Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Critical Navigation of Mainstream Schools, Part 2

At long last, I'm returning to the topic of schooling. I hadn't meant to let it drag out this long, but a week-long trip, another week full of events, and an unexpected but urgent writing project got in the way.

As a few of you might recall, I began this series with a short post summarizing my rather fundamental objections to mainstream schooling. I followed up with a post explaining why, even though unschooling would be my approach of choice for my six year-old, for L nonetheless attends a mainstream school.

My next task was to reflect on whether this circumstance -- serious objections but participation nonetheless -- could be met with any kind of deliberate action on my part to make things better or change things. As I was writing about this, it became clear that it was more than one post's worth of material, so I restricted myself to the things that one household could do. My answers included doing things in the rest of life that are kid-focused and that ameliorate or inoculate against some kinds of harm that schools do, though this is unsatisfying as it amounts to saying I will keep doing what I would be trying to do anyway. It is also useful, I think, to affirm kids' own critical insights into schools as institutions, and to encourage further critical thought about them. And it is useful, though frustratingly partial, to think about the spaces that parents have to make decisions about how we are mobilized by the school into doing particular kinds of work that support schooling, and how we can best use that space to make decisions that protect and support our children. All of these answers are important, I think, but I don't find any of them all that satisfying.

This post is to map out some of the possibilities for responding more collectively. A response organized with other parents and community members has the potential to go much farther than one household alone -- the more people whose power-to-do is being co-operatively expended, the more that can be accomplished. At the same time, working in groups also comes with other kinds of limitations. I should also add that all of the single-household kinds of things named in the previous post and summarized in the previous paragraph are things that I do, while I have not yet had the opportunity to experiment with any of the more collective approaches I talk about in this post.

The first thing that comes to mind is actually an escape from the tension of objecting but participating through some kind of co-operatively run unschooling venture or alternative school. There are models of doing this that excite me, and if such a thing happens in Sudbury in the future I will definitely consider sinking energy into it. However, that is an enormous undertaking, and I don't have the sense that it is possible at this time. In order to seriously consider it, I would probably have to make organizing to make it happen the major focus of my time for the forseeable future, in a way that I just do not think I could do (as described in the post on why we don't unschool L.) However, back in the fall there was a brief glimmer of possibility for this alternative when a handful of parents that I know with kids of different ages who are in different schools experienced simultaneous disgruntlement. We never did actually sit down and talk about it all together and circumstances have changed to make it unlikely that we will at this point, but it was still an interesting moment.

Another possibility is organizing to change mainstream schools. I would, of course, be interested to hear about other people's experiences of trying to do this.

It seems to me that there are a few different possible approaches. There is, for instance, a province-wide parents' educational reform organization whose name I can't recall at the moment that has, as far as I remember, a vague mix of liberal and social democratic politics. Because I can't remember the name, I can't go to its web site and say more specific things about its goals. However, my sense is that an organization of that sort probably does some useful things and could possibly, through organizing inside of it, be pushed to do more useful things, but that, given the nature of my politics around schools, it would probably be an outlet for political energy with many, many frustrations for me.

It would also be possible to try and organize parents. This could be done at the level of the individual school -- I could go out and talk up the parents of kids at L's school. Even aside from how difficult shy, reserved me would find that particular mode of organizing, I'm not sure how productive it would be. I suspect that, at best, it would result in a formation with politics similar to the provincial organization I mentioned above. It is also my sense that the school system in Ontario is set up, probably with a certain deliberateness, to make it next to impossible for organizing focused on one school to achieve much of anything. Much more power lies at the level of the school board or the Ministry of Education. Nonetheless, it is not impossible that some useful things could be achieved this way. Again, there was an instance in the fall of shared frustration around a particular issue that almost resulted in conversations that might have lead to something further, but then the conversations didn't quite happen.

Another possibility would be beginning from networks of people in the city who have (vaguely) similar politics and finding parents interested in organizing at the board level. Again, I have lots of questions about political limitations and about the barriers built into the system to creating more than nominal change. The fact that Sudbury has four different school boards based on the French/English and public/Catholic divides makes it all that much more difficult. And if a few of us were to get together to do this, what would our agenda be? What impact would it actually end up having, even if we were successful, on the lives of our children?

I think all of these things are potentially interesting and useful despite their limitations, but none leap out at me and make me think, "Yes, this would be a great use for my political energy."

The final possibility would also, I think, be most effectively based around parents who have some political affinity regardless of what schools their children go to. And that would be for parents to come together to organize events aimed at children in the community. This is, I think, the possibility that interests me the most. These events would have some kind of pedagogical intent related to social justice and environmental issues, but they would attempt to be fun rather than heavy handed and didactic. For instance, with Sudbury Pride week just finished, one possibility that occurs to me is some sort of collaboration between this hypothetical group of parents and the Pride committee to put on some sort of pro-queer event for kids. Or maybe a collaboration with the rockin' local arts-and-activism group Myths and Mirrors. The thing is, I've only ever been involved in planning public education events for adults, so I have no idea what an event for kids of a broad range of ages might look like. And, in the grand scheme of things, no real sense of how useful a series of, say, six such events over the course of a year might be.

Any ideas?

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