Saturday, October 27, 2012

Unschooling Middle School and a Book Review

Middle schoolers--yuck.  What a dreadful curricular system to inflict upon students who are dealing with daily physical and mental changes.  Compounded by the compulsory school factory model with students herded into peer segregated classrooms, the typical middle school experience is  made worse than it needs to be.  I often say I don't believe in middle school.

And it's true:  I do not believe in middle school, but not quite in the same way I don't believe in the tooth fairy.  When my homeschooled kids are of that middle school age, I back off formal schooling in any form and suggest alternative, real world, things for them to do.  With one student, is was easy--she was exploring the possibility of becoming a professional musician.  My inventor took to electrical wiring and installed lights or rewired much of our home as a middle schooler.  My archaeology-minded student read history and excavated part of the back yard.  And the computer geek and gamer spent hours learning some programming skills, and helped me install a toilet, too!

Kids need to do real things.

Those were the big projects, but of course, there were other smaller projects, too.  As unschoolish as we are, the kids were always into informal things in the middle school years.  No one was ever bored (a banned word).  Yet, when I mention our plan for middle school, many moms are skeptical, thinking their children will fall behind or get into trouble without some very specific guidelines.  While I say, "Be not afraid," I understand that's not too reassuring coming from me.

I hate writing reviews of books with problems that preclude me from recommending them. I thought I had found a book that might help middle school unschoolers, with the memorable name Unbored, authored by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, et al.  It could supplement any minimalist unschooly sort of curriculum without seeming overwhelming, and as the subtitle suggests, it could be a field guide to serious fun. Like other books in the genre, The Dangerous Book for Boys, Totally Irresponsible Science and The American Boy's Handybook, it is full of short, easy explanations  and suggestions for things to do--real things--of a sort that middle schoolers with freedom to explore will love.  This is a book geared towards middleschoolers, but I cannot recommend it without serious caveats.  Unlike the aforementioned others, this book has a definite ultra-left-wing slant; but this is a hurdle that may be overcome with a bit of wit.  Unbored runs just over 430 pages divided into but four chapters:  You, Home, Society and Adventure.  Perhaps something useful is in there.  

They need freedom, and mixed-age associations.

That middleschoolers are self-absorbed is a given in the first chapter, and there is some unusual fun here--exploding things, LED light "graffiti" and inventions.  But you'll find a very typical list of "puberty advice classics" and a list of young adult novels.  The bit on flatulence is mitigated by excerpts from Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, and the bit on not cursing is actually historically interesting, while the list of books considered "historically" young adult is dubious as "young adult" is a relatively recent category.  Taking the anything goes attitude towards family, in "Your Funky Family Tree" the author claims that a government's view of "what makes a family" is pretty limited.  Huh.  Adoption situations aside, I would call the author's view extremist and absurd, and demonstrably detrimental to children and society, in light of actual scientific research.  But anything goes, because no one should ever feel bad about anything your grown-ups do (unless, of course, they go to church).  This is definitely a section to skip at some ages, though it might spark lively discussions with older students, perhaps in preparation for a debate.

They need challenges.

The Home chapter is rather better, though hardly original.  Architecture, forts, room decor and reading food labels?  It's been done, and often better.  But, this section is mostly harmless.

The same cannot be said of Society.  Yes, your middleschooler can support his favorite cause, by working in a soup kitchen! How original.  He can do things to save the planet, including "Fool Your Friends" into doing so; spread the now ubiquitous LGBT blather; and learn a useful lesson from a curious excerpt from Tom Sawyer in a section called "How to be a Con Artist".  (Progressives don't seem to get the point--without a worldview that insists on right and wrong, the scene is not funny, but cynical.  Or, maybe they do get that.  Hm...Now I'm being cynical.) I can see how this society-changing chapter could be useful, but the author's views about what needs changing society are not mine.  Instead of hugging trees and otherwise latching onto every left-wing bramble-ramble, engage in some serious pro-life work every time the book suggests something contrary to our beliefs.  Yes, then the book becomes useful.

The last chapter, Adventure, is fun.  Book excerpts include first person narratives and interviews with mountaineers, explorers and that sort of person.  Fun ideas include orienteering and geocasheing, traveling tips, a decent list of sci-fi, and knot-tying.  A long section on gaming is included, too.  Computer games can be an adventure of sorts, depending upon the game, though when I think of adventure, I am usually heading outside for the real thing.

Throughout the book, those people we antediluvian conservative types call "your parents" are referred to as "your grown-up" (in the singular, as though it were more common for a child to have budded off from an adult like a yeast cell).  That's the authors' charming way of pointing out that the children-who-think-they-are-so-smart must submit, at least somewhat, to rules set forth by adults.  The book is chock full of prog-subtleties...many of which are not so subtle.  It recommends many great reads and good movies, but also sprinkles in books and films that many of us would find inappropriate for some ages. It introduces obscure "social critics" like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, making one wonder if the author isn't a frustrated doctoral candidate dropping names to find some use for years of under-appreciated study.  But I can give him a pass on that account.

Ultimately, I would opt for any of the other books listed above.  While there may be a few novel ideas in Unbored, most are either variations on tried and true projects that kids have been enjoying for years, updated to inclusively include inclusiveness, or projects that push progressive propaganda on our kids.  Who needs more of that?


Rachel Proffitt said...

Interestingly enough, my middle schooler dug out his Dangerous Book this week. Unfortunately, all he wanted to do was to make ninja throwing stars! ;)
Luckily, he also likes the Danica McKellar math books (even though they were written for girls ;))

Helenrr said...

I totally agree with you-Middle School is just plain wrong. Yeah, lets shut up kids in the middle of challenging changing years and expect them to emerge wonderful and beautiful, like butterflies. Ha. While my kids middle years were challenging, we did a lot to mitigate that with exactly the thing you did, and some formal schooling. My dk always seemed to have a bit more balance than others, and this may have been why..nothing was perfect, but our eclectic style certainly mitigated a fair bit of angst.