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Laurie Block Spigel

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Scarred by School

In Peter Gray's September 2009 blog in Psychology Today called "Freedom to Learn," he refers to school as prison. He's not the only one to make this comparison. I have heard school referred to this way by students themselves! In his article, Mr. Gray explains that the school system is guilty of seven sins, including: the denial of liberty, the fostering of shame and hubris, interference with self-direction, linking learning with fear, and more.

While there may be some excellent schools and I have met some amazing teachers, many children are damaged by their schooling experience. In her book, Wounded by School, Kirsten Olson names the various wounds that she has seen in her work in public schools. These wounds include: the belief that we are not smart or are incapable of learning, anxiety from shaming experiences, anger towards teachers and adults due to past injustices, and a dislike or confusion towards learning that is shared and passed on. I attended a seminar on Moral Education at Columbia University last fall to hear Ms. Olson speak. I was deeply moved by her approach to the difficulties facing public schools today. Ms. Olson willingly confronts these problems like a courageous healer, always ready to open a dialogue.

One of the things Ms. Olsen cited as a crucial need is student-teacher mentor relationships, which seem to be lost in today's schools. When such a relationship does occur, it can be the turning point in a student's education. That teacher could become someone the student returns to year after year for support and guidance.

Ms. Olson's comments reminded me of how keenly I appreciate the close relationships I have with my homeschooled students and their parents. Because my students choose to return to me year after year, I am able to have an ongoing relationship with them that builds over time. I am also able to develop that same mentor relationship with some parents, helping them to make the most of what I do in my classes when they are at home with their children. I don't have to see my hard work and the growth in a child's esteem undone the following year with demeaning treatment from an uncaring teacher. Instead, I have the pleasure of watching my students blossom and grow from curious children into young men and women fueled by their own passions.