Archive for September, 2009

How Developmental Psychology’s Marriage to the School System Distorts Our Understanding of Children

Have you ever seen the Handbook of Child Psychology? If not, I urge you to look at it the next time you're near a university library. Handbook is a misnomer for this work; you'd need both arms to carry it all, and if you have a weak back you might want to lift it only a part at a time. The rest of its title--of Child Psychology--is also, in my opinion, a misnomer. Amazingly, this 5000 page work, billed as the authoritative summary of all of child psychology, has almost nothing to say about children's playfulness and curiosity. How can that be? Here's my theory. . . . It's a theory not just about the Handbook, but about the constraints that researchers into child development have placed upon themselves.

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A Process of Conversion


by Gene E. Gary-Williams, Ph.D.

I freely admit that my first encounter with Fairhaven came as a result of panic and prayer. My grandson, who was 8 years old at the time, had provided early and consistent indication that traditional schooling was not for him. Further, it appeared that if the adults in his life insisted on pursuing this line then we all were in for a rocky and rough path with uncertain and maybe disastrous results. He had been exposed to Montessori, traditional private schooling and home schooling – nothing worked in the manner to which most of us is accustomed. Making all of this the more frustrating was the observation that he is incredibly bright, intellectually gifted and possessing a phenomenal memory.

One day in the spring of 2005, I came across an article in The Washington Post that appeared above the fold, on the right hand side of the A section – hard to miss and strategically placed. Upon completing the article, I gave it to my daughter to read and stated that we needed to find Fairhaven, that very day!! We all got dressed for a visit – my daughter, my grandson, his twin sister, and I. We were greatly surprised and pleased to find that the school was about 15 minutes from our home!!! Upon being graciously received for our impromptu visit, taken on a tour and given a brief overview of the school, we were scheduled for an official visit. In the meantime, my grandson had declared, from this brief encounter, that this was a school that he liked; instant identification with the environment.

The long and short is that after the official visit, he spent a week to get the feel of the place and my daughter enrolled him for the upcoming school year.

He will begin his fourth year in this academic year, 2009-2010. In the meantime his sister who is a completely different learner joined him last academic year and she has positively thrived – much to my surprise.

So, why am I surprised? To begin, I am a traditional academic, having taught in higher education environments and served as an administrator in these same areas. My orientation is in traditional schooling, where I excelled as a learner. As an academic I have an awareness of non-traditional modes of educating, but had never explored these before some cursory looks at Montessori. NOTE: When attempting to introduce other traditionalists to the Sudbury concept, I frequently refer to Sudbury as Montessori Very Lite!!

I was not sold on Sudbury in the beginning, I just knew that for the mental health of the family, it was at least a respite; maybe until we could figure something else out OR find some other, more familiar, form of educating that may answer my grandson’s needs.

At this juncture, I have a number of observations that have contributed to my continuing conversion and that have affirmed the importance of the Sudbury education model. First, listening to NPR WAMU 88.5 one day, after my grandson’s enrollment, I heard an interview with a young woman who had received a non-traditional education (not Sudbury, but home schooling to meet her needs) and who has written a book entitled Quirky Kids. She identified and interviewed young people who were educated apart from the traditional methods and wrote about their journeys. During the call-in, a parent from Florida described the hell that her family had encounter with her then 13 year old son and the finding of a school that assisted him in responding to his learning needs. As she talked, I realized that she was describing a Sudbury school and her story of her son’s development was a breakthrough moment of hope for me.

Since that time I have had moments of panic – most often when I discover that the kids do not know or understand some principle of Arithmetic/Math or some basic English language principle or how to spell a word that should be a part of their total vocabulary. The traditionalist in me takes over and I want to supplement Fairhaven with my version of ‘this is what you should know at this stage of intellectual development’. Admittedly there have been times when we have defied the advice of the staff and offered some worksheets, etc.; it only lasts for the moment and we are back to where we were. I have found that correcting English at the time is a positive way of teaching, as both children tend to remember the corrections. Math is another whole ball game and I await the awakening that I have been told will happen and the subsequent push to make up for lost time or just to learn basic facts in order to move forward to another learning experience.

Finally, I am amazed at what each of the children, especially ‘the boy’ with his remarkable memory, do know. How and where they have learned some things will probably always remain a mystery. Basically, they know what is of interest to them. This offers a personal platform for learning other things, a concept that I can oftentimes forget in the emotion of learning to accept and believe in Sudbury methodology.

Finally, when I discuss this with different people, I frequently hear that the person wishes s/he may have had this type opportunity during their developmental phase as they still have a bad taste from traditional education or they feel this type experience would have enhanced their later choices. And everyone seems to know someone who was/is ideal Sudbury method material.

As an academician I have a great desire to verify what I observe with an evidence base. I have read the studies conducted about Sudbury graduates and appreciate these. However, my grandchildren are of a generation/group of children who have spent little or no time in the traditional learning environment. I await the evidence that they, too, can develop and present a thesis paper indicating an acceptable level of mastery of the language, including writing and thinking. I look forward to Mark McCaig’s next book!!!!!

Conversion continues. I am closer today than I was three years ago and hopefully not as close as I will be in the coming years.

FairHaven is an ideal choice for the name of this school – a wonderful respite and personal developer – which, regrettably, does not happen often enough in the ‘regular’ education environment.

Gene Gary-Williams, Ph.D. is a grandmother and former health care professional and academician. She is retired and volunteers with a number of organizations, including AARP.

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Our Social Obligation Toward Children’s Education: Opportunities, Not Coercion

Children educate themselves. Children are biologically built for self-education. Their instincts to explore; to observe; to eavesdrop on the conversations of their elders; to ask countless questions; and to play with the artifacts, ideas, and skills of the culture all serve the purpose of education. In this post I suggest a route through which we, as a society, could enable all people to educate themselves freely and well, as they wish, without coercion.

Editorial Controls Editorial Status:  No Status

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Another Year Of Civility

When Congressman Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s speech the other night, it became yet another example of the coarsening of the political dialogue in the nation. What’s become of civility?

Picture, if you will, a different meeting that also convened this week, not far down the road from the chamber where Wilson achieved his You Tube infamy. We held the first School Meeting of the school year at Fairhaven, called to order by a brand new School Meeting Chair at one o’clock Wednesday afternoon in our spacious Chesapeake Room. Ninety minutes of orderly business ensued, including electing new Judicial Committee Clerks (congratulations Sarah and Rebecca) and three alternate clerks, tabling a motion to charter a Board Game Corporation, and deciding to extend the facility use agreement with the startup church that rents space from us Sunday mornings.

In each discussion, no one tried to “spin” any of the facts. Although we voting members sometimes disagree, we share a genuine desire to come to the best decision for the individuals and the school. A shouted  accusation of “you lie” would sound out of place at School Meeting, and would not be tolerated. Of course we disagree, and we try to advocate our positions. Yet the over-riding concern of discovering what’s best is constant.

The meeting was humorous at times, but never crude. The new Chair and Secretary ran the meeting with skill and fairness. No one violated our rules of decorum.  We discussed issues, and then we voted. At the adjournment, we folded up our chairs and went on with our days, one meeting further into developing a culture of dignity, equality and civility. These are the things we value, and our students embody them. Despite the remarkable reality that a dozen or so students and six adults voted on all the business of the school Wednesday (and will do so for the next forty or so Wednesdays, on hundreds of issues, some minor and some quite major), it was so respectful that the event could almost be described as boring. (In fact, many students and some staff describe it as just so.)

So here’s to civility and tedium, hallmarks of a democratic culture of honest dealing and, above all, respect.

Mark McCaig

September, 2009

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Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education

Let's speak honestly, without euphemisms. Compulsory education means forced education, and forced education means that schools are prisons. The question worth debating is this: Is forced education a good thing or a bad thing? Most people seem to believe that it is, all in all, a good thing; but I think that it is, all in all, a bad thing. I outline here some of the reasons why I think this, in a list of what I refer to as "seven sins" of our system of forced education.

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And We Could Talk To Water

Welcome back to Fairhaven!

As we begin our twelfth year, we give thanks for the opportunity to provide young people a unique educational environment, a place where freedom meets responsibility.  Sometimes we marvel at the contrast between the light-filled experience of starting the school year at Fairhaven as compared to starting at a traditional school.

In the following poem, Ron Koertge of California captures this contrast.

First Grade

Until then, every forest
had wolves in it, we thought
it would be fun to wear snowshoes
all the time, and we could talk to water.

So who is this woman with the gray
breath calling out names and pointing
to the little desks we will occupy
for the rest of our lives?

Here’s to a marvelous 2009-2010 school year!

Mark McCaig

Fairhaven School staff

(Poem used with the author’s permission. Ron Koertge’s latest book of poems is FEVER (Red Hen Press). He is also the author of numerous children’s books.)

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“Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

Someone recently referred me to a book that they thought I'd like. It's a 2009 book, aimed toward teachers of grades K through 12, titled "Why Don't Students Like School?" It's by a cognitive scientist named Daniel T. Willingham, and it has received rave reviews by countless people involved in the school system. Google the title and author and you'll find pages and pages of doting reviews and nobody pointing out that the book totally and utterly fails to answer the question posed by its title. ... Everyone knows the real reason why students don't like school, but most people, including Willingham, avoid mentioning it. School is prison.

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