Tuesday, December 6, 2011

SCHOOL ON A SWINGSET (Instead of a classroom)

Guest post by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell

Editor's note:  This is another article in my effort to dispel myths about learning and showcase ways people are thriving and learning without being "schooled." The purpose being that educators discover alternative ways to foster learning that may be more effective for some children.

Distracted and bored
Twenty-one years ago, my parents were faced with a dilemma about where to send my brother and me to school.  The small private school we attended didn’t offer middle school, and the public schools in our rural Georgia county were at the bottom of a state typically at the bottom of the nation as far as education was concerned.  What to do?

At that point, homeschooling was a fledgling movement that boasted only about 200,000 students in the entire country.  But we knew friends doing it, and they seemed to be doing well.  My father has always had a creative, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on the last day of fourth grade, I came home from school, and never went back.  Not until college, anyway.  I suppose you could say we were homeschooling before homeschooling was cool.

And boy, was it cool.  People ask me now if I liked it.  Yes, I liked it.  It worked extraordinarily well for my brother and me for two very different reasons.  I was a nerd.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  I cried when summer break came.  My brother, on the other hand, was... well, easily distracted.  We’ll call it that because back then you weren’t “diagnosed” and no one was taking meds for distraction.  But if a butterfly flew by the window, you can bet that was it for his attention to the day’s lesson.  He was on his way to hopelessly failing the fifth grade, while I was bored to death waiting for everyone else to finish their work in the fourth.  Enter homeschooling.

Stars and a swingset
The glorious beauty of homeschooling is individualism.  Freedom.  It’s the American way, right?  As long as we were turning in attendance reports to the local school board (4.5 hours per day for 180 days a year) and taking achievement tests (offered annually through the local home education association) every three years, we could do what we wanted.  I remember journeying through the structure of the eye as my mom read I Am Joe’s Body.  I remember taking apart a computer and putting it back together, same with a television and a VCR, and making an electrician’s map of our house in my dad’s invented course “Household Physics.” I remember tracking the stars using a broken swingset frame, the windshield of a Volkswagen Beetle, and a vacuum-cleaner hose.  I remember sending off writing samples to have them reviewed by a college professor through a National Writing Institute program called Writing Strands.  Most importantly, I remember every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting in the fifth grade, gathering around the table with 4 or 5 other homeschooled friends to study Spanish with my dad, the start of a journey that would be my life’s calling.

When I reached high school, my parents told me I could go back to school if I wanted, which represented a significant sacrifice for them.  I knew it would be expensive and far from our house.  But really, I didn’t want to.  I had plenty of friends.  I had plenty of learning.  I was active in the 4-H program in communications and computers, becoming a Georgia Master 4-H’er five times.  What was school going to add?  We even had cheerleaders and a basketball team.  

Success without Big Brother’s help
I write all this in response to the Innovative Educator post about yet another government intrusion on homeschooling parents.  I remember our on-again, off-again war with the government.  Our association had people specifically assigned to keep an eye on legislation and cases that could potentially present problems for homeschoolers.  Once Washington proposed a badly-worded law intended to require high school teachers to be certified in every area they taught.  Homeschoolers recognized how a zealous anti-homeschooling lawyer could effectively end high-school homeschooling, since it was impossible for our parents to be certified in all the things they taught us.  We flooded the Capitol with so many phone calls, the switchboard couldn’t handle them all, and essentially they told us that if we’d just leave them alone they could go fix the wording in the law.  Twenty years later, not much has changed.  We still need voices to shout that parents and communities have been educating their children well long before the government ever got involved.

When I tell people about my education experience, sometimes traditionalists look appalled, but always with this sneaky what-if-that-could-really-work look of wonder on their faces.  No, I never took Calculus.  Or Chemistry.  Yes, I went to college.  In fact, I printed my own diploma.   I also made up my own high-school transcript.  I laugh looking back at how much I tried to pin my dad down on what my grades were.  He hated grades.  Every time I took a test, he just sent me back to fix the answers until they were all right.  Now, I spend a lot of time lamenting the arbitrary grades I have to give my students.

Happy and fulfilled
Unfortunately, colleges didn’t seem to care what was on my transcript because my SAT score was 1460/1600, the 92nd percentile.  I took the test once and was so sick over it that it’s still a good reminder to me of what a bad idea high-stakes standardized tests are.  I finished college half a semester early with a double major and a 4.0, in the top half-percent of my class.  After teaching for three years, I went to graduate school and earned my M.A. in Linguistics, still with perfect grades.  Now I have a family I adore and students I love to celebrate, I am the department head at my school, and I stay busy with my state professional organization and attending and presenting at conferences.  I’m insanely happy, and completely fulfilled.

My brother’s story is  a little different.  He took the GED and became a truck driver.  Later, he developed a passion for photography and took classes at a local community college.  Now he works full-time for the state government and plays with photography on the side, newly married and expecting his first child, and insanely happy, and completely fulfilled.

No, we can’t tell you how to balance chemical equations.  But when my brother needs someone to interpret at a quinceaƱera he’s photographing, guess who he calls?  And when I needed to save money on photography for my wedding, guess who I called?  I know what vitamins I need to take to stay healthy, I can use HTML tags, I can even tell you exactly why the who should technically be whom in those two questions I just asked.  And sometimes, when I look up at the stars, I still imagine I’m seeing them through the windshield of a Volkswagen Bug.

Thanks, Dad and Mom.

Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell teaches advanced Spanish, as well as preschool and lower elementary Spanish, in Louisville, Kentucky.  She shares her journey with other world language educators through her blog, Mis Musicuentos, and on Twitter as @secottrell.


  1. I am very interested in why she teaches in a school? Why not teach Spanish in the backyard, or down at the local library, or on the merry go-around at the local park? If school is the problem why continue to prop up the problem by working in it?

  2. @MrC,
    Why do you assume the author teaches in a school?
    How do you know that she doesn't teach in a backyard, library, or merry-go-round in park?
    If she is in a school, why assume she is propping up the problem? Perhaps instead she's working with other educators where she teaches and around the world to teach in ways that are more effective than the traditional method of read, recite, and regurgitate.

    Additionally, as I've shared in my blog often, there are many terrific non public school options that are not a problem, however, the government will only fund schools with outdated and ineffective requirements that do not benefit children. The author said she would have stayed in school had their been non public options available where she lived. There were not. This leads me to my last question. How do you know she is not teaching in a non public setting that provides students with the freedom to learn untethered from inane government mandates?

    I don't know the specifics on the work setting of the author, but I do find your assumptions interesting.

  3. "Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell teaches advanced Spanish, as well as preschool and lower elementary Spanish, in Louisville, Kentucky" sure sounds like a school to me. The problem with school is not limited to the public schools. Independent schools use the same paradigm...and that is the problem. How do we have the type of learning she and her brother were able to engage in? Lets start with non-manditory!!

  4. I'm not sure that the level of a subject means you are teaching inside a school. She could be teaching the subject at that level or she could be teaching in non-public setting that honors student-centered learning.

    I agree that the issues with school are not limited to public, but currently public funds force educators to work with young people in such a fashion that it gets in the way of learning effectively. Non public have the choice to do that or not do that.

    The fact that schools are compulsory and that parents have little say in what happens to their children there is definitely a factor.

    I believe the way to have the type of learning the author tells of lies in some of the following:
    Untether funds from test scores
    Let students and parents own the learning
    Allow parents/students to have a say in the studnet's learning plan
    Do not group students by date of manufacture
    Do not make school compulsory

  5. Thanks for sharing.

    I find it interesting that, in lieu of her experience, she seemingly works in a traditional academic setting, and presumably has her own children educated there as well?

  6. I appreciate your concerns and understand them. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work in a non-public school with progressive administrators who don't make me jump through hoops and give me an extraordinary amount of freedom because they see how much my students learn and love learning. I teach part-time, without textbooks, our content changes every year, and my students have not answered a multiple-choice question in years, except for the AP exam, which I have no control over. My students don't take tests, couldn't tell you what traditional world language homework looks like, and would laugh at someone who thought I was 'propping up the system.'
    My toddler is at the school in a 2-year-old preschool class, but my husband and I love the school and its approaches so much that we are happy to support it. We would readily remove her from school if such options were not available.
    A roof over our head does not an education make, but neither does it inherently devalue the education.

  7. I smell the one per cent here! What would happen if you brought in native speakers and just let them mix with you students and follow them around all day. Go to all their classes with them and only speak Spanish with them--oh and they are the children of illegals. It would save the taxpayers a lot of money and be a wonderful language experience for all of the students. Just a thought I had

  8. MrC: Why so bitter? geez

  9. Hi- I actually have a question for you and any other language teacher in your circle - and I left this question on your personal blog as well...
    We are trying to create what will essentially be a home-schooling experience within a school. That is, a loosely structured school day in which kids travel in small groups and meet with teachers as needed when they need direction on a project or some direct instruction on solving problems. We would like the curriculum to be inquiry-based and project and problem based in terms of the work, with the function of the student groups being peer support, communication, and collaboration. Finally, the work would be as interdisciplinary as possible, and based on community needs when feasible. Hwever, we have already sort of resigned ourselves to needing more regularly scheduled math instruction every day, but are divided on the need to do so for world languages. Do you have any thoughts on the question of regular class times, the length of meeting times, the kinds of work kids can be expected to do outside of meeting times, and the kinds of project-based, hands-on activities that could replace traditional guided classroom lessons?

  10. I think your response in the comments section clarifies the source of confusion. In the piece, you describe a learning condition you grew up with, and went great lengths to support and defend it (in terms of your own academic success in lieu of a lack of "formal training"). So, after this extensive piece fleshing out bits of your own childhood learning experience at home (the symbolic swingset), at the very end of the article you sort of throw in the idea that your informal learning experience has led you to be a strong formal learning leader--not so much contradictory ideas as they are perhaps distracting from the overall theme, i.e., you experienced an incredible informal learning environment at home, then took that experience to a formal learning context.

    It is only after reading the explanation in the comments section that such a progression makes sense, with your ability to bring in so many innovative learning ideas to that traditional environment. Had that been explained in the original piece, there may not have been such confusion.

    Incidentally, where in Louisville do you work?

  11. @Raleigh - that sounds absolutely fascinating! I really can only weigh in on world languages. I don't feel the amount of time inside or outside a meeting time needs to be set, as long as the objective is accomplished. Children acquire language the more they work with it, which makes project- and inquiry-based learning the best way to do it.
    First, I would get my hands on your state and/or the national standards. Some states have some very well-done proficiency standards. I may be biased, but we have a lot of progressive educators here in Kentucky that have developed a very good document you can read here.
    With the proficiency standards, I set out objectives (here we like to phrase them with "I CAN statements" e.g. "I can help an immigrant understand the health department") of things students should be able to do as part of their inquiry or project.
    Within the inquiry or project, I try to make the situation (i.e. the final assessment) as realistic as possible, often drawing on things that have actually happened to me (interpreting for someone with the receptionist at a doctor's office) or to my students (helping an immigrant navigate through their local food pantry. You can view examples of my assessments for Spanish 3 as well as the rubric, and the ones at all levels from the people I stole the idea from.
    Part of making the situations realistic is including 1) culture and 2) critical thinking. I know my students like Taylor Swift, but I'm not going to talk much about her in my class because that doesn't accomplish culture or critical thinking. I want them to explore the differences in clothing standards between the indigenous rural population and the mestizo city population, what Shakira is doing with the massive foundation ALAS or what Juanes is doing to combat land mines in Colombia or how social media completely revolutionized last month's Spanish election, which many Spaniards called the second most important election since Franco, and what implications this might have for next year's U.S. election.
    As for work outside of meeting time, the only thing that's useful is getting students involved in interacting with the language in ways that are motivating to them. I wrote a post on this and some other teachers offered great additional suggestions in the comments.
    Hope this helps! Best wishes on your amazing endeavor!

  12. @Terry, thanks very much. I work at a school in the Highview area called Whitefield Academy.

  13. I am an educator (English teacher, developer of curriculum resources, PD, etc.) from Louisville as well. Maybe it's something in the water?

  14. As a successful student is not as certain to be black and white. Many people believe that, just enough, but it's all about a set of plans and objectives, as students anywhere. Most of us believe that we can in education, there are some key factors in student success.

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