Monday, February 1, 2016

Education and Control: Ryan’s Story

Ryan hates school; he hates the work, he hates the environment, he hates the pressure, the shaming, the inflexibility. He hates having to be there at all. And he’s one of those students who needs educational freedom in order to excel. He doesn’t get that, so he’s failing.

He’s even failing a class in photography, which is his passion. He’s failing because he already knows perfectly well how to learn to take better pictures, and the class assignments are, “BS.” How frustrating, to be good at something but to dislike the class that’s supposed to be teaching you about it.  My son experienced some of those feelings when, after teaching himself five programming languages, he entered his first CS class in college and found it to be....utterly stupid.

Ryan, 17, goes to a high school in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. He tells us how his school is trying to get kids to get good grades.

“We got this BS presentation in the auditorium. ‘Students, welcome back from your snowcation!’ I don't feel welcomed. It was all about being an ‘E-Free School’. E is Failing at my school.  The assembly was fully of ‘E-Shaming’.  And we got this contract thing:”


“If we fail anything we have to go to summer school and our parents have to pay for it.”, Ryan says. “And then the principal presented a shitty incentive to the whole school with this assembly.”

They get to wear hats.

In return for passing grades, the students get to wear hats in school.

“It could be worse,” said Ryan, “And the fact that it could be worse is crippling.”

I thought about that. I think Ryan meant that the fact that adults had the power not only to make students’ life miserable, but to make their lives even more miserable if they wanted to was incredibly stressful.

Like many students, Ryan’s parents see school as the only path to success in life. Their pressure only adds to his stress.

Ryan is a lot like I was. I never was able to do work assigned to me, unless it happened to coincide with work I wanted to do. I failed all through middle and high school. And I felt it. I felt inadequate; mediocre, often depressed. I observed kids around me who cheerfully fulfilled their assignments with a kind of confused wonder.

Yet later in my life, I pursued jobs, did work I had no interest in, and survived under the pressure of bosses who cared not a whit about my feelings. My passion was for independence, and that was my payoff. Ryan has no payoff at all. And he has no power.


How did the system get this way? What does it accomplish?

Comment here or join us in our Dialogue On Education group on Facebook. 

Let’s talk about it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Get on their side -- not on the sidelines.

A blog post came across my screen recently that made my head explode. It's not an easy task to explain why.

Pic from the Grown and Flown blog
"One of the great parenting quandaries is when to push our kids and when to back off. This issue surfaces in every aspect of their lives from academics to music lessons to team sports. For each child there is a different answer and for each family a different story, but on the issue of sports, there seem to be a few universal truths.

"Sports loom large in our world and while there are many insidious aspects to this, the value of sports, particularly team sports, in a child’s life cannot be overstated."

-Grown and Flown

OK, it doesn’t seem so striking at first; it’s a post about the healing powers of sports, and why parents should “push” kids to participate. Take some time to read it. I’ll wait.

Think of all the problems sports have been called in to solve in this article.

Drugs. Cigarettes. Sex.  Weapons. Poor nutrition. Poor health. Depression. Rootlessness. Isolation. Poor family relationships. Doubtful prospects for future employment. A lack of kinship with home once students leave. Yes, these are things parents worry about, and what’s wrong with a strategy for finding the best possible school experience for your kids?

But many questions arise.

Do these problems constitute a default setting? Is there no protection against them, unless you join an athletic team, or perhaps some other extracurricular activity?

What if you’re not athletic? What if none of the sports offered at your school interest you? What if you’re not good enough to make the team?

The parents who read the Grown and Flown blog probably do so because they’re involved and interested in their kids’ educational welfare. If that’s so, chances are their kids are doing OK in school. Children of involved parents usually are.

But even the most involved parents can’t always successfully prescribe solutions to the problems kids experience in school.  In fact, would this post about athletics exist if life in school was simply peachy for every student? There are some things even the most involved and active parents can’t prevent, and pushing their kids toward sports won’t solve it either. (And I’m not touching some of the problems often found in school athletics programs.)

Grown and Flown chooses not to question or investigate the problems themselves. Let’s go through the looking glass and see what happens. Here are my responses to their listed problems:

Drugs, lack of connection, isolation, doubtful prospects for employment. These problems would not be inevitable if kids were interested and passionate about learning from a very young age.  Picture a school where kids and adults are equals, and learning develops from student strengths, identities, and deepest interests.

This seems impossible to organize if you can’t picture school as a completely different environment; but those simple principles change the culture and the atmosphere of school completely. All of the above problems would be neatly solved, or rendered small and easily fixed.

Self-directed learning, with the guidance and support of adults, gives young people a strong connection to meaningful experiences and a growing self-respect. They discover that learning isn’t a chore to get through, but a part of who they are.

Students could self-organize by interest, reorganize around another interest. Math, for example, can arise from design (models, toys), creation, (cooking, building), scientific observation (data collection and analysis of pond life).

Verbal skills can develop through the free access to books, lots of reading aloud, performance of plays, original and otherwise, and the pursuit of those answers to the deep questions of their learning, which can only be found by reading.  

History, geography, foreign languages, art, music...all these things are assumed to be topics that wouldn’t come up in the everyday life of kids if it was not imposed. This idea comes from a deep mistrust of kids -- and possibly of ourselves. Since we grew up in this system of imposed learning, and we remember how we felt about these subjects in that coercive environment, maybe we look at our kids and panic at the thought of leaving them to their own interests.

And in all of the above activities is the process of a developing sense of self.

Exposure to interesting stuff, places, happenings, phenomena, skills, products, should all be part of every student’s life. A trusted adult can bring lots of stuff to the attention of students that they might never have come across. But the important factor is trust. “Learn this, you’ll thank me later” is just another way kids are made to be passive recipients instead of active drivers of learning.

But “hey, I found this book that I thought you’d really like,” or “Seriously, Romeo and Juliet is a lot of fun, let’s act out parts of it!” is successful when it is built on relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Kids will learn some things deeply. Other things...well, they might not learn them until the point when they need the knowledge or skill. And don’t worry about algebra -- many more kids will come to understand its use and importance than do now, if the practice is voluntary and attached to work that they chose.

As for the Chinese dynasties...well, some kids will really dig it, others’ eyes will glaze over. Not everything needs to be learned by everybody, and civilization will continue.

But they’ll know, by the end of their childhoods, that they are able to learn whatever they need to, when they need to. That’s the “doubtful prospects for future employment” problem tackled, along with drugs, lack of connection, isolation, and all those difficulties that result from disconnection from learning. Accomplished kids grow up to carry confidence and competence about with them wherever they go.

Premature engagement in sex results from dissatisfaction with oneself, poor self-image, deep need for love and attention. It can also result from a lack of engagement in issues of deep interest that lie outside oneself. If there’s nothing else in life, there is the satisfaction of choosing and being chosen by a lover. Submission to early sex may just be a requirement that kids put up with in order to keep a relationship. Interest in the future, excitement about prospects, having accomplishments in the past and ambitions for the future: that is an effective tool for abstinence from premature engagement in sexual activities

Of course, there is the issue of consensual sex between teens who are exploring, and acting on passionate feelings. I’m not sure this is something to be so afraid of. As a parent of 2 teens, a boy and a girl, I found this post, Sex Positivity in Parenting, to be pretty enlightening.

Poor nutrition. Poor health.
Why is this only reliably combated by kids who play sports? Why isn’t this a regular part of the plan for all kids? This one baffles me.

In a system of self-directed learning, concern for oneself comes along with the prospect of a bright future. Connection to meaningful learning experiences, chosen by children, lead to connection to a larger world, and with that comes the desire for health and future happiness.

I’m not an expert here but I’ve done substantial reading on the subject and have had dozens of conversations with the parents of depressed teens. What I’ve come to understand is that depression can be situational, but it is also a condition that some kids and their parents need to cope with through mental health services, medication, patience and understanding. Physical activity can help. But all the above changes in how our system can work means each individual child is respected for their strengths, and not sorted and labeled on the basis of their weaknesses. Time and attention needs to be given to kids as people with joys and struggles, not as widgets with learning outcomes. If in a system based on caring a trusted adult sees that physical activity might improve life for a depressed teen, then together they find a way.

Poor family relationships
Take a look at what is between you and your child. Is it homework? Grades? Boredom? Learning struggles? All these things, when allowed to become a conflict point at home, create barriers between parents and children that are heartbreaking on both sides. You don’t need to stand on the sidelines of the soccer game cheering in order for your kids to appreciate you. In fact, you can very easily create wonderful family lives by simply getting on their side. If what’s being imposed on your kids at school is coming between you, let go of your expectations and assumptions about your kid and about school. Go through the looking glass. It’s not you, and it’s not your kid. It’s school. As well-intentioned and as filled with kindness as it might be, it can’t recover from the toxicity of imposed learning. (Why is this more important now than when you were in school?)

A lack of kinship with home once students leave.
Whether the connection to their place of origin stays with kids or not is entirely based on how their experiences there affected them. Meaningful accomplishments done alongside other students is the best way I can think of to create strong ties with home. Alumni organizations have much more to worry about now than under this new system of self-directed learning.

Kids who associate school with connection, self-respect, caring, trust and kindness don’t go shooting it up. Adults who are tuned into kids on that basis don’t lose touch when a kids mental health goes south. Adequately-funded schools have things like programs and services for families. As for the access to guns’ll forgive me if I don’t that one with a ten-foot pole

OK. You’ve got me. With a coach on your back about it, your parents, your teammates, a desire to excel physically, a student might successfully avoid cigarettes. But I seem to recall seeing Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins with a cigarette in his hand. That’s all I’m saying.

OK, so these problems might not be problems for your kid....
They might love every aspect of school. Mine did, or very nearly. One is what I call a “genial learner,” happy to pick up and run with whatever you put in front of him. The other loves the social life of school, and a good deal of the learning, and is willing to put in the required time on the rest. But some of the kids of the most involved parents will not have such compliant kids.

Then there are the kids of parents who are not active in their kids’ education, due to stressful home situations or difficult circumstances. Involvement and engagement in school-as-usual exists on a spectrum, but we tend to assume that all is well when we observe our very best students.

The missing pieces that create the difficulties the Grown and Flown authors addresses need more than the partial band-aid that sports applies. They need to be examined, every one of them, and rooted out, and for adults this requires some effort of will. (I recently learned that the word “radical,” often applied to some of my ideas about school, can be defined as the pursuit of the conceptual root of a problem. That’s the goal here..)

So what do we do now?
Our kids are stuck in a system that cannot make certain that every child’s needs are being fulfilled by exciting and engaging learning experiences in a positive learning environment, as long as the curriculum is imposed regardless of interest...and I might add, pushed through curriculum standards and enforced by testing.

It is in the best interests of your child and our coming generation to dismiss all our inner reliance on the the way education has been in our lifetimes, and hang our hats on something new. School as it is now is not inevitable. But when adults see problems in children’s learning and school life it is hard to take that leap and say, “I’m going to figure out how to get what’s best for my kid and DAMN the way things have always been done.”

If the image of the possibilities of self-directed learning that I tried to paint in this post appeals to you, explore alternatives. There are self-directed learning centers, democratic schools, and other child-oriented alternatives in many communities. Or you can explore unschooling, a variety of homeschooling where children and adults engage in learning as part of their everyday living.

If alternatives are not possible for you, the simple act of understanding these issues and talking with your kids about it will make a huge difference. The sense that you are on their side will help them immensely. And even if you can’t make a change in your family, you can get involved in changing education so that all kids regard learning as the joy that it is supposed to be.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Can This Teen's School Experience Be Saved?

Is your teen experiencing any of these responses to school?

1. Your teen hates school. It’s an all-encompassing aversion. No positive social life, adults in school are not sympathetic, the work sucks, and it feels like prison.
2. Your teen hates homework and tests, but likes classroom work.  Although they enjoy their classroom experience and/or social life, teens like this value their private life and need their own activities. This affects their grades, and you’re worried it will affect his/her chances in college.
3. Your teen seems very unhappy in school, and gets average grades. Teens like this go along and get along with school’s demands, but something isn’t right. They don’t take initiative, and don’t develop a real interest in their studies.
4. Your teen wants to go to college, but doesn't have the grades and isn't a good test-taker. For this teen, school just isn’t interesting, and they don’t excel in the way school demands.
5. Your teen is very ambitious, studies hard, does well in classes and on tests, and is stressed-out, anxious and unhappy. For whatever reason, this teen needs to rise to each challenge, and isn’t happy when that doesn’t happen. In a race with herself, she feels like she can’t lose. She might seem to be every parent’s dream child, so why are you so worried?
These scenarios occur at schools everywhere.
There are options and strategies available to the families in these scenarios. What would you do? Comment below if you have ideas about how these situations can be resolved, or join us at Solving School-Related Family Conflicts, a project of Catalyst Learning Network.

(If you have a teen who sounds like the ones described above, and you’d like to discuss options, email

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Stay In School?

Heal the breach between parents and their kids who hate school. A message from Catalyst Learning Network.

From Princeton Learning Cooperative
If your teens want to leave school -- if they have dug in their heels in opposition to you, their parents -- if your relationship has deteriorated to the point where you seem to be locked in battle -- take a breath.

Your choices are, keep pushing...or release the tension from your relationship and talk about what your teen’s wishes and needs are.  The education needs of young people are not satisfied at school; their misery reflects the failure of school.

Stay in school is the perennial admonition that parents typically give to their kids about success in life.

So it is a surprise, even a shock, to many parents when they discover that their children think of their time in school as akin to a prison sentence.

Stay in school, the message says, no matter what.  Testing and standardization has made schools into test-prep centers, and our kids are stressed out, anxious, bored, and tired.

But school isn’t just a necessary milestone; a ticket to a roller-coaster: get that ticket and have the ride of your life.  Completion of high school is a guarantee of nothing. Parents are fearful that if their kids wander off the mainstream “pathway to success,” they’ll be lost forever.

But completion of high school doesn’t guarantee college success. Even kids who are able to soar in high school are not guaranteed a successful college career.

According to an article on Valerie Strauss’s blog, The Answer Sheet,

Of the 1.5 million high school graduates who took the ACT during the academic year 2008–2009, 33 percent were not ready for college-level English, 47 percent were not ready for college social science, 58 percent were not ready for college algebra, and 72 percent were not ready for college biology.

Overall, only 23 percent were ready to enter college-level courses without remediation in any of the four subject areas.

Could that be due to the parade of dry, fragmented and tasteless learning tasks that school turns into when students are not interested?

Interest is the explosion that can happen in the minds of young people. Interest is the only guarantee of engagement, motivation, energy and drive. A recent survey of teens’ feelings when at school resulted in a shocking conclusion.

New survey findings suggest that when asked how they feel during the school day, USA high school students consistently invoke three key feelings: "tired," "stressed" and "bored."

The researcher who led the study warns that such negative feelings can influence young people's attention, memory, decision making, school performance and social lives.

"It's hard to concentrate and it's hard to do well in school if your brain is constantly having to respond to stress," said Marc Brackett, a researcher in the Yale University Department of Psychology and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

The “stay in school” myth keeps teens stuck, in defiance of a simple fact: struggling, miserable students aren't great candidates for college or work. Their interests have been squashed, their attitude toward learning is jaded, and often, they hardly know what they want out of life.

We see the rifts this creates between parents and their teens. This is not just ordinary teen rebellion stuff. This is deeper. We’ve seen this breach result in anger, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, and withdrawal.

Since I started serving on my local school board 12 years ago, I have observed the urgency everyone feels about preventing kids from dropping out, and yes, I know that it can result in a tailspin of personal disasters toward a dead end. But there is another narrative ...dropping in.

This narrative is shaped by the success we see by teens in self-directed learners around the country, and the world.

Dropping in can be a relief, a joy, a release, and a new beginning of a great future. As unthinkable as that sounds, leaving school can be a potent ticket to that roller-coaster ride. Outside school, teens face a full range of choices about their learning. They can encounter vertigo when looking at the learning possibilities that exist in the world outside school; but with support, assistance and coaching, they focus on their deepest interests. But many parents still see uncertainty and disbelief when they look at the possibilities outside the mainstream.

Discover the possibilities of dropping in. Plan together your teen’s learning opportunities. Discuss their ideas for the learning projects they want to initiate. Start an ongoing dialogue about their long-term goals.

Three objections...

“But people can’t always have it their own way. Our kids have to be prepared for a world where they do what needs to be done even if they hate it. Nobody gets to do what they love all the time.”

The fears of parents are sometimes based on the dark side of the “stay in school” idea: that school as a necessary training in misery. And it is excellent training indeed -- for a miserable life.

The life of independence and fulfillment doesn’t have its roots in that miserable school experience. Leave school, get out and grab the experiences you want! Work hard because it’s your own life and your own goals. Teens who determine and direct their own learning do their work with energy and enthusiasm, and that includes the hard parts.

Do they need adults? Of course! They need your support, your advice and your help. It gets hard, at times, to fulfill your dreams. There are moments of uncertainty, lack of confidence, and fear of failure. But with adults and a network of supportive friends, teens accomplish great things!

But the idea of going to college without high school seems absurd; you can’t climb to the second story of a building without passing through the first, can you?

Sure you can. Young people are doing it all the time. High school guidance offices don’t mention this, of course, but a generation of young people has enjoyed a college education...without having gone to high school. We’re no longer waiting for higher education to acknowledge the potential of self-directed learning. With planning and guidance, self-directed learners can prepare to be even more outstanding college candidates than schooled teens.

With that support, anything can happen; anything teens can dream of.

But as true as that is, it might not matter to some families.

“OK, so withdrawing my teen from school can be a responsible decision, but what then? Home schooling isn’t possible in my family. We can’t afford private school, and there are no self-directed learning centers or democratic schools in my area! My family can’t do this. My teen has to stay in school.”

Learning no longer has to take place in a building dedicated to that purpose, at a dedicated time. The Internet gives everyone access to a world of information, and the people teens need to engage with as they pursue the learning experiences of their choice.

...and an answer
Catalyst Learning Network is a solution for families who aren’t able to homeschool their teens, and have no adequate alternative close enough to home.

Catalyst is an online network of teens pursuing self-directed learning. Catalyst teens and staff together determine short- and long-term goals: college, internships, art projects, research, political or social activism, musical training, online courses...the list is nearly limitless.

Catalyst teens pursue their independent learning at home, in libraries, in diners, (or anywhere!) and meet online with other Catalyst students. They attend online themed discussion groups, book groups; they hear speakers on their chosen subjects, and present their work to one another.

This schedule of online meetings provides a structure to their day and their week, consisting of independent learning, online networking and discussion, volunteering, community college classes, SAT prep, internships or local activism.

Planning for the future is a priority for Catalyst staff. While not every Catalyst student holds college ambitions, those who do are encouraged to start preparation for that future early. The difference between this work and the work of public school is that there is choice and self-direction in their lives.

One factor and one only can ensure success for your teen outside school: the full-throated support of you, their parents. With your support, their future is bright. Without it, the breach between you will grow wider. They need you to listen. They need you to understand them. They need your help.

For more information about Catalyst, email

Monday, June 15, 2015

My Refusal

by MurkScribe

I find specialized high schools and the elite education systems to be dysfunctional and soul crushing. Reading William Deresiewicz critique on the Ivy  League education system resonated and spoke out to me about my past depression and feeling of self-worthlessness. I have been basing my self-worth and my self esteem on my grades, my achievements in class, and what people expected of me, including my parents.

I guess jumping through hoops all the time in my life gave me a feeling of drifting and loss of motivation in some ways, and a sense of me losing my independent thought and the inner human. Even though I do not come from an affluent background, my parents raised me with Korean values that rather put me in a situation where I earn their love and trust through jumping through hoops. If I didn't jump, I was beaten; put my hands up against the wall and stand there for hours until my arms couldn't move, told by my parents and aunt that I was filthy and lazy.

Now today deep inside I feel a hollowness in my heart, and yet I feel pushed by my parents and by school staff and kids to be pushed unto the college to work conveyor belt. I reject this; I spit it out. My older sister's recent mental breakdown was triggered by her going to college, something that she worked and sacrificed her sanity over during high school. She built a resume for herself and put in community service for the sake and purpose of job security and social prestige. But she was missing something in her life and she broke down, because of her feeling of self worthlessness and feeling lost.

This is a disturbing to me. I wish to no longer become a part of this. In fact I want the system to burn in a flame in one flash. Soon I will leave school, and try to escape from the system. I don't want to become a part of a system that churns out broken people.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

There's life outside school...FIND IT.

By Jorge Correa
Hansgrohe on School Survival
[Editor's note: School Survival is a support site for young people who hate being forced to go to school

You know, I actually was planning on publishing this way back in October 2013. But I decided to hold back, because I was just 16 years old back then. Really, one thing I knew back then was that I really didn't know anything at all. I was suffering a pretty bad depression and in a stagnant state. A lot of shit has happened ever since that fateful August afternoon I joined School Survival. A lot.

There are 2-3 things that I see when people come on here for the first time, the hood itself:

  • They're depressed as all hell, because they know they have to put up with a broken, shitty, out-of-date "education" system every day of their lives, and it's even worse in the summer, because they know that their release program is about to come to an end, and the crap resumes, with no end in sight.
  • They're so angry that they have to be in this system. They want to rebel. They want to destroy it. This can range from drawing dick jokes in the textbooks to actually seriously considering bringing a weapon to school, because when your rights are never awarded until you reach that magical age of 18, it wears on your goddamn mind.
  • Both.

I'm not sure whether this'll be some weird motivational post that doesn't have a long term effect. I can't really say your life will get better immediately, because I have no idea of your circumstances, and I can't judge. What I do know though, for sure, is that you're going through the struggle. We all are here, whether we're forced into a shitty-ass low-funded school (like I was), or one of those rich-as-shit fancy school districts with separate testing facilities. We've all faced terror and trauma from the schooling system. That's what I know, because why else are you here on School Survival?

What I can do, while you still walk the valley of boredom on a daily basis, is tell you the facts. It's been over 2 years since I first joined School Survival. A lot has fucking changed. A lot. What I've learned is...

-You're going to change. This is a fact of life. Your opinions on life, politics, the world, etc are all going to change within a 2 year period. You're going to see events that make you see the world in an entire new light. This is guaranteed.

-You can't expect change to come to you. You have to make change happen. For example, back in January 2014, I was lost, depressed, and I was coming into a realization I liked some popular girl. What did I do? I tried, damn it, and to my credit, I actually succeeded to an extent. I mean, the whole experience was one hell of a ride, but I learned a LOT of things from January-June 2014. Was it worth it? Hell yes. I know that never could've happened if I didn't try. You're going to hear it all the time, and it's true. I remember I felt so fucking empty from the summer of 2012 all the way until very late 2013, because I just let everything pass me by. Actually, I even embraced it, before it all crumbled.

-Fear is often the biggest obstacle we have to get through. I've learned that this sort of relates to my above point. We're scared to try new things, we're scared to take on new risks. You know what School Survival is about? Taking risks. You're taking a risk right now reading a post on a blog that is all against factory model education. However, the risks I'm talking about are the real ones - no, not the stupid ones like getting drunk and high - I'm talking about genuine risks that can turn into real life fucking experiences. Again, I could've just caved in, and accepted that I could never get a girl to like me. But no. I had balls. One thing that I remember is that sometimes, you have to strike out, badly. It's a necessary evil. We learn from our mistakes and our misfires, and what do we do? We improve on them. How the hell are you going to get to the next level if you don't even go to uncharted waters? You can't.

-New ideas and experiences are so, so liberating. Trust me. Once you get yourself immersed into a new phase of life, it's just going to feel so goddamn amazing. It's like going into a shower and just washing yourself clean, and then getting out, and just saying "aaahhhh". That's how beautiful change can be.

-It's all gonna come to an end one day. You're not gonna be stuck in school forever. You're going to be a free person one day. One day, think about it - you'll have your own car, place, food, job, interests, perhaps partner, friends, plans, etc. You're going to have ALL OF THAT. I know it's hard to wait until graduation (unless you convince your parents school is evil), but trust me, your day will come. Just hold on, please. Play some cheesy inspirational music or something. I'll link Eminem's "Lose Yourself" at the end of the post.

I think I'm done speaking. I hope this post has helped somebody. I've been through 2 years of school knowing that it was all bullshit - and I've been through many more years shedding tears. I'm a soldier, and trust me when I say I've seen everything life can throw at you. Carry on, soldier. Once you realize it, you are the one that controls your destiny (well, individually, at least).

I've spoken my piece.