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“Help! My Child is Obsessed With ___________”

On Thursday evening I found myself sitting across my dining room table watching a friend of mine crying over how I’ve vanished from the life of her family.

Now, to rewind, she reached out to me the weekend before asking if we could connect and catch up. Looking through our calendars, Thursday night was the day. She’d bring the pizza, I’d grab some wine. She lives about 30 minutes away and made the drive up to Charlotte to make this night happen!

We spent some time reconnecting, and it was halfway through the evening that she brought up that she was upset that I haven’t seen her family in a long time. I am her son’s godmother. I’ve known her since we were 5 years old. When we both first moved down here, we hung out all the time, but since this whole school thing has transpired, I’ve basically disappeared from her life. Her oldest daughter asks about me. She simply stressed that she just wants them to know me and me to know them. That’s important to her. Tears were streaming down her face, and she kept apologizing for crying, feeling a bit embarrassed for how emotional she was.

I promised to do better. I told her I could do better, and that I would.

A Beautiful Reminder

I was gifted a beautiful reminder by the universe: Love and connection are what human beings need most. This is what we all crave and want from one another, and this is how we can reach one another.

We can stress over everything else, wanting others to behave how we want them to, or care about what we want them to care about, but none of our efforts matter if we aren’t starting from a place of love and connection.

I was reminded also of the dynamic differences between human beings, and that I, like some of the children I work with, tend to become single-mindedly obsessed in whatever it is I’m working on. I’ve always been like this.

I was the child sucked into books (and that still happens with fiction books, so I have to be careful when I decide to read one). When the internet came to my house as a middle-schooler, I spent every afternoon after school on it, either building websites for the boy bands I liked or browsing chat rooms where I could make a smiley face talk to other smiley faces (back then adults weren’t aware of the dangers of chat rooms). I would tinker with projects in my room or in the basement where my dad’s workbench was. Being the baby of 4 children in a very busy household, I had a lot of free time and was either overlooked or trusted to occupy myself. Or everyone realized that I either did two things: got into something and stayed involved with that myself or walked around the house bothering people for attention. I guess when I got into something, it was best to just let me be so I wouldn’t annoy anyone else!

To this day, this tendency remains the same. My friends and family have joked with me my whole life about my “one-track” mind. Just this past October, I had a sick historical fiction Netflix problem – watching the Showtime dramas The Borgias & The Tudors. I would spent 5 hours straight watching episodes on a Friday night, just to turn it back on Saturday morning. I would even put it on my phone with my headphones and watch when I was blowdrying my hair. After about 5 or 6 weeks of this I felt like I needed a change so I’ve stopped watching them. I just got sick of it.

I love the privacy I have in my life. I love that I am able to come home each day and have a place where I do whatever I want without anyone watching me, judging me, or wishing I would do something different. I am stubborn and hard-headed and like doing what I want to do. I like to fully immerse myself into what I doing, and I will ignore the world around me when that happens.

Just because I get like that, it doesn’t mean I’m mean, selfish, or that I don’t care about others. It means that I need support and love from my friends and family to remind me that they love me and want to see me sometimes.

Right now, my big obsession in life is this school, and I love it. My friends and family that are not a part of this community, though, sometimes think I’m nuts or just do not know how to relate to me anymore. I go on long rants about education, an article I just read, something I learned from a child that week, etc. Does this remind you of your child who won’t stop talking about Minecraft, perhaps? How can a friend or family member outside of the school community reach such an obsessed individual?

Well, let’s think about what my friend, who has known me for 26 years did: connect with me and love me. My friend came over to hang out and just re-connect. She didn’t demand that I see her more, and she didn’t berate me or accuse me of being too obsessed with my work. She hung out with me, asked me about my school and life, told me about hers, and eventually she brought up that she missed me.


So, Your Child is Obsessed With ____________________

Minecraft, Pokemon. Familiar obsessions in any of your children’s life?

Let’s think about the life of the typical child: Almost every action and word they make is judged by adults as a good or bad response. The teachers at school need the children to do well on tests so their lives are easier, and parents want their children to be the incredible people they know they are – and become embarrassed by them when they don’t say or do what it is that they know, or hope, they are capable of. Many kids have zero free time between a long day at school, after school sports, dinner, homework, and bedtime. They are being reminded constantly of what they need to/should be doing.

Now, many of the kids in our setting do not have this lifestyle, thankfully. They do have free time at school – lots of it. And I know many of them also have this at home. But they are still around adults constantly. We have all of our own ideas about what makes a high quality life and we want to pass on all of those lessons to the children. They feel our judgments about their choices even if we don’t voice them. Body language, tone, and just overall energy we put out signals this to them.

As a person who obsesses with a project (this school) to the point that I have let friendships fade (more than the one I opened with, I have to admit), I empathize with the kids who are like me in nature. Because I am an adult who has reflected on this, and was given a beautiful reminder last week of what works, I want to speak up in support of these kids.


So, What Works?

  • Love
  • Connection

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Like parents, I have no magic powers to “make” a child want to do things that they don’t want to be doing. I can’t “make” them stop wanting to play Minecraft and Pokemon.

I can make them stop doing those things, sure. I could reward or punish them to change their actions. I could manipulate them by judging what they do and making it clear what I want them to be doing. I’ve done these things in the past, and have to check myself daily to make sure I’m not reverting to this very common way of “making” people do what you want them to do. I do struggle when I talk to parents who want their kids to make different choices at school and then get disappointed by lack of results – I have to carefully check myself to not make children do what I think their parents want them to be doing as a way to make myself look better in their eyes as an educator. I try not to do this because the results typically come back like this:

Girls: become people pleasers, obsessed with trying to make others like them by doing what they think others want them to do.

Boys: become disgruntled, angry, moody, defensive

So, back to connection and love. When people feel loved by you, they can hear you better. It’s not about whether you love them or not – I love all the kids at school – but do they feel loved by me? That’s the key to connection. I can say I love them over and over again, but if they cannot receive it, it’s not helping.

When the kids get into their phases, joining them without judging them, seems to be the key. Asking them to share what they love about what they do always helps them open up.

Then I’ll notice little things start to happen. For example, they’ll notice me more. They’ll start talking to me and telling me what they are doing/thinking without me initiating the conversation. And it’s a true connection, not one that is forced through behaviorism or manipulation of any kind.

From that place, perhaps we will discover that what the person is obsessed with is actually amazing. Perhaps we will hear them better, just as they can hear us better. I believe that my time spent working on this school is all extremely worthwhile. I don’t want to hear anyone tell me differently! So telling me to stop just doesn’t work. I only end up resentful and end up feeling like the other person doesn’t understand me.

Or, perhaps, from that connected place, the obsessed individual will see an area where they can work harder, like what I realized when I saw my friend asking me to just try harder to connect with her and her kids.

I believe when we let go of wanting to change others, we open ourselves to much deeper levels of connection. And this is where the awesomeness can start!

Uncovering Origins to Inform Our Decisions

On Thursday, Alona came to our small group room with a book from our library called The Book of Origins. She was feeling like having a lazy start to her day since she hurt her Achilles tendon at dance practice the day before. I leaned over to check out the book, and saw that it started with the origins of wedding traditions. My interest was piqued and I decided to join her for some reading that morning (yes, skipping all language practice!).

Alona wrote a pretty detailed blog post about what we read that day, both of us learning some pretty terrible origins about how the marriage traditions we practice today got their start. You can check out Alona’s post for those details, I won’t dive into that here.

What I will dive into is the conversation Alona and I were able to have because of our reading. As I read about the origins of the veil, best man, and other traditions I see happening at EVERY wedding I go to, I went to a whole other place in my mind about humans and why we do what we do. I found that as I learned the history behind the start of these traditions, I began releasing any connection to wanting to carry them forward. I became excited thinking about other things I could do for my wedding and how I could create a new type of celebration that would launch the start of a lifetime of partnership.

Alona and I discussed how many people do what others have done before them, thinking that if others are doing it that way, it must be the right thing to do. However, if we all took the time to research the history behind the actions, traditions, or social norms of the people living before us, perhaps we could better discern which practices we want to carry forward and which we do not. Alona was able to relate this to how her family has chosen to live. I’ll leave out the personal family details, but clearly, by virtue of choosing Mosaic for their children’s school, both of her parents have made a clear decision to avoid the traditional methods of education and have committed to unschooling their children. Alona and her younger sister have been unschooled for their whole lives.

This had me thinking a lot.

First of all, I simply remain in awe and gratitude for the parents we currently have supporting Mosaic and its existence. To realize the pressure they are under from the dominant paradigm to conform, yet they choose not to, I am deeply and utterly amazed at their courage and desire to try out something different.

Secondly, I was thinking compassionately about the parents who come in contact with unschooling, free-schooling, or homeschooling, knowing that their child is unhappy in traditional school, wanting something different, but unable to make that leap. There are times I just want to scream, “WELL TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT THEN. YOU CAN DO THAT IF YOU CHOSE, IT’S ONLY HAS HARD AS YOU DECIDE IT TO BE.” But that’s not a very compassionate approach. The origins reading and conversation with Alona had me considering what all parents are up against. For many, it’s just too damn scary to do something different. If you aren’t deep in your convictions for why you are choosing a different path, you will more readily buckle under the pressure of the rest of society asking you, “What if you mess up your children?” The easier thing to do is to do what everyone else is doing. That way, if your child is “messed up” you can say that it was the system’s fault, not yours. I’d like to note that I firmly believe in and see the resilience and strength of human beings and know that if you are live an empowered life, there is nothing that can possibly mess you up. But how do I thoughtfully and kindly express this to parents under the heavy pressures of society? How do I support parents wanting to make a leap into something different for their children but feeling like they just can’t do it?


There is No Magic Answer

While there is no magic answer, there are many people that are working hard to debunk the rationale behind traditional education, including educating parents about the origins of public schooling. Perhaps, like my experience learning about wedding traditions, more people learning about why public schools exist might realize that this is one tradition not worth following.


John Taylor Gatto*

John Taylor Gatto  has spent 30 years teaching in public schools and almost as much time trying to educate students and parents about why public schooling is actually a terrible place for children to learn. I admire him deeply for staying in the public school system for so long as he tried serve children within a system he believed was harmful. Gatto also dedicates himself to writing books and public speaking so he can educate the American public about the origin of public schools, in the hopes that educators and parents will open their eyes and realize that school, as it exists today, is not healthy or beneficial to our youth.

In this five hour interview, Gatto gives what is described as “The Ultimate History Lesson,” where he goes into a lot of detail behind the origins of public school. If you ever hear @Tomis passionately state that traditional schools are not serving our children, know that he’s not just speaking from opinion. He’s done a ton of research in addition to working in alternative schools for 6 years. He’s watched this interview in full at least 4 or 5 times. He’s very aware of the origins of public schools, which helps him remain deeply committed and convicted in his work.

If you don’t have five hours to spend watching this, you can also read Gatto’s speech to the Vermont Homeschooling Conference. A portion I will copy and past here:

“Let me start with the DESIGNING EDUCATION FOR THE FUTURE papers. They were the collusion with the federal education department and the presumably independent state agencies. They redefined education after the 19th century Germanic fashion as (quoting now from the document) “as a means to achieve important economic and social goals for the national character” — and I would hasten to add that none of those goals included the maximum development of your son or daughter. State agencies would henceforth “act as Federal enforcers insuring compliance of local schools with Federal directives”. The document proclaimed that (I’m quoting again), “each state education department must be an agent of change”, proclaimed further “change must be institutionalized“. I doubt if an account of this appeared in any newspaper in the state of Vermont or for that matter any newspaper in the country (U.S.). Education departments were (I am quoting a third time) “to lose their identity as well as their authority in order to form a partnership with the Federal Government“.

“The BEHAVIORAL TEACHER EDUCATIONAL PROJECT outlines specific teaching reforms to be forced on the country, unwillingly of course, after 1967. It also sets out, in clear language, the outlook and intent of its invisible creators. Nothing less than quoting again “the impersonal manipulation through schooling of a future America in which few will be able to maintain control over their own opinions“, an America in which (quoting again) “each individual receives at birth, a multipurpose identification number which enables employers and other controllers to keep track of their [underlings]“, (underlings is my interpretation, everything else came out of the document), “and to expose them to the directors subliminal influence of the state education department and the federal department acting through those whenever necessary“.

In Gatto’s acceptance speech for the New York City Teacher of the Year Award in 1990 he states:

“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 behavior can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic – because the community life which protects the dependent and the weak is dead. 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.”

Gatto also has also written a book that I consider very easy-to-read called “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.” Through Gatto’s time in public schools and through his extensive research and study of how the traditions in schools came to be, it is clear to him why schools don’t work. While I have only taught in public school for 3 years, I have still spent 17 years myself in traditional schools and have come to the same conclusion based on my experience and research. I find that when I feel pressure to conform to social norms, diving back into the research that Gatto speaks and writes about help me to stay deeply convicted to my work.



Jeremy Stewart and Dustin Woodard: Class Dismissed

I also had the pleasure to watch the Charlotte screening of Class Dismissed, produced by Jeremy Stewart & Dustin Woodard. Both Stewart and Woodard are homeschooling dads who grew tired of answering the same questions again and again from those not understanding the paradigm they live in. “How do your kids become socialized? How do they get into college?” are two questions asked repeatedly by those who have not realized that there can be a successful life outside of traditional schools.

Tomis, Nancy, Jeremy, Charlotte, & Dustin at the Charlotte premiere of Class Dismissed

It gets tiring. As Stewart described in the Q&A after the screening, the idea to make this movie came from him just wanting to hand a film over to every person asking those questions. I cannot wait for the movie to come out on DVD so I can do the same!

This film powerfully demonstrates that classrooms and desks are not needed to learn, in fact, for many, they hinder a person’s ability to learn about who they are and what they want out of life. The film covers the origins of compulsory education and debunks the common fears about venturing into homeschooling. It depicts unschooling in a way that reminds us all that life is living, and living is learning.

I valued watching this film so much because I could identify deeply with the thoughts of the mom they followed for two years on her journey to explore homeschooling. The movie depicted her struggle as she heard the doubts of others. I have struggled in the same way.

Like this mom, sometimes doubts have affected me so much I start veering back towards traditional methods. But when I stop and look at the children in front of me, I remember the fact that all humans want to learn and all humans want to have lives that they enjoy living. I remember then that I must always strive to connect with each individual and honor them as an individual in order to serve them best. I don’t have to make them want to learn, they come to me that way. I only need to connect with them and build a meaningful relationship with them so they will see me as a person who can help them learn all the things they want to. I am so thankful for Stewart and Woodard’s work over the past four years to create this film as a service to educators like myself. They helped me connect even more deeply to the work that I do, and also have provided me with a tool I can use to serve more children in my community. I cannot wait to share this film with more parents and educators in Charlotte!

I was not the only one immersed in gratitude after watching the film – one of our 9-year-old students spent her time in Writer’s Workshop the following day writing this blog post in appreciation of our school. She attended the film with her family. It’s powerful to know that the students in the school appreciate the opportunity they have here!


Ken Danford & NorthStar for Teens

One of my early inspirations for creating ALC Mosaic came from the work of Ken Danford with North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens. This group is also powerfully changing the lives of teens and helping them to realize that they can leave school and start living now.

I came across the following video today of a teen that I saw speak at the AERO Conference in 2013, and am so thankful for how North Star is doing all that they can to share with the world the success stories of teens leaving school and making their own lives. They have been doing this for over 17 years. The more I can support them by sharing these stories, the more I can support parents who know the public school system isn’t serving their children to make the leap into a lifestyle that does.

In this clip, Jonah sums it up well. He is thankful that he hasn’t spent the last 6 years of his life fighting with teachers in schools and with his parents. Instead, he’s had the time to explore and learn everything he’s wanted to.

Instead of only thinking about “what he wants to be when he grows up,” he is able to be something right now and consciously choose what that is.

Imagine what a world would look like where everyone was considering what they were doing in each present moment…


So…What Next?

I continue writing. I continue sharing. I enjoy following the footsteps of these great people before me who want to get the message out there that schools were not created to serve individuals. I continue sharing how we can serve our children today differently.


*John Taylor Gatto suffered from a stroke on July 29, 2011 that has left him paralyzed on his left side and bedridden ever since. There is a fund in place to provide him with support for transportation, communication, and food. Please consider any contribution you can make & share the link to support: www.thejohntaylorgattomedicalfund.com