My Kids Don’t Go to School. Get Over it.

get-over-it-or-get-it-over

It came to me as we were travelling across France with our children so they could discover the origins of half their gene pool. “Get over it,” I thought. This trip happened to coincide with “la rentrée,” that time of year when French parents, teachers, and government administrators place high hopes on children as they begin a new school year, armed with sharpened pencils, woolen sweaters and (admittedly) a lunch box worthy of a Michelin star.

Throughout our trip, our children were asked repeatedly why they weren’t in school. I at least admire that French adults target their questions directly at children and expect them to answer, rather than searching their parents faces accusingly. While it’s hard to summarize a life lived in intellectual freedom while ordering a cheese baguette at a roadside rest stop, my children’s answers were polite, succinct and honest.

“We are educated at home.”

“Yes, we learn in both french and English.”

“No, we don’t follow a curriculum.”

As the trip went on, however, and the questions kept coming, I noticed that my children’s answers became tinged with justification.

“We use a lot of internet learning resources.”

“We may go to school someday, who knows?”

“Well, we travel a lot, so homeschooling is really our only choice.”

What? My husband and I have always encouraged our children to speak for themselves about how they learn and why, because we feel they do a better job at it than we ever could. When they were much younger and I was the one faced with the questions, I was a defensive, bumbling mess because I always felt criticized. As I listened to the evolution in my children’s answers throughout our trip, I realised that they too were feeling judged and felt the need to justify their choices. Or worse, having doubts. If so many people were asking, maybe their choices were wrong or bad. Maybe they should be in school.

I was feeling it too. At one particular rest stop, as my son was helping a man with directions, tracing his finger along a huge plexiglass map, his wife kept looking suspiciously back and forth between my husband and I and the kids, as though there were a real possibility that we had abducted these children, taken them out of school and forcefully driven them across the South of France. What other explanation was there?

Although homeschooling is legal in France, it is rare, highly monitored and strictly controlled, therefore dissuaded. And while alternative schools such as Montessori are popping up like tulips in the garden of Versailles, they remain schools. Adult directed, institutionalized learning is still the norm and highly valued. So it isn’t surprising that people find it at best odd, and at worst unconscionable, that our children don’t go to school.

I don’t blame those asking the questions. We’re asked everywhere we go, in every country, by a wide variety of people. But I do find it sad that so few people are able to consider the learning value that comes with both daily living and exploration, be it discovering a foreign country, or visiting a local museum. Only one woman, of all the people we met, congratulated us. She was from Finland.

The idea that the only way for children to succeed in life is to spend their childhoods in a classroom is so ingrained in our collective conscience, that any other possibility is deemed threatening to our very social fabric. Compliance, competition and the dire importance placed on performance sends the message that doing well in school is no longer just about success, but survival. This notion is indeed something we need to get over, and quickly. I would have said so, but I couldn’t think of how to translate it in french. I’ll have to look it up.

The Learning Vacation

IMG_0820

Walking among the acropolis ruins on the island of Kos

I was telling another mom a few days ago that we just got back from a two week vacation on a small island in Greece. I explained that the trip had been part business and part pleasure, but that mostly, it had been a learning vacation for our children. She smiled knowingly and said, “Yeah, I guess every kid needs a vacation from learning sometimes, huh?”

What I had meant was that our vacation was intentionally centered around learning and discovery, that we had planned (and often improvised) our activities around things that my children are passionate about. What she heard, however–that children need “a break” from learning–reinforces a common assumption about education: that learning can only take place in a formal educational environment, i.e. school, and that by contrast, anything that takes place outside of that institution is considered leisure or fun. This mindset is so deeply ingrained, in fact, that time off from school to pursue intellectual or creative interests, or the discovery of a new place and culture is not only frowned upon, but isn’t considered valuable learning at all.

What we learn deeply as part of the human experience can’t be measured or compared or tested. During our two weeks in Greece, we each learned something valuable to us. We spent two days in Turkey roaming cobblestone streets, drinking sweet chai from hourglass shaped teacups. When we missed a boat connection from one island to our destination, the kids were tired and frustrated at being “stranded”.  But they quickly learned that a detour can turn into an unexpected adventure of climbing over ancient ruins in a field of wildflowers, followed by tasting wild thyme and honey drizzled over warm, tangy cheese.

IMG_0834

We met many new people and discovered two new cultures and languages. We visited historical monuments, museums and monasteries, talked to local artists about their work and influences, discovered hidden places by exploring the winding side streets against the flow of other tourists.

IMG_1050

My children learned from other people how to fish off a rock, which stones are best for ricocheting and how to play crazy eights. They learned about monks who live in solitude, small yellow flowers that close up when you touch them and the taste of figs eaten directly from the tree.

IMG_0841

We visited an organic farm and vineyard and learned all about WWOOFing, cheese making and how olive oil is pressed. We listened to people’s stories of ancestors who fled Turkey during the Ottoman empire and sailed to uninhabited islands in Greece, how they hid in caves, fishing and scavenging, fearing pirates and welcoming merchants, until the first house could be built. (“Come, I’ll show it to you. It still exists.”)

We learned about the Greek diaspora after World Wars I and II and the eventual return of new generations to Greece. For my son, hearing these stories showed him that history is more than a continuum of events. Its a hand-written memoir, a spoken memory. It’s about people and their very personal stories, very few of which ever make it into a history book. And the knowledge they impart can only be integrated and passed down, but never tested.

A few days after we returned from our learning vacation, I came across this exchange of letters between a school principal and a father who took his children out of school so they could share in his life-long dream of running in the Boston marathon. Despite three days filled with history, science, culture and endless examples of community, the children’s absence was labelled “unexcused” and the family was threatened with a possible criminal complaint for truancy if it happened again.

In response to the principal’s zero tolerance admonition, the father wrote,

“In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education. . . They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal. . . These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.”

His words echoed our experience. What struck me was that little phrase that got tucked into parentheses as though it was as afterthought to his argument about the three days they missed (“which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time”). Those few words speak volumes about the misplaced priorities of our educational system. When did standardized testing, which attempts to measure the conformed distribution and assimilation of rote information, become more valuable to our children’s experience than learning through the use of their five senses, their innate wonder and curiosity about the world, and their natural ability to make sense of and build upon those experiences? Simply put, how can anyone insist that school has a monopoly on learning? I think we could all use a vacation from that mindset by paying a visit to life.