First day of school, Part 4: Paradigm

by Wolf Pascoe on October 12, 2011

The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.
— John Taylor Gatto

Nick and I are huddled with his teacher, Dante, in the Fern Hill crafts dome.

“So,” says Dante to Nick, “You want a meeting with Jay, so you can tell him how you’re feeling?”

Since his run-in with his friend Jay this morning, how Nick is feeling is rotten. It’s pretty much been the curriculum today.

“You tell,” Nick says to me.

In matters of feeling, Nick often asks me to be his spokesman.

“Well,” says Dante, “I don’t think your dad should be at this meeting. Jay doesn’t have a parent with him, so it might feel like a gang-up if your dad comes.”

It takes some persuading, but Nick finally agrees. He and Dante go off to find Jay. I retreat to the steps by the front gate to wait.



After the first post in this series, a reader, Pauline Gaines, of perilsofdivorcedpauline, left this comment:

My daughter is in 4th grade at a progressive school — not as free-spirited as Fern Hill, but it’s the same general idea. I went to a rigorous, pressure-cooker K-12 school so wanted something different for my kids. Not sure I did the right thing…I worry that my daughter is behind academically, but am relieved to see her flourish emotionally and socially. I hope that the social-emotional piece will put her on solid ground for secondary school, when she’s going to have to learn to do things in a more traditional manner.

I responded to Pauline by referring to a talk on changing educational paradigms by Sir Kenneth Robinson. The talk is eleven minutes, and it’s cleverly animated—you never see Sir Ken, just the hand of an artist representing the ideas he touches on.

I embedded the talk in a previous post a year ago, but I consider it so important, so mind-blowing, and so germane here that I’m embedding it now as well. One of the things the talk makes apparent is that respecting the individuality of a child is so radical a thing that it becomes a political act. If you haven’t seen this and you care about educating kids, may I suggest that you bookmark it and come back to watch when you have eleven minutes:





At the gate, I’m alone with my thoughts. Half an hour goes by. I think thoughts about education, about this school, about all school, about un-school. I think thoughts about Nick and his future, and about choices Nora and I have made for him.

I think about the Ken Robinson talk, how it gets me fed up and fired up. And I think about how when Nick has a problem, all theories and ideas and thoughts fly out the window, and there is only that problem, only the reality of Nick.

Dante appears, sans Nick.

“How’d it go?” I say.

“Really well,” says Dante. “Jay told Nick how he felt kicked when he was down, how what Nick said didn’t work for him, how he needed Nick to just listen.”

“What did Nick say?”

“He had a really hard time telling Jay his feelings. But he finally got it out. It really didn’t work for him to be called “loser” and to have Jay say, “I hate you.”

“Where are they now?”

“In the primary room. Drawing robots.”

“So that’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

Until the next problem.


So it goes when the curriculum is emotional intelligence, rather than alphabetizing and word attack methods. A long, messy, one-second-per-second day that spilled over into a long, messy one-second-per-second story.

It takes what it takes.

FYI. This series of posts isn’t a commercial for this particular school. It’s a commercial for the sanity of children. Do I worry about Nick’s making a living someday? Yes. Almost as much as I worry about his capacity to be a fully-alive human being.

I amble over to the primary room where kids are working on various projects. Nick and Jay are huddled together at the table. Nick doesn’t notice me.

“Nick, I came to say goodbye. Mommy will come get you after school.”

Nick looks up from his sketch.

“Dada?” he says.


“Go home.”



This post is the last in a series of four:

First day of school, Part 1: Trouble in paradise

First day of school, Part 2: Birches

First day of school, Part 3: Magic wand

Fern Hill



Cats in the Cradle

Hand in Hand Parenting

John Taylor Gatto



What’s your paradigm? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Sirena October 12, 2011 at 11:24 am

Yeah! Problem solved! See, I was right – This Too Shall Pass. Problems will be everywhere and always, and the solutions are always there and readily available. Nick is the very coolest child around with the coolest dad!


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Thanks for the support. In regard to solutions, I appreciate hearing words like always and readily.


Sirena October 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm

You continue to mock me, but I love you anyway. Always.


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 6:15 pm

I would never mock anyone who says my son is the coolest child.


Pauline October 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm

This anecdote is a great example of what progressive schools do best! Yesterday morning my daughter was in tears after we arrived early to school so she could escort kindergarteners into class, only to find that she’d been apparently edged out by three other escorts. My impulse was to jump out and get the teacher involved…then I remembered she’s perfectly capable of working through her own problems so I told her to go talk to her friends and the teacher. Which she did. It worked out fine. Without me. I guess we’re both getting an education. 🙂


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm



Barbara S. October 12, 2011 at 7:53 pm

That last part cracked me up. You know your job is done when they don’t need you anymore. Sigh.
I love how this school takes time to work out problems between students the right way and respects their feelings and individual reactions. Those things all too often are never learned.


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Your job is to put yourself out of a job.


Jane October 12, 2011 at 8:50 pm

And his response to you when it was all over? Priceless!


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm

A mincer of words he’s not.


Alameda October 12, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Parents worry because they have “seen” more, but kids are resilient and will surprise you always (as we did to our parents). You are laying solid foundations and supporting him with love and affection. That will be your job forever!


Wolf Pascoe October 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm

I can deal.


Kate October 13, 2011 at 2:21 am

tonight, I’ve been kept awake with thoughts about school. It’s not easy to find the right mix for a child, the right place where they are listened to and heard. I worked my tail off to find that for my first in hear preschool, but elementary school, well, we just can’t afford many options, so I found the best I could, hoping the foundation I laid in those early days sticks. (And meanwhile I find my nights of thinking on her education cluster around thoughts of when to not let her back away from a new challenge, how to speak up for herself, how to handle big kids who aren’t always kind. Oh that last one makes me furious.)
My second is just starting and just started and stopped because the teacher told me I was wrong to listen to my child and her needs. I need to find a place that respects her as much as I do.
Thank you, I needed to read this tonight.
It is radical to listen to a child. It is radical to teach them to solve their problems. And I think it’s the hardest part of parenting – to sit back and watch the struggle, wishing you could remove the problems.


Wolf Pascoe October 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Thanks so much for responding, Kate. It is the hardest thing, walking the line between over-protection and abandonment. Finding resources that actually help is a major challenge.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a broken line may discourage them back to sleep.
The signals we give–yes, or no, or maybe–should be clear.
The darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford


BigLittleWolf October 13, 2011 at 1:06 pm

What a marvelous resolution. So much wisdom from the adults – and children, well… being children – a marvel in and of itself.

Emotional intelligence. If only we (the so-called grownups) had picked up more of that along the way. In school, or out.


Wolf Pascoe October 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm

If only.


pamela October 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm

This is beautiful. I so miss our California school.

You should send this out as an essay with the other 3 parts. It’s wonderful!


Wolf Pascoe October 13, 2011 at 8:15 pm

As soon as I figure out where.


Charlie October 13, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Terrific series on Nick’s first day. Filled with insights and fears that we all have experienced with our kids. As to the media clip. Hummm… seemed to be a mixture of obvious truths and glib bullshit. As someone who has been at odds with the educational system all his life, I found the video annoying, even though I agreed with many of its points. I especially didn’t like being spoken to in that authoritative/condescending manner with the rapid drawing (just in case we couldn’t understand English). The stuff about attention deficit, standardized testing and over stimulation in the culture seemed right-on, though obvious to most of us. Much of the significance given to historical theory and a lot of the selective data analyses and contextualizing felt too much like the very thing it meant to be criticizing. Sorry, but I really hated the video.


Wolf Pascoe October 13, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Charlie, I’m glad you took the time to watch the video, although I’m sorry you found it annoying. The rapid drawing wasn’t Sir Kenneth’s fault; he had nothing to do with it; it was added later by the RSA animation. Personally, I value looking at a thing in its historical context–it helps me to understand more deeply. I find it useful to remember that public education was designed at a specific time with specific goals in mind that may or may not still apply to us.


Privilege of Parenting October 13, 2011 at 11:31 pm

An excellent illumination of what it takes to arrive at a positive and secure good-bye. As for the video, I appreciated it a lot… until it froze for me; leaving me frustrated and feeling like the very kids whose experience it speaks to (but in an inverse way, ironically—new school tripping up old school). Here’s to re-visioning education for our Selves and our collective children.


Wolf Pascoe October 16, 2011 at 1:18 am

Grrrr. To the woodshed with the Internet!


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