Parenting a Self-Guided Learner

Voices from the Field  22 January 2019
By Annie Holmes, Council of Chief State School Officers

 

To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

bell hooks
Author

I can remember the moment when my son felt like school was being done to him, rather than for him. It was five years ago. We had just moved across the country to a small town in California, and he quickly got involved in a variety of sports—finding himself with a great group of friends. His transition to this new life appeared to be going smoothly. Then, he met his 5th-grade teacher.

“What kind of school did you go to in Philadelphia that didn’t teach you to write cursive?” This was how she questioned my son, who she knew was born and raised in State College, PA. He attended an award-winning school district that integrated technology into the classroom and was willing to forgo the teaching of skills that were no longer necessary beyond moments when he might need to sign his name. Nevertheless, she continued asking about Philadelphia.

From day one, she subscribed to a perception, possibly fueled by national headlines, that this black male student who hadn’t learned to write cursive must have come from that problematic Pennsylvania district. Certainly, this inability was the tip of the iceberg of an underperforming and ill-prepared student. She questioned his prior good grades and continued to suggest he would need to “work really hard in her class” to be successful in middle school, “because middle school is really hard.” Of course, signaling all the undertones of “this isn’t Philadelphia.” Philadelphia is making remarkable progress where beautiful black and brown children are thriving. Yet, this is not where we were from.

What was the result of this behavior? My son began to act out by completing assignments but not turning them in. He complained about school and his interactions with teachers. He questioned the relevance of materials. He grew frustrated when he wanted to learn more about a societal issue but was told he had to move on to the next task at hand.

 

This was when he began articulating his perspective that teachers didn’t really care about him.

Annie Holmes
Chief Equity Officer

When he complained about the comments his teacher made either directly to him or about him in earshot, he begged us not to confront her. This was when he began articulating his perspective that teachers didn’t really care about him. He began to believe one teacher likely represents all teachers, so if this particular teacher didn’t take the time to know who he was, why would any other? Why would anyone care about his dreams, intentions, definition of success, or how he saw himself and what he could provide to the world?

Up until this moment, my oldest son and his two brothers experienced education uncommon to children their ages. My husband and I both hold graduate degrees. And until two years ago, we were virtually raising our three sons on a college campus. They have been in college classrooms, engaged in hands-on science experiments in university labs, attended college sports alongside college presidents and administrators, discussed research with tenured faculty, and attended university-sponsored events as invited guests of enrolled students.

Their level of access to postsecondary education was atypical for children of their racial and gender background. Their access to social capital far exceeded what was being documented in research about black male boys. So, access to higher education was a constant conversation in our home. Our conversations were framed by asking “where” they planned to attend college, not “if” they planned to attend college.

I studied and worked in higher education for 15 years. My husband is approaching 18 years in the same field. I am very familiar with the statistics about black male success factors in education, different professional industries, and economics. The racial wealth gap continues to widen. Seeing this play out year-after-year, I vowed that our three black sons would be a positive statistic. Yet, I was convinced I needed to position them for success through traditional means. The best school districts guided where we lived.

 

Upon assessing his new environment, he asked his teachers how they were preparing him for the 21st century.

Annie Holmes
Chief Equity Officer

However, this year was a shock to everything I knew to be “right.” This year we moved to another small town in Maryland. All of our research online led us to believe we were settling in a community known for having a “good school.” The high school ranked well according to the popular school rating websites. They produced decent test scores. It was somewhat diverse. The safety ratings were high. All signs said our children would find success.

What we didn’t account for was how our oldest son would react to the high school’s old textbooks and desktop computers. Upon assessing his new environment, he asked his teachers how they were preparing him for the 21st century. He told them he learned best through experiences and project-based learning. One teacher responded by asking, “That is a great global perspective you have on education, but what exactly do you want from us?”

We proceeded to engage some of his teachers and administrators in a conversation about supporting his teachers in learning who their students are and how they learn. The teachers shared their reality that they needed to teach large numbers of students in a limited amount of time. The structures, time, and methods of accountability limited their ability to do what we were asking.

About one week later came the morning that rocked me to my core. While getting my son up for school, he asked to talk to me. When I sat next to him on his bed, he took a deep breath and said, “Ma, sometimes I’d rather kill myself than go to school.”

 

What do we do when school—the entity that should provide children access to higher education and abundant economic opportunities; the traditional, tried and true path to “success”—is causing harm to our children?

Annie Holmes
Chief Equity Officer

My son was in crisis. School triggered depression and anxiety. We sought the appropriate care and ensured his mental health was stable. All the while, I began to beat myself up. Did we push him too hard? Did we not see the signs? Did we put our vision for his success ahead of his own? Did we somehow not listen to what he said he needed? What do we do when school—the entity that should provide children access to higher education and abundant economic opportunities; the traditional, tried and true path to “success”—is causing harm to our children?

We immediately began exploring homeschooling. He had been asking me for years to homeschool him, but it never felt feasible. What curriculum would we use? How do we keep him motivated? How could we deliver content that is relevant and challenging?

Our son is intelligent and intrigued by learning. I overheard him and his 12-year-old brother talking about what their ideal school would look like. I heard excitement in their voices. They were thinking outside the box. They voiced wanting to feel valued and supported in the learning environment. They wanted to have access to innovative techniques and ideas. They wanted to hold one another accountable as learners. They wanted to bring ideas to the learning environment and not just be told to regurgitate information.

A few weeks passed, and my son, husband, and I couldn’t make up our minds about whether homeschool was the solution. We were sitting in my bedroom discussing material he needed to complete for his current high school courses, and just like that, the decision became clear.

 

It was as if the simple act of taking away the textbooks and conventional format of education opened doors to the world every adult was already living in. Why can’t our kids live here to?

Annie Holmes
Chief Equity Officer

The tasks were simple—reading pages from a textbook and answering questions on a worksheet. But, these types of activities seemed pointless to him. He wanted to be challenged. He expressed to us that he did not have an issue with textbooks per se; rather, his issue was with how they were being used. He feels textbooks can be used to spark conversation for real learning to occur. He wanted to have a voice in his learning environment. He wanted to debate. He wanted to think critically. He wanted to see himself in the material. He wanted to relate newfound knowledge to the real world.

But, that’s not what he was getting. This assignment triggered yet another anxiety attack. It was in that moment of seeing his blood pressure rise, his breathing becoming erratic, and tears well up in his eyes that I knew enough was enough. It was in that moment we made the decision to unenroll from his current environment and begin homeschooling immediately.

We decided his curriculum would be project-based and experiential. His first project met him exactly where he was in his thinking—create the ideal school focused on the learner. Here is his vision for his ideal learning environment:

The school I would create would be student-driven. Meaning students would hold one another accountable for actions. The classrooms would be spacious. With a few desks, a couch, and some bean bag chairs. The classes would be small, not too many kids. The teachers wouldn’t be teachers as much as they’d be more like instructors or guides. There wouldn’t be a set schedule. Students can choose what classes they want to go to when they want. This would be a very good environment to learn in because the student to teacher ratio would be low. Allowing students to receive more help. More space in the classrooms would mean a better ability to learn, rather than being in a cramped room. And student accountability would build more trust between the student body and would mean no strictly enforced rules. (Tre Holmes, 2018)

Within days, he and his brother, who is thriving in the public school system, were debating net neutrality and universal healthcare unprompted and full of passion. This was not a part of his curriculum. Yet, it was as if the simple act of taking away the textbooks and conventional format of education opened doors to the world every adult was already living in. Why can’t our kids live here, too?

We don’t have it all figured out, but we are supporting his journey, restoring his self-esteem, and validating his voice. At this point, we have only been homeschooling for two months. He is excited to visit schools, interview teachers and students, shadow professionals and incorporate volunteerism into his curriculum as he continues exploring how education could be different for all kids.

The decision to homeschool was not an easy one. However, seeing my son light up about this new adventure makes my heart smile. His enthusiasm for learning has been restored. He is exploring various learning environments and pedagogical approaches—something many 15 year olds don’t engage in.

I want my children to take chances in life. Why not be courageous now? Why not while they have the safety of loving parents? I used to tell them that failure was not an option. Now we say, “failure will teach us how to succeed.”

 

We must find a way to ensure all learners see themselves in the learning environment and continue to address the system that has buttressed inequalities.

Annie Holmes
Chief Equity Officer

For your children and mine, the time to take risks is now. Taking risks breeds innovation and creativity. This is my foundation for attaining educational equity for all students. I don’t want homeschooling to be the only option for children to have their needs met. My second son is finding great success in the traditional education system.

As we work to improve the educational system for the success of all students, we must develop a strong understanding of how to connect with all cultural identities. We must acknowledge the costs of the sociohistorical foundation of education, including the biases, microaggressions, and privileges that grounds this institution. Ultimately, we must listen to the children who partake in this work as catalysts for change.

The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. (Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro, 1933)

We must value and validate the voices of the parents who seek to participate in their children’s educational experience. We must continue to find ways to engage parents who have disengaged. We must find a way to ensure all learners see themselves in the learning environment and continue to address the system that has buttressed inequalities. Parents are vital in supporting learners.

Let’s continue to support the inclusion of all voices and enhance the experiences of learners to be a part of their learning experience, rather than passive recipients of it.

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