“College or No?” for NPR Mind/Shift

A week ago Friday, I wrote a piece for Mind/Shift about a couple of ambitious teen school reformers and their differing views on college degrees. As you might guess, the choices for college are getting more complex – do students get a degree at a prestigious university and go into debt? Or is it better to find work first, take a ‘gap’ year, work on a degree piecemeal? Two young men have totally different takes on how to end up on top. Take a look and let me know what you think:

 

College or No? Stuck Between Future Promises and Present Realities

Higher education options are changing for all students — not only for gutsy school reformers and tech enthusiasts dropping out with hopes to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. As MOOCs proliferate and college costs keep rising, more young reformers and “edupreneurs” are looking for a way around a four-year degree, some opting for a gap year to work on personal passions they hope will take off, and some looking for meaningful work experience in the world’s classroom.

They’re not alone. In fact, they might even be the majority. According to a panel of higher education experts, only 27% of today’s college students have a “traditional” four-year college experience away from home. The rest work toward a degree in pieces while living their lives – holding down jobs, having families, and taking care of other responsibilities.

But while economists and entrepreneursdebate who’s right for college, and we question the value of a college degree, young school reformers who are trying to figure out what’s on everybody’s mind: Can dropping out or putting off college advance their budding careers in reforming the system, or will the lack of a college degree put them at a disadvantage?

Nineteen-year-old Zak Malamed, a freshman at University of Maryland College Park majoring in government and politics, is looking for ways out of the four-year degree track to spend more time on his growing school-reform organization, Student Voice. He’s been considering a break, like the Gap Year Program offered by UnCollege, an organized year off that includes international travel, internship, and instruction in “building your personal brand.” The hands-on learning available in the Gap Year, Malamed says, would be helpful to him in building his organization. And he believes the program plays to his strengths.

“In high school, I really felt like I learned more outside of the classroom. I was more of an experiential learner. I loved student government most because I learned how to work with people,” he said.

While guidance counselors report that the gap-year trend is on the rise, the logistics for Malamed are mostly financial – UnCollege’s program costs $12,000 for the year, and Malamed made it clear that for a gap year program to work for him, he would have to be paid, not pay. And while Malamed’s not exactly sure a degree will help him with his goals, it couldn’t hurt.

“I really don’t like the way school works. I believe that, as it stands now, I could learn more outside college than in. But, I have to take the opportunities given to me. If I can’t support myself financially with work that I’m passionate about, then I’ll stay and get my degree.” In the interim, Malamed has promised his parents that he will finish, even if he takes a gap year (or two) to grow Student Voice.

NO CHOICE FOR SOME

For 20-year-old Mpaza Kapembwa, a Gates scholar and sophomore at Williams College, there’s only one way to become a formidable school reformer: get a college degree. College was one of the top reasons Kapembwa’s mother moved him and his sister from Zambia to the U.S. six years ago.

The first years of American life were a struggle, and for a period of time they were essentially homeless, while Kapembwa continued to earn the highest grades and found his passion in American education reform. He believes that for many living at or near the poverty line, a four-year degree is still the best and most reliable way to move into the middle class.

If a major education think tank or policy group wanted to tap his talent early, would he leave college — even for a year? No way.

“A college degree gives you legitimacy in a way,” he said. “If you hear people tell us we don’t need to go to college, they have college degrees and I bet their children will also have college degrees. I don’t get their logic.”

[RELATED: For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined]

Kapembwa feels that, for him, dropping out — even for a good job — poses a serious risk. “Very few people who are movers and shakers don’t have college degrees. If you are a low income student, living in or just above poverty, forgoing college to pursue something might be disastrous because you have no safety net in case you fail.”

He also believes that, in order to be an effective school reformer, teaching inside a classroom is a must — and that requires a four-year degree (at least). “I don’t take people who want to talk about education seriously if they have never been in a classroom, or don’t plan to.”

PROVIDING ALTERNATIVES

While ambitious college students search for alternatives to four-year degrees, school reform efforts have fostered a group of startups attempting to help younger students navigate a changing landscape of growing choices. The Future Project, founded by two Yale grads, is one such startup: Chief Dream Director Sallomé Hralima, a Weslyan grad and former educator, is in charge of hiring and training young people just like Malamed or Mpaza for Dream Director positions inside of high schools. She describes the salaried Dream Director job as “part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur,” and says the job requires the ability to help kids recognize, organize, and implement their passions.

Hralima, a former “straight-A student” who didn’t feel challenged in school, feels that for many kids, college should be Plan B. “So many people have been indoctrinated into the belief that college is access to the life that they dream of. And for so many people it has resulted in lifelong debt. We live in a time where arguably our most influential people either didn’t go to college at all, or they dropped out. The kids are looking to these icons and saying, uh-huh, they have the life I want and they didn’t go to college.” Hralima herself is $45,000 in education debt.

Would The Future Project hire young Zak Malamed or Mpaza Kapembwa to be Dream Directors, even though they don’t currently have college degrees? Hralima hesitates, then says, yes, probably. “On the application, under educational qualifications, it says, ‘undergraduate degree preferred, but not required.’”

[RELATED: Should Work Experience Come Before College?]

For these ambitious student school reformers, conforming to what they consider an ailing system and getting a degree continues to be the most promising choice. Zak Malamed’s upcoming Student Voice Live! conference will be sponsored and hosted by Dell Computers, making the gap year option look more promising. Mpaza Kapembwa is currently on a Williams-led trip to Uganda, designing technology and curriculum for an HIV-awareness initiative.

Whether a well-paying job and career opportunity is available for school reformers without college degrees, even as “college” morphs and changes, is still questionable. For now, each appears to be forging their own path.

 

“Babes in Fairyland” for The Nervous Breakdown

Check out a new essay about my kids’ magical experience at their Waldorf school at The Nervous Breakdown. So excited to be a contributor to such a fantastic culture magazine. Thanks Brad Listi and everyone at TNB. Here’s the essay:

Babes in Fairyland

My sons play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind: they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rain water. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them – most likely because they were unused to it. But since we have moved to Nashville and enrolled them in our local Waldorf school, they are required to spend large amounts of their school time outside, no matter what the weather holds. Now they downright enjoy soaking rain. I look out the kitchen window and watch them, at nine and six years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain.

My sons are all in for fairies, too. In school, they have locked eyes and hearts with elves, woodsprites, and most especially, knights who slay dragons. Waldorf education, founded in the early 20th Century by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, honors and develops children’s imaginations, believing imagination is key to a successful life. Along with outdoor play, fairy tales and myths make up a large part of the “head, heart and hands” Waldorf curriculum. Einstein, calming an anxious young mother in a library, apparently told her, “First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!”‘ Our Waldorf school has taken Einstein’s prescription quite literally: my kindergarten-aged son is not working on reading or calculating at all until first grade. For now, he receives a steady diet of language- and image-rich fairy tales.

As my sons tromp their muddy boots through this new world where learning is treated as an adventure, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the leafy Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere—dirty, bruised-knee children—running, laughing, playing kickball, reading paperback books in clumps under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, my sons were still in public school in Texas, and I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked from my own children.

When I visited my kids at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess in optimal weather (otherwise, their 15 minutes of exercise all day was a TV show in the auditorium), then loaded down with more work to bring home. Usually worksheets. I couldn’t help but whisper “another day at the office” to my husband. It seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he had stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Now my sons’ childhoods are back, larger and more vivid than the ones they might have missed if they hadn’t been filling in so many worksheets. It’s as if the fairies visited them while they were sleeping, and filled their heads with poetry, art, and music. It’s as if they woke up from a dream and realized, like Peter Pan, that they didn’t have to grow up. Not yet.

Out of earshot, my husband and I joke about Waldorf’s hippy New Ageyness (a recent email home to parents warned, “Don’t tell the kids about today’s special ‘dragon bread’: they believe the elves made it!!!”). But we happily write the difficult tuition checks, because our sons love school. They love it. And like Superman in the face of kryptonite, my husband and I find it difficult to remain cynical and detached in the face of such genuine magic powers; we melt. Waldorf might lay on the magic a little thick, but magic is precisely what was missing from our children’s orderly lives.

For the majority of kids, however, the sparkling fairy dust of playtime has long gone missing from school. Through accountability-obsessed reform measures supposedly created to make learning better, public education has inadvertently stripped the elementary school day of magic—by reducing time for recess and lunch, by de-emphasizing art and music (or getting rid of it altogether), and beefing up quantifiable ways to “prove” learning. In an effort to push academics down to earlier and earlier ages, school officials have forgotten that magic—not Harry Potter magic, but childhood magic—has a way of bringing joy to learning. They have forgotten that childhood magic is real.

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Current circumstances make it easy to believe that public schools don’t have the capability to infuse elementary children’s lives with wonder and amazement: after all, budgets are stripped to the bone, classes are crowded, teachers overloaded. There is an unruly achievement gap, most evident between rich and poor children, that forces public school to press academics early on, in hopes of erasing the chasm. All of these things are indisputable. But childhood magic doesn’t depend on money, and isn’t exclusive of academic rigor. Instead, magic depends on a mindset that childhood itself is a foundation for an adult life, not small-adults-in-training. Here is where our American imaginations, bent on Puritanical models of success framed by adult achievement, are sorely lacking.

More than budget or time, it’s our idea about what public education should be that gets in the way. Especially since entering the age of accountability in the early 2000s, education has aimed to prepare children for adulthood as quickly as possible by simulating it with seriousness, hard work, and organization. Author and parenting expert, Alfie Kohn, aptly calls this attitude “Better Get Used To It”—the belief that, in order for kids to get to adulthood successfully, they must act like small adults while they are young.

I once thought “BGUTI” was the best way for kids to learn. Having long believed that the more early academics, the better, my husband and I started our Waldorf experience eager but skeptical. We found ourselves asking, will they get enough math in fairyland? How rigorous can African drum circle be, anyway? And hey, are they really learning anything in those bushes, or are they just playing around?

But recent studies show the Waldorf fairies may be onto something. In the paper “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development,” Doris Bergman, Professor of Educational Psychology at Miami University, points to several studies that link “cognitive competence to high-quality pretend play.” Children who engage in fantasy on a regular basis are linked to qualities “such as mental representation ability (i.e., theory of mind), problem solving and other cognitive strategies, social and linguistic competence, and academic skill development.” Developmental psychologists like Alison Gopnik are beginning to doubt that “direct instruction” from teachers to preschool students is the most effective way for them to learn. In an article for Slate, Gopnik sums up the research on how free play helps children in this way: “While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”

Childhood experts have sounded the alarm as well, warning parents of the dangers of erasing free play in favor of STEM for preschoolers. In  “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed,” Brown University pediatrician and clinical professor Dr. Esther Entin makes a connection between the diminishing opportunities for imaginative play and rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety. Referencing Boston College Professor of Psychology Peter Gray, she writes, “There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and Gray cites several studies documenting this rise. One showed that five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.”

While I find these studies validating, they are insufficient to describe what I see my sons experiencing. Easing our early fears, my sons’ academic skills are right on target, and continue to grow. But there is another skill they are learning through Waldorf education, something that is impossible to measure with a test: experiencing the joy of being alive. I see it now in the way they touch the fur of a dog they just met, the way they put their full faces into a patch of wildflowers. I see it in the way they dance around the Maypole in honor of the Fairy Queen, their small bodies jangling with hippy flute music. Considering the kind of schooling they had before, I can only conclude that this is the result of copious amounts of poetry, singing, and art. It’s surely the result of lots of recess and nature walks.

I’m surprised at how different my sons are—more thoughtful, more curious—than they were before. Why is this wonder for the natural world, for art and music, strangely absent from our reforms?

I wish I could shake the whole American school system, and shout, “dump the worksheets, bring the magic!” And it doesn’t have to be the Waldorf method—if fairies and gnomes creep you out, then make it angels, animals, music, art—whatever. Make it anything where kids are awakened to the wonder of everything they see, and more importantly, everything they can’t. There is only one childhood, and only one opportunity to wring every precious drop of magic and fairy dust from life’s branches—branches that will always be dripping with more worksheets and deadlines and objectives. Unlike obligations, fairyland will only be with our kids for a very short time, and then it is gone forever.

Certainly we owe our kids an education—the ability to read, to calculate, to solve problems, to think critically—but we also owe them the academic and emotional benefits of learning to play in the rain. A lifelong learner, after all, must find some joy in the process of learning. Have you ever heard someone say, “What I remember best about my childhood was all the worksheets?”

The “Finnish Miracle” in Education: We Are the 47%

Recently, I found this incredibly thoughtful piece in The Atlantic called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About the Finnish Miracle.” Finland has scored at or near the top on the international-standard PISA test since 2000, with the likes of Shanghai, China, and South Korea. Their Westernness has Americans all-aflutter as to what they’re doing so well that we’re not. We’ve been speculating here and here and here. But the real answers, according to the Finns themselves, may surprise you.

According to the Atlantic piece, Pasi Sahlberg, “director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?,” recently came to America to describe Finland’s reform efforts and present success to our education leaders. Sahlberg talked about what we may know by now: teaching is a highly respected career in Finland, and very prestigious (grad students in education get picked from the top 10-13% of applicants; here in the states, the majority of teachers are supplied from the bottom 1/3 of graduates). Finland gives no standardized tests (until you are ready to graduate from high school), or maintains lengthy formal report cards – each teacher designs individual assessments for their class. All of these are well and good, and Americans should take note, but that wasn’t the core of Mr. Sahlberg’s message. As the article’s author, Anu Partanen, put it, “Academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority” to Finland when they reformed their school system; equality was.

There are no private schools in Finland, no magnet schools, no special-entrance lottery charter schools; there are a handful of independent schools, but they receive their money from the government. The first priority of the now-famous “Finnish Miracle” was that all students have the same opportunity to learn in a well-resourced school. They feed them nutritious, free meals at school. Pre-school and college are also free, so parents aren’t stressed out about resume-building to get into a name-brand school that provides a superior opportunity. Parents don’t have to stress because their kids’ school is falling apart, or the teachers don’t care, or the state test is dumbing down their child’s opportunity to learn. Because every kid is offered a superior opportunity to learn. All the schools, regardless of neighborhood, rural/city environment, and income bracket are excellent. This is why they are doing so well.

Critics of the Finnish system say that Finland is very homogenous with little immigration and no language differentiation, making their children easier  to educate. But Finland does have immigration, and, according to the PISA score, even neighborhoods that are highly diverse, with lots of immigrants and income disparities, still do extremely well on the test. Why? Because the schools of immigrant children are just as good, just as well-staffed and cared for, as the schools in homogenous neighborhoods.

Critics have also attacked Finland’s social-democracy model that favors an equality where no one stands out, but everyone does well. (One blog commenter said something to the effect: Who is Finland’s Steve Jobs? Famous musicians? Scientific geniuses? We can’t name one.) Finland’s system couldn’t work here, detractors argue, because America’s obsession with outliers and competition is too precious. Competition is what makes us who we are.

Yet we willfully choose to ignore one important fact about our American need for unrelenting competition: in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. In order to reform American education, we have to talk about the losers, and we need to put ourselves in their shoes. We already know that many who score at the bottom are poor; we know schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get the same resources as the ones in better neighborhoods. Yet, in American reform efforts, we have made competition for great schools the cornerstone anyway. As Sahlberg puts it, in the States, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Competition is great for business (the Finns have a capitalism-based business economy, too), but terrible for an education system. When we talk about competition, what we enjoy talking about is the winners. The success stories. But what Americans hate talking about is who loses in the competition. Who doesn’t get into the charter-school lottery. Who doesn’t have the opportunity to move out of the neighborhood. And the numbers show that the kids from these environments are more likely to drop out of high school, not finish college, or, at worst, end up in prison. Is this how we see ourselves?

This is a model we explicitly accept when we accept the school choice, competition and accountability model. (Sahlberg tells a group of Columbia Teachers College students that the word “accountability” doesn’t exist in Finnish: “Accountability is what’s left when you remove responsibility,” he is quoted in the piece.)

What do you make of this? From what I can tell, Finnish education looks a lot like Waldorf education. Children learn to play and get along first and read later, and there is as much thought and focus put into recess, nutritious food, creativity and making learning fun as hard work and doing well. But it’s the distinct lack of competition, and making sure that all children have equal access to resources, according to Minister Sahlberg, that has created its success.

Top Five Education Books for Parents

Yesterday, I asked, what is education for? In order to better understand what education is for, and to make room for some expansive thinking – and really, in order to do anything – I turn to books. Before I know what I think, I need to know what others – experts and scientists and journalists and doctors – think. These are my top five education must-reads for fall; each book addresses a particular vision for education that excites or moves me. I hope you’ll join me in reading (or re-reading) this list of highly regarded education think-books. I’ll begin reading the first book, How Children Succeed, on September 15, 2012, if you’d like to join in. After that, we’ll move on down the line until we finish the list!

1. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character, by Paul Tough. In complete defiance of the popular, near-universal belief that intelligence and cognitive skills determine success in life, Tough’s new book argues that character traits are better predictors of future success. Cognitive science journalist Annie Murphy Paul gives a great review in the New York Times that got me interested in the book. She writes, “Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.”

2. Teach Your Children Well: Parenting For Authentic Success, Madeline Levine, Ph.D. Simply put, the jacket copy moved me to tears: “…until we are clearer about our core values and the parenting choices that are most likely to lead to authentic success, we will continue to raise exhausted, externally driven, impaired children who believe that they are ‘only as good as their last performance.’ Real success is always an ‘inside job,’ argues Levine, and is measured not by today’s report card but by the people our children become ten or fifteen years down the line.”

3. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, The National Research Council. Recommended by educator and author Sam Chaltain as required reading for every parent in America, this textbook produced by the National Academies and the National Research Council explains the basic cognitive processes of learning and teaching. While the opening chapters read a bit dry and textbookish, How People Learn is packed with so many fascinating facts about human learning, I can manage to plow through it, for learning’s sake.

4. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. I read this short, passionate plea to retool how we view learning late last year, but it made such an impact on me I wanted to include it in this list of to-reads. Thomas and Seely Brown see opportunity and energy in the lightening-fast way the world is changing, and invite us to hop on and change education. Their website explains, “By exploring play, innovation, and the cultivation of the imagination as cornerstones of learning, the authors create a vision of learning for the future that is achievable, scalable and one that grows along with the technology that fosters it and the people who engage with it.”

5. Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Educator, parenting expert, author and, evidently, education-reform psychic Kohn writes to us from the future in this 1986 book, arguing that our unquenchable thirst for competition produces the exact opposite of desired results (see: entire US education reform). Instead of striving for excellence, Kohn notes, school and work are corrupted by the competition for “number one” status. Using hundreds of studies to show how competition “sabotages self-esteem and ruins relationships”, Kohn’s argument that collaboration is king makes me wonder what would happen if we taught children to value collaboration over winning.

What About Our Boys?

With the release of an alarming new book and a spate of articles (both in New York Times and Huffington Post), attention has once again become focused on why boys are not doing as well as girls in school. This is a question worth asking. I am the mother of three boys – ages 8, 5, and nearly 2 – and therefore am intensely interested in why boys are lagging behind girls. I look at my young sons and squint my eyes: I try to envision them in the future, ten years from now, and wonder if they, too, will lose their motivation to do well, to shrug off school, to be one of the Boys Adrift talked about in Dr. Leonard Sax’s heralded and now-classic book about the five factors he believes are doing serious harm to our boys.

It’s hard to argue with data that suggests that boys are having problems: fewer boys are enrolling in college, and even fewer find the will to graduate. More boys are disciplined for behavioral issues at school, and more boys are diagnosed, and medicated, for ADD and ADHD. More boys are in prison, more boys drop out of high school, and more boys end up living at home with their parents into adulthood.

I don’t have any answers, but instead feel the need to ask questions. Why? Why boys, why now? According to Lisa Bloom, the author of Swagger, the forces could be cultural – many men are portrayed in the popular media either as sophomoric and clueless (Homer Simpson, Two and a Half Men, any beer ad) or rebellious and violent (Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, much of hip-hop culture). Should we parents of boys be concerned with how men are represented, and represent themselves, culturally?

It’s no news to me that our modern schools are engineered toward ideals that are more feminine than masculine – nearly 98% of elementary school teachers and administration are women. This is certainly not their fault. But as I have had to learn how to mother boys, and realized our differences, I can speak to how different it is to relate to them than to another female. I’ve had to shun the way I usually speak – “Um, guys, could you come here for a minute?” and learn instead to use my lower, stronger “dad voice,” just to get their attention. I have also had to reengineer what I thought was fun – sitting and reading, doing crafts, and playing relaxing, sit-down games – and instead opt for fun that features strong activity, competition, and a direct sense of accomplishment (my boys also enjoy reading and crafts, and they play the violin, too —  but these activities are only enjoyed in companion with strong physical activity, preferably outdoors). Couple this female-led education system with the lack of physical activity and exercise most children – not just boys – are faced with every day (at home, too, not just at school), and boys have two strong disincentives to be interested in school – no one in charge is like them, and there’s barely a moment to run around and blow off steam.

What about the pressure to read and calculate that begins in kindergarten – and sometimes, even before? Does this pressure affect boys differently than girls? Are boys really slower to mature, slower to learn – or could they be learning in a different way, one that requires more activity, imagination, and play? Could these qualities be good for all students, not just the boys? We might also look to the popular zero-tolerance policies that advocate for boys to be strongly punished by law enforcement instead of traditional school-discipline measures.

Yet Dr. Sax suggests there is more to it than school. In Boys Adrift, Sax argues that environmental toxins – most prominently Bisphenol-A, or BPA, found in plastic water bottles and sippy cups – are disrupting boys’ hormones and changing how their brains operate.

From looking at all the alarms, and certainly we hear the bells, parents know there is a problem with boys. But now comes the hard part – what to do about it?

In order to serve boys properly, what has to change? For my own family of boys, we have had to make some changes. We enrolled them in a Waldorf school, where the curriculum is rigorous but moves more slowly in the elementary grades, and instead of pushing math and reading at age 5 they focus on art, music, literature, and lots and lots of play, both outdoor play and imagination play. They also provide children with physical activity every day, even in the rain and the snow. These two choices, at least for our children, have made a significant difference in how they view school. In their new environment, my boys feel school is a place for them, filled with things that they *like* to do. For us, taking off the pressure while they are very young means that they have a chance to learn to be curious and adventurous first. In our minds, there will be plenty of time later on for academic pressure, when they are more ready for it.

What about you? How are your boys, and what do you see at your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Can Public Schools Learn from Waldorf? (YES)

In Waldorf education, children work on intellectual and emotional balance, spend plenty of time on the creative arts and play, eschew technology for books (not textbooks) and, perhaps most importantly, are taught that inner wisdom and deep thinking are paramount — all this done without grades, tests, or constant pressure and assessment. Waldorf children get to farm, cook, knit and crochet, build furniture and learn woodworking, write and perform plays, go camping and hiking, but not at the expense of academics – the academics are made part of these activities. Public schools could take a cue from this “alternative” method that values a child who experiences, thinks and develops, as well as absorbs information.

My kids play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind; they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rainwater. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them immensely, probably because they were unused to it. But now, since we have joined our local Waldorf school and they spend a large amount of their time outside, no matter what the weather holds, they have changed their minds entirely. They downright enjoy soaking rain. When I look out the window and watch them, at eight years old and five years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere – dirty children – running, laughing, playing kickball, reading under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked than my own children.

When I visited my children at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess during absolutely optimal times, then loaded down at the end of the day with more work to bring home. I couldn’t help but call it “another day at the office” to my husband; it seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Please don’t get me wrong; I love public school, and spent two years advocating for change very publicly. The public Montessori we attended in Texas was outrageously good, and we loved it. I know that we are extremely fortunate to get to go to (private) Waldorf, and believe me, our past circumstances wouldn’t have permitted it. I also have no interest in trying to convince you, dear reader, that you should try Waldorf school – it is not the perfect education method, far from it, and it is not for everybody. But, since we have been so happy with so much of Waldorf education (and my kids really love it), I want to tell you what’s so great about it, or why you might tell your school about it or even incorporate it into what you do at home. I think public schools could benefit from a few key pieces of Waldorf education, and when parents know things, they can bring ideas to their school leaders.

In other words, can public schools learn from Waldorf? Hell, yes. Here are just a few of my favorite Waldorf methods.

  • Bringing life in living color – The walls of a Waldorf school are painted in watercolors, and the chalkboards (yes, real chalkboards) are adorned with colorful drawings and illustrations depending on what they are working on. The insides of school rooms are colorful, too, and made to look like home. Each room, filled with books, student-made sculptures and drawings, and objects, looks so inviting, I long to drop my stuff and join in.
  • Creating lesson books – Instead of state-mandated text books, Waldorf children make their own. Much more than a journal, these large lesson books are filled with graphs, charts, drawings, stories, poems, and illustrations of their own making. Creating a record of their own lessons also gives children the brain boost scientists say students get from handwriting.
  • Time for lunch and play – As public schools grasp for more and more academic learning, we have seen in recent years lunch and recess time diminish to a hilarious degree (one Chicago parent complained that her third-grade son got ten minutes to eat lunch). My very active sons reacted negatively to the structure of the public school day, which ended up amounting to a lot of time sitting in a chair. Since they have gone back to having two recesses per day (what I remember having in elementary school, by the way) plus physical education, they come home less anxious and worn-out. They are light when they leave for the day – they have had time to both concentrate and take short breaks for fun.
  • The Main Lesson – Several hours of each morning fall under the category of “Main Lesson,” which can include math, science, reading, and spelling, and history, as well as combinations of all of these. When studying agriculture in third grade, my son learned the history of the world’s grains, how they were grown and harvested, who grew them, and how they were measured and sold. They learned these lessons through poetry, dances, and a play they performed about a Native American legend called “The Corn Man.”
  • No technology, no homework, no boredom – In the early childhood and early elementary grades, strong emphasis is put on kids staying away from technology until they are older – and my kids do watch a little tv and use the computer, we aren’t purists on this point. But, since they don’t use any at school, and there is no homework in the early grades, this combination of no sit-down work in the evening and no passive entertainment has had a really interesting effect: they are rarely bored. From the Waldorf parents I have talked with, kids who use this circle – no technology, no homework, no boredom – have the ability, without anything available to occupy or entertain them, to begin to learn to entertain themselves. Who wouldn’t be happy with that?
  • There is more to life than reading and math – This might be my very favorite part of Waldorf schooling – the understanding that children are thinking and feeling human beings. While reading and math are certainly emphasized and mastered, they are blended with other activities that children find engaging, like making food and knitted hats, making towns and cities out of beeswax, learning how to garden, farm and how to take care of the earth – the list goes on and on. As you and I know, reading and math are two excellent skills to have in a complex, colorful life that requires more than comprehension – life requires consideration and compassion as well as math and reading.

Now, parents, the most important part: tell me what you think. Have you had any experience with a Waldorf school? Does any of this sound appealing? And, most importantly, what Waldorf methods might you use?

How Do We Cultivate Mindfulness in Our Children?

A piece I posted on Facebook last week has stuck with me, a short post from PBS’s MindShift blog on how an overreliance on technology can leave a “mindfulness” gap in our children – a world where there is never a disconnect, never a power-down time to recharge and be aware of the present. This dystopian thought, that our kids are inundated with so much media, content, and imagery that has been produced outside of their own minds, without a moment to think, process, or reflect, has caused all kinds of alarm bells to go off in my mind. So I thought I’d dedicate a little blog space to considering what actually constitutes mindfulness, exploring whether or not our kids need it, and how we can incorporate mindfulness practices into their lives – and maybe ours, too.

What is mindfulness? According to Psychology Today, “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

Do your kids get to experience this on a daily basis?

The MindShift author, Aran Levasseur, tells us that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes (about one full-length movie) PLUS 100,000 words of “content” every single day. Highly doubtful then that many children, between school, homework, commuting, extracurricular activities, and what amounts to 3-4 hours of media consumption are experiencing much in the way of mindfulness. Mr. Levasseur also wisely notes that our cultural attitude toward mindfulness, contrary to our Puritan roots of work and constant doing, reeks of the “laziness” associated with boredom, so we Americans tend to think of being present and living in the moment, without goals and measurable achievement to guide us, as a waste of our precious time. As a culture, we view time as a commodity that’s in great scarcity – makes sense if we have so much to do, right?

Being mindful does not mean giving up ambition and technology, keeping no time schedule or having no goals. Just as it’s not the smartphones, videogames, and computer screens themselves that are causing us to ignore the present – it’s the space they fill up, and the frenetic distraction they cause, after our other tasks are done.

Unplugging from technology in order to be still and quiet, researchers say, is beneficial both to well-being as well as academics. Recent studies on the importance of play and the time to daydream point to the benefits of our children tuning out, even for a short time.

Why do we need to be unplugged from technology to be mindful?

On yesterday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times, A Natural History of the Senses author Diane Ackerman says upfront, “We’re learning about the world without experiencing it up close in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail.” That really hit me; I have felt that during times when I interact with more online friends than real ones, or when I ingest more online “content” than experience time with my family. In her op-ed, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” she  says,

“As an antidote I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.”

Sound familiar? How could we get our schools to cultivate presence? Do you have any ideas?

How do we teach mindfulness to our children?

This is the real kicker, the one that causes my face to get hot, because I know that children pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. I’m as addicted and dopamine-high on blog hits and Facebook likes as the next. I would have to say, reluctantly, that they are watching us, in all our time-deprived, attention-deficit, Twitter-checking, manic race to the end.

Perhaps the way to teach mindfulness to our children is to take a deep breath, put down the iPhone, and go catch some fireflies.

I’m outta here.

Do Your Kids Need Time to Daydream?

A perfect bookend to last week’s post on parent and student responsibility in education, today’s topic comes from a recent USC study that shows daydreaming leads to improved outcomes, even academic ones, among children. The aptly named paper, “Rest Is Not Idleness,” shows through brain scans that rest time for children is not wasted; rest provides time for inward reflection, which is key to learning and retention, understanding, and even unrelated academic priorities, like moral judgement and deflecting stress.

A recent article about the study in USC News says, “Children need the time and skills for internal reflection, and excessive focus on the outside environment due to activities or living conditions may hinder the development of emotional learning and well-being, as well as abstract, moral and social-emotional thinking, biasing youths toward morally “shallow” values, the researcher explained.” As a lifelong daydreamer, I have long felt that time shut off from the world, away from everything, gave me a chance to make connections to things that happened in the outside world, and allowed me to assess situations according to my own thoughts and standards. Even as a daydreaming child, the time spent in my head I considered a non-judgemental activity, away from expectations and competition. One of the most fabulous – and important – things about daydreaming is there is no right or wrong way to do it. Everyone does it in his or her own particular way.

This is not to say that daydreaming time must come during the school day, although children do benefit, according to the study, from breaks from task-oriented work. But I think as parents we should look to daydreaming – or lack thereof – as a cultural question. Are parents and families giving children enough downtime to reflect, be alone, stare out the window? What about your kids?

Brain-rest time for school children has been obsessing me lately, partly because I’ve also been on a bender about the length of public school lunches, which, from a very informal poll I have taken from parents across the country, averages about 15 minutes – that’s from the time they enter the cafeteria to the time they walk out the door. A fifteen minute school lunch, already proven in many schools to be deprived of most any nutritional value, is most likely devoid of any social value, either, since time at the table to eat the food (especially if standing in line to purchase the school’s food) and enjoy social company is limited to about seven to ten minutes at the most.

When we educate kids, whether in school or at home, we are showing them not only the information they will need to be responsible and employable citizens, we are also showing them what we value as a culture and a society. With little time to socialize at lunch (recess time is half what it was when I was a child, too), and a day packed full of activities, lessons, school, expectations and achievements, are we showing our kids how to be happy and healthy human beings? Do we as parents model downtime as an example for them?

Achievement and success are two vital parts of a great education – but we must be careful not to confuse outward gains with the inward gains that will produce not only successful children, but kids with strong imaginations, minds, and souls. These inward gifts can be taken to any college, and can hammer out the good and bad times of any life. While outward success is wonderful, we parents would be remiss to overstep the importance of helping our child achieve an inner life, too. Should we worry about the “drone” affect, the taking away of all life’s simple, gentle pleasures and replacing them with assignments and assessments – to shovel in food and rush off to the next task?

Life is to be savored, right? Do your kids have the time to daydream?