writer, listener

Out with the old, in with the old

After attending a meeting about implementation of the new Common Core standards into the math curriculum, I’m reminded that, while I really like my daughter’s school (especially because she loves it), I’m increasingly disenchanted by public education on the whole.

There was a math expert at the meeting to tell us how it’s all going to be different this time. She also reminded parents what a VERY BIG DEAL the 11th grade testing will be for our children. The very big deal is that a score of 4 or 5 will mean our children are “college ready” for math, while a 3 or lower means, well, DOOM. Like, they might have to take a preparatory math class their freshman year in college.

The parents’ eyes got bigger and more full of concern with every emphasis on the impending Very Big Deal assessment (12 years away for some at the meeting). “It’s a big deal,” the expert repeated. “A very big deal.”

But is it a very big deal if your kid takes a preparatory math class to start college? Is it really? I can think of some much bigger deals. And get ready, wide-eyed, terrified parents, because college might not even be the best option for our kids right out of high school, or ever. Let’s work at being genuinely okay with that. Let’s be proud, even, and open to all of the cool ways our kids might find to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society.

And pardon my skepticism about Common Core standards (or whatever Florida decides to call ours), but we’ve been burned a few times before. We just keep changing the test in hopes that it will change the system.

It goes something like this: Politically motivated fake change. Panic. Fake changes to the fake change. More panic. Repeat. The only thing that really changes is the frustration level of students, teachers, and parents.

Until educrats push for something that feels like the beginning of significant and actual change, I’m kind of done hearing about it. I’m kind of done getting invited to meetings to help sell me on the Next Big Thing in standardized testing so I can spread the good news to other terrified, big-eyed parents who would give their non-essential organs, and possibly a non-dominant limb, to ensure their kids don’t ruin their futures at 16 years old by getting a 3 on a standardized test that was created for all the wrong reasons.

Parents, it’s not a big deal. None of it. It’s just not. And frankly, the system, as it stands, does more harm than good for many children. So relax and get to know your kids a little better before you feel pressured into deciding that American conventional education is the key to success.

Get creative. You probably have more options than you think. You don’t have to feel scared into relying on politicians (and the experts they hire to help shape policy) to decide what makes sense for your kids. Like most of us, you were probably raised not to trust yourself about that. But be brave and trust yourself anyway.


Fangirl Files: Michele Jaffe

I was talking to The Real Michele Jaffe at a party last week (I just really wanted to say that. I could end this whole thing right now and will have accomplished what I set out to do here).

So anyway, I was talking to the genuinely kind and hilarious and smart Michele Jaffe at a party–the kind of party where you get introduced to James Gleick as “Jim”–and Michele said, directly to me, “Your glasses are so cute!” (Meg Cabot said the same thing that night. I know you don’t believe me but it’s true. I swear to all the gods it’s true.)

Naturally, I deflected the compliment and said, “Oh, these glasses? [No, the ones in your drawer at home, genius.] The, the, the wood is faux.” Which was so stupid, but that’s what nerves do to me when I’m dressed in Janet Reno’s evening wear at a Key West Literary Seminar party to which a bunch of very talented and famous writers from all over the literary-commercial spectrum are invited, along with a couple of townie writers like me (for the explicit purpose of adding some endearing awkwardness to the mix).

Let me put it to you this way: If you’re a country music fan, and I’m not saying I am, it would be like learning a few guitar chords then getting invited to a party at Jason Aldean’s house and chatting up Luke Bryan while eavesdropping on Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt reminiscing about the old days.

Believe me when I tell you I’m showing incredible restraint by only dropping one (okay, three, if you count Jim. Four if you count Elizabeth George–TBDropped in the next paragraph) names from this party, which occurred at a place you wouldn’t believe I was NO MATTER WHAT SO DON’T EVEN ASK ME BECAUSE I WON’T TELL YOU.

But back to MICHELE AND ME. It wasn’t going so well at first, and then something magical happened. The Real Michele Jaffe spilled her drink (water) on my shoe. Just a little bit. A few drops at best. But it was a great equalizer, because after that we were almost practically BFFs if you think about it from a certain angle, until she had to break away to go talk to The Real Elizabeth George, mystery novelist to the stars.


I’m never going to wash my shoe again. Or for the first time. Ever.

And I’m also going to buy Michele’s new YA book, MINDERS, very soon. Check it out with me. If YA isn’t your thing (it is, you just might not know it yet), she’s got plenty else to choose from: MICHELE JAFFE, AUTHOR.

You can also check out the Key West Literary Seminar here: COME TO THE KEY WEST LITERARY SEMINAR

Oh fine. Enough with the begging already. Enough! Here are a couple of pictures from that night. Sadly, none with my new homegurl:

Billy Collins, The Real Rhonda, Michael Mewshaw

Billy Collins, The Real Rhonda, Michael Mewshaw

If you don't know who this is, we probably shouldn't be friends any longer.

If you don’t know who this is, we probably shouldn’t be friends any longer.



I’m still new to it all, but I’m exploring unschooling with my youngest child. I’m doing this mostly because I’ve grown to believe that, with few exceptions, school and learning have nothing to do with each other. At best, they’re fourth cousins, twice removed. It breaks their grandparents’ hearts, but they don’t even stop by the family reunion anymore (not even just for the potato salad) because they have so little in common.

If you’re reading this, we were probably born within fifty years of each other. Which means we were probably brought up with similar ideas about compulsory education. For one thing, YOU GO TO SCHOOL. You just do. It’s good for you. School is where you get inspired and learn from qualified people who know all the important learning stuff. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not learning. Never mind the fact that we retain almost nothing long-term that we encountered in school at a time when it wasn’t relevant to us, no matter how late into the night we stayed up studying for the test.

If you’re having a bad time at school, just adjust or tough it out or something. Better yet, internalize it, feel like a shitty person, and figure out how to seem like a classroom success because ultimately, you won’t learn anything or go anywhere in life without school. FACT: School is where all the happy, successful people start. The sooner you start and the longer you stay in school, the happier, more successful, and better adjusted you’ll be as an adult. Everybody knows.

So get your ass up and don’t miss the bus because kids in third-world countries wish they could be you, learning all the amazing learny things in your common core classroom instead of sitting around in mud huts all day, smelling like goats, wearing some nasty T-shirt you donated to charity five years ago, swatting flies away from their gaping mouths and crusty eyes, not learning a damn thing about real life.

But what if almost none of this is true? What if, say, humans growing up in a literate world (like most of us here in the land of the free), naturally and enthusiastically pick up important things at the time it’s relevant for us to do so? What if, between the ages of 3ish and 9ish, people begin reading and counting and generally being creative, useful, happy human problem solvers, with very little outside intervention?

What if any meaningful learning we experience happens despite our formal schooling and not because of it? What happens if a human child learns to read for pleasure in a lifelong kind of way at age 8 instead of under duress and with great resentment at age 5? Will the world explode? Or worse, will Tufts catch wind of it? WHY ARE WE SO BROKEN THIS WAY? WHY DO WE SACRIFICE LONG-TERM GOOD TO PASS SHORT-TERM, SHORT-SIGHTED MEASUREMENTS IMPOSED BY ALL THE WRONG PEOPLE FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS?

Ahem. Sorry for yelling. It’s just, the future of the planet and everything.

Some part of me (likely the part that spent 12 years in Catholic school) wants to resist my gut feelings and trust that other people, politicians and doctors of education and such, know what’s best. I read my own words here and fight the urge to call myself some kind of hippie zealot. I mean, next thing you know I’ll be wearing a burlap sundress and selling flowers with my kids on Duval Street.

But what I know in my heart of hearts and in my simple burlap brain, is that school as we know it is actually a very recent (and mostly failing) invention. It’s a completely unnatural way to learn anything for real, especially while we’re very young. And it’s only getting worse as we sink deeper into failure and watch educrats, in their well-intentioned panic, bury our children deeper and deeper into a system that is moving from just not-very-helpful to harmful.

I’m not saying I’m sure unschooling is the cure for public education or that our current system doesn’t work for anybody at all. I’m saying unschooling is the answer for one of my children at this point in his life and that I think it’s worth exploring, even if it only strengthens your resolve to make our current system meet your child’s needs better (I don’t know, maybe push for a system in which teachers are valued and allowed to teach, for starters).

Anyway, I’m preaching and I hate that. But if you’re curious about unschooling, here are a few books I found some value in (each in different ways):

LEARNING ALL THE TIME (John Holt). A good foundational overview of unschooling. Dry at times, but valuable for help with understanding how children quite naturally investigate the world without being formally taught to do so.

FREE TO LEARN and FREE TO LIVE (Pam Laricchia). Both quick reads with insights from a corporate mom who quit her paying job to unschool her kids. Real-life examples.

UNSCHOOLING RULES (Clark Aldrich). Fifty-five ways to unlearn what we know about schools and rediscover education. The writing is a little hokey, but overall it’s the most helpful of the books I’ve read so far on the topic.

Do you unschool (or homeschool)? Were you raised as an unschooler? I have lots to learn and I’d love to hear about your experiences and opinions. My email address is rlsaundersbooks@gmail.com.


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