Educating Ourselves and Our Children

EarthSpirit LogoThe EarthSpirit Newsletter Autumn 96
Educating Ourselves and Our Children
by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen

[Since the article “Home to Me” was published in the last autumn issue of EarthSpirit, I have received numerous requests for more information about our family’s relationship with our children’s schools, so I collected some thoughts to share here. We would love to hear from other families about their experiences as well, please feel free to write to us in response. ]

Most of the Pagans that I know grew up in more or less mainstream America. We inherited the programming of the system through our schools, churches, neighborhoods and the media and internalized it thoroughly – much of it on a level completely below the surface. Now, as adults, we are not even aware that many of the assumptions we make about our lives come directly from this programming. One of our greatest challenges is to look piercingly into ourselves to see the alternatives that are present in our lives, to challenge the mainstream assumptions and to make choices that truly reflect our ethical and spiritual convictions.

This examination of self and culture is important in all areas of life, but one realm where it can easily be overlooked is in our children’s lives. Our young people have an opportunity to grow up without many of society’s destructive patterns imposed on their psyche, while benefiting from a spiritual community that validates personal decisions about lifestyle both alternative and standard. In order to offer our children the benefit of this kind of perspective, we must be careful to offer them an environment that allows for it – in our homes and in our choice of school. We need to decide on our educational priorities and actively pursue them for our children – not giving in to the temptation to say “Regular public school was good enough for me. I turned out healthy and Pagan…”, but looking deeper at the real changes that our culture needs, that we are working so hard for as adults, and finding ways to help our children acquire the skills they will need to live responsibly, freely and fully as they grow older.

For me, my children’s education consists of much more than “book learning”. It is my goal that they grow up to be independent thinkers who are creative, who love to learn and who have tolerance, understanding and compassion toward others – especially when it comes to differences. I hope that they will learn how to work with others and on their own, that they will learn to think deeply and critically and develop the ability to make good decisions based on both external information and personal insight. I want them to learn to recognize when they can rely on their own abilities and when to ask for needed help. I want music, dance and art to be as much a part of their lives as math and reading. I want them to recognize the sacred all around them in the world and to be fully their wonderful and original selves.

This is a tall order for any school — and I must admit, for any family, but it is what we feel is the best for our children so it is what we strive for, at home and in the schools we have chosen. For several years I considered home-schooling to be the best option – and I still think that it may be the best way to ensure that a child is progressing in a self-directed manner, completely at her own pace – but, given our family’s time constraints and the amount of adult commitment required to create a positive social as well as academic environment for the children, we decided that a school would be a better choice.

We began our quest by asking friends about the school system in our town. I found out that there was an alternative elementary school here available by lottery, and that there was a degree of flexibility about which other school a child in town might attend. I called the principals at those schools, made appointments and interviewed them. I went to see the schools to get a feel for the atmosphere and the energy there. I was surprised that I actually had a choice – even within the public school system.

I hear many parents (and others) who are concerned about prejudice and intolerance within our culture’s institutions. None of us wants to send our children into an environment where their family’s religion will be misunderstood or suspect, yet we may feel like we have no choice – school is important and the selection can be limited. Given this state of affairs, it is up to us, as adults, to help that school environment become more accepting and understanding of our spiritual beliefs and values.

One of the ways I have found that misconceptions can be most easily alleviated is through personal contact and familiarity. Since our family’s religion, and therefore lifestyle, is different from that of many other people, it can be hard to understand for individuals who have no knowledge or experience of us, so we need to educate the teachers and administrators who will be influencing our children. Only in this way, without our assuming that the relationship will be an adversarial one, can we create the reality that we want for our children’s education.

We have always tried to maintain a close and participatory relationship with our children’s schools. From the very beginning we have been up front with our children’s teachers and the administration of the schools about who we are and how we feel about our spirituality. I have sat down with several principals of schools both public and private to discuss how religion is handled in the school. I ask how the school celebrates the “holidays”, whether they hang up pictures of “witches” at Halloween and whether the chorus sings Christmas carols or classes put on any sorts of pageants. I ask about decorations and parties, and I make it clear that I think that discrimination can be very subtle and based on the assumption that traditions such as Easter and Christmas are “American” holidays and not religious ones. (I actually had a teacher tell me that once!)

Except in a very few circumstances, the people I talk to have been receptive and interested in having more information about something they had never been exposed to before. I often follow up with EarthSpirit’s “20 Questions” booklet and a copy of the Time-Life book Witches and Witchcraft so that they can get a more complete picture of what this is all about.

After choosing a school and connecting personally with the teachers, we maintain an active presence in the children’s classrooms. We have shared music in the classroom. We have given little talks about the origins of Samhain. We have come in with a story about our Yule celebration and a craft project of making a solstice candle. When our son’s class took a field trip to Salem, MA, I made it my business to know exactly what tourist sites they would be visiting and how the teachers would be presenting the “witch trials”, before I felt comfortable sending him along. If they had planned to visit things like the Witch Dungeon or even the Witch Museum, I would probably have kept him home, or gone along. As it was, his teacher told me later that he was actively correcting inaccurate information about witches throughout the entire trip. (They spent most of their time on architecture, foreign trade and pirates, avoiding the sensationalized “witch city” attractions largely because of our input.)

I must say that we have been very lucky to have found two schools for our children that emphasize diversity and encourage self-expression. They both come close in their practices and philosophies to those I voiced at the beginning of the article. It is wonderful to feel secure in the knowledge that our children are valued, respected and safe at these places where they spend so much time each day. I would encourage families who might be thinking that they are “stuck” in a particular school or system that is intolerant, to look into some of the alternatives. Some EarthSpirit families I know have solved the problem by moving to nearby towns that have more supportive school systems; others are home schooling; some, like us, have chosen to seek out private schools that have educational priorities closer to our own when the public school system that is available is less than desirable.

Five years ago, when I began to think about schools, I never thought that we could afford a private one. Around here they cost $4,000 – $7,000 a year at the elementary level. When our son did not win a place in the lottery for the alternative public school in our town, however, I began to look into private education because after exploring the other public schools here, with their entrenched politicized administrations, I felt that it would be very difficult to manifest even the kind of situation that would be tolerable to me. I found that with a little research – asking friends and friends of friends, calling and writing for brochures…-, perseverance through forms in triplicate – applications for admissions, recommendations, financial statements …– and the blessings of grandparents’ generosity and substantial financial aid, we have been able to make it work. It is still a stretch, but it is a priority for us.

If you are finding that your work within the public school system is not going anywhere or is becoming too frustrating, I would encourage you not to rule out the possibility of an alternative – even if the finances look impossible at the outset. I have interviewed and inquired about a number of independent schools in our area – from the Quaker-based Cambridge Friends School, to the well-known Atrium School, to very small or very alternative programs like the Odyssey Day School in north-metro Boston. All but the smallest of these have had significant amounts of financial aid available, mostly in the form of outright need-based grants, but some work-exchange packages are offered as well. If pursued and needed, it becomes possible to pay 1/3 or less then the standard tuition.

I have found that many of these independent private schools, at least in the Boston area, are open-minded about alternative spirituality, and, in fact, are interested in creating a diverse classroom setting. Presenting your family’s spirituality as an aspect of that diversity is a valid, and I think constructive, way to discuss who you are with the school’s administrators. It puts your concerns out front and helps them see the differences as beneficial rather than threatening.

One very attractive choice for a system of private education is the *Waldorf Schools*, which are located throughout the U.S. and Europe. While their philosophy leans fairly heavily on Christian roots, the sectarian emphasis is different in each school and their general orientation toward seeing children as spiritual beings and acknowledging the sacred in nature makes them an attractive option. I know of several Pagan families who have their children in Waldorf schools, and at least one Pagan Waldorf teacher. (Perhaps one of them will send in an article for the next issue)

*The Oak Meadow School* – a correspondence home-schooling support system, is a modified Waldorf-type program which is less sectarian. It has many wonderful nature and art oriented lessons which are incorporated into the curriculum as essentials. This is a good way to form a foundation for home-schooling if time is available and financial aid is not. I used their kindergarten curriculum for a year and found it to be fun as well as successful in its teaching methods.

If you are considering home schooling, the John Holt Associates here in Cambridge, MA is a good resource. They publish a newsletter and books and operate a small shop which houses their mail-order business. There are also home schooling lists on the Internet which might be interesting. Be prepared, there are a lot of home schooling families who choose this option because of their conservative Christian beliefs. I have found that particular bias difficult in some publications, but after all, our spirituality is probably one thing that is motivating us, so we are offered the opportunity to practice the tolerance we would expect from others and by no means are all of the available books sectarian in any way.

Whatever your choice, you, as a parent, can educate your child about standing up for him – or herself, about the integrity of who you are and what you believe in, by being present in the classroom and in the school office not as a fanatic, but as a whole person whose religion is important to them and who believes that tolerance, diversity and understanding are values worth having.

Resources:

  • The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America: 916-961-0927; 3911 Bannister Rd., Fair Oaks, CA 95628;
  • Oak Meadow School: PO Box 712, Blacksburg, VA 24063; 703-552-3263
  • John Holt Associates (bookstore and newsletter for home-schooling): 2269 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA

Net resources:

  • The Learning List
  • Home Education list
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