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
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.