Our Choice

Why we left the educational mainstream

The Choice: Alternative Public School

The Voice: Amanda Peters, parent

When my first son was about three or four, I started to introduce the ideas of reading and writing to him. I thought it would be great if he could have a head start and go into Kindergarten ahead of the game. I thought since I was fortunate enough to be home with him and had chosen not to send him to preschool, it was my job to teach him these things. He had loved being read to since he was a baby, so I thought it would come easily to him. I thought wrong. It turned out to be quite a struggle. He wasn’t interested in being “taught.” He wasn’t interested in having me choose the activities he engaged in throughout his day. We ended up in a power struggle that wasn’t working at all.

I decided to take a few steps back and follow his lead. It was then that I began to read about un-schooling, life learners, and alternative education. It all made sense to me! If children were self-motivated and following their interests, they would learn the necessary skills.

I found a school whose philosophy was right on par with our new beliefs. We were very excited to have our children (who are now three, five and seven) attend as they would spend the majority of their day learning how to communicate, work together, pursue their interests and passions, and become educated in a way that traditional schooling could not offer.

In today’s world, all the information we need is a finger’s click away. It does not make sense to mindlessly memorize facts and learn how to obey in a classroom and neglect other, more important, lessons in life.

More than anything, I want my children to learn how to be compassionate, communicate respectfully, and follow their passions in life. I don’t want them to be forced to learn useless information. I believe that by offering my children the power to be in charge of their own learning, they will find something they are truly passionate about and be successful and happy throughout their lives. If they choose a career that requires a very academic schooling, I believe they will have the drive and determination to succeed in the necessary program as they themselves will have chosen that path. They have not been pressured to do so. If they find that they desire a more artistic path in life, then I believe they will have learned the necessary life skills and practicality to follow through with their desires.

The Choice: Homeschooling

The Voice: Esmaralda Pitman, parent

We started homeschooling because my husband Matt was homeschooled and he wanted that experience for his own kids. Through him I met other adults who had been homeschooled and I could see it had been positive for them, so I said we could give it a try. We have five children now, and so far none have been to school.

I’ve really learned the benefits along the way. One thing I think is important is that my children get to learn at their own pace. My oldest son, Sebastian, didn’t start reading until he was eight – and then he was very quickly reading novels. His sister Callista started reading when she was four. They are both avid readers today, and Sebastian never felt like he was “behind” or not keeping up. He even had one of his short stories published in a contest last year!

We do a lot of interest-based learning and field trips where they can learn by doing. I’ve learned that one theme or topic can actually cover many things that would be separate subjects in school. Callista, for example, is interested in reptiles and has a pet snake. Before we got it, she did research on snakes and had to do math to calculate how much space he would need (to buy the right cage), how much he needs to eat, and what it would cost. That’s reading, science and math.

It’s also easy for me to adapt to the children’s different learning styles. Again, to use reading as an example: Callista just needs to see a word and she remembers it, but Sebastian really benefited from learning phonics. I’m always creating new games and activities for them to help them understand a concept or practice a skill.

I think it’s important for kids to have lots of time to be active. My whole family is very involved in scouting and we do a lot of camping, and my kids really like to be outdoors as much as possible. Homeschooling lets me maximize that. Because we’re available during the day, we’re often able to take part in activities such as music classes, gymnastics, art classes and theatre groups at a much cheaper rate than if we had to go after school. In our city (Guelph), there are quite a few homeschooling families, so we organize activities and field trips together. Sebastian has been part of a boy’s creative writing group that he got a lot out of as well.

People often ask about socialization. I think one of the problems with school is that there is only one kind of socialization: kids of the same age all together. In our homeschooling activities, there’s usually a wider range of ages, and the older kids or the ones who know more about whatever we’re doing will help the others. I think having more adults around helps prevent bullying and other issues as well.

Sebastian is fourteen now, and he’s thinking about going to high school in the fall – mostly because he’s interested in doing some of the extra-curricular activities. We’re really taking things year by year, always evaluating what will be the best options for each child.

The Choice: Alternative High School

The Voice: Brittney McKinney, student

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

That’s how I feel about my life and my education. My name is Brittney McKinney; I am 18 years old and currently attending Mahone Bay Alternate School in Nova Scotia. I loved going to school in my elementary years, but once I went into middle school things changed. I was at an age where I was more focused on the social aspect of school instead of my education.

I started going to a regular high school for Grade 10, but soon realized I might not be successful in that environment. There were too many kids, and the teachers were always too busy to help me when I needed it the most. I dreaded going to school almost every day and had bad anxiety over it. I just felt like I needed more one-on-one time and understanding, but I wasn’t getting it.

The Mahone Bay Alternate School is an amazing school because there is a 10:1 ratio of students to teachers, which gives teachers more time to work one-on-one with students and to have more personal relationships with us. Our teachers are willing to help on their own time when we show them that we are determined. They are very understanding, and no matter what the situation, they will still accept us and want to help us. The atmosphere in our school is very peaceful and laid-back, yet still provides enough structure and expectations on students to drive them to do their best.

Physically, our school is located in the Mahone Bay Centre, which was built in 1914. It used to be a school and now it’s a community centre, so we share the building with the community of Mahone Bay and the seniors. There are plenty of activities that go on in the centre every day, such as exercise classes, yoga, Tai Chi, dog obedience classes and seniors helping seniors. We help out the seniors by carrying heavy boxes upstairs; we helped build our community garden and we do garbage pick-up in and around our community.

Now every morning when I wake up, I actually look forward to going to school and starting my day of learning. I believe if I did not have the option to attend an alternate school, it would take me longer to graduate, or I might not complete school at all. School boards need to continue to support these programs so that students like me, who suffer from anxiety and struggle with school, have an opportunity to graduate high school and have a better future.

The Choice: Montessori school

The Voice: Nicky Middleton, parent

We’d read about Montessori years before our kids were school-aged. The philosophy spoke to us as parents. Still, our kids started in the public system. By the time our daughter was in Grade 3, we were exasperated with the hours of homework she brought home and the weird math concepts that weren’t like what we’d learned. We were also getting a little tired of being told her brother was “unfocused” – in Grade 1. We are a middle-income family so the choice to send our kids to Montessori was difficult. It meant sacrifices. There were fewer luxuries like trips. We sold one of our two cars. In the end, preparing our children to become the best adults they can be trumped all.

When we visited a few schools, we were impressed by how independent and well-spoken the students were. The staff spoke passionately about how Montessori manipulatives connected the theoretical lessons to practical applications. The scientific research on how hand-mind imprinting optimizes learning meant that cursive writing and tactile learning was a big part of the classroom. In one classroom we experienced Montessori principles around social justice for six- to nine-year-olds. In a discussion, each and every kid had a voice that was encouraged and respected. The teacher wasn’t even part of the discussion – she was working with three students at the other end of the classroom.

In Montessori there are no worksheets and no homework. The teachers explained that they allowed students to work without interruption in the morning. The result was greater productivity, and no need for homework. Both our kids are very creative and the enriched curriculum encouraged initiative, independent thought, choice, and time management. We felt these skills would translate well in life as an adult. We especially loved that the learning process and kids were respected. Every Montessori teacher we spoke to stressed this idea. It was very different from the “sit down, listen and do what I tell you” approach that our kids had experienced in public school.

However, Montessori isn’t for all kids. Freedom of choice and self-direction was advantageous for our focused daughter; she developed amazing time management and self-discipline. However, I think my son would have benefited from firmer direction: Turn to page 18 and do Exercises 1-3. That type of structure won’t be found in a Montessori setting. For the child who, like my son, doesn’t have self-initiative or self-control by the 3rd grade, Montessori can be a struggle.

When our kids transitioned to public education in high school, the biggest hurdle was test taking. We discovered that it’s a learned skill. Though they’d been exposed to tests and exams in Montessori, it wasn’t something they’d mastered. My daughter had tremendous anxiety over test taking. She was fortunate to have patient Math teachers who accommodated the extra time she required to complete tests. Yet my son adapted quickly.

Was it the right choice? As I look back, I can’t be sure that it was the better choice over traditional education. It was an educated gamble. I personally felt less stressed as a parent in a Montessori setting because the kids came first. That wasn’t always the case in public. Our kids, now teenagers, are considerate, concerned citizens who are respectful of everyone’s opinion and have a great deal of confidence in their abilities. I truly believe Montessori had a lot to do with that.

En Bref : Pourquoi les parents et les élèves regardent-ils au-delà de leur école de quartier? Les raisons varient autant que les personnes. Certains cherchent quelque chose de « mieux » ou qui se rapproche davantage de leur propre philosophie éducative. Certains enfants ne s’épanouissent pas (sur le plan scolaire ou émotionnel) dans les écoles ordinaires et requièrent une autre approche pour favoriser leur réussite. Quoi qu’il en soit, il très important pour ces familles d’avoir des choix. Nous avons demandé à quatre « consommateurs d’éducation », soit trois parents et un élève du secondaire, pourquoi ils ont choisi un autre type d’école.

Photos: courtesy of authors


First published in Education Canada, June 2016

Meet the Expert(s)

Nicky Middleton

Nicky Middleton is the publisher of Brainspace, an innovative and educational print magazine for children. www.brainspacemagazine.com

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Esmaralda Pitman

Esmaralda Pitman and her husband Matt are raising five wonderful children. They are active in their homeschooling community and in scouting and volunteer in many different areas. 

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Brittney McKinney

Brittney McKinney is a creative 18-year-old student who loves art. She is scheduled to graduate in January 2017.

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Amanda Peters

Amanda Peters is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, and a mother of three in Vancouver, B.C. www.embracebirthdoula.com

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