I just visited The Real School aka Dragon Valley in the Houston Heights. It’s a really remarkable place – a school for unschoolers.
The Real School began in May 2006 as an idea, shared among several students and their parents, that young people should be able to choose every aspect of their education. This idea turned into a physical entity that September, when said group purchased a house in the Old 6th Ward and got a full-time staff member. The community was just a few kids
at first, but it has grown to include twelve. The Real School has moved around a lot, and the staff has both changed and increased, but the institution is here to stay.
When I visited, there were only four kids there, along with Pravin Menon, the main staff person there. Pravin and I talked for a while about how the School started and what kinda of things happened there on a daily basis. The “students” are given free range to learn and do what they want with the materials at the School,
and there are occasional group activities, like yoga lessons and discussions. The staff people give them help whenever they ask for it, but mostly they are just there to monitor.
Everything at the School is decided by consensus – the kids and their parents and the staff get together regularly to make executive decisions about group activities, materials to buy, and specific problems to solve, and everybody must agree on a solution before it is passed and acted upon. Even the name of the school was a compromise between the cool-name-seeking kids and the professional-name-seeking adults.
The kids who were there when I visited ranged in age from what looked like seven to sixteen years old, and they all were happy to talk with me about the Real School and their experience there. Although they all seemed very relaxed with me there, they spoke to me respectfully and intelligently, as an equal. I was very impressed with this – most kids have a different way of talking to adults and kids who are older than them.
Although I’m still thinking I want my learning experience for this year to be an independent one, The Real School is very interesting to me, and I definitely want to keep in touch with the people there throughout the year. I would suggest this place to anybody in Houston who is looking for a different kind of education, especially if the idea of homeschooling or unschooling all alone sounds daunting – it’s a great way to be surrounded by interested and interesting fellow learners.
I had a talk with my parents recently about possible college placement exams I could take this year. (Those are tests that can count towards college credit, if you do well enough. That means getting to skip introductory classes in college! Yay!)
I had heard about Advanced Placement (AP) tests before, but I didn’t pay much attention to them this school year, knowing I would be way too busy with other school work and a puppet show. But now that I’ll have the ability to use my academic time how I like, I decided that getting some college credit wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) has dozens of tests that anybody can take, and they’re all course-specific. This means that each test corresponds to one Freshman level course that you would take in college. The idea is that, if you can show mastery of the material that’s taught in that course, then you shouldn’t have to take the course. Personally, I feel capable of tackling the Freshman College Composition test…
The AP tests, to my knowledge, are not just tests. They include an AP course that one takes to prepare for the test, and they are concerned with an entire subject rather than a specific course. They can also earn you college credit. AP tests are very rigorous, (according to my friends who took them, in lieu of having social lives) but they also look very good on a college application.
Most state schools host these tests on a regular basis – just look on their websites and you’ll probably find a schedule. They all require a fee, usually somewhere between $25 and $90. If you’re a homeschooler or a regularschooler who wants to get a head start on college, these tests are a pretty good way to do that.
All of the homeschoolers that I know seem to have a very close bond with both their parents and their siblings, and it’s becoming easy to see why: learning with people is a very powerful way to become closer to them.
The fact is this: if you’re homeschooled, you most likely spend a lot more time with your family than you would otherwise. I know, I know, this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But if you’re lucky enough to have understanding and interested parents, (like I do) you’ll find yourself talking to them about what you’re studying, or what book you’re reading, or the play that you really really want to see, or etc. And it’s more than likely that they’ll be interested in what you say.
Another novel idea that has produced good results for me: try letting your parents do the talking sometimes. Whether they have seemingly boring 9-to-5 office jobs or they wrestle alligators for a living, they have a body of knowledge about something that could potentially be interesting. So, ask them them questions about their job, or their education, or their life. You could learn something really cool, and you may find out that your parents are actually pretty interesting people.
Completely protected on all sides by volcanoes
a woman, darkhaired, in stained jeans
sleeps in central Africa.
In her dreams, her notebooks, still
private as maiden diaries,
the mountain gorillas move through their life term;
their gentleness survives
observation. Six bands of them
inhabit, with her, the wooded highland.
When I lay me down to sleep
unsheltered by any natural guardians
from the panicky life-cycle of my tribe
I wake in the old cellblock
observing the daily executions,
rehearsing the laws
I cannot subscribe to,
envying the pale gorilla-scented dawn
she wakes into, the stream where she washes her hair,
the camera-flash of her quiet
I live in Houston, which is a really big city. Not just big in sheer surface area covered, either – we’re downright cosmopolitan.
But the image that many people have of Houston pains me: an industrial, polluted, and unromantic city, filled with pinstriped conservative businessmen who speak with a drawl and wear cowboy boots. The fact is that there are some of those, but they’re only a fraction of the Houstonian blend of cultures.
What tends to be missed about Houston is just how much is going on here. For one thing, we have a healthy and steadily growing art and music community. Our museum district is something to boast about, with some of my favorites the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Lawndale Art Center putting on exhibits by local artists quite regularly. And they’re community-friendly, too: there are regular events like open houses and gallery openings that are open to the public. But there are more than just large-scale, put-on-your-nice-shoes museums, too. My neighborhood (the Heights) and the Montrose area are crawling with little art galleries and studios, like Gallery M Squared. And don’t forget all the specialized and highly strange performing arts groups like Suchu Dance and Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre (who I’ve worked with before on many occasions.)
Houston also has the advantage of having relaxed zoning laws and a relatively unaffected economy, which has helped to create a thriving commercial industry. Although it’s never easy to start a business, (especially these days) Houston would be one of the easiest places to do it. It seems like you hear about a new entrepreneaurial endeavor everyday here, whether it’s a nice little locally owned bookstore like Kaboom Books, or Mango’s, our combo vegetarian restaurant and cocert venue.
It’s a good place to live, if you’re into, you know, doing stuff.
Mainly I’m writing this because I’ve recently had an outpouring of local pride and dedication, but also because I want to encourage other homeschoolers to take advantage of where they live. There are great educational tools all around you, if you just take the time and effort to look. Sure, I’m lucky to live in a place like Houston, but every city has something to offer. Check out local museums and theaters. Get involved with your church or religious organization. Go to your library and see if they have any events to take part in. Volunteer or intern with any local non-profit that interests you. Join a book club or writing group, or start your own. Talk to people.
If you’re concerned about being bored while homeschooling, then take my word for it: you won’t be.
As the summer steadily progresses, Ciaran and I have been looking for opportunities to travel, especially to foreign countries. Recently, Ciaran and I have discovered two wonderful organizations that might be just what we’ve been looking for.
One is called WWOOF. (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) It’s an organization that connects organic farmers and gardeners with volunteers interested in coming to help said farmers/gardeners on their farms/gardens. On the website you can register as a host or a volunteer, and look at the current listings of who needs help where, and doing what. Volunteers can travel to their host and stay with them free of charge, room and board included, as long as they help their host with whatever tasks they require for an agreed upon number of hours a day. Contact is made not through WWOOF, but directly between hosts and volunteers – WWOOF asks only for a small service fee after the transaction is made. It seems like a great way to travel cheaply, and to learn more about other cultures, languages, and about organic farming.
Workaway is a similar organization, but the services being requested are more broad than organic farming alone. There are hotels looking for volunteer workers, parents looking for language tutors for their children, families seeking maids/ cooks/ personal shoppers, and countless other people searching for volunteer help in return for meals and a place to stay. The opportunities here look incredible – a couple living in a mansion in France is looking for a general housekeeper and gardener; a dog hotel/kennel in Germany needs animal-friendly volunteers to help with the four-footed guests; a bed and breakfast in Ireland needs a babysitter and cook. There is something for everyone here, and the feedback system that they have of rating hosts and guests is a great way to make sure the people you might be staying with are friendly and safe.
I am really excited to do some serious travelling this year. I’m going to sign up for Workaway and start looking for places where I can practice my Spanish while I help others and learn about the world. This seems like a good idea for any home- or un-schooler who wants to broaden their horizons and be a good global citizen. It also won’t look too shabby on a college resumé, by the way.
In Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook, she talks about the importance of taking a vacation after being liberated from school and before tackling homeschooling, to relax and recoup. It doesn’t need to be to an exotic island or anything – it doesnt even need to involve leaving home. But without this vacation, she says, you may step into homeschooling feeling stressed and unready, which could potentially ruin your experience.
I’m a little bit worried that I’m stepping into this trap. I’ve been on summer break for about a week now, and I haven’t stopped doing stuff for a moment. This definitely proves that I’m motivated and not lazy, but I’m worried that I may not be able to keep this same level of energy all year if I don’t take a little break.
For instance: I’ve been working on a puppet show, reviewing algebra, learning HTML, playing music with my band, and going to every museum and concert that I can. And I just applied for a summer job. All of these things are really fun, don’t get me wrong, but I’m starting to think that going away and being uncontactable for a little while might be needed…