For those of you who don’t know, I homeschool my twin girls. (They are often at the collective on Fridays, except when they aren’t.) And now that you know you might be asking the question:
“Why an after school program like The After School Collective?”
The easy answer is that I want to hang out with awesome kids and other smart and funny and kind adults and teach peace and justice and make a safe, fun, relaxing space. I am also the kind of person who loved doing homework; though I don’t agree with the amount of work kids are given, I think that learning is joyful and I love the challenge of a good assignment. And don’t even get me started on how much I love the library. And there’s also this thing where I believe in community and that we are all in community together, even if we make different choices about school.
There’s another answer, too, that starts in September 2012, when my girls started at Malcolm X.
When my kids were in kindergarten, I had a hard time of things. Due to an unfortunate illness, our children’s teacher was sick and absent much of the beginning of the year. It was hard to leave a classroom full of crying children, even if they weren’t my own (my kids were fine the first couple of months), and I ended up staying in the classroom between 5-15 hours a week, assisting the subs so that other parents could leave and go to work.
My staying at school so much was a bit ridiculous, and I had many late nights doing homework that should have been done during times I was in kindergarten instead of at college, but it was the kind of train wreck I couldn’t leave. So I generally made a helpful nuisance of myself. I taught creative movement in all the kindergarten classes. I helped with art projects and field trips. I was one of the classroom parents. To the best of my ability I had to stay and help the kids. I didn’t like most of the subs (with the notable exception of Halli Hammer with her guitar), but I mostly didn’t like the unpredictability.
There were other things I didn’t like about kindergarten. I wondered why, for instance, in a place like Berkeley–where some of the smartest, most educated and caring and thoughtful people in the world live–are we not paying attention to research that shows exactly what kinds of learning kids need to be most successful in the first seven years of life and beyond? Why, when we know that kids thrive outdoors, are we spending most of the kindergarten day inside? Why, when we know that homework is counter-indicated for kinders, are our children coming home with homework packets?
Because I was in the final year of a long-interrupted bachelor’s degree, because I was having trouble in my marriage, because I didn’t want to be one of ‘those people’ who homeschool because the world hurt their special snowflake (insert dramatic sigh here), I kept my girls in school. And I started researching everything I could find about homeschooling, unschooling, democratic schooling, free schooling, the history of education in the United States, the most successful schools in the world, and I read the horribly edited but brilliant book Deschooling Gently. All of my homeschooling/unschooling/community schooling friends–many of whom always knew I would join the ‘dark side’–were patient with me while I cried and agonized and researched and fought with the teacher about homework (I told her to stop sending packets home-I just don’t think five year olds should be stressed out about not getting their homework done).
Thankfully, my girls’ teacher had a full recovery of her health. But my trust in the school had been shattered, and that shattering had opened up into a world that was so beautiful and compelling that I felt I had little choice but to at least explore it. What if all of life, and all of learning, was meant to be a joyous arc of experience? Not perfect, but filled with mud and thorns and rain and conflict and real, experiential learning? I was hooked, but I decided to stay at MX through the end of the year. I had and have a deep affection for the families who went through that journey with us, and I also needed time to prepare, so I decided I would start homeschooling the next September.
Throughout that kindergarten year, the girls had one constant.
During the summer before kindergarten started, I had my girls in a summer camp run by a magical man named Mr. O. Being the kind of parent I am, I got to know him and observed him (read: stayed at camp all the time, except when I left to work, and then either my husband or my mother in law stayed at camp). Octavio de la Paz and his camp came highly recommended, and it also turned out that he was the kindergarten teacher for the after school program LEARNs on the Malcolm X campus.
With a bit of finagling and not much begging the director, I managed to sign my kids up for the program, and for time with Octavio. So many days I stayed at school in the morning and then left once they were safely installed in Mr. O’s classroom. They learned how to sew, and how to navigate relationships with other 5 year olds safely with Octavio’s firm and gentle guidance. He saw them. He loved them. And he loved and saw each one of the more than 20 children in his classroom. And the fact that he could see them so clearly, and could make a space for them and the other children to be and play and make and read and draw and paint and wiggle, allowed me to finish that year and finally get my degree at UC Berkeley. In fact, I started scheduling my classes in the afternoon so that I could be free in the mornings to be available to my girls. I even researched only bringing them to the after school program. In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t allowed to. (The After School Collective doesn’t have that rule, by the way. Unschoolers and homeschoolers and plain old hookey players are welcome to come hang with us.)
Many folks would call me a helicopter parent. Maybe, though I of course don’t think so. But I would recommend reading this book before judging me. And regardless of what kind of parent I am, I believe I am like others who just want the best for their kids, no matter how we disagree about how that might look. And because Mr. O was there, I was able to do what I needed to do for our family, and feel like my kids were okay while I did that.
And that brings me back to the original point of this article. Why after school? Because there are more kids in Berkeley right now than quality after school programs. Because every child needs a place to be where they are seen and heard and loved when they aren’t with their parents. Hopefully that is happening during your child’s school day. Know for sure, if they are with us, your child is being seen and loved in the afterschool collective. This is my love poem to Mr. O, to kids, to parents, to after school programs, to experiential, outdoor learning, to creating a safe space for kids, to providing an ‘unschool’ space in a schooled world. I hope you join us sometime. We will be outside. (Unless it’s raining or too cold or really dark or we feel like being inside. Then we will be in the cafeteria playing marble run, or dancing, or reading at the library, or playing ball in the gym at Grove park. Or, occasionally, having a hot chocolate at Sweet Adeline’s Bakery.)