Lefty Parent


Circle of equals

Does a Learner-Directed Education Support a Democratic Society?

February 22nd, 2014

Discipline-the-Child-230x300A lot of progressive people still struggle with concept of young people directing their own learning, whether in one of those rare democratic-free schools like Sudbury Valley or by a flavor of homeschooling that is known as “unschooling” or “life learning”. They feel that for our society to truly progress we need to ensure that our young people, all our young people whether privileged or not, learn a standard body of knowledge that will allow them to be get good jobs and participate fully in our democratic society. They ask good questions like, “What is the societal purpose of education?” and “Does personal achievement outweigh social progress?” There is an underlying concern that a learner-directed education, in a democratic-free school or by unschooling or life learning, focuses only on the individual and not that individual’s participation and contribution to a larger community.

Here’s an excerpt I got recently from a thoughtful comment from a teacher Adam on my piece “What is a Democratic Free School?”…]

To me, the ideals of democratic-free schools are all expressed in terms of the individual development of the children, rather than the benefit to society more broadly. How do such schools support social progress?

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A Democratic Alternative Legacy within Command & Control Public Education

August 10th, 2013

Alpha IIPublic education in the U.S. has featured state control of human development since Horace Mann and other educational “reformers” within the New England Protestant elite brought this novel approach of Prussian state-run universal compulsory schooling to America in the 1830s. Canadian educational policy followed a similar “melting pot” social engineering of immigrants path while accepting a greater role for Protestant and Catholic education in the mix with secular public schools. Today in both countries the bulk of public schools chart their course in sync with (or under the yoke of) continuing state efforts at high-stakes OSFA (one size fits all) standardization, though more so in the U.S. than in Canada.

I find this top-down “command and control” approach to public education at best boring and at worst very depressing, based on how I believe it diminishes the human imagination in particular and the human spirit in general. So as an advocate for what I call “many educational paths”, I celebrate and take heart from those rare educational alternatives that manage to find a way to exist within the leviathan of standardized public education. Sure there are a fair amount of private schools (for the more economically privileged among us) that follow these more human development supporting educational models, but I take my hat off to a community that can conceive and support a public school that challenges the hegemony of conventional standardization.

One such school that I recently read about in an online discussion on the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) listserv is the Alpha II school in Toronto Ontario. It is the more recent incarnation of the original Alpha school, set up in 1972 in the heyday of the progressive education movement in Canada and the U.S. A movement that produced alternative public schools in many communities, including two – Earthworks and Community High School – begun a year earlier in my own hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan. FYI… Earthworks eventually merged with Community High and the latter is still going strong, but many of these unorthodox public schools have been forced to close due to the increasing standardization of education over the past twenty years.

The story of Alpha and Alpha II in particular I find fascinating, an insight into a chapter of education history and highlighting perhaps a somewhat more open-minded approach to public education in Canada. The story is courtesy of AERO members Carol Nash, a co-founder of the unorthodox school, and Deb O’Rourke, the school’s current volunteer coordinator.

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Unschooling in the Art of LIfe

July 3rd, 2013

northern-ireland-muralAs much as formal standardized education tries to turn it into a science, life, and the continuing human development which in my opinion is one of life’s most compelling narratives, is really more of an artistic endeavor. It is at its best the creation of a compelling narrative based on the uniqueness of a person’s soul and the life’s context that soul is unfolding and evolving in. It is not so much about following a procedure developed and “perfected” by others, or emulating another’s life successfully lived. It is more like a mural, ballad, novel, television series or other story told, reflecting the unique voice of the artist and their unique playing of the hand they are dealt.

According to Wikipedia, “science” is…

A systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Whereas “art” is defined as…

A diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities.

Modern society has been all about science and its organization of knowledge in the form of technology, industrial practice and social engineering. We identify experts who develop the best practice and then we create an institution to share that expertly designed practice with others. If the governing bodies of a society think a best practice is particularly compelling and effective, we may attempt to apply it universally, even possibly mandating that everyone follow it for their own good, or at least for the common good.

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A New framework for Working and Learning

June 15th, 2013

Circle of HandsFor many of us the rules of engagement at work are changing, from the traditional approach of being told what to do by “bosses”, to a new more egalitarian approach where a team of colleagues and peers collectively decide what to do. Those traditional “bosses” are being replaced by “managers” who are more facilitative than directive, conveying to us the basic business strategy from the company’s leadership team, making sure we have the time and resources to implement that strategy, and being available to assist when we need their assistance. From all my own experience plus hearsay from other “knowledge workers”, I understand that this has become standard practice in most of the work done in business operations today.

Yet given that new reality, our education system, which increasingly promotes itself as the means for developing our young people into new workers for our businesses, is still operating in the traditional model with teachers and principals as “bosses” and very little if any egalitarian process. This is a disconnect that in my opinion is leading to our young people being increasingly debilitated by their school experience rather than developing the skills to become contributing members of our contemporary business enterprises.

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Republished: A Look Back from the Middle

May 25th, 2013

Eric ProfileRepublishing a recollection from our son Eric’s own writings about his development, “A Look Back from the Middle”, written in 2009, calling out some of the key developmental threads of his older youth after leaving school at fourteen and pursuing the unschooling path…

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The distribution of my Work

May 11th, 2013

Coop Headshot 1Here are other folks who have commented on, cited or reposted my work on the Internet…

1. PassportParents.comBack to UnSchool: Our 10 Favorite Alternative Education Posts from Traveling Parents

“Unschooling in the Art of Travel” from Cooper of Lefty Parent… An epic post by Cooper Zale, this article discusses at length the unschooling travel experiences of his youth and how they’ve shaped his view of the world and his sense of self. The chronology takes us from his own youth traveling with his parents all the way through adulthood and how a recurring itch to dislodge himself from comfortable environments and set out into the unknown has driven his life journey all the way to where he is now and how he makes his own choices about how to live. While it’s more a reflection of experiences than a walkthrough on how to educate kids while traveling, it’s a living testimony to just how important travel can be in shaping the way that kids will grow up.

2. Three Rivers Village Democratic Free School – Suggested Reading List

“What is a Democratic-Free School?”. This article gives a history of democratic-free schools going back to the Escuela Moderna, founded in 1901 in Barcelona, Spain. It talks about the main features of democratic schools and some pros and cons.

3. EducationEvolving.org – Pieces on Teacher-Run schools

“Teachers Take Control of a Detroit School” | Lefty Parent

4. KirkHughes.com – College writing course reading assignment

Cooper Zale’s brief essay “Coming of Age in the Laundromat” is one example of a writer using a “family story” to make a point.

It’s a fun read. It’s brief, and I think we’ll all find it a refreshing change from the challenging pedagogical philosophy of Paolo Freire’s “Banking Concept…”. One question to ask yourself as you read might be what genre—what classification of writing—would you place Zale’s essay in? What makes it easier to read?

The essay was originally published in his Blog: “Leftyparent.” (which you’re free to check out if you want to learn more about the author). When I asked the author for permission to use his essay in class, he e-mailed me back and invited any writers in our workshop to e-mail him directly with comments/questions for him (cooperzale@gmail.com). How cool is that?

5. BuildingThePinkTower.org – Montessori education site “Blog” page “History Lessons” heading…

I just read a piece by blogger Cooper Zale (aka “Lefty Parent”) placing Maria Montessori’s work in the context of education reform over the last century plus.


…I agree with what Miller and Zale suggest: education, fully realized in children who are self-motivated, creative, and problem-solving individuals, is so much more than outcomes. While they are in school, that is their lives – shouldn’t it be as rich and fulfilling as the work we hope they will someday do? And although Zale begins and ends by stating that Montessori has had little impact on public schools that educate most students in the U.S., I bet he would be willing to join the movement to prove that presumption wrong.

–Vina Kay

6. Education Week blogger and NY elementary school principal Peter DeWitt commenting on my piece “Governance in the School Trenches”

Thanks for the thoughtful piece..although I hate that picture! I often feel a struggle in the public school system. I try to encourage risk-taking on the part of staff and students, and I always encourage my students to talk with me when they have a problem with a rule in school. I feel that students need to be heard, even if they are saying things we don’t want to hear.

That being said, I also feel a great deal of frustration as a principal. There is way too much accountability and mandates and it is killing creativity. However, I still have the hope that we can find creativity in those constraints and can’t give up. Too many kids are counting on us.

Thanks for always stretching my thinking Coop. I’m trying my best, and it’s because of guys like you that I want to continue.

7. Daily KOS progressive politics blog site lists me as a “Trusted User” and has given 18 of my pieces a “Community Spotlight”

* Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives… and Dancing
* Destruction of Wealth? Better Google Google!
* Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 3 – Youth and Education
* My Experience with an Alternative Charter School
* Defining, Perpetuating & Challenging Patriarchy
* Fixing Schools? Fix the Governance!
* A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend
* Let’s ask schools to fix society’s problems
* Retribalized by My Life’s Soundtrack: “Downtown”
* My Real Issue is Human Development
* Looking at the Concept of Adultism
* Trying to Keep My Feet Under Me and Stay Off My Ass
* Constructive Generational Conflict Between Boomers & Millennials
* Happy Birthday John Holt – “Patron Saint” of Unschooling
* Unschooled by my Electronic Greek Chorus
* Synergizing Entrepreneurship and a Strong Commons
* Living a Self-Directed Life One Week at a Time
* Abandoning Mars for Venus and Beyond

8. On the “McLuhan Galaxy” website “Thoughts on Marshall McLuhan” page

A series of blogposts on Marshall McLuhan by McLuhan enthusiast Cooper Zale, who blogs as “Lefty Parent” at http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/ . Click on the links to access individual blog postings…..AlexK

Mud Wrestling with Marshall McLuhan – Part 1 of a 3 part series giving an overview of McLuhan’s ideas based on his 1969 Playboy magazine interview.

Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 2 – Retribalization – Focusing in on McLuhan’s ideas about electronic media initiating a “retribalization” of human society.

Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 3 – Youth & Education – McLuhan’s critique of our education system, still stuck in a paradigm of industrialism and print media.

The Mechanical Bride – McLuhan’s analysis of U.S. culture in the 1950s based on looking thru the lens of its popular media, particularly advertisements and comics.

Retribalized by my Life’s Soundtrack: “Downtown” – Based on McLuhan’s ideas, looking at how electronic media, particularly popular music on the radio has impacted my life.

Tales of a Retribalized Knowledge Work in the Egalitarian Information Age – How my work environment has been totally transformed by electronic media from my parents’ generation. http://tinyurl.com/82oee8x

9. Long-time educator Lynn Stoddard’s site page for his book “Educating for Human Greatness” featuring my review

10. Featured blogger on “DiscoverUU” Unitarian-Universalist blog site

11. Pinterest.com – Pins of my pieces

12, Open.Salon.com – Received “Editor’s Pick” for my piece “Thoughts on Keillor’s Christmas Rant”

Governance in the School Trenches

April 4th, 2013

peter dewitt 2My friend, Peter DeWitt, is a public elementary school principal in upstate New York. He is a thoughtful and caring person, and I think probably represents the best of his public school principal profession, and I think any of my teacher friends would be happy to have such a leader for their school.  He writes a daily blog for Education Week magazine online, and his pieces generally wrestle with trying to be a humanistic educational leader within a bureaucratic system of standardization, high-stakes testing, and other mandates and strictures from above.

In his recent blog piece, “Why Would Anyone Want to Be a School Leader?”, Peter writes…

School leadership is hard…especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time… On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students…and their parents…

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Reincorporating Hunter-Gatherer Wisdom in our Society

January 20th, 2013

Stroller and SlingIn my previous piece, “Traditional Wisdom of Child Development”, I looked at how contemporary social scientists are rediscovering some of the wisdom of traditional hunter-gatherer societies, which were for most of our time on this planet the predominant human organizing principle and are arguably a more natural form of human community that the high-technology society that most of us humans live in today.

I got a handful of thoughtful comments on my piece, but I’d like to highlight one that I think was posing issues that really continue the discussion.  Amy Costello Wilfong wrote…

It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying… but the immersion-type parenting you’re talking about is, quite literally, impossible for many people in modern American society. Two (or more!) incomes have become necessary to cover even basic expenses for families in many places, and I just don’t see that changing anytime soon. So the question then becomes, how can we accomplish raising children in an “immersive” fashion when we are forced to spend the vast majority of our time away from them? And how can and should teachers respect these basic principles of child development in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny, judgement, and standardization?

I think this is a well crafted “problem statement” for a key challenge we face as a society.  We (or at least our predecessors) have built a society where though we are free citizens and not slaves or indentured servants, many of us have to work so many hours to earn a living wage (if we can at all) that it constitutes a de facto indentureship.  Add to that that the massive scale of our society with the disenfranchisement and alienation it breeds, combined with perpetuation of ancient patriarchal “us and them” values, creates a subculture among us that is predatory toward out groups (“them”) particularly poor people, minorities, women and young people.  The latter in particular making it problematic for parents to let the “village raise the child”, sequestering kids instead in “schools”, institutions that paradoxically isolate kids from the dangerous real world while trying to prepare them for it.

So given the problem statement, what is the solution, or at least a path forward towards a solution?

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Let’s Have a Real Discussion about Education Policy

October 27th, 2012

Back in August President Obama gave a speech about education policy at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas. Here’s a snippet posted in a blog piece

Education should not be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue. It’s about what’s best for our kids. And I haven’t just talked the talk, I’ve walked the walk on this. Over the past four years, we’ve broken through the traditional stalemate that used to exist between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. We launched a national competition to improve all our schools. We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we’re also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren’t cutting it.

If you unpack this paragraph from his speech there is so much context underneath that bears further discussion and much of which I find particularly frustrating.

First of all, why shouldn’t education be a political issue? Isn’t the whole point of having a democracy to use it to bring a range of thinking to the table and continually find an ever-evolving consensus (or at least a working majority) to evolve our society and its institutions? What if he said, “Economic policy should not be a political issue, it’s about what’s best for the country”, would people accept that as well? Taking this argument to its logical end point, why have a political process at all?

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Unschooling in the Art of Self-Direction

October 17th, 2012

From my own experience and what I’ve read of the wisdom of others, directing ones own life is not a science that can be taught through instruction but an art that is best developed from self-initiated efforts. Unfortunately, conventional school up to now has not been a good venue for young people to learn to direct their own development, rather serving mainly as a venue for the larger community (or maybe more specifically the state) to attempt to program young people’s developmental path. Looking back at my own youth that was certainly the case. Most of the developmental experiences that helped me learn to direct my own life happened outside of the classroom and outside of the context of school.

Directing ones own life is one of the most critical skills you learn in the process of “unschooling”, which Wikipedia defines as…

A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. There are some who find it controversial. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

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