About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

Thanksgiving has just passed, and I’m thinking about my son’s school year so far.  Around this time in traditional schools there are parent teacher conferences, 1st quarter report cards have gone out, and the choppy month before winter break begins (where it feels sometimes like there are more breaks than school days).

But this year, neither my son nor I are experiencing those traditional milestones of the school year.  For me, because I’m still out of work as a classroom teacher.  For my son, it’s because this year we decided to run an experiment with his education.  In a nutshell, after many years of negative experiences in both public and private schools, where he was often bored and got lost in the crowd.  We would constantly supplement his education outside of school.  So this year, he’s unschooling. For us, that means half homeschooling and half joining in at an “unschool” modeled after the Albany Free School.

I think it’s been a tougher adjustment for me, both as a mom and as a teacher.  It took me a good two months to not be stressed by the lack of traditional schoolwork going on.  I worried that he wasn’t reading a book in regular segments or doing regular math work.  How will he keep up?!?!  It was not until we met with his advisor that I began to transform my thinking about “school” for my son.  He is 10 years old and she spoke to him with no condescension and no alteration of her language.  She didn’t talk over him and she put him in charge of the direction of his own learning.  It was so different than any parent teacher conference I’d ever participated in as a parent.  She emphasized how important it was for kids his age to play, she asked him what HIS interests were and negotiated some interesting ways to support those interests.  He spoke more about learning than I’ve ever heard him speak before.  He was actually invested in what he wanted to learn and he was taking ownership of how that would happen. He has made great friends and he looks forward to his chances to see them and play and work with them. Unlike traditional school, there are no set classes or tests, no imposed lecture time, sitting at a desk without moving, or those ditto sheets that can sometimes seem endless.  When he is at home, or when he is at his part time “unschool”, he can eat whenever he’s hungry, he can excuse himself to the bathroom.  If he wants to, he can join together with friends for projects and they can decide the direction of their own learning, or he can spend time reading, drawing or working on a project himself.  He goes on field trips every week and he’s learned to ride the city bus, to enjoy bowling, and to play in the park more often than he ever got to during the school year previously.  The kids in his “unschool” decide together, democratically, what direction the school will go in.

Last week, there was no school at all.  But there was learning – we traveled to visit my brother in South Carolina.  We visited Ft. Sumter and the state museum and we learned about the start of the Civil War and the USS Hunley.  The best part for my son?  We could see and touch actual guns from the war!  History in live action.  He didn’t have to read a text book or take a test.  And it was awesome.  At home, he doesn’t have to do particular assignments – but rather, we find fun projects or interesting things to do.  He has been focused on creating video games, something he’s seriously interested in.  He has to research how things work, how to troubleshoot how to create different aspects of a game, he learns physics and mechanics and math in order to create.  And he creates.  He has become more creative, more thoughtful and less stressed out about daily life.  He is a joyful child, and he plays… All. The. Time.

And we’re playing together.  We regularly learn new games together.  We’ve become obsessed with Castle Panic, and I’ve even learned to play Magic: The Gathering (though I’m not very good at it).  Gaming together has become its own magical gathering in our house.  He and I are spending more time together than we ever have, and we’re having so much fun at it!

I know that we probably wouldn’t have this time together if I hadn’t been laid off.  But I am so grateful that we do, and he is learning how to direct his own education, he is gaining skills and independence, and I think he could continue on this path very successfully if I weren’t home full time in the future.  This Thanksgiving, I was most thankful for the joy in my son’s heart that has emerged with the absence of traditional school.  He is learning and he is growing, and so am I.

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