By Patrick Farenga © 2004
I’m all for schools and homeschoolers figuring out how to peacefully co-exist — indeed, even cooperate! — but sometimes I wonder if we’re even talking about the same thing when we discuss children and learning. Judging by the language we use, I wonder if we’re even on the same planet.
For instance, a mother tells me how her son read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix twice on his own initiative. She allows him all day to read if he wishes. Most of us recognize what is going on here: a child is enjoying reading a book at home. But if you take that very same action and place it in a school, this no longer takes place. What happens in school is called “uninterrupted silent sustained reading.”
If a homeschooler takes their child to a living history museum, such as Plymouth Plantation, they are likely to speak with different interpreters about their homes, histories, and daily lives. They may bake bread over an open hearth with a Pilgrim, or help an Indian make a canoe, or help a Pilgrim plot a garden during the course of their time. If the family has to report their learning to a school district, they will say they did a field trip, or undertook various activities and projects at Plymouth Plantation. But if you take this very same activity and place it in a school it becomes “an interdisciplinary unit study using learner-initiated activities.”
I feel I am partly to blame for this decay of clarity, as I have counseled many homeschoolers to take their children’s everyday activities and wrap them up in the jargon of school if they report their children’s learning to school officials. Since learning at home is completely different from learning in school, sometimes school officials find it easier to approve or evaluate a homeschooling situation if there is academic jargon used by parents. Using such language can help establish parental seriousness and understanding in words the school will readily grasp. Not all states require you to report or evaluate your homeschooling progress, and there are some school officials who will accept common explanations of competence written in plain language.
For instance, by correctly tabulating a bowling score a child could prove their understanding of basic addition. I would tell my school district, “I know my daughter can add correctly because she keeps correct scores for our bowling league each week.” A few schools would accept this evidence, or term it a “progress report,” as stated. However for fussy school districts I would advise parents to write that their children are “modeling efficient addition strategies” by keeping correct bowling scores. Indeed, in some seminars I offer lists of “educationese” that can be adapted for use by homeschoolers in their attempts to speak the same language as their schools. For instance:
If your ten-year-old is spending days or weeks studying and performing magic tricks, reading books about designing illusions, and not much else that looks academic…
…you tell people and school officials they are doing “block learning” or “project learning” in language and theater arts.
If you don’t want your child to take standardized tests because your curriculum is eclectic or totally learner-directed…
…you tell people and school officials that you will assess (“evaluate” is losing currency in current eduspeak) your children through “progress reports,” or “portfolio evaluations” instead.
Some other examples of “Speaking Educationese” are provided by Cafi Cohen in her book, HOMESCHOOLERS’ COLLEGE ADMISSIONS HANDBOOK (Prima Publishing, 2000 pp. 120 – 121):
Chess = critical thinking
Paintball = physical education
Visiting museums = history, science, and fine arts
Appliance repair = science
Catalogs = consumer math
Fiction = contemporary literature
Nonfiction = science, history, language arts
As you can see, homeschoolers have tried to meet the schools halfway on this language issue. We are trying to be cooperative and provide schools with evidence that education is taking place for our children in words and concepts they should understand, but the schools have widened the gap again. The Washington Post ran the following article: “Talking the Edutalk: Jargon Becoming Prevalent in the Classroom” by Linda Perlstein (Sunday, January 18, 2004; Page A01). In it she notes the following developments in educationese:
6-year-olds don't compare books anymore -- they make "text-to-text connections." Misbehaving students face not detention but the "alternative instruction room," or "reinforcement room," or "reflection room…"
And in Maryland, high schoolers write "extended constructed responses" — the essay, in a simpler time.
The most interesting quote for me in this good article came from a student:
Robert Maeder, 17, a senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, finds the terms demeaning -- especially "learning cottage," instead of "classroom trailer," and "assessment" for test. "It's like renaming a prison 'The Happy Fun Place,' " Maeder said. "Tests should be called tests.
I don’t think homeschoolers are deliberately polluting plainspoken discourse when they use eduspeak: they tend to use school jargon as self-defense for homeschooling, a kind of “verbal judo” to describe everyday life for children in academic language. Some school authorities justify their use of jargon by claiming these new terms are better descriptions of what children are doing, but I’ll let the examples speak for themselves and let you be the judge of that claim.
As homeschooling continues to grow, I hope homeschoolers will resist the temptation of using jargon as the schools do, as a way to establish themselves as authorities over others. I’m also de-emphasizing the use of educationese by myself, because it seems to be yet another capitulation of everyday learning to the power of schooling. Rather than diminishing the power of these words and concepts by repeating them to the school to describe how our children grow without schooling, we may be inadvertently strengthening their grip on our ideas about learning. Homeschooling has grown by leaps and bounds over the years because it works, not because school officials, television shows, big business, or professors of education have blessed it with their approval and attention. Homeschooling has grown because people see it working for other families, and they can see how learning doesn’t have to mean duplicating school at home. Homeschoolers are showing what active learning can be, and our numbers are increasing. Homeschoolers can also talk about what our kids are actually doing and learning in words people of all ages and backgrounds will readily understand, and this should help us all see that there are many other possibilities for helping children to learn and grow in our society than being educated in a school classroom. But somehow school people keep coming up with words that distance people who “learn outside the box,” rather than include them.
I used to think that schools and homeschoolers had difficulty speaking to one another because, primarily, schools and homeschoolers are stuck in a battle about the boundaries of what is public and what is private in our lives. Now I realize it is much simpler than that: schools are from Mars, Homeschoolers are from Earth.