the skies we share

For Education, Memory, and Uplift

Looks like I'm going to Illinois!

I’ll be presenting at the 10th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Conference in Urbana, Illinois, as part of a panel discussion surrounding the tensions inherent to teaching. Personally I’ll be discussing what it’s like to unschool a traditionally-trained teacher.

When School Does What it is Supposed to

It’s nice when a part of life is revealed to you. 

There has been stress in the past five months as the expectation of choosing a thesis topic looms and I have had no pinpointed idea what I want to study. But tonight I’ve made peace with that, as I center on the topic of unschooling.

I started with the burning question that was “why we don’t ask students what they want to learn?”, then moved into the words to describe  what I was looking for, words like agency, self-directed learning, community, independent learning, project-based learning, problem based-learning, etc, From there I’ve looked at models that demonstrate those terms, from Waldorf, Fostering a Community of Learners (FCL), Gamifying education, to democratic school models like Sudbury and Summerhill, and now to unschooling. It was proprosed that I meet a former student of my supervisor’s, who works for an alternative center that she had not much information about. Turns out that the Compass Center for Self-Directed Learning (modeled off of North Star) is exactly what I had in mind. I went in, spoke to the like-minded directors, they gave me the a book to read, and the rest will be history. I just finished that book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and get a Real Education by Grace Llewellyn. It was the first piece of non-fiction that I have read where I felt as though I had written many of the pages myself. That connection will drive the next part of my life.

Unschooling is brand new to me. It’s terrifying, exciting, unorthodox, alternative. To think that a teenager can just… not go to school. That flies in the face of 100 years of global “tradition,” if you want to call it that. What do the kids do if they’re not in school? Whatever they want, for as long as they want. And that’s allowed? Why not? How do they learn things? What about Universities? Money? Jobs? These are all questions I’ve asked myself, and the answers I’ve seen so far haven’t exactly sold me.

This space that I’m occupying, or rather, having one foot in the traditional education stream and the other in the alternative, is something that should be explored, and looks like the latest contender for my thesis.

Starting at Compass on Wednesday gives me ample opportunity to take notes and gather information for an article. Send all resources my way.

In this sense, it’s funny that, for how much time I’m spending reading articles and books that chastise schools and the current educational climate, it did what it was intended to do with me, in a roundabout way. Why, whether that’s good or bad, or how I should interpret that is something to look into at a later day.

There are no conclusions here, only more stones to step on.

[Update] The Rat Race of Curriculum

I’ve been reading The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn and came upon the legalities of homeschooling. Llewellyn mentions that some states and provinces require that homeschoolers submit records of the curriculum followed to school boards or universities for various reasons. She then advises, even if off-handedly, that homeschoolers could make it up if they wanted to and hope that the advising body doesn’t catch them, connoting to the reader the belief that these reports shouldn’t be important in the first place.

Whether or not that’s true, it got me thinking that, if “living life” is the only thing that Llewellyn suggests should comprise learning, what the heck is a curriculum? What does that word really mean and where does it come from? The OED says:


The etymology of the word seems to come from the word curricule. (Searching Google for the definition of “curriculum” also brings up the word “curricule” in its etymological transcript) The OED pins that as follows:


Trying to understand further I looked up the word course since it was mentioned in the etymology of the word “curriculum”:


If the word curriculum has its roots in the Latin for the word “course,” and the Latin for course has its roots in the word cursum, implying race and running, then what this seems to suggest is that curriculum, whenever it has its reference in terms of education and schools, always seems to imply a race of some kind.

But course doesn’t necessarily imply race, on its own. It could simply refer to a path that is followed. That definition seems to align more closely with the definition of curriculum vitae, literally, “the course (or path) of your life.” Read in that it, a course seems to allow for rests, reflections, breaks, and numerous twists and turns, which, ironically, doesn’t make a good C.V. at all, at least in the eyes of most employers. More to the point, I don’t remember a single school course that allowed for an individual’s right to choose when and how to reflect, and for how long.

Trying to delve deeper I started looking up definitions with the same root word as curriculum:


Again, that which runs. Again there is speed.

I found this interesting post. by Jonathan Marks writing for the MacMillan Dictionary’s blog, on words beginning with “curr-“. As mentioned before, Curriculum vitae implies the course of your career. Marks takes this further: “career also originates from the same ancient root meaning ‘swift movement’, as do carchariotcarry,carriage and charge, the last three being related to the load of a vehicle running along its route.”

A courier, someone running to deliver something, also comes to play, as does cursive handwriting (fast, uninterrupted), and a quick, cursory glance. 

It seems that no matter how you get to the finish line, the word that we’re using to describe what and how students learn, implies that it is done with quickness, speed. This is far removed from what we’re told by teachers the first “schools” actually looked like, that is, a leisurely stroll between student and philosopher through markets and plains, sitting on benches or around a table, standing in the middle of town or anywhere else a discussion was happening. And what do you know… The Online Etymology Dictionary informs us that the root of school originates from the notion of “‘leisure,’ which passed to ‘otiose discussion’ (in Athens or Rome the favorite or proper use for free time), then ‘place for such discussion.'” (Cross-referenced and confirmed by the OED).

What’s the conclusion? There is a antithetical disconnect between our current notions of the curriculum that our school is offering, and their origins. I say it’s high time we look back collectively, to reconcile with the past to make way for a proper future.

Post-Semester Update

What have I been up to? Reading and thinking.

To catch myself (and you, reader) on the things I’ve read — from most recent to least:

  • Palulis & Morawski – Auto/ethno/graphies as Teaching Lives
  • Palulis (2009) – Geo-literacies in a strange land: Academic vagabonds provoking a pied.
  • Gatto, J.T. – Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
  • Waskul and Lust – Role-playing and Playing roles: The person, player and persona in fantasy role-playing
  • Chung (2013) – Tabletop Roleplaying and Creativity
  • Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi. The Importance of Challenge for the Enjoyment of Intrinsically-Motivated, Goal-directed Activities. 

In the process of reading:

  • Llewellyn – The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education
  • Jarrett – Drifting on a Read: Jazz as a Model for Writing

Yet to read:

  • De La Ossa (2005) – Hear my voice: Alternative High School Students’ Perceptions and Implications for School Change
  • Fielding (2006) – Leadership, radical student engagement and the necessity of person-centred education
  • Schiefele (1991) – Interest, Learning, and Motivation
  • Huang (2012) – Laying the Foundations for Democratic Behavior – A Comparison of Two Different Approaches to Democratic Education
  • Lots of stuff from Ted Aoki; more on phenomenology, hermeneutics, and heuretic; more on Barthes and Foucault
  • Sayers, D. (1948) The lost tools of learning
  • John Holt.

Possible Thesis Topics to be considered:

  • An auto-ethnography about teachers and game-masters: what one can teach the other about self-directed learning (article ready for publication)
  • Tabletop RPGs and their affect on student engagement. (Research study with participants)
  • The perceptions of alternative ed alumni. How an alternative education curriculum influenced their careers and lives. (research study with participants)

OK. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s some other news. As of January I’ve volunteered to teach two classes at a local alternative school, Compass Teens, modeled off of the North Star “homeschooling” model. My idea of what homeschooling is has changed significantly, and doesn’t mean “your parents teaching you, at home.” In fact, most home-schoolers are natural self-directed learners.

My courses will be:

  • Hey! What’s the Big Idea?: Grappling with life’s big questions
  • Role for Initiative, Development, and Identity: Using RPGs to foster Youth Development. (Title is a work in progress)

Have you been talked about (read: whined about) what you really really want, that at the time seemed impossibly unattainable, only to find yourself later on the precipice of getting everything you ever wanted? I’m… nervous. This is a completely new way of teaching. No tests, assignments, homework. The kids can choose to not show up whenever they want, for whatever reason, and there are no penalties. There are rooms, but no classrooms. I don’t have a “boss,” and I’m not getting paid.

Talk about getting your hands dirty in the grassroots.


A Problem with Problem and Project-Based Learning

At first glance, problem-based learning (PBL) seems like a great way to encourage deep learning on a subject. Essentially, students work to solve problems, without already-given information, dimensions, or data like you would normally find in the textbooks of today. In necessitates inquiry, holistic approaches to finding solutions, and an understanding that there are many more ways than one to solve a problem.

Project-based learning aims to do much of the same thing. This time there is an emphasis on group work. Students work in teams to examine real-world situations and problems, and devise solutions. They then give presentations to their group or class to report their findings.

Together these two models can promote interdependence, deep-thinking, innovation, creativity, self-concept and self-esteem, the list goes on. One thing, though. If you find yourself in a group of people to which you are not compatible, the entire process can collapse. This is a situation that many students find themselves in, in all levels of education. If you don’t mesh with your group members, being creative, innovative, bouncing ideas off one another, working as a team, all become more difficult.

In his book The Element, Ken Robinson writes about the necessity of finding your “tribe.” A tribe is a group of like-minded people, people who share the same interest that you do, who know the same things as you do, and, possibly more. It’s easy to see how this would be relevant to schools. If students were working with others as passionate about their interests as they were, they would be more motivated, feel more confident, and arguably would be more innovative and creative, being able to bounce ideas off of other students that understand them, instead of being on the defensive end of work that they believe in and value, but that others do not.

We very rarely find this in schools. Not to blame education here, though. It’s not easy to find other people that are interested in passionately inquiring about the same topics. What’s more, adolescence (in particular) is rapt with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty about individuality. It makes sense, then, that one would not would not want to expose a deeply-held passion or value in something, for another to devalue, make fun of, or undermine.

  • How and what ways can we build “tribes” of students that share common interests, in order to pursue inquiry and project/problem-based learning with equal passion and commitment? 
  • Do we need to restructure schools for this?
  • Is it a matter of teaching students to find all interests equally valuable and interesting, therefore creating safe spaces for every student? Is this possible?

Do Business Incubators have their place in Education?

I’m the first person to break out in hives when someone claims that education is a business. Trust me, I worked for someone that felt that way. I read an article yesterday that had me start thinking about the question above, though.

OVER the last decade, business incubators — open-office-plan hives where people, many of them young, gather to try to think up the next big app or social media revolution — have grown into a cultural phenomenon, a vision of capitalism as a kind of share-happy, postmillennial commune.

The New Museum in Lower Manhattan is looking to answer that question. Beginning next year, it says, it will become the first visual art museum with its own incubator, a foray into the business world to be built in a rambling, rough-hewn warehouse next door to its building on the Bowery.

Randy Kennedy in the NYT

Could this model, already used in business, and now in art, be a part of a restructuring of schools? I mean, to a certain extent grouping students together to think about solving a problem already happens, but not as often as you think. And often times distractions are unavoidable. I wonder whether having a separate space for students to go to, that has all the materials they need on hand for creative expression, research, innovative thinking, problem-solving, etc.

What would be needed? How would this space be different from, say, a library’s study room? Do we already do this or is there a change needed?

The Mountaintop Project at Lehigh University

The more I investigate, the more excited I become of the possibilities and the links that I am creating. Here’s a branch of Lehigh University that was given a generous $20 million dollar donation from a former graduate–who happens to be the co-founder of Urban Outfitters–to start-up one of the most innovation post-secondary education ventures ever.

This summer, Lehigh embarked on the first phase of what’s simply dubbed the Mountaintop Project. The campus is just east of Lehigh atop South Mountain.

Operating much like a study-abroad program, Lehigh students will head to Mountaintop for an entire semester to focus on nothing but their big idea to change the world. They’ll get guidance from their professors and colleagues — if they want it — but the concept, process and solutions will be all theirs.

(Assad, “Lehigh to become ‘Invention Incubator'”)

Link to the full article and promotional video can be found here.

I’m looking forward to following this more closely!

Calgary Science School

A look at what student-centered, inquiry-based, elementary and secondary education can look like in Canada.

Student Experiences and an Experiment

I started reading The International Handbook for Elementary and Secondary Student Experiences. This “handbook”–a whopping 900 page collection of research on the topic, is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ll be writing on this again, for sure, as I get more in depth, but it looks like I’m finding more direction in my research. 

Why don’t we ask students what they want to learn? –> Student agency –> Self-directed learning –> Student choice –> student experiences of school.

I’m on track. The right one? We’ll see. Here’s an experiment that I would like to carry out, though.

Think of your favorite teacher in either elementary or high school. In one paragraph, I want you to write a first person account from the perspective of that person, what they do as a teacher. Try and be as all-encompassing as possible without going into too much description.

Now, think of the teacher you hated the most in high school. Complete the same exercise as described above.

I would be really interested to see whether or not the former-student perceptions of their teachers changes when they think of their best and their worst experiences with teachers. It would be fun to do this with curent high-school students, too. Woo! Research!

Student Ownership of Learning

Was browsing for dissertations today and found one on this topic. It turns out in Sweden, what I’m calling agency and self-directed learning, they’re calling “student ownership of learning.” An extra justification that this topic is a lot more complex than I originally thought.



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