Andree’s Blog

Education is Just a Hot Mess

It’s September 14 and I just survived Week One. For me, director and main teacher in the second year of our program, the “success” of any given day/class/program/experiment is personal. I need to take responsibility for it, make corrections, answer to kids and parents, and forge ahead.

This is all fine. I’m The Headmistress. I picture myself as Professor MacGonnagall in Harry Potter: Severe, yet magical. Here — this is me. Picture me riding my high-end kick scooter with a bunch of 8yo boys behind me.


I’m sure sure Professor MacG was well aware of what I’m reckoning with right now: Education is naturally messy, constantly evolving, and never exactly right. Like parenting. Like everything, really.

We had a great week. Our new teacher introduced us to the concepts of biotic and abiotic, led a fabulous scavenger hunt for items in both categories. She added read-aloud to snack time, and got kids started on journaling.

Some of them loved this. Others resist even an hour of structured learning. Teacher Lauren and I are left to reckon with the balance between “free schooling” — the philosophy which believes that children naturally learn without external structure — and a more traditional pedagogy which teaches that focusing and listening need to be taught explicitly.

I guarantee you we’ll never get this “right”. There is no right.

Another example: The highlight of Monday was a visit from the beekeepers, who talked us through the process of harvesting honey. We got to keep two combs and spend the rest of the day scooping out the honey made by our own bees, from our own flowers. A couple kids did this for hours. The downside: Three people got stung, including me, and the bees were clearly angry with us for the rest of the day. There was a lot of running and screaming.

We have a kid who frequently has angry tantrums, swears loudly, and won’t sit still for anything. He is also the best worker in the group–give him a tool and he’ll do anything for you. We have kids who never stop moving, and others who really wish there was a little more peace and quiet around here. We have kids who don’t eat vegetables, and kids are a strict vegetarians. We have kids recovering from traumatic experiences in school and never want to go back, and others who have never been to school, but think they might want to try it sometime.

Thank goodness we also have teen assistants who make everything fun, an endlessly fascinating worm bin, a loft to climb to and a pole to slide down on, the “scooter shack”, bugs and magnifying glasses, binoculars and our own flock of pigeons to observe, and a nearby cemetery featuring real ghosts! Et cetera.

Education is endless. It’s happening all the time. And it’s just a mess. Probably, nothing needs to really be “fixed” at all. It’s still my job to fix it.



We boiled a skunk


18882077_1916014805278728_5648220412267580420_n.jpgAn incident in the garden this week fell under “things we never thought we’d have to teach.”

On Monday, during class, Canyon the dog was furiously digging under the shed and Antonio and Immanuel decided to investigate. They came back to us shouting gleefully that there was a dead skunk. I went to look into this and pulled at the black and white tail, revealing a skunk not only dead, but mummified—completely dried, with its skin, fur, and skeleton intact.

Mass hysteria ensured, along with much poking, prodding and running in circles screaming. Some of the kids were scared, others disgusted, and they were all riveted. To avoid destroying the specimen, we insisted they only look at it, while we talked about what to do. After some conversation, we decided to obtain gloves and proper dissecting tools, and cut it open next week.

That plan did not work. Dissecting a mummy is like cutting leather. With great effort we opened the carcass, and found only dust inside. What remained was to obtain the skeleton, somehow.

I could only think of one way: Boil it. I pulled out the camp stove, the propane and matches. The kids all wanted to light it, so we lit it several times. We dumped the skunk into a large pot used mostly for canning, and set it on to boil.

After an hour the smell was so hideous that I was worried neighbors would call the health board. After lunch inside, two hours later, I took the pot off and removed it to the back of the garden. The smell of boiling skunk was ruining my day. It all seemed like a huge mistake at that point.

When we dumped the carcass on the ground by the compost pile, I was ready to walk away from the whole project. Fortunately, Kannan has a stomach strong enough for the work of fishing the skeleton out of the mushy remains of our “project.” He retrieved the skull, and intact claw, and several bones. The rest of the mess was thrown onto the compost pile.

To this day the skunk skull, and the story of the Skunk Boil, are features of great pride and the subject of storytelling by veteran students. It felt like a heroic undertaking.

The Skunk Boil was an unexpected bonus in our ongoing studies of growth and decomposition, the processes that make soil, and the vibrant microbial worlds within and without us. And it has become part of the philosophical and spiritual reckonings around death that children naturally confront, in widening spirals, throughout childhood–and beyond.

Andrée’s Freeschooling Blog

This is an informal blog with ideas and tips for homeschooling parents, based on my own experience and research into the homeschooling community around Boston, as well as some more philosophical musings on education today.

For today, a bit of my own family’s story:

I have two teen sons who have now been through every type of local schooling found in this area. Thanks to our complex system of school choice, we don’t all end up going to the local elementary school. This, while it helps to equalize our education and integrate the Boston schools, is hard on communities and families. Relationships are fractured and families an grow distant when friends end up in different schools.

We had this experience when my kids were accepted into an excellent charter school for kindergarten. We lived in Jamaica Plain, and the school was in Dorchester. The long commute was daunting, and none of our local friends went to school there. After four years we had a sense of the pros and cons. The schools was passionate about education for the urban poor, but we didn’t belong to that demographic. There were kids with serious discipline problems in every class, and they would eat up much of the teacher’s energy.

But more significantly, I found myself at odds with the  teaching philosophy that set fixed goals for such young kids. One of my sons “fell behind” the benchmark for reading at his grade-level. He was tested for every known learning disability, and nothing came up. In the end, he was just a little slow in that area, and didn’t really like to read. The stress of the testing and the labelling was the final straw for that school. And it’s been a problem I’ve reckoned with at every pubic school my sons have attended.

My biggest motivation for creating JP Green School is my sense that we are rushing our kids, submitting them to constant judgement (in the form of tests), and thereby teaching them to dislike learning itself. This isn’t education–this is the opposite of education.

We left that school for a great Montessori school just outside of Boston, and spent 8 happy years there. Montessori taught me much of what I know about child-directed learning, creating an environment of joy, and a community of love and support. I use those principles every day when I teach at JP Green School.

Over time, however, I came to see that much of that environment could be created at much lower cost, within a community of homeschoolers. Our beloved school cost about 20k/year. This is very cheap for a private school, many of which cost twice that! But it’s still an outrageous sum and could easily be almost 1/2 the income of a middle-class family.

I’ll continue the story of my own family later. Right now I’ll just end with my current working budget for a happy homeschooling experience. By my calculations, a family can homeschool a child easily for  8k/year. Of course it can also be done for less, depending on how self-directed the child is, and how much the parents are available. But I’m working from my “optimal scenario”, which is what I devised for my own homeschooler. (More later on that story.)

In this figure I’m assuming 2-3 days/week in a program like JP Green School, Parts and Crafts, or Macomber Center. These free schools are not cheap, but they’re well worth a few thousand a year to give the child and the family a home-base for their experience. Those few days can then be supplemented with a variety of wonderful courses, workshops, and programs all over the city, and also self-guided or community-led study.

In upcoming blogs I’ll feature a few of the local  free schools and what they offer.

A Bit of Philosphy

While we believe in “unschooling”, in that much of what we have learned may need to be unlearned, we still believe in schools.

A school is a loving container for learning. It’s a community to support curiousity. While we playfully call ourselves an “unschool”, we still have curriculum; we still teach; we still have goals for what we want the students to learn.

But above all we care about the children. Are they curious? Are they engaging with the natural world and their fellow humans? Are they developing interests, passions, self-definition? Do they manifest compassion, awareness of others?

Nothing about testing, lecturing and stress enhances our goals, so these things we do not do.

We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, living in small tribes. While our lifestyles have greatly changed in the last few millenia, our genes have not.

In such societies learning is accomplished through mentoring. Children watch, practice and participate in the work of their communities.

We still learn best with our senses and the engagement of our bodies. While most schools teach to the child from the neck up, we make every lesson into a visceral experience.

We have a few mottos around here:
“Rewild the Child”.
“Nature does not belong to us; we belong to Nature”, and
“Learn to live.”