish with my time or energy or effort. Me Me Me Mine Mine Mine!

Yeah. Isn't that special?

And what happens when I don't get what I want? It only gets better.

I consider using threats of physical or emotional pain (not so much physical pain, but emotional coercion or bullying) or bribes that appeal to their basest animal instincts (flattery, sweets, favor). But I don't call it that. Noooooo. I lie to myself and call it 'training'. (Behold! I am B. F. Skinner with a jackass or a bear or a sea lion! I'm 'training' him to be considerate. I'm 'training' him to share. I'm 'training' him to be responsible. I'm 'training' him to work.) I'm 'training' the tree to give me the fruit I want before it's ready to do it.

But I can't. You know why? Because it gets me small, immature, unripe, sour, bitter fruit. I might get the behavior that I want but it's trained behavior produced by a parent who has appealed to her child's desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure. (Appealing to the animal. To the jackass or the bear or the sea lion, not the human person.)

Not what I want. I want the real deal.

Sweet, fragrant, pretty fruit that's good to behold and smell and taste is mature fruit and it can't be forced. So I have to be patient. I have to not stamp my foot. I have to wait.

 

Yes.  That.

Now, you might ask, if TheGirl is such a sociable girl, why am I taking her out of the social realm of school and bringing her home with me?

My answer is that...it's temporary.

My ultimate plan is to open a school.  An Unschool.  A Spirit Center.  A Life Lived Freely Spirit Center. (If you're not already following the Life Lived Freely Facebook page, click here.  Right now it's filled with inspiring quotes and articles but I plan to use it to document my progress as I navigate this uncharted world of Honoring the Heart.)

The entire premise of school is that children, that people, will get it wrong if left to follow their bliss.  It all boils down to a lack of Faith.

My plan, my passion, my dream, is to bring Faith back into the learning process.  Not Dogma, not Fear of Eternal Condemnation, but Faith.  Faith that God, The Universe, Our Divine Souls, Our Higher Selves, the Great I Am...whatever you prefer to call it...truly do know how to guide us through life.

So, there it is.  What I've been conjuring up while I've been away from my blog.  I'm opening a school.  I'm sure this won't be an easy task, but I welcome the challenge and I hope it sparks a second thought or two in the hearts and minds of the people I meet as I pave this path.  At a minimum, I hope my plans help to assure those who feel the same way about our social construct that they are not crazy and they are not alone.

{Photo Credit: Quoted Thoughts}

I can't tell you how excited I am right now.