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Parent Testimony: "Different Than Traditional School"

By Zach Lahn on December 21, 2021

“We had escaped the trap of obsessing about homework, PTA policies, and grades on tests. Like freeing birds from cages, we were loosening our grip on our children and they were learning to fly.” - From Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura Sandefer

Loosening my grip on my children? Yes. Learner-led? Yes, I like the sound of that. Letting go of control? In theory, yes. In practice, well, it’s pretty hard.

Questions I have asked myself at certain points since having our five year old daughter start at Wonder:

1. What does she actually do all day?

2. How do I know that she is learning?

3. What if this approach is ‘too much’ for her?

4. I want to reach out to the guides, but aren’t I suppose to be getting info from my daughter?

5. I like the idea of no tests/grades. But how do I know there is progress happening?

I knew when we heard about Wonder through our friend, and then read Courage to Grow, that the approach spoke to my heart.

Years before my daughter was of school age, and before her younger sister was even born, I had an idea that I wanted something different than traditional school for our kids. When my husband came home from a conference, and talked about how cool it was that an attendee had his son with him as part of a homeschool project, I got excited that we may actually pursue something other than a traditional path.

While exciting, I also knew that this would be a different kind of HARD than traditional school. This kind of hard requires us to put our daughter into a situation that we knew would stretch her in ways that would frequently be challenging and sometimes even painful. (And there were a lot of tears over the first few weeks of school. The transition was tough for her.) Historically she has been quiet, a rule-follower, an observer in groups or new situations, and she feels things deeply. My husband and I knew… we either choose hard now or hard later when she’s in high school, college, or out of our house and has to navigate all of these things anyway. We chose hard now.

Lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. Reaching out to other parents when I have questions, or need to know if I’m crazy, has brought me peace of mind. Is it awkward sometimes to make new friends and say- “Hey, I’m worried about my kid. What’s your experience like?” Yes. Have I been welcomed with open arms and solidarity the few times I’ve done it? YES!

2. I’ve gained a lot from coming to the events. (Yes, even tent camping during the Survival Trip, which is not my jam….) And I had campfire conversations with some parents who I now feel comfortable reaching out to. I’ve realized the social aspect for parents is thought out and intentional. It’s not just for a fun time- which it always is. It’s to provide us access to each other and to form real relationships that we can lean on when this road feels trick or lonely.

3. When doubt creeps up for me about the school, the process, my daughter's abilities, whether she’s making friends, or whatever my worry du jour is, I have learned a valuable tool. To ask myself… “Is this about my daughter, or is this about me?”. Nine out of ten times it’s about me. My worries, my insecurities, my performance-driven self needing to know that my daughter is ‘on track’ and thriving.. I reflect on my worry for a day or two, or sleep on it, and if something is still bothering me, then I will act on it by talking to my spouse, another parent, or to my daughter directly.

4. Sometimes it feels lonely to have made this choice. Like when I pass the bus stop at the end of our street and see our neighborhood friends and their kids all gathered where the public school bus picks up, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I know some of them wonder what we think is wrong with the school they all send their kids to.

My husband and I made the choice that best aligns with our family values, rather than going with what everyone is doing. I feel totally solid in our decision. Yet I also feel lonely sometimes that we’re not in the neighborhood elementary school clique. But when my daughter tells me that you’re supposed to be challenged in school, or that she climbed a tree for the first time (after months of watching other learners do it), or that she knows you learn by making mistakes…. I know we’ve made the right choice.

5. With this type of learning approach, and less school-led communications coming home, I’ve struggled a bit. I learned I had to experiment with my question asking skills of my daughter. Some practical tips that I’ve learned by trial and error that work for us (sometimes!) are:

1. Trying what I call ‘throw away ?’s’- meaning I’m more casual about it, and not heavily invested in getting them answered. – asking in the car, or at bedtime in the dark, while I’m cooking dinner, or while she’s playing and focused on other things. It seems to take the pressure off her. And I really had to learn to be ok with her not spilling the beans when I decided it was a good time for us to talk.

2. We’ve also been asking her more targeted things like- what are you enjoying in Core Skills? Or what friends did you talk to today? What did you do outside? What felt hard today? We tend to hear more from her this way than asking “How was your day?” - it’s just too broad.

3. There are things she perks up about when she mentions, and then we try to ask about those things more often. Core Skills and accruing points seems to be something she’s into. So we often ask “What did you do in Core Skills today?” or “What’s something new you’re practicing in Core Skills?”

I just wanted to share with you that you are not alone. We are all coming in with different kids, and different perspectives, but the path we’re traveling is really quite similar. We all have some hesitation and doubt from time to time. We may question the process and wonder if this path will lead where we think it will. We value freedom of learning, we want our kids to grow as kind and loving humans, not just to pass tests, and we’re willing to be in uncomfortable situations for our own growth and that of our kids.

And I think that’s a pretty awesome community to be a part of. WE CAN DO HARD THINGS!!

[Blogs or portion of blogs may be adapted from the blog of our partner school founder and advisor, Laura Sandefer.]