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.

teachersI wrote previously about the introduction my 10-year-old son and I have had to unschooling this year.  The first half of the school year was punctuated mostly by my own insecurities. I admit it, I’m mostly a traditional-style teacher, and fully believe in a free, universal education for all children.  So it has been a bit of an uncomfortable transition for me to observe my son extricate himself from the vestiges of institutionalized education that simply.  It started as an experiment, because I had no personal experience with the idea of removing a child successfully from a school system.  I’d certainly read that it was possible, but this would be a discovery process the whole way for me.  I had spent many of my previous years as a teacher trying to adjust the system for my students, rather than consider removing my own child completely from it.

I first heard of unschooling about seven years ago. I was looking for ways to reach several of my high school students.  These students were smart – they were brilliant, but they simply did not fit into the square peg that was the traditional school system.  They didn’t fit for different reasons: two were homeless and had trouble jiving with the assumptions and values the system put on them; one was so beyond high school she probably should have gone to college at age 14 or 15; two were artists (one a musician, one a painter) who clearly felt trapped by the four walls around them; and one was a 16 year old girl who could already take any kind of car engine apart and put it back together and fix whatever was wrong with the car.  So how do I, just another one of their teachers – teaching history, of all things that felt irrelevant to them – find a way to engage them in their own learning (and hopefully avoid dropping out)? So I researched.  I found John Taylor Gotto and his books Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and Weapons of Mass Instruction.  Then I read Grace Llewellyn’s Guerilla Learning and The Teenage Liberation Handbook.  I began to adjust my teaching away from my training and towards a more relationship and choice-based model.

This was challenging with 180+ students each semester. I began to design plans that included the students choosing their own topics within the subject area that they were interested in.  I learned to differentiate for learning styles and abilities. Five years after my first quest, I had changed even test-based curriculum like an AP course and inserted into it as much choice, creativity and self-learning opportunities as possible.  I found that my students engaged more and became deeply critical thinkers the more they got to choose from their own interests as they learned.  The more they had ownership over their own education, the more interested they were in learning. 

It might seem that this would have been easier for me as a Social Studies teacher – the topics by nature can often be broad, and for most districts there are no high stakes test restrictions in Social Studies.  But there are still required standards, and even with AP courses, and I was still able to infuse the standardized curriculum with some choice and student ownership. Core subjects bound by specific curricular requirements still have room for student choice.  Especially at the secondary level, where I teach, the continued emphasis on removal of choice, bending students to industrial models of factory learning, and assuming that they will benefit best from 7 hours of sitting up straight in wooden desks drilling for standardized exams often seems to be achieving the exact opposite of success.  So much so that these same tests continue to be mediocritized to accept lower and lower scores.  Students aren’t rising to any challenge of rigorous skills, they are clinging to the least possible effort that will get them through the system.  And teachers are beginning to do the same.

Even as a ten year old, my son had already begun to follow the “least possible effort” pattern.  Despite his innate curiosity and love of learning, he would face school like an automaton.  The difference between the months he was out of school and the school year became remarkable.  In the summer, he worked on projects, built machines, illustrated his own comic books, researched how to make stop action films (and then made 30 of them) and he played and played…and played.  The school year would start and he would lose interest in reading except for what was required, he brought home math worksheets, finished them in a few minutes and stuffed them back into his backpack, and he would resist as long as possible his required drilling of spelling words every week.  He was bored and he became depressed.  His appetite and his sleep were affected.  And he stopped playing.  He went to our local public school so we tried a magnate school for arts and sciences (where, evidently, they decided the “arts and sciences part didn’t start until 6th grade), and we splurged on private school.  The small private school worked best because he didn’t get lost in the crowd.  But he’d skipped a grade and the teachers said they would try to differentiate and give him work that might challenge him, but it rarely happened.

And then, I got laid off.  My district ran into a massive budget deficit and had to RIF over 80 teachers, including me.  Then, my son’s small school closed because they couldn’t get enough enrollment (for the same reasons the public schools were laying off teachers).  I found myself in the odd position of having the opportunity to be at home with my son – a pattern we had never found ourselves in his entire life.  So we decided to experiment.  I was grateful to find in my city a “free school” (not monetarily free – it does have a small tuition), based on the Albany Free School model of a democratic space for children who have left the traditional education system.  So he has been attending there three days a week, where he works on projects of his own choosing, goes on weekly field trips, learns consensus-making and democracy skills with other children of all ages, and where he plays.  At home, the other four days of the week, he also plays.

I was worried at first. I thought there might be something lost without regular math drills or designated reading projects.  I worried that he might “fall behind.”  My traditional teacher habits weighed heavily – I missed being in school, and I wondered if he would.  But he didn’t.  And the evidence of my son’s joy tempered my worry.  He wants to try something new?  He researches on his own, gathers information, analyzes it and makes a plan.  He works on video game designs.  He engages in scientific experiments, on his own at home, and at school with friends.  He reads books, or graphic novels, or instruction manuals for whatever he’s trying to learn or is interested in at that moment.  He wants to figure out how to do something?  Inevitably, someone has already made a video on how to do it and uploaded it to YouTube.  And if he just wants to take a break and have a light saber battle in the living room – he just does it.  He has shed the heavy layers of the old school system like they were extra pounds just weighing him down.  He is six months out of a model he (and I) had tried to unsuccessfully mold himself to for seven years.  And he is thriving.

Yesterday, driving home, I asked him how things were going with his friends at the free school.  He said that he thought some of them just weren’t interested in learning new things, “but I’m learning new things, because I WANT to learn, Mom.”  So he isn’t learning a rote list of spelling words every week.  But tomorrow he’s teaching me how to make recordings for his own video game design – that he learned all on his own.  It’s time I learned something new, too.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


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