Thursday, August 30, 2018

What We Will Learn

Last night at our parent orientation meeting, I told the parents that I would not be teaching their children literacy, although they would be laying the foundations for literacy through their play, their dramatic play in particular; every time we read to them or tell them stories, or when they tell stories to us; each time they get excited and say, "Hey that's my letter!" or "That's your letter!" I won't be teaching them, but they'll be doing exactly what they need to do to read when their brains are ready.

I told them that I would not be teaching their children math, although they would be practicing their math skills every time they counted something out, put things in order, arranged things in groups, worked a puzzle, made or identified a pattern.

I told them I was particularly uninterested in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills so they would be ready for those "jobs of tomorrow," although again, through their play they will be engaged in teaching these things to themselves. When one studies children at play, it's impossible to not see them as scientists or engineers, asking and answering their own questions, engaging in experiments, figuring out fundamental truths about our world and the other people. 

I told them that I'm singularly uninterested in vocational training. The proper career aspiration for a preschooler is princess or cowboy. The jobs for which their children will be applying two decades from now do not yet exist and anyone who tells you they can predict the employment landscape that far into the future is blowing smoke. The jobs my 21-year-old daughter will be considering did not exist when she was in preschool. The careers my high school counselors suggested that I pursue would have left me unemployable. But more importantly, we don't educate our children so that they can take their role in the economy, but rather so that they can perform their role as citizens.

We talked a lot about "community" at our parent meeting. In fact, nearly everyone who spoke found that word in her mouth, not because it was a coordinated effort, but because it is the real foundation of what we do at our school. We're a cooperative which means that we are owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children and these parents will attend school with their children, serving as assistant teachers. We are not just a community of children, but in a real sense, on a day-to-day basis, a community of families, assembled together around the common goal of supporting our children as they learn the foundational skills of citizenship.

At it's most basic, this means that we strive to form a community in which our children can practice living in a world with other people, learning how to get their own needs met while also leaving space for others to meet theirs. Nothing is more important, not just for individuals, but for our larger society. A good citizen is someone who thinks critically, who thinks for herself; a good citizen is someone who asks a lot of questions and who questions authority; a good citizen knows that it is not just her right, but her responsibility, to speak her mind, even when others disagree; a good citizen likewise knows that she must listen, especially when she disagrees; a good citizen knows that she contributes to society in ways far more vital and varied than as a worker bee. It is from citizens with these traits that strong communities, strong democracies, are made.

I told our assembled parent community that their children will be learning these things as they play together, creating their own community, and that it wouldn't always be pretty. Their children will come home covered in water, mud, paint, snot, and even upon occasion, blood. Their children will find themselves embroiled in conflict. They will be learning through joy, yes, but also tears. They will, as they must, mix it up with the other children, sort things out, make agreements, and help one another. They will teach themselves to be self-motivated, to work well with others, and begin to understand the importance of being personable, all of which are, not accidentally, the most important "vocational" skills of all.

I told the assembled adults that our job is not to teach them anything, but rather to love and support them as they perform their inquiries, test their theories, and figure out what works for them and what doesn't. We're not there to push or command or mold, but rather to create a safe space in which the children can play, together, in the context of their community.

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