Monday, October 15, 2007

Hey You Gu-uys!

Remember The Electric Company? It came out in the early 70s in response to a challenge the US Department of Education put out to the creators of Sesame Street: Teach kids to read on television. And for those of us who were watching TV in the early 70s, it worked! We rented The Best of The Electric Company recently. I was feeling nostalgic for the way television used to be and wanted to show my kids a bit of my childhood. Charley (age 6) watched it first. He came downstairs after about 20 minutes with a scowl on his face. "They're just trying to teach me to read, Mom. It's so boring." I was crushed. Was it really that bad? A few days passed and I still hadn't watched it, but I was curious. Macy (age 9) and I just watched a few episodes. It rocks.

I mean, who wouldn't want to have Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby as their reading teachers? There's no question that the graphics and technology are way outdated, but the content and approach is right unschooler's paradise, really. It's funny, logical, and doesn't assume an audience of idiots. If only children's television today could be half as clever. In a 20 minute episode, Macy figured out the difference between hard and soft C sounds and the purpose of punctuation. She got the jokes and immediately tuned in to the repetitive nature of the sketches. It makes sense to me why Charley was bored by it. Although he says he wishes he could read, he totally not ready. He's far too active and physical right now to be bothered with sitting down with a book and figuring out how to decode words. Macy, on the other hand is primed and ready.

Macy began asking to learn to read about a year ago. In that time, we have sat down together on the couch with a stack of easy readers a half dozen times, so that she could practice reading to me. We only do that because she wants to. I have no other agenda except to cuddle up on the couch next to my sweet middle child and give her my full, undivided attention. A few weeks go by, I ask if she wants to read to me, and sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn't. As an unschooler, I don't believe that she needs me to do any more than that. If mAcy were in school, she would have learned to read three years ago. But at what cost? Our days without school are filled with questions and answers and investigating and exploring whatever comes our way, so it's not like we sit around and stare at the wall. We read together often throughout the day. I point out words and billboards and signs and print around us in the world all the time. There is no way my kids are not going to learn how to read. Janey (age 11) did, Macy is on her way, and no doubt, when he's ready, Charley will follow. Genius programming like The Electric Company just makes it more interesting.

I wonder if the "education experts" who wrote those first few episodes of The Electric Company had any idea how aligned their approach would be with unschooling. I'm sure they didn't. They were just meeting a challenge from the suits at the Dept. of Ed. to make learning novel and fun...imagine that? Sketch comedy, groovy music, singing, dancing. It's brilliant. Wouldn't we all want to do it, if it were fun? That's what gets me about so many people's idea of what "real" or "valuable" learning is. It can't be fun, it can't be easy or come naturally. It has to be difficult and painful, or it's not valuable. Maybe this comes from the idea that anything worth having must be hard to get. For me, the hard and difficult part only makes sense if it is something that the potential learner wants. If I want to learn to play the piano, the daily practice and difficulty of learning new pieces of music makes sense. It's something I want. Therefore, the difficulty, and the work, fits into my greater purpose: to learn to play the piano. If I don't want to learn to play the piano, it makes no sense.

Charley still thinks The Electric Company is boring. That's fine. He can do something else while we're laughing and the girls are secretly learning the rules of the English language. And maybe he'll wander in at just the right time and get something out of the program he may not have gotten another way. And maybe not. But no one is going to tell him it's time to sit down and watch and learn. He gets to decide. In the meantime, I'll re-live my childhood and giggle while much younger versions of Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman help me keep learning about words fun for my kids.

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