Thoughts on Emily & Middle School Issues

I want to start by acknowledging the first two people to post on and support my blog… Emily and Joan. Emily is a friend through Unitarian-Universalism, who has a son in middle school and reports that her son is having difficulties with that learning environment. Joan is a long–time activist for holistic and humanistic education and one of the people a few years back that inspired me to get more involved in the cause.

So Emily… as Joan indicated in her comment, she can speak with wisdom and experience as a holistic educator, working in profoundly alternative Waldorf schools. I have never been a formal educator, and my experience is all from the perspective of a parent and is in the area of homeschooling, particularly the more self-directed “unschooling” flavor of it.

Emily… your situation with your son recalls for me my own middle school years (we called it junior high back then), plus what I went through with my own kids, particularly my son. But before I say more about that I would like to recommend three resources for more information about homeschooling…

1. First the writing of Grace Llewellyn and particularly The Teenage Liberation Handbook, subtitled “how to quit school and get a real life and education”. The Handbook is a great guide to the unschooling flavor of homeschooling and helped my partner Sally and I have the courage to let our son pursue his own self-directed learning.

2. Second, I have a book in my library which lays out a more parent-directed approach to homeschooling, Homeschooling the Teen Years by Cafi Cohen. Like Llewellyn’s Handbook, it has a lot of good suggestions as to resources and “curriculum” if you or your youth are looking for that sort of thing.

3. Finally, as a fellow U-U, I would recommend you join and post to the Yahoo UU Homeschooling discussion group. There are homeschooling parents all over the country participating in this listserv, long-time homeschoolers and newbies as well. Once you join, I would suggest you post an introduction about you and your family (though as Joan suggested you may want to leave your kids’ names out when posting on any public forum to honor their privacy). Then follow up with a post for any particular question or soliciting advice, thoughts, etc. There is a good active group of people on the list that generally respond quickly and thoughtfully to posts with lots of helpful information.

My Middle School Experience

Tappan Middle School, Ann Arbor

When I was your son’s age I was going to Tappan Junior High in my home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was a shy kid living with my mom and younger brother. My mom and dad had divorced three years earlier and my mom was still struggling with depression and trying to build a new life for herself. I was a bit younger than most of my schoolmates and late to go into puberty and pretty uncomfortable with my body and the whole boy/girl thing. Though we were growing up in a university town that prized intelligence, knowledge, and intellectual horse-power, I found myself in a milieu of maybe a thousand other twelve to fourteen-year-olds where it was “nerdy” to be smart and cool to be athletic, mildly delinquent, and romantically/sexually successful with the opposite sex.

During my seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade years at Tappan I felt uncomfortable most all of the time, always in fear that I would somehow stumble into some embarrassing situation and be totally and irrevocably humiliated. In reality, that sort of thing happened infrequently, but just enough to keep me in a constant state of anxiety with my self-esteem in tatters. Looking back, I probably would have been much better off If I had skipped those three years of school and say done community service instead or helped out in some family friend’s business.

Instead, I coped as best I could by staying out of school as much as I possibly could. My stressed out immune system did its best to bring me colds and other viruses which convinced my mom to keep me home for weeks at a time. My mom, who was struggling with stress and self-esteem herself, must have understood at some level and did not constantly pester me to get back in school. I think by ninth grade I missed as much as 60 of the ~200 school days. Somehow I passed my classes and made it to tenth grade and senior high school.

What I credit with saving me finally in tenth grade was getting involved in a youth theater group that was based at my high school but not part of the academic program. It was called Junior Light Opera, and was made up of some 70 youth, ages 5 to 20, and just two adults to make sure we had theaters to rehearse and perform in and money to mount our productions. During my high school years, JLO did ten or more plays a year, and I probably spent three hours a day, six days a week, during those years immersing myself in many aspects of theater – on stage and back stage. The group was unlike any other youth theater group I have encountered since, because we kids did just about everything ourselves (though always being loosely supervised by one of our two adults), including producing, directing, choreographing, building sets and costumes, designing lights, advertising, selling tickets, along with acting, singing and dancing on stage.

Looking back, my 30+ JLO productions were much more critical to my development than any experience I had in my actual junior high and high school classes. If only I had found this unique group in seventh grade rather than tenth, I might have saved myself three debilitating years in an institution where I did not belong.

My Son’s Experience (Briefly)

I will say more about my son’s experience in later posts, but for now I will share that he struggled mightily in his middle school, to the point in eighth grade where he refused to answer the questions on his standardized math test and wrote a short essay on the test form instead expressing his feelings of frustration and culminating with “F*** Math”. That got everyone’s attention, school staff and his mom and I. It was later that year that we pulled him out of school and he started the homeschool journey.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Then and now, conventional wisdom (my frequent nemesis) sees the conventional instructional school as pretty much the only learning path for youth. “Alternative” schools are for delinquents and maybe the kids of unrepentant hippies. Homeschooling is for religious fanatics to teach their kids Creationism and Intelligent Design. But the reality of my experience, from my youth (if I had only trusted my own insights) and as a parent is that there are many paths for learning, and no path is right for every kid. The conventional instructional school can be the right path for many youth, but I think there are just as many that need something profoundly different, be it holistic alternative schools like Waldorf or Montessori, democratic/free schools like Summerhill and Sudbury Valley, unschooling or more traditional academic flavors of homeschooling, apprenticeship, or whatever.

4 replies on “Thoughts on Emily & Middle School Issues”

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and resources! I felt a sense of connection and resonance reading through your posts; I suspect we have a lot of similar views on parenting. (you can see mine at the above website).

    We have a 6-grade son that was in public school until last year when we decided to homeschool, and we are moving ever closer to eclectic/unschooling.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts about unschooling past the younger elementary years. I completely can picture, when kids are little, how they would learn through life – math in cooking and shopping, as the typical example. I’m not sure how to extend this, for example, to algebra – even if you learn through nature and the internet and not a textbook, it doesn’t seem to me that it just falls in your lap as a normal part of life in the same way, for example, fractions would. I can see, depending on personality, how some youth would get excited about learning complex concepts that they will need for where they want to be in life and go after them….but I don’t see this happening here (yet), other than watching great science shows (thank goodness). (there is a health issue of chronic fatigue that complicates the situation).

    I’m wondering if any of the books or resources you’ve found address the situation where the youth, even after a fairly long “deschooling” period, isn’t interested in pursuing learning opportunities, even around areas of strength (in this case science and math)? I don’t want to discount the value gained by activities such as hobby crafts (painting models, etc) and video games, as I do feel there is some…but it feels insufficient. Any thoughts?

    Thanks again for your blog! I’ll RSS it but I rarely read my feeds… Keep reminding us on UUHomeschoolers every once in a while 🙂

  2. Hi Cooper,

    Thanks so much for starting this blog. I think I’m going to thoroughly enjoy reading your perspective and I love your commitment to dialogue. That has always been my ideal, but it’s so hard to find others willing to put the same level of commitment into writing and sharing in this medium as I typically do, so I’m finding myself a bit burnt out. Still I will try as much as possible to keep up with your blog and dialogue as I’m able. I think what you’re doing is very important. Are you going to start developing a blogroll (a list of other blogs that you read and enjoy?)

    The Teenage Liberation Handbook was an amazing guide for me when I discovered it my freshman year of university. I wish I had discovered it earlier. It helped me realize that my education really had nothing to do with the formal setting I was in and was all about how I approached life. It really changed how I approached everything and I recommend it to people whether they’re thinking of unschooling or not.

    Just last night I was reading through a lot of the documents my former schools and the special education departments had written about me. In first grade I was “lost” and often seemed to be daydreaming, they said, and apparently that was a problem. I had “difficulty following directions” but what if I simply preferred to explore things myself, in my own way, rather than take direction from others? This possibility was never accounted for. They always saw what they wanted to see, saw problems and difficulties, but never saw the possibility for ME to be who I was MEANT to be.

    That is where I come from in all of this. I KNOW that I am not just a freak of nature. These so-called problems that countless other children are having in school are really just suppressed strengths and possibilities and people being thrown into a procrustean bed. “You’re just different,” they tell me. NO. That’s not it. The problem here is people assuming they know what is best for other people, especially smaller people, and that those smaller people DON’T know what’s best for them.

    Your middle school experience resonates with me. I would have been better off without it… without the anxiety of so many convoluted relationships with both peers and superiors, not to mention the total waste of time. Even now I am glad I didn’t take the time to do my homework in those years, though my teachers would reprimand me for it. I’m sure there some treasure within me that I would not have if I had instead done as I was told and took time to diligently do my homework. It irritates me when people think I’m “smart” because I went to school. If I am smart, I’d say it’s true in spite of going to school. Few people take that seriously, and if I wasn’t so self-aware, I probably wouldn’t have realized it myself. For me, real learning happened in the summer. School was just a time of being bored and watching everybody else catch up and learn everything I already knew (and a lot of other mundane stuff that didn’t matter to me).

    Ah, seventh grade. I got C’s or D’s in my English class that year. Then, when I scored perfectly on an English standardized test, my teacher started respecting me more, and my grade magically and mysteriously rose. There are no valid and accurate assessments, as far as I’m concerned, unless they genuinely involve real listening, real empathy, and a real caring relationship between two or more people.

    Otherwise you’re just expecting someone to be able to answer questions in a way that you’ve deemed appropriate and correct, and not only that, you leap to certain often erroneous assumptions about why these questions were not answered the way you wanted them to be answered.

  3. Jason… thanks for sharing your story. I too look back and see how much of the really important stuff that I learned, I learned outside of school either at home, talking to my mom’s friends, in my theater group, or playing those complicated war board games. The things I did after school, or as you indicated, in the summer.

    I think sometimes that we all underestimate this fact, which helps to explain why kids from more well-to-do families with maybe a more enriched environment outside of school, do better on assessments than poor kids, lacking that same learning-rich environment outside of school.

    I keep thinking of John Holt’s assertion that it is only what we choose to learn that we really retain. The rest we forget after the test (if we are good students) or before the test (if we are not).

  4. Hi I was a member of JLO 67-69. I was in Romeo & Juliet, Peter Pan,and a few other productions. I remember Michael Harrah was the main force behind this talented group. I was wondering what became of all those great kids. Does JLO ever have a reunion?

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