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Unschoolery: A Look Beyond Limitations

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Our oldest has just entered her fifth year of public school with our middle child entering her second, and it's becoming more and more clear, every day, that much of what I read about school from around the country is true for us: public education is broken. I am not an education expert, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems to be that even at some of the "best" schools, education and learning is still about getting good grades to get a good job to make money to buy stuff. And how to get good grades still looks very similar to my primary school education 20+ years ago. In fact, the rubric for success in school is basically the same, too (i.e. turn in your homework, do well on tests, don't rock the boat, etc.).

In my job, I have the privilege of learning a lot about what education looks like across the U.S. and the honor of becoming friends with some of the best educators around. Along with the struggles and issues, I've also discovered what interest-driven learning is and the exciting possibilities of Connected Learning. These are educational principles that value the naturally inquisitive child and respect them as learners. It's a "new" approach that truly helps foster a love of learning in kids, and seems to envision a society of equal, lifelong learners that pursue their passions and work towards solving issues that are relevant. The sole focus is not learning to "measure up" so you can make the most money.

I sent my six-year-old to school crying today, again. She's in her third week of first grade, and though most days are good, she still says she hates school. She's a great student—a little quiet and shy—but she does have friends and people that miss her when she's not there. Our oldest is in fourth grade and although she used to say she liked most aspects of school, now she says there's hardly anything she looks forward to. She's one of the top students in the school and is often an ambassador to the outside world, doing interviews on the local news and giving tours to distinguished guests of the educational world when they come to visit this "exemplary model" of a school.

Their school is a charter that follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) model. Because it's a charter they don't have to adhere to district and state requirements, but they have opted to buy the traditional tests from the district (4/year) and routinely compare scores with other non-IB schools. The school has also adopted the Common Core curriculum even though they are an IB school. I'm not arguing for or against the Common Core, but I find it interesting that an IB school adopts a state standard when they have the IB framework in place. Both girls have an eight-hour day with two 15 minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. They also have about an hour of homework every night. For the most part, they're told what to learn, fill out the sheets, and turn them in.

I'm laying all this out so you have some background information. The way I see it, we're in an "ideal" situation as far as public school goes. Our school is supposed to be offering an alternative to traditional education. The focus is supposed to be on developing "inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect." Although this school may be beyond any other school in the district as far as creating well-rounded inquirers and thinkers, the direction is still firmly set on cranking out "top performing," well-behaved kids that work harder and put in more time than any other kids in the city (maybe even the U.S. for that matter).

All of this has pushed us to really look at homeschooling, specifically unschooling (Leo Babauta has a great outline for beginners). Unschooling allows kids to learn much like we, as adults, learn. Unschooled kids figure out what they're curious about, then proceed to figure out how they can learn more about that thing. They learn by doing. It's not about rules, time tables, and adults teaching them or telling them what to do. We provide support, but they learn by trying things out and making mistakes. There's no "right" or "wrong", "pass" or "fail." The measuring stick of assessment is removed so they can feel free to learn without limits. In this model, learning to learn is as great an achievement as a final product, and the thinking is that by allowing kids to pursue what interests them, they end up digging deeper and pushing themselves farther than they would (or could) in school.

Yes, we have plenty of fears and concerns, and plenty we need to learn more about. But my wife and I don't want to just herd our kids along the path that's most obvious or convenient, even if that path seems better than most paths out there. We don't want our fear to prevent our kids from having an opportunity to really experience learning in a way that's engaging, exciting, and fun. We're beginning to see that it's not necessary to force them along a path that wears them down or suppresses their natural passions, interests, or talents. Learning doesn't have to happen a certain way, in a specific place, between 7:45 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Whatever we decide in the end, I'm excited just to begin thinking about an education for our kids, that we can have today, that's beyond the traditional limitations.

Along with research and planning, part of my process is writing about this process—thinking out loud. I'd love constructive feedback along the way!

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Achilles Heel

You see, the funny thing about that title is that maybe you were expecting an interesting retrospective on some weakness I have, or something I struggle with—but no, this is literally about issues with my achilles. Both of them actually. A new chapter on injuries from minimalist running.

I had been cruising along pretty good there for a minute—no pain beyond the usual wear-and-tear of running for months—but after being sick in May and taking almost two weeks off from running, I came back to it, taking it easy, and both my achilles had sharp pains in them. I had experienced this before, on and off, but I was able to just slow things down a little for the first mile and the pain would fade. Sure, the next day my achilles would be sore and stiff, but I wasn’t too concerned. Heading out mid-May was different. I handled the pain for each run, but the next day I was significantly more uncomfortable. And it didn’t fade even with time off.

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Engaging for Mental and Social Health

ConnectingThere are two obvious indicators of the level of stress in my life: how long my beard is and my presence (or lack thereof) on social media. When I’ve got a lot of projects at work, someone in the house is sick, extra family appointments/obligations—or D, all of the above—I can’t seem to make time to trim the beard or bring myself to carve out time for the socials. Those two things, for whatever reason, are the first to go.

It’s a little complicated because part of my job is actually managing our social media accounts. I have a small team now to help with that, so during times I’m overwhelmed, I lean on my fellow team members, just making enough time for quality control, but not much else. And my personal accounts? Forget it. Basically comatose.

Lately though, things seem to be settling down a little—in life-life and work-life—and I trimmed the beard and dug back into the Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ accounts. I’ve made more time for surfacing new content, replying to and retweeting others’ posts, and have generally had my finger on the pulse of things. And it feels good. It feels good to be back to awareness and engagement, with the information flowing around me, but also with the people in my networks.

I’ve found myself wondering if one of the keys to me not feeling so stressed out is taking time for connecting through social media. I know it’s healthy and necessary to take breaks from online life, but I think I need to be aware when I’m not engaging because I’m overwhelmed, and make time to join those online conversations. Like making sure you go outside to get some sun if you feel depressed. And I need to make sure I’m making time for the other things that replenish me…like trimming that beard.

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The video above does a great job explaining Net Neutrality, what’s at risk, and why it’s important to maintain. Of course, several corporations are threatening to further regulate speed, access, and even content based on who can pay the most, acting as gatekeepers to the internet, something that should be open to everyone. Already, the internet isn’t free and open since we have to pay for service and devices to access it—and for many providers, data speeds are regulated based on how much you pay—but soon the FCC will decide if internet service providers can further throttle speeds and content, allowing corporations even more control of an important component of our infrastructure.

It’s sickening how many of the important decisions for our entire society are decided by they wealthy few, and this is just another example of a basic freedom that we need to be aware of and fight for.

Do Something

In these situations, I don’t always know what I can do or if what I do makes any difference. But I think there is value in just being informed and sharing conversations with others, especially people who aren’t as aware or don’t share the same values as you. I think it’s important not to be confrontational, but open, planting seeds where you can.

You can submit a comment to the FCC at FreePress’s site, and the deadline for the first round of comments is tonight, July 15, 2014, at midnight Friday, July 18, 2014 (due to an overload of the commenting system!).

The only way we don’t get completely rolled by these corporations is by raising our voices, so I hope you’ll join me and others in spreading awareness.

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New Summer, New Freedom

Photo by Pedro Szekely

Photo by Pedro Szekely

I miss that “school’s out” feeling. You remember the one. It began to wash over you the morning you awoke on that last day of school and slowly settled in and warmed your whole body as the day progressed. Everyone was abuzz with excitement and relief, even the teachers, and as you walked off campus for the last time that year, there seemed to only be possibilities. Somehow with that final bell you were more free than you had been since you could remember. When that bell rung, time ceased to exist and summer began.

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1,000 Miles

1000milesToday I ran my 1,000th mile. Not “ever,” but since I’ve been tracking my runs using Nike+—first with the shoe insert thingy, then with my iPhone—since early 2011. And although I know plenty of people who probably cover that distance in much less time, I’m pretty proud of this achievement.

I have plenty of excuses not to run. I have three small kids and a crazy-busy job. I live where there are long stretches in the summer with temperatures soaring above 100. In the winter it drops down to the low 40s (which by native-Californian standards is practically freezing). I’ve torn my hamstring and had a knee injury at the end of 2012. But there’s something about running that keeps pulling me back in. It’s partly my competitive nature and partly the freedom of moving. It’s also therapeutic, getting me outside and in motion to clear my head and relieve stress, and has been a great way to take care of myself these last few years.

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To You, Sir, With the Mullet

I see you drive by, at the corner of Palm and Shields, sir
Your blue pickup, lowered, daughter in the front passenger
Trailer of yard tools in tow
And I couldn’t help but notice your unapologetic mullet
It’s clear you two have been together for some time
And I wonder…
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What’s up with that?
Are you an original rocker or is it something new?
Was the sensibility of its design too good to pass up
And keep, for that matter?
When you hear “Business up front, party in the back” how do you feel?

I have so many questions, sir

Is it past the point of no return?
Have you endured years of ridicule,
Hardened by vanity or shear defiance,
To the point that,
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There’s just no way you’re cutting that thing now?
Or are you just so secure in your image that
Everyone else can just eat it?

As I sit here and write, it’s clear
I envy you
And maybe even your mullet
Actually
No
But what you and your hair represent is
Well
Kind of beautiful
So to you, sir, I raise a proverbial glass
May you and your short-long live on in glory
In your lowered blue pickup or
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Wherever.

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I’m in Washington DC for a work meeting, and although I was primarily interacting with, learning with, and having fun with teachers from around our national network, I also had some brief jaunts out onto Capitol Hill. This will be repeats for you if you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, but here’s a handful of images that caught my fancy…

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Playing at Work in DC

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Coffee With That Sandwich?

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Photo by Marshall Astor

I used to wonder how older dudes could order hot coffee with their turkey sandwich. I suppose it was partly because I didn’t like coffee with my lunch. Coffee with breakfast, sure. And after dinner? Yeah, why not? But hot, black coffee with lunch? That’s kind of hardcore. A nice, cold, smoked turkey sandwich with crisp, slightly wet lettuce, all washed down with hot, bitter poison. Hardcore.

As I look around I have a lot of questions like that. How is it that older people appear to all end up having the same haircut and similar pants and shirts? Sometimes you see the subtle pieces of flare to accent the uniform, but if you’re not paying attention, you might miss their little bit of style creeping in. Surely they didn’t dress like that in their youth or even in their 30s. You see pictures of older people when they’re young and they look so fashionable—retro we might call it now—maybe even like something out of Westside Story or Grease. Then somewhere along the way they slowly morphed through some kind of cookie-cutter mold, all dressed alike, eating meals earlier and earlier, and ordering hot, black coffee with lunch.

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