Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is This News to You Too?

I recently shared a meal with an older woman from the North Shore of Chicago. She's got to be in her 70's. She's very wealthy, she's very social, she's very stylish and I think maybe very ignorant...Or is she? Maybe it's not common knowledge.

She's very enthusiastic about Dan Seals' congressional campaign. She's very involved. I think that's just great. I'm glad she is so enthusiastic about this great man who could unseat Republican Mark Kirk.

Somehow we started talking about race and ideas about race and how Obama was viewed negatively at first by the African American community because they viewed him with suspicion as an African and not as one of themselves--Hillary had more support at that point. I brought up how Michelle Obama answered that--her husband, Barack, would still have a hard time hailing a cab at certain places at certain times. The woman at the table with me didn't know what I was talking about. So, I explained that sometimes, black people (men especially) have a hard time flagging down a cab. The taxi drivers won't stop for them and just pass them by.

She was completely surprised by this. She didn't know it, hadn't ever heard about it, didn't realize it.

I'm surprised at her being surprised. She's a sophisticated, worldly woman--how could she not know how an entire segment of society is wrongly treated in this country? How was this news to her?

Is this news to you too?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Thanks a Lot George! Possible Republican Slogans!!

Here, we see President George Bush giving us all the finger (or as he calls it, "Just a one fingered victory salute!")...nice judgment, eh?

Read this from the L.A. Times--an article outlining George Bush's fuck-upedness with our budget. If he set out to trash all of us he couldn't have done a better job...he didn't do this on purpose, did he?

Here's a nice little blurb:

"George W. Bush inherited a projected 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion, which he proceeded to turn into a projected deficit of more than $4 trillion. When President Bush took office in January 2001 the Congressional Budget Office projected a surplus of $635 billion in 2008 and $710 billion in 2009. Now, OMB projects deficits of $389 billion and $482 billion in those years respectively -- a swing of more than $1 trillion in each year."

In light of all of this, I offer these possible slogans for the Republicans to use for their upcoming elections:

Republicans: Fiscally Responsible!!

Oh, I guess not...

Republicans: Stickin' it to the Little People (and Not so Little People)!!

That still doesn't sound so good, does it?

Are You Wealthy? Vote Republican!! Screw the Rest!!

OK. That's better. That's something they can work with.

You're doin' one heck of a job there Georgie!! One heck of a job...

Let's see your salute in action...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There Will Be Blood

My husband and I finished watching this last night and there was blood, and I didn't like it. Daniel Plainview--what an evil, evil, unredeemable character.

He wasn't interesting the way Robert DiNero was playing Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He wasn't captivating although dark and dangerous the way Humphrey Bogart was as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. He was just cruel and cold and hollow.

I guess I just get skeezed out by sociopaths. I also couldn't stand No Country for Old Men.

I heard an estimate somewhere that 1 out of every 25 people in the population is a sociopath. Maybe they won't kill, maybe they won't be criminal, but they won't care. They won't recognize your shared humanity with their own. You're maybe an object, or an amusement, or a hindrance to them--whatever else you are, you aren't human in the same way that they see themselves. And doesn't 1 out of every 25 sound like a high number to you? Disturbing.

Who needs a scary movie when you can just ponder that reality?

John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillun

Boogie Chillun--just because.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Shaking Fist...

This last weekend I went up to Madison to see my older sister perform in a play. She was fantastic--very funny, great accent, very quirky character. She commanded the stage.

The kids stayed home with my husband and I had a restful and fun weekend with my parents, my acting sister D., her husband D., my other sister S., and her husband T. We had adult conversations, ideas that flowed from one another and continued on to new ideas, times of quiet--you know, not-kids-times. I love my kids, but it was nice to have a break from the demanding nature of interested, active, energetic eating machines. You know a break, if you can get it, is nice every once in a while. Once a year is OK.

After the interesting weekend with my family, it was time to come home to my family.

I was driving along fine, going about 75 mph which put me right in the flow of traffic. Yes, I was going faster than the speed limit, but I was going with the flow. Except that this giant white Excursion came up on me in the center lane, of three lanes, and couldn't really go around--he couldn't find an opening. Instead, he tailgated me coming to within 2 feet of my bumpersticker filled bumper and just rode on my tail for a good long way. I didn't like it. I was shaking my head and telling him, in my car, to back the f*** off! He was a dangerous bully.

Finally, he found an opening and passed me on the right. As the grey haired man went by in his Excursion, he violently shook an angry fist at me because I had the absolute nerve to not go faster than I wanted to just because he was menacing me by tailgating.

Did I:

A) Wave and smile!
B) Ignore him.
C) Shrug my shoulders.
D) Give him the finger...

Of those choices, what do you think you would have done?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sophie and Daisy


She was my cat and she lived for 19 years. Her littermate is still alive--Daisy, and is now 23 years old. Daisy is my sweetie now, but it was all Sophie when she was alive.

She would meow and purr and rub her head on your ankle, claiming you as hers...she would sleep in the bed and curl up with me or one of my kids or with Daisy, just cuddling and being cozy and warm and calm.

Her eyes would shrink to relaxed slits as she purred and looked peacefully out at the world. I miss her.

Daisy has grown more affectionate now, and she's lovely.

It was heartbreaking to see her walk into a room and look around for Sophie during the first few weeks after Sophie died. She missed her and didn't understand.

Our animals are just raw, authentic, guileless emotion walking around, aren't they? How would it be if we were more like them? Other than the gross stuff, of course...

Here is Daisy as she lives her life here with us:

She remains patient and calm as my son gets very close to photograph her.

And then she's had enough, because how much can a 23 year old cat take?

She's stealthy through the jungle.

She likes going places.

She goes hither,

and yon.

Daisy thinks about it

and decides it's time for a nap.

We love our cat. Do you have animals in your life? Do you feel with them and towards them? Do you feel their love for you?

Isn't it amazing that we can feel affection from an animal--I mean, you know when they love you, adore you, are so excited to see you!! And isn't it equally amazing that many of us feel that they are a part of our family and feel love for them? We care for them and want them to be OK.

Who is your Sophie or Daisy?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Free Obama Button is giving away free Obama buttons. If you'd like one, click this link to get a free Obama button:

I recently received my free Obama bumper sticker from them--they're very good about sending the free Obama stuff!

And now, just for kicks, here's Harry Nilsson, Jump Into the Fire, just because we can make each other happy! And look: Harry's wearing political buttons too! They probably say, "End the War", or "Bread Not Bombs". If he were here now, he would probably get a free Obama button from and wear it proudly to show his support for Obama...I'm guessing.

Any way, let's enjoy his rockin' music and get our political buttons and wish for peace, and less carbon, and less stuff, and for more kind behavior.

We can make each other happy!

Friday, July 25, 2008

McCain's Never Ending War

Here are a bunch of McCain moments strung together. The uniting overarching theme is his McSameness with Bush and his adamant support of a permanent presence in Iraq.

Is this what you want? Will your kids be fighting in Iraq, and is that OK with you?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Happy Learn Nothing Day!

Happy Learn Nothing Day everyone! I hope you all enjoy the various ways you find today to give your poor, beleaguered brains a rest. Give 'em a break! They work so hard for you all of the rest of the year, just for one day let them have the day off too!

We, unfortunately, will have to bow out of the festivities today or, with a lot of perseverance, redouble our efforts and get back on the learning nothing track. You see, my daughter already learned something new today, despite it being Learn Nothing Day. Darn it! Really, she almost started learning the moment she got out of bed!

She cooked my son and I French toast and scrambled eggs. The kids have both made scrambled eggs before, but my daughter wanted to learn how to make French Toast today and, as a principle, I let my kids learn whatever they'd like to. In fact, I encourage it. I support them in their learning. I guess I blew it, didn't I?!

My kids are Unschoolers. We don't use a curriculum. Today is supposed to be their day, their time, to give their natural inquisitiveness a rest. Just take a break already! Quit learning--you don't have to today! We get the day off like everyone else! You don't have to learn all year round--for this one day at least, you get a holiday...

Oh well. Maybe next year. Maybe I need to prep my kids better for this day.

For next year, do you have any advice as to how to get my kids not to learn on this day? It's only 9:30 in the morning and I can almost bet you there will be even more learning throughout the day...

Darn it!

UPDATE: My son is at a playdate. My daughter has a friend over here and they're playing that they're from the 1930's and have time-warped to the present. They know that bread cost 9 cents back then and is much more now. What else will they learn about the Depression? Blast these kids--stop your brains!! Stop connecting the dots!! Stop making sense of the universe and absorbing it all--you're wrecking Learn Nothing Day!!

We'll see what my son learned after he gets home. Darn him as well!

UPDATE II: My son is reading himself to sleep every night with The Dangerous Book for Boys. He's learning all sorts of stuff about all sorts of stuff. Today, when he got home from his playdate, he told my husband about what he had read about the Navajo code used in WWII by the Americans. My husband explained that it was better than a "code" in that it was in fact a language, unrelated to any other, and therefore unbreakable as a code. My son pronounced it Nava-joe. Then, we corrected him and my husband explained more things about it that he knew. So, my son learned about all of that.

Darn learning kids. They won't take a break even when they have the chance.

Oh. My. God.

I just discovered this.

My kids had a friend over for a playdate and I made them popcorn for a snack. Real, although I'm sure probably genetically modified (damn Monsanto!), popcorn that I popped in a pan on the stove. I melted butter and mixed it all up and served them each a bowl of it. There was leftover popcorn...I had a chocolate craving...we had chocolate chips...what to do?


Yeah. That's buttered popcorn with some chocolate chips thrown in and slightly melted in the microwave--just enough to soften up the chips a little. Yeah. I know.

The kids were busy watching a Star Wars movie of some sort involving droids of some kind and various creatures who may or may not look like a toad...only kidding! Jabba the Hut does look like a toad!! So, I got the chocolate popcorn all to myself, although I tried to share it with my husband and he declared it to be gross, without even trying it. Hmm. Which children does that remind me of? Let me think...

You should know this about him--he is no foodie, so his assessment of this most excellent snack combo is not to be trusted. He's just wrong. I even tried to make him understand it--"It's like caramel corn!" I said. He said, "That's gross." No. I don't believe he actually thinks that--he just didn't want to lose a food argument to me.

Let's take a closer look.

God, I know--groan! Can you imagine the chewiness of the popcorn coupled with the smooth silkiness of the chocolate with various degrees of meltedness and the salty buttery flavor infused throughout?

Yeah. Tell me about it.

I usually do not have sugar. Well, except for my coffee every day, but that's sucanat so I'm rationalizing that it's a whole food...I don't eat white flour of any sort--well, except for the occasional chocolate croissant from Trader Joe's. But, really I'm pretty good about not eating very many grains of any kind, eating whole foods, lots of organic produce, raw milk, grass fed meat, pastured eggs, etc. But, sometimes. You know sometimes I just have to let go.

My husband doesn't know what he's missing. Pity...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Who Is Not Ready to Be Commander in Chief?

With his tour through Iraq, Afghanistan, other Middle East countries and a few countries in Europe, Obama is showing a high level of comfort, seriousness and ability to speak and listen...those all seem like good skills for a leader, don't they?

Here, we see Obama listening intently to General David Petraeus.

Here we see Obama waving to soldiers and them waving back. Seems like lots of mutual respect and appreciation for each other. Obama voted for the recent GI bill that passed the Senate, despite McCain skipping out on the vote. These soldiers know when they get home, they have a better chance at a better future with a college degree paid for by the GI bill. They look appreciative, don't they?

Here we see General Petraeus listening to Obama.

These are just pictures. They're snippets of time captured and may or may not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. But they all seem to capture a certain grace and ease and ability that's been missing for years in the Commander in Chief. There may be good humor, but there's no silliness. Obama seems dignified and not a high-fiving frat boy like Bush has always seemed.

For me, these images collectively add up to a great picture of Commander in Chiefishness. Obama is filled with commander in chiefablility.

In a word, he's chieferiffic! See? I could never be Commander in Chief, because I'm silly. But, that works perfectly for parenting my kids and wifing my husband...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

John Taylor Gatto

If you haven't already read this speech, please do. If you're thinking of homeschooling, but are still a bit unsure, this may reassure you and point you in the direction you're leaning towards. If you think, "Laura that's all fine and good , but frankly you're just some blogging mom--what kind of expert are you? What kind of authority are you? Who are you to dole out advice about educational choices for kids?" I would say, I have the right to knowledge as anyone else does. And, I know what John Taylor Gatto said about school and what it's for. I think he was right.

Some of the things he says in this 1990 speech are now outdated in that there are even more kids being homeschooled now, and I think kids have even less time to figure out their own lives than they did when Gatto wrote this.

Who is he?

Read this and find out...and then get back to me. What do you think?

The following is the text of a speech by John Taylor Gatto accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990. It is reprinted from the Iowa State Newsletter.

I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I’ve known over the years who’ve struggled to make their transactions with children honourable ones, men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word “education” should mean. A Teacher of the Year is not the best teacher around, those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered, but he is a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.

We live in a time of great school crisis. We rank at the bottom of 19 industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn’t buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse — and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan 50% of all new marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for sure.

This is a time of great school crisis and that crisis is interlinked with a greater social crisis in the general community. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent — nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy just as it is a major actor in the widening guilt among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my 25 years of teaching — that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aids and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard the institution is psychopathic, it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted — sometimes with guns — by an estimated 80% of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880’s when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.

Now here is a curious idea to ponder. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was 98% and after it the figure never again reached above 91% where it stands in 1990. I hope that interests you.

Here is another curiosity to think about. The homeschooling movement has quietly grown to a size where one and a half million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents, last month the education press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem to be five or even 10 years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.

I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools anytime soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we’re going to change what’s rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance we need to realize that the school institution “schools” very well, but it does not “educate” — that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent, it’s just impossible for education and schooling ever to be the same thing.

Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behaviour can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great extent schools succeed in doing this, but in a national order increasingly disintegrated, in a national order in which only humanly successful people are independent, self-reliant, confident, and individualistic (because community life which protects the dependent and weak is dead and only networks remain), the products of schooling are, as I’ve said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on the telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves.

The daily misery around us is, I think in large measure caused by the fact that — as Paul Goodman put it 30 years ago — we force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with its absurdities.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety, indeed it cuts you off from your own part and future, scaling you to a continuous present much the same way television does.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its “homework”.

“How will they learn to read?!” you say and my answer is “Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.” When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them.

But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers, we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and school teachers. It is very difficult to teach the “basics” anymore because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.

Two institutions at present control our children’s lives — television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction. In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.

But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with:

  • Out of 168 hours in each week my children sleep 56. That leaves them 112 hours a week out of which to fashion a self.
  • My children watch 55 hours of television a week according to recent reports. That leaves them 57 hours a week in which to grow up.
  • My children attend school 30 hours a week, use about 6 hours getting ready, going and coming home, and spend an average of 7 hours a week in homework, a total of 45 hours.

During that time they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves 12 hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course, my kids eat, and that takes some time–not much because they’ve lost the tradition of family dining, but if we allot 3 hours a week to evening meals we arrive at a net amount of private time for each child of 9 hours.

It’s not enough. It’s not enough, is it? The richer the kid, or course, the less television he watches but the rich kid’s time is just as narrowly proscribed by a somewhat broader catalogue of commercial entertainments and his inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of his actual choice.

And these things are oddly enough just a more cosmetic way to create dependent human beings, unable to fill their own hours, unable to initiate lines of meaning to give substance and pleasure to their existence. It’s a national disease, this dependency, and aimlessness, and I think schooling and television and lessons — the entire Chautauqua idea — has a lot to do with it.

Think of the things that are killing us as a nation — narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all — lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy, all of them are additions of dependent personalities and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.

I want to tell you what the effect is on children of taking all their time from them — time they need to grow up — and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. You need to hear this because no reform that doesn’t attack these specific pathologies will be anything more than a facade.

  1. The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up these days and who can blame them? Toys are us.
  2. The children I teach have almost no curiosity and what they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose to do. Can you see a connection between the bells ringing again and again to change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent attention?
  3. The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. As I said before, they have a continuous present, the exact moment they are at is the boundary of their consciousness.
  4. The children I teach are ahistorical, they have no sense of how past has predestined their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values and lives.
  5. The children I teach are cruel to each other, they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly.
  6. The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candour. My guess is that they are like many adopted people I’ve known in this respect — they cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behaviour borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy so intimate relationships have to be avoided.
  7. The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead of school teachers who materialistically “grade” everything — and television mentors who offer everything in the world for free.
  8. The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.

I could name a few other conditions that school reform would have to tackle if our national decline is to be arrested, but by now you will have grasped my thesis, whether you agree with it or not. Either schools have caused these pathologies or television or both. It’s a simple matter [of] arithmetic, between schooling and television all the time the children have is eaten away. That’s what has destroyed the American family, it is no longer a factor in the education of its own children. Television and schooling, in those things the fault must lie.

What can be done? First we need a ferocious national debate that doesn’t quit, day after day, year after year. We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot then the success of homeschooling shows a different road to take that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour into family education might kill two birds with one stone, repairing families as it repairs children.

Genuine reform is possible but it shouldn’t cost anything. We need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want all children to learn and why. For 140 years this nation has tried to impose objectives downward from the lofty command centre made up of “experts”, a central elite of social engineers. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. And it is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise that once made this nation a noble experiment. the Russian attempt to create Plato’s republic in Eastern Europe has exploded before [our] eyes, our own attempt to impose the same sort of central orthodoxy using the schools as an instrument is also coming apart at the seams, albeit more slowly and painfully. It doesn’t work because it’s fundamental premises are mechanical, anti-human, and hostile to family life. Lives can be controlled by machine education but they will always fight back with weapons of social pathology — drugs, violence, self-destruction, indifference, and the symptoms I see in the children I teach.

It’s high time we looked backwards to regain an educational philosophy that works. One I like particularly well has been a favourite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching, as much, that is, as I can get away with given the present institution of compulsory schooling. I think it works just as well for poor children as for rich ones.

At the core of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements to place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is the problem of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customs house.

One of my former students, Roland Legiardi-Lura, though both his parents were dead and he had no inheritance, took a bicycle across the United States alone when he was hardly out of boyhood. Is it any wonder then that in manhood when he decided to make a film about Nicaragua, although he had no money and no prior experience with film-making, that it was an international award-winner — even though his regular work was as a carpenter.

Right now we are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back, we need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance.

A short time ago I took $70 and sent a 12-year-old girl from my class with her non-English speaking mother on a bus down the New Jersey coast to take the police chief of Sea Bright to lunch and apologize for polluting [his] beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology I had arranged with the police chief for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in a small town police procedures. A few days later two more of my 12-year-old kids traveled alone to West First Street from Harlem where they began an apprenticeship with a newspaper editor, next week three of my kids will find themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at 6 A.M. in the morning studying the mind of a trucking company president as he dispatches 18-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Are these “special” children in a “special” program? Well, in one sense, yes, but nobody knows about this program but myself and the kids. They’re just nice kids from Central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of them can’t add or subtract with any fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New York City or how far it is from New York to California.

Does that worry me? Of course, but I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge they’ll also become self-teachers — and only self-teaching has any lasting value.

We’ve got to give kids independent time right away because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must re-involve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than more abstraction. This is an emergency, it requires drastic action to correct — our children are dying like flies in schooling, good schooling or bad schooling, it’s all the same. Irrelevant.

What else does a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. Of all the pages in the human ledger, only our tortured entry has warehoused children and asked nothing of them in service to the general good. For a while I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. Besides the experience in acting unselfishly that will teach, it is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility in the mainstream of life.

For five years I ran a guerrilla program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later, grown up, and told me that one experience of helping someone else changed their lives. It taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values. It happened when they were 13, in my Lab School program — only made possible because my rich school district was in chaos. When “stability” returned the Lab was closed. It was too successful with a wildly mixed group of kids, at too small of a cost, to be allowed to continue. We made the expensive elite programs look bad.

There is no shortage of real problems in the city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the total adult world. Good for kids, good for all the rest of us. That’s curriculum that teaches Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues in every system of elite education. What’s sauce for the rich and powerful is surely sauce for the rest of us — what is more, the idea is absolutely free as are all other genuine reform ideas in education. Extra money and extra people put into this sick institution will only make it sicker.

Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships, the one day variety or longer — these are all powerful, cheap and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force the idea of “school” open — to include FAMILY as the main engine of education. The Swedes realized that in 1976 when they effectively abandoned the system of adopting unwanted children and instead spent national time and treasure on reinforcing the original family so that children born to Swedes were wanted. They didn’t succeed completely but they did succeed in reducing the number of unwanted Swedish children from 6000 in l976 to 15 in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired of paying for the social wreckage caused by children not raised by their natural parents so they did something about it. We can, too.

FAMILY is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now. THE CURRICULUM OF FAMILY is at the heart of any good life, we’ve gotten away from that curriculum, time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief. I have many ideas to make a family curriculum and my guess is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large vested interests pre-emptying all the air time and profiting from schooling just exactly as it is despite rhetoric to the contrary. We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We’ve all had a bellyful of authorized voices mediated by television and the press — a decade long free-for-all debate is what is called for now, not any more “expert” opinions. Experts in education have never been right, their “solutions” are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough. Time for a return to Democracy, Individuality, and Family. I’ve said my piece. Thank you.

For further reading also by John Gatto

  1. Dumbing us Down
  2. Exhausted Schools
  3. A Different Kind of Teacher

Or visit his website:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Just Hanging Out

We have been enjoying watching monarch eggs develop into caterpillars and then chrysalises and then butterflies that flutter up over our house and away.

Here are two of three caterpillars just hanging out in "J" formation. They are slowly starting to melt into a goo which will feed the different cells and transform them from chrysalis to butterfly. It must be exhausting!

This one already became a chrysalis.

Oh--here's Abigail Adams, or Martha Washington or Serenity Hopkins (that sounds colonial--doesn't it?) She's gently cradling some boards wrapped in fleece to pretend to hold a baby for my son to photograph.

The baby is taking a nap, so now she has time to see the caterpillars and the chrysalises. There's just one caterpillar left. Is that "J" formation looking a little droopy? Maybe something is about to happen. Let's carefully watch.

Yep. Droopy.

Wow! Look!! It's starting to split open!

Cool, huh son?

At this point, the caterpillar started to whip back and forth to shed the last of the skin.

This is fantastic, isn't it?!

To the left...

To the right...

Cha, cha, cha...

Now, I'll just dangle.

Soon, I'll pull up into the same shape as the other chrysalises. Then we'll all hang out until we become butterflies. Life is good.

To be continued...
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