What should be the school year be for custom schoolers?

Our family has built a “custom school” around our 14 year-old child with hired teachers, and it is working out fantastically well.    He is learning more than his former classmates, according to his former teachers that have evaluated him.   He is excited about reading a wide range of books, which is new.   And I am glad he is learning the beauty of mathematics, not just the mechanics he was taught before.    Together we decided to continue for another year at least.

But what should we do about the school year?   Should we match his older brother’s high school schedule?    We started out the year that way, but have changed.   He now takes a class whenever both he and his teacher is in town, and we feel free to have him take trips with us all through the year.   Right now is now at a 2 week birder camp which he saved his allowance for.   The teachers have been thankfully flexible with our schedule, and it we are flexible around theirs.    So we have adopted a flexible schedule that has many weeks off each year, but not all gathered together.

This has allowed us to go on trips together, for his teachers to take him on field trips, and for him to stay learning more consistently.    A language teacher complained that the summer months set students back by many weeks.

There is value to having time off to play, relax, and develop hobbies, but is our spreading this out throughout the year a better course?    It is too early to tell, and I am not quite sure how we will be able to tell, but our son does not seem to feel that he is being cheated out of summer vacation– he is getting trips and independence sprinkled throughout the year.

If anyone has any experience with this, please comment here, or write to us.


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2 Responses to What should be the school year be for custom schoolers?

  1. I congratulate you for the forward thinking shown in providing your son with a customized education. Those of us who homeschool have a great deal of experience with adapting to our children’s interests and abilities while taking advantage of all the world around us has to offer them.

    At your son’s age, in addition to instructional activities (however wonderfully active and hands-on they may be) it’s important to balance these with two other uses of his time. First off and little valued—quiet and contemplation.

    Kids this age tend to stay up late and sleep in. They lounge around as if they’re doing nothing, disconnected from people around them with earbuds. They may seem to be slacking off right when adults are urging them to focus, be serious, make every effort count. This is a major time for integrating what they’re learning into a larger sense of self, for trying out different attitudes, and for developing critical thinking skills they’ll use throughout adulthood. While it may seem unproductive, giving them plenty of time does benefit this process. It also contributes to peace in the family.

    Perhaps more importantly, kids at this age typically have very few opportunities to contribute meaningful effort. Throughout human history young people have taken part in the real work of home, business, and community by necessity. They long to prove themselves this way (beyond the childish role of “clean your room” chores). When their efforts are needed in any useful endeavor they not only learn in ways that translate to academic subjects, they also build a strong core of positive character traits. Studies have repeatedly shown the long-term positive effect of real work.

    I go into depth about this in my book Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

  2. We homeschool, or actually, “unschool” our child (about eight, and we’ve done this from the start).

    See John Holt’s writings like “Teach Your Own”. He coined the term “unschooling”. It sounds more like you are doing a bit of “school at home”, but somewhat better than that. Maybe that works best for your family situation and particular child, but just know that there are other options and broader philosophies about this. Here is some related information in case you are unaware of other options.

    See, for example, the writings of John Taylor Gatto (like “The Underground History of American Education” available for free online), Grace Llewellyn, and the folks at AREO (Alternative Education Resource Organization). Alfie Kohn (“Punished by Rewards”) and Pat Farenga (an associate of John Holt) have a lot of good stuff to say related to education too. Look at stuff by Chris Mercogliano too (he co-ran the Albany Free School for thirty years).

    Remember, “schooling” and “education” are two totally separate things, even though there may occasionally be some overlap. Most school staff are well meaning and truly think they are educating and truly want to educate, but the system prevents that by its very design (look up “Prussian Schooling” for more on that in Gatto’s books). The problem with some tutors is that they come out of that same tradition, where most of what a teacher learns is classroom management of large groups, with techniques and habits optimized for maintaining authority in that situation.

    For example, a child learning to read “late” (like after age six) in school is a total disaster for the kid; he or she will be labeled, laughed at, crushed by bad grades, and so on, for a downward spiral. Any school-trained tutor will assume a later reading child is an immediate emergency, with the kid needing to be verbally beaten into reading in order to save him or her from disaster of going off some schedule schools adhere to because of their internal systems logic for managing herds of same aged children like cattle. But a homeschooled child can learn to read at twelve (because people get tired of reading stuff to him or her) and then go on to become an avid self-directed reader, with absolutely no negative consequences, with no loss of overall learning because other things were being learned in other ways that entire time. But what school-oriented tutor would understand that? The mantra of schools is that kids who learn to read late will be life-long failures, ignoring the fact that is is mainly school that makes them that way. Two centuries ago, many people went to one room schoolhouses at eight or ten and were reading what would now be considered college level material in a few years. A lot of the methodology of modern schooling is just about make-work , leading to the dumbing down and de-motivating of kids.

    See also places like the Albany Free School and the Sudbury Valley School for other alternative examples. Although that free school model is different than home-based unschooling, with its own strengths and weaknesses, given more ongoing daily socialization with a variety of children but less adult attention than homeschooling.

    Different kids have different interests and inclinations and abilities. Self-chosen “classes” can indeed be a useful part of unschooling, especially for older kids — but the idea of a “class” itself is still often problematical. Think of what the very word “class” means and maybe explore the history of the term “classroom” and what a classroom was intended to accomplish (Gatto goes into that).

    Also, as a rule, it takes somewhere between month to a year for each year of formal schooling for someone to “deschool” and become an independent learner again. I’m not sure how to speed that process. I’d expect some types of classes might delay it further though.

    See also for a bigger picture my essay:
    “Ultimately, educational technology’s greatest value is in supporting “learning on demand” based on interest or need which is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to “learning just in case” based on someone else’s demand. Compulsory schools don’t usually traffic in “learning on demand”, for the most part leaving that kind of activity to libraries or museums or the home or business or the “real world”. In order for compulsory schools to make use of the best of educational technology and what is has to offer, schools themselves must change. … So, there is more to the story of technology than it failing in schools. Modern information and manufacturing technology itself is giving compulsory schools a failing grade. Compulsory schools do not pass in the information age. They are no longer needed. What remains is just to watch this all play out, and hopefully guide the collapse of compulsory schooling so that the fewest people get hurt in the process.”

    Think of what the existence of the Internet Archive, wirelessly available just about everywhere on the planet either now or soon enough, means in relation to how kids still being forced to “learn” all sorts of stuff “just in case”.

    Granted, to come to good decisions, and especially to know how to ask good questions, people need to know many facts, need to know reasoning methods, and need time to think. I am not against education, or even some strong cajoling occasionally about what kids should be learning, or strewing stuff you want kids to pay attention to throughout their environment. But there is a deep philosophical and political issue about forcing all children to learn a common prescribed curriculum based on some generally arbitrary set of guidelines out of all there is to learn.

    One aspect of this focus on a standard curriculum has been how kids have been ripped away from sandboxes, garden hoses, and tree climbing at an early age to focus on “academics”. Studies are now chowing that without an early set of interactions with these basics, kids have no concrete experiences to hang all the academic abstractions on. What does “mass” mean when you have never held a rock? What does “volume” mean when you have never played with sand and water? What does the “environment” mean when you have never spent time outdoors in it? What is the “sun” when you are told to fear it and live your life hiding from it? What does “nutrition” or “agriculture” mean when you have never seen a carrot? (See also Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” and Dr. John Cannell’s “Vitamin D Council” and Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s “Disease Proof Your Child” on these issues).

    Another aspect is what passes for “socialization” in school. Kids are being lectured by an authority figure all day, stuck with only same-aged equally dumb peers in a room all day, and with no one around who they might teach what they are produt to have learned (unlike multi-age learning settings). There is no way to escape bad social situations, and so there is rampant drug use as kids try to escape pharmacologically what they cannot escape physically (the USSR needed to guard its borders, but the USA needs to guard it medicine chests). Even the anti-bullying campaigns just make things worse (see “Bullies to Buddies” by Izzy Kalman for an alternative that works better).

    Then there is the issue of the evils of grading (see Alfie Kohn, like “From Degrading to De-Grading”). And see also: “The Case Against Homework”.

    And as Gatto says (like in “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher”), there is a publicly planned out but by now forgotten “hidden” curriculum related to schooling, which has more to do with learning obedience to an assigned factory role or combat role than learning to be happily self-actualized, or even learning to be a good citizen. The book “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt shows how this extends into graduate school. Noam Chomsky in “What Makes the Mainstream Media Mainstream” and David Goodstein in “The Big Crunch” go into other aspects of this as well. They all talk about aspects of a mining-like filtering and sorting process to remove troublemakers and collect polishable high grade “gems” that is a defining aspect of modern schooling, leading to professionals with standardized political values and “assignable curiosity”.

    Is it any wonder our well-schooled society is failing socioeconomically and there are appeals like the recent “Appeal of teachers and researchers: Renewing the research and teaching in finance, economics and management to better serve the common good” saying: “The authors of this appeal are deeply concerned that more than three years since the outbreak of the financial and macroeconomic crisis that highlighted the pitfalls, limitations, dangers and responsibilities of main-stream thought in economics, finance and management, the quasi-monopolistic position of such thought within the academic world nevertheless remains largely unchallenged.”

    As Gatto points out, give schools more money and they will only do this “dumbing down” and mining and sorting process *better* from their point of view.

    Why duplicate that broken schooling system at home, even as a “custom school”? Why worry about schoolish schedules? Or even the notion of “vacation”? Did hunter/gatherer children go on “vacation”? Did they have regular “lessons”? Or were they learning all the time from impromptu lessons-on-demand from their parents, relatives, neighbors, and even the natural world around them?

    In some ways, the availability of things like Khan Academy or all the other great educational videos on the internet is like a return to older times (although, obviously, much improved in some ways). It is important to separate the excellent work that some educators put in to thinking through how to make something easier to learn (like David Goodstein’s Mechanical Universe or Roald Hoffman’s World of Chemistry video series, free at Annenberg’s Learner.org) from the different issue of compulsory scheduling of such learning at specific ages or specific times of day or days of the year regardless of whether the youthful prisoner (guilty of what?) wants to learn it just then.

    It sounds like you are trying to do better than conventional schooling with what little time remains before your child turns eighteen and moves on to independent living (in college or elsewhere). Bravo for trying, even though the most important years to unschool are the early ones. But better late than never.

    Ironically, the later teenage years are when some unschoolers want to consider more structure like high school, especially for access to things like science labs that are generally otherwise restricted access in our society, or for team sports given the difficulty of organizing homeschool sport teams resulting from so many children being in school so much of the time. Well, that and to be part of a big community scene, given schools sadly have done a more effective job than napalm at depopulating US towns of children during the weekdays.

    Unfortunately, most parents only try alternatives after they see the emotional damage even the “best” schools can do (like to kill the love of learning and natural creativity every child is born with). I am so sad when recent college graduates trot out that they “learned to learn” in college, when the truth is more that knowing how to learn independently was stamped out of them in kindergarten and first grade. After starting kindergarten, a neighbor told me her little girl said she would not do any learning with her mother at home anymore because the teacher was going to tell her everything to learn from now on. See also Gatto’s: “Schooling Is a Form of Adoption”.

    Still, with that said, different things work for different families and kids, so what you are doing may indeed be perfect for your situation. I’m just laying out some conceptual roots for alternative thinking about school at home, and even extensive tutoring (again, age makes a big difference in needs and older kids are typically going to want to broaden out).

    My wife and I have discovered that for two professionals, homeschooling/unschooling is about the most expensive thing you can do for your child and your community. That is why schools are in no danger anytime soon from homeschooling, and they know it.

    School taxes and procedures are interwoven with a whole notion of our society and economy, including “The Two Income Trap” that Elizabeth Warren wrote about.
    For example, with the recent swine flu panic last year, the US had a huge problem when kids could not be confined to school during the day and both parent were on a financial treadmill with no other family support, whereas Mexico fared better because extended families could care for children during the day. What have we done to our society to become so dependent on schools so both parents can work when their children could most use their attention? And as Elizabeth Warren points out, after all the extra money went to bidding up the cost of housing and college and health care and to cars, the result is that the families are in more financial precarity than ever (since relying on two wage earners means twice as much risk of not being able to pay the bills if someone gets sick or loses a job). That is the sort of financial dynamic that lets K-12 school schedule everyone’s lives.

    I wrote another essay where I suggest the money for public schools could just be given to the parents to make homeschooling more feasible for everyone, and then parents could homeschool, hire tutors, travel, or send their kids to private school. With more families homeschooling, it would become much easier. Then the old public schools could become life-long learning centers more similar to public libraries rather than the soul-destroying day prisons so many of them have been (especially in the “best” school districts). And everyone could set their own schedules. How many night owls are suffering from school schedules, for example? How many kids who like to focus mainly on one thing at a time suffer on school schedules that interweave multiple classes?

    See also the movie “The War on Kids” for how bad things have gotten (like with the essentially mandated drugging of young children who resist being forced to sit all day doing paperwork when their bodies says they should be outside in the rain and sunshine). Then we stuff school kids full of school lunches courtesy of what a wrongly “subsidized food pyramid” overproduces (generally addictive refined grains, processed oils, sugar, and fatty factory farm animal products with strange additives). Then we wonder why our kids end up addicted to drugs, morbidly obese, and with all sorts of chronic health problems (sometimes related to vitamin D deficiency from being indoors so much, sometimes from lack of vegetables) like asthma, type 1 diabetes, and even cancer.

    It’s a wonder things have worked out as well as they have, as a tribute to human resiliency. If you would not stuff your kid with school junk food, why stuff them mentally with school procedures including crazy “schedules”?

    When we take trips, it is part of our child’s “unschooling”. Our kid runs the GPS now, for example. Kids are learning all the time, though it is true the quality or likely long-term relevance of what is being learned may vary, and character formation is important too; all things a parent needs to thinking about, and far more important than “schedules”.

    Still, with another kid in school, your family is kind of stuck with the school schedule in various ways, sadly.

    Anyway, I hope I’ve provided you with an alternative viewpoint and some starting points for further life-long self-education in this huge area. You can search on my “[p2p-research] Rebutting Communiqué from an Absent Future (was Re: Information on student protests)” for even more ideas and links to more posts with more links, but then you would not have time to do much else for years, and we need you to keep running the Internet Archive. 🙂

    It is a tough choice for an activist parent who homeschools — how much time to devote to homeschooling or some other specific different cause, as both are so essential. Sometimes they can overlap though, like our kid is involved some with our local historical society of which I’m a trustee.

    Good luck finding the right balance for your family.

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