Taking Back Our Schools
Taking Back Our Schools is based on Paul's experience home-schooling his daughter. This book is written for parents who are concerned about the education of their children. It presents a simple idea that could completely transform the educational system in this country.
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Schools are dangerous places these days. There are a lot of unhappy children who attend them. Some of those children know more about guns, computer games and the Internet than they do about spelling or arithmetic. For some of these kids, the line between fantasy and reality gets crossed. They go from mowing down bad guys with joy sticks to mowing down their classmates with automatic rifles. It seems that the days of innocence are over.
To say that our society is obsessed with violence is practically a truism. But it is a kind of romanticize, high-tech violence in which the one shooting never meets his victim.
In my day, kids took drugs to outdo each other and express their alienation or outrage. Now they find the gun closet. But this book is not about guns.
It is about alienation.
It's a drag to go to a school that doesn't interest you. I know. I went to plenty of them over thirty years ago. And schools haven't changed much since those days.
My son goes to a charter school. This year he will take seven required subjects. Not a single one of these subjects interests him. Last year was a hard year. He almost dropped out. Will he survive eight hours a day of teaching and another three or four hours of homework? And if he does, at what cost?
The people who started this school are my contemporaries. They said all the right things about student and parent participation in the process. They talked about instilling the joy of learning. They seemed to have all the right values.
But they created the same school I hated growing up.
Now instead of grades they talk benchmarks. Instead of French, they have American Sign Language. The signs on the doors are different, but what goes on behind them is old hat. And if it acts like old hat, walks like old hat, it must be.…
You get my drift.
I began home-schooling my daughter when she refused to get up to go to the seventh grade. Actually, I was glad to have more time with her and my work schedule was flexible enough to do so. While Shanti was being labeled as one or another kind of failure, I felt very clear that she was a highly intelligent and creative kid who just didn't fit into the learning boxes made by teachers and administrators.
She didn't do well in a large chaotic environment. Having six teachers instead of one didn't work for her, nor did having six different subjects. The social pressures were intense and overwhelming.
Shanti needed to work at her own pace. She needed to bond with her teacher(s). And she needed very clear guidelines about what to do and when to do it. She wasn't going to get any of this in junior high school.
But it was easy to get at home. It was easy to pick a topic to investigate, go to the library and get some books, and work at her own pace until she had absorbed the material. It was easy to work on vocabulary, spelling, writing (all kinds of writing), even sentence structure or poetic form.
Shanti didn't lack intelligence. She lacked the ability to internalize information that was not presented in a highly focused way.
In school, she would be a casualty of the system. At home, she was a shining star.
It is an amazing thing to see your daughter go from "alienated, low self-esteem, no motivation to learn, no interest in anything" to "budding story writer, painter, potter, singer, etc." But that is the journey she took over a year and a half or so.
She had lost her self-esteem and her self confidence trying to fit into a failing educational system. She regained both by moving out of that system into real life and real learning.
My experience with other home-schooling kids and parents over that year and a half made some of the solutions to our education crisis obvious to me. And so this book was seeded.
But it wasn't until I was sitting around the kitchen table sharing some of these ideas with my father that the idea for this book was born. "Why don't you write a book about all this?" my Dad asked.
"Good question," I thought to myself. "After all, I am a writer and this is certainly a subject I am passionate about. Why not?"
Trained as an educator, I had always worked in unusual contexts. I had taught inmates in a state prison. I had worked with mid-aged adults returning to college from the workforce. I had worked with poor urban kids in Cambridge and with poor rural kids in Vermont. I had taught high school and community college. I had worked as a researcher studying outstanding occupational education programs in colleges and exemplary career change programs in business and industry.
I was a believer in life long learning, an advocate of innovative, creative approaches to learning for people of all ages and backgrounds. I knew that the teacher (and the program) had to meet the student where s/he was if learning was going to happen.
That's how I got those three troublemakers who threw spitballs in the back of the room in my English class to agree to be in a Harold Pinter play. It was obvious that they were bored in class. They didn't want to be there and they were disruptive, so I made a deal with them. They could skip class if they met me every day after school for an hour to rehearse the play.
I don't know why, but they took the deal. I guess I was the first one to reach out to them and say "I know there's more under your hats than spitballs waiting to be born."
There was. There was a standing ovation at a secret performance of the play (attended by every student in the school). And there were bows deserved.
They knew that I knew and now the whole school knew. They were kids whose hearts were waiting to be touched. Waiting, just like the hearts of your children are waiting….
Waiting for us to bring "it" to them. And "it" does not mean school. It means "love." It means "attention." It means adults seeing who they are and what they might become with a little nurturing.
If you are one of those parents who understand finally that our schools are dying and that the joy and creativity of your children can no longer be sacrificed to a system that does not and cannot work, this book is for you.
You don't have time to wait any more. Your children need you now. All the children are calling: not only the ones who are alive, but also the ones who died to get our attention. May their sacrifices not be in vain.
There was a time when male and female roles were very clear. Women stayed home and created a safe space for the family. They kept the house clean and nicely decorated, cooked wonderful meals, and provided emotional support for their husbands and children. Of course, not all women did this —some were uncomfortable in the role—but most women were content to stay at home and preserve the hearth. They were content to nurture others. As a result, feminine energy was firmly established in the lives of their children growing up.
Some women—like my mother—were born achievers and didn't fit easily into the stereotypical female role. Nevertheless, biology and social convention still tugged on their heart-strings so many of them, like my mother, got married and had a family. In so doing, they sacrificed many of their creative gifts and held a certain amount of resentment about it. As a result, the feminine energy of the hearth was compromised by their unhappiness. No matter how good an act they put on, nobody bought it. In hindsight, you could see that they would have been much better off being career women.
Women in my generation were much more likely to "go for it." They put their careers first and their relationships second or they lived in constant conflict between the demands of each. They took two weeks off for their honeymoon and six months off to have a child, but then it was back to work. Getting married and having children were not the primary foci of their lives, although most of them would argue this point. To help manage the home-related responsibilities they didn't have time for they relied on cleaning people, babysitters, and school programs.
When junior got home from school, mom wasn't there (nor was dad, for that matter). The house wasn't warm and cozy and filled with the smell of oatmeal-raisin cookies baking in the oven. Mom wasn't waiting by the door with a hug and a kiss and a "How did your day go, sweetie?" No, when Junior opened the door, the nest was empty and depressing. The floor was littered with newspapers, dirty dishes and half-eaten bags of Doritos. Is it any wonder that Junior went over to his friend's house to get high, play video games and surf the net for hours on end?
When mom and dad got home, they were both grumpy. They had to decide who was going to cook dinner and who was going to wash the dishes. If he was lucky, Junior got to eat before eight o'clock, although often it was TV dinner fare or warmed over pizza. As he got older, mom and dad got home later and later and Junior had to get his own dinner. And he couldn't help but notice that mom and dad didn't seem to like each other very much any more. So he wasn't surprised when mom and dad came home early one night to tell him over the first decent meal he'd had in months that they were getting divorced.
What happened to the feminine energy in the households of America? It wasn't there any more. Nobody was guarding the hearth. Nobody was holding the receptive energy of unconditional love, nurturing, acceptance, relatedness. The nests were empty and the children were off somewhere in cyberspace trying to entertain themselves and each other.
In just two generations, society has witnessed the breakdown of both the extended family and the nuclear family. What about doting grandparents available to help at a moment's notice? Forget it. The grandparents are either in a nursing home or they're enjoying their retirement in a state 3,000 miles away. What about the extended family of aunts, uncles, siblings, their children and their children's children? Are they coming over for Thanksgiving dinner?
Let's face it, Junior would be lucky to find a single able-bodied, emotionally available parent. That's more than most kids have these days.
Now, we all know that there are reasons for this collective "sacrifice of the feminine" and they aren't all bad ones. As women have entered the workforce and become more independent financially, they have emerged on more equal footing with men. Women have more freedom to be themselves, to be authentic, to express themselves creatively. In other words, they have developed their healthy masculine side. Certainly, that is a boon to them and to men as well.
While some men have moved to embrace their feminine essence—some even becoming househusbands and keepers of the hearth—most men have remained in the workforce with male-dominated workforce
values. And while the presence of women in the workforce may have had a slight softening effect on those Neanderthal values, the overall ethic is still overwhelmingly one of "being tough, winning, and survival of the fittest." Women who object to this modus operandi don't usually get ahead and those who don't object get swallowed up by it.
The result: the feminine consciousness in society has shrunk to an all time low. People are hurting as they never have before, because there is no mother to hold them and rock them. There is no mother to ease the pain or to reassure them. Those kids who are lucky enough to have two parents more often than not have two fathers (although one wears a skirt under her business jacket) and a home that is neither nest nor emotional sanctuary.
Can you imagine a world without the Great Mother energy? It is a world that never rests, never slows down to notice the roses or the mist on the meadow. It is a world without heart, without hearth, a world of dueling microwaves. It is a world of scheduling, fitting things in, perpetual busyness. There is no time for love or nurturing in this world. When the masculine, outward, creative energy is not balanced by the feminine inward, receptive energy, it becomes harsh, controlling, unmerciful.
That, my friends, is the world we inhabit: a world without mothers, a world starved for the feminine. And if we are going to survive the terrors of the days to come, you can be sure that the answers will not be found through our minds or our computers. They will be found in our hearts and in our communities.
The Death and Rebirth of Community
As parents have less and less time to spend with their children, more and more pressure is put on schools, churches and community organizations to pick up the slack. With budgets shrinking, dollars for youth recreation programs, drop-in centers, and other programs for kids and families are often the first to be cut. And with higher administrative costs, public schools are cutting back on art and music programs; even some after-school sports are threatened.
What about boy scouts, girl scouts, Four H? What about youth groups sponsored by churches or temples? How many children do you know who are active in these types of activities? Those who participate are no doubt blessed, but somehow I don't think it is the majority of kids.
The majority of kids don't know where to go or what to do. They'd like to go home. But it doesn't feel like home there without mom and dad, so they don't go there. They go wherever there is a promise of acceptance and belonging, however superficial that promise may be. If the gang or the clique or the Internet chat group offers that acceptance, that's the direction they'll take.
Like us, kids need to belong to something bigger than they are. They need to fit in and be accepted. They may even need this more than we do. And, when there are no tribes to belong to, you have to create your own tribe. You have to give some of these kids credit for trying, even if the tribe is called "The Trenchcoat Mafia."
Schools are a big business with a big bureaucracy. They are no longer user-friendly. The first time kids have to attend a school like this, the first thing they do is run for the exit. Can you blame them? How would you like to spend eight hours a day in a stadium-size mausoleum?
The answers to our school problems are not going to be found in throwing more dollars at them (we already spend in excess of $6,000 per kid) or in building bigger schools. We need to realize that bigger is not necessarily better and spending more may actually lead to less quality: unpopular propositions perhaps, but ones we must begin to face.
The answer will be found in rebuilding our tribal society, consisting of many small, diverse social groupings where kids feel loved and connected. It will be places where mom—or someone pretending to be mom—and dad—or someone pretending to be dad —is home. That's where kids will feel safe and that's where they will learn the most.
It's not a quick fix. But surely we knew it couldn't be.
We are being asked to rebuild the family and extended family. We are being asked to rekindle the spirit of community in our hearts, in our homes, and in our schools. To do so, we won't have to change just the external aspects of our lives. We will have to look carefully at our values and priorities as well.
Schools Cannot Fix Social Problems
In 1950, Henry Steele Commager wrote in Life Magazine that "Many of the failures we ascribe to contemporary education are in fact failures of society as a whole." I wholeheartedly concur. Schools reflect the problems of our society. They show the values of that society coming apart.
When children begin shooting other children, as well as their teachers, it can no longer be argued that "schools are the problem." The problem, like it or not, is a parenting problem and a values crisis. The values that helped to build this country—tolerance of differences, respect for other peoples' beliefs and ideas, free speech, inalienable rights, religious freedom, equality of all people under the law regardless of race, gender, religion, etc.—are not being passed on to our children. We parents are not present enough in our children's lives to demonstrate these values and help our children internalize them.
Fill the void created by absent parents with the amount of gratuitous sex and violence our children see on television, video games, films and the Internet and you have a bomb waiting to explode. And no religion, reform or orthodox, can preach moral and spiritual values to children in a compelling enough manner to defuse that bomb.
Add to the mix a consumer culture targeting young people and committed to serving up an ever more deadly brew of abusive images that denigrate the human spirit and you see that the kind of violence we are witnessing in our schools is not likely to diminish. If anything, unless we adults reconnect with our spiritual values and take back our power as parents and consumers, it is likely to get worse.
Violence is big business in this country. The next time you and/or your children go to see a violent film or play a violent video game, consider the kind of values that are being emphasized and the kind of world you are helping to create.
Not that I think we as parents need to go on a crusade against violence in the media. Just voting with our dollars will send a message soon enough. What we need to do is become familiar with the images our children are seeing on a daily basis and decide if these images are helping our children internalize the kinds of values we want them to learn.
Becoming more present in the lives of our children is the best way to increase the depth and scope of our parenting. And better parenting makes for happier and wiser children. This is the central thesis of this book.
Schools cannot solve the problems of society. That is too much to expect. It is too heavy a burden to lay at the feet of educators. Nor can law enforcement solve the problems of disconnection and alienation that give rise to school shootings.
The chickens always come home to roost. To solve the problems we have in our schools, we parents must get involved in the daily lives of our children. There is no other way.