Re-Purpose

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Days come when I’m not sure what I’m doing and the questions and doubts overwhelm me.  Is this a feasible, viable, defensible thesis proposal?  This is only the beginning and it would likely go through overhauls and drastic surgery so why not make life simpler and do an independent research or a book or why not just blog?  It doesn’t have to be a PhD thesis, does it?

It happens as with any endeavor that there would be days like these when the point is lost even to me and it’s tempting to abandon ship except there’s a voice that says don’t.

What is the purpose of this?  Academic muscle flexing? Research out of sheer curiosity?  After watching many TED Talks and asking my students to watch those as well, I am compelled to visit the model schools mentioned.  After collecting books and downloading Youtube videos on the subject, I want to know more directly, see with my own eyes see and hear with my own ears.  I want my husband and children to know those schools as a way to expand our horizons — there are other ways of education apart from the traditional.  Witnessing is different from reading about it.  Coming face to face with alternatives, we could then be better informed of the future we want for our children.

However, these random musings do not necessitate a thesis.  Plugging in the school addresses in a travel itinerary is probably enough.  Blogging is probably enough to document the whole process.  Why complicate life with a thesis or a book?   Each person’s life is an art and whatever art you want your life to be about is completely up to you.  Not everyone will understand but it’s essential to live it.

I’m following a trail of thoughts apparent to some, not to others, but pertinent to me.  It is an idea that won’t let go unless it’s written out.  I want to make connections where there is none.  The thesis allows me to analyze and investigate more deeply as an outsider looking in and gain insight as a neophyte practitioner.

I need and appreciate guidance from experts and people with experience and that’s why this undertaking becomes particularly pressing.  It allows me contact with people who have worked on these issues and advocacy for years.  I am barely scratching the surface.  Why not interview the resource persons as a journalist?   I want to create something, a product that may be a hazy seed this moment, but followed to its organic conclusion may prove useful and relevant.

I look forward to attending the Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference in Taiwan this coming July and listening to people who can inspire and point me towards a better direction.  I look forward to the Skype dates with two professors who are helping me thresh out the methodology and review of literature.  Till then, I continue reading the books lined up in my kindle.  Till then, I can consult Yoda and spill the fears and anxiety clouding my mind.  He asks me to summarize my thesis in five sentences.

1.  The thesis is both a documentation of an experience and a research into other people’s experiences that when put together hopes to validate and promote the ideas of alternative education.

2. The personal experience is a drive around the world while roadschooling our children.

3.  Studying the experiences of others involve visiting models of alternative education around the world and interviewing the stakeholders.

4.  It is hoped that after the process of documentation, research and investigation, the author can make a worthwhile contribution to the growing literature by tackling the parallel tracks of on-the-road learning and learning from best practices in alternative education.

5.  The study doesn’t aim to prove the validity of one form of education over another but to show that they can exist side by side, potentially strengthening each other through an evolving path.

Over time, these five sentences could change or remain but it doesn’t matter.  The whole project is a work in progress and keeps me trusting the unknown.

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License to DIY PhD

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Five or ten years ago, I wouldn’t dare think of doing a DIY PhD.  Five or ten years ago, I would be more hesitant to do any form of unschooling be it based at home or roaming on the road.  But so much has changed in our world and the explosion of information available to all is too mind boggling to deny the need for drastic change in how we do things including the education our children.  Some acknowledgement is in order.

In her blog, patter, Pat Thomson wrote an entry called “are we heading for a DIY PhD?” (https://patthomson.net/2014/06/16/are-we-heading-for-a-diy-phd/) An education professor at the University of Nottingham, she is also the director of the Center for Advanced Studies and convenor of the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies.  She wrote:

“The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQPhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis WhispererDoctoral Writing SIGExplorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.”

Extremely excited after reading her blog, I emailed her my proposal and she replied, “I think that the best person for you to contact is Helen Lees at Newman. She is very interested in the same questions and has written a lot about home schooling and non-institutionalized education.

Professor Thomson was right.  Helen Lees happens to be the editor of Other Education: The Journal for Alternative Education and author of the scholarly tome, Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives (http://policypress.co.uk/education-without-schools).   Dr. Lees responded to my subsequent email with a short but greatly encouraging note.

“I think reading deeply and then trying to write papers is enough to form a mind like that of someone with a PhD but don’t expect an easy ride – you will need to push yourself. Let bibliographies be your mentor. This a very nice route for someone with children but you would have to commit to lots of reading in the evening when they are asleep.”

“Look out in Other Education in the future for work on China and alternative education.”

“Good luck!”

It felt like being tossed a lifebuoy in the ocean.  Although worded informally and indirectly, it felt like a veritable license and permission to do my PhD DIY style.  It’s going to be challenging and it’s not going to be easy but anything worth doing never is easy.  I have to do a mountain of homework reading.  The certificate or title is not as important but the role of mentors and guides will always be significant and key.

I told Dr. Lees I’ve been reading for the literature review on my kindle whenever my children are in the playground.

I still need a lot of help from people whether they have letters lined up impressively after their names or not.  It could be through books, interviews, emails and skype chats.  What’s important is to actively seek them out and engage in a dialogue with them, real or imaginary.  In our future road trip, I look forward to meeting and talking with them.

My PhD research explores alternative education such as unschooling.  This DIY PhD itself is a form of unschooling.  In the book, Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education, Beatrice Ekoko and Carlo Ricci wrote “We unschool when we self-determine our learning about most anything.”

Comfort and Discomfort Zone

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I’ve moved around many times in my life and each time it was not only a physical event transporting material but leaving what had become a comfort zone.

I’ve grown comfortable in Dagang despite my early and still whiny disses that it’s smack in the middle of nowheresville. It’s as great a place as any one has to create home.  It’s been warm and welcoming to me and my family with relatives easily depended upon for any non- or emergent emergency, with friends adding color and vibrancy to life.

Despite my apprehensions about Chinese education, I feel I’m the luckiest in the world to have started teaching here.  In another country, maybe there would be rowdy, disrespectful students that would make me cower, fold up and head for the door.  Unlike my friend Daniel, I wouldn’t know how to manage misbehavior.  I sometimes can’t even handle it when my children are too naughty but that’s another matter.

Here in China, the students are reserved and obedient maybe to a fault that compromises and makes almost non-existent their initiative and curiosity.  Get them loosened up however and sparks fly which makes every day going to the university a joy seeing students leaving their shells.  You encounter surprises from people you least expect.  You are privy to deep insights from young minds and you see the genius in everyone.

Comfort zone.  The university treats me well.  Can’t complain except my husband thinks I’m underpaid but who can be underpaid with the opportunity and privilege of coming in contact with minds the way teachers do in class?  I don’t do lectures.  I engage them in conversation and you’re paying me to be inquisitive and chatty.

Discomfort zone.  I’m not comfortable teaching my children academic stuff.  It fills me with dread to go over workbooks so I stopped except for the Star Wars ones.  So this journey around the world will thrust me into an uneasy zone facing my fear 24-7.  I’m not comfortable teaching this age although it’s ironic I often identify more with their age then my own.   I once tried teaching my son’s kindergarten class for five minutes and I never want to do that ever again.  In fairness, they hardly knew English.  My husband can’t understand my abhorrence for kiddie curriculum since he wrongly thinks it should be too easy for me.
Comfort zone.  We have a nice, right-sized apartment on the second floor of a typical elevator-less five story building which is walking distance to the supermarket, park, mall and everything one could need but I still have to go to TEDA 45 minutes away for Japanese sesame salad dressing and dental floss.  Every night, we can walk to the park and have our menu of sports equipment to choose from to bring: bike, ball, skateboard, rollerblade, scooter or plain feet.  I can dance with the line dancers and not be ashamed to be out of tempo doing my own steps.

Discomfort zone:  We’d have no safety net of family around us.  We’d be living in our car, tents, budget inns, airbnb and who knows what.  We are resettling in a big question mark.  When Jimmy, my three year old going on four, whimpers that he wants to go home at the end of the day, would he accept anywhere as home?  I hope so for all of us.   Home is wherever we are together.

To D or not to D

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That’s short for to PhD or not to PhD.  To pursue a doctorate degree or not, that is the question.  I’ve been working on a thesis proposal that has grown to 30 pages long in almost two months, taking a life of its own, abnormally delaying meals, disrupting my sleep and dominating my thoughts, the OC in me working on overdrive.  I’m also thinking of doing it DIY style meaning I’d undertake the project even without support from a university or an official supervisor.  It’s researching non-traditional ways of education while going around the world roadschooling my own children so the DIY fits within the framework of doing things the alternate way.

Then I hit a roadblock of getting little or no response from professors whom I emailed my research proposal to and started questioning, maybe I don’t have to do a PhD around this idea and save the tuition fee money for the trip.  Maybe a book is enough.  Or maybe I can still do both and be Superwoman in the process, haha!

Anyway, here’s the book concept.  Because it’s short, I can plug it in here.  The research proposal is quite lengthy so maybe I’ll chop it up in parts for the blog in the future or post the whole thing another time.

Dream, Drive, Delve

Roadschooling Around the World while

Researching Non-Traditional Ways of Education

Book Concept by Joei Villarama

I can’t understand how a child can dislike kindergarten.  The first few years of school should be fun, right?  The nightmarish episode usually starts later but for my six year old son in a Chinese kindergarten, it began prematurely.  He says they don’t let them stay long in the playground and one time, I witnessed the children queuing for the slide while teachers made sure they stayed in line.  It would have been an acceptable occurrence except the play area had many other choices – climbing walls, nets, bridges, spiraling slides and the kids were standing in line merely to use one straight slide, an image almost out of prison. My son rushed to me when he saw I had arrived to pick him up and clever boy that he is, he made a fast break towards the other play set and went about his random way trying things uninhibited by authority.  One child attempted to break out of line but was hastily called in by the teacher matched with a stare that means, don’t cross with me.  My son was the lucky exception because his mother happened to be the only foreign parent in the school.

Having lived in China for more than seven years, I saw the problems and deficiencies of the educational system from horror stories told by my university students.  I have been teaching English for two years and after seeing the worrying effects on students’ lives and attitude, I feared the prospect of my own children languishing in the system.  I was determined not to let the fire in my children’s eyes go out.

However, it’s not only the Chinese system where this lamentable phenomenon is happening.  In many countries, the stifling effects of schooling are felt, some recognized but not arrested fast enough to save minds from the cookie-cutter, factory assembly lines of irrelevant curriculum.  Then there are those who acknowledge the situation and have offered liberating alternatives.

My anxiety about the rigidity of schooling transformed into an eager and passionate curiosity to investigate non-traditional forms of education such as Waldorf, democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling and Finland’s much-hailed system.  I started collecting books on the subject and kept buying new ones even without finishing the previously purchased book on my kindle.  Being a mother of two, I wanted to search for best practices for my children.

My husband and I decided to embark on a drive around the world, roadschooling our sons at the same time visiting alternative schools, centers and camps that offer innovative ways to spark creativity and foster the natural love of learning.   I’m eager for my sons to join the Tinkering School where kids literally tinker and build their own treehouse, rollercoaster, boat or whatever their imagination pleases.  This book takes an experiential jaunt around the world studying the options that allow children, teenagers and adults to experience education without the “fire going out.”  Instead it even fans the flames.

How is potential nurtured and how is it allowed to bloom organically?  This book gives me a platform, a reason, an excuse to survey the landscape as much as I want within the discipline of producing concrete output that hopefully may be of use and give back something valuable, no matter how limited, to the amazing and expansive landscape that it seeks to observe.

People who have similar dreams to travel the world with their children usually encounter great opposition and are discouraged from pursuing a radically divergent approach to life and education, especially by their own families who are anxious about safety and the children missing school, missing opportunities and missing out on life.  Disappointed over our plans, my sister-in-law said in Chinese, it’s such a waste of our children’s intelligence like we’re throwing away their whole future.  An important contribution this book can make would be the validation of this process as a legitimate and acceptable method that is no less rigorous, rich or fulfilling than the traditional academic forms of schooling and no less economically viable than the regular lifestyle of having 9 to 5 jobs.

Books and blogs have been written by families who have taken their children around the world and this book with accompanying blog would be an addition to that growing and considerable list.  The difference would be that there will be deliberate stops to check out, meet and network with people who are working in the fringes and even in mainstream education offering genuine change.   We’d also like to capture and share the adventure through video.

The following are the four main areas that this book seeks to investigate:

  1. What are the characteristics of best practices? What links them and what makes each unique?
  1. If there are many best practices throughout the world, what makes them replicable and how are they scaled up? What prevents them from being replicated and scaled up?  What facilitates the process of replication and scaling up?
  1. How economically accessible are these options in education? Ideally, these choices should be available to people within a wide range of economic strata from the poorest to the middle class and we already know how well served and provided for are the elite.  The bigger challenge of accessibility faces the lower and middle class so the question would be how adequately or inadequately have the options been made available to these sectors of society.
  1. How rigorous are these options in terms of meeting “standards.” How well do the students of these alternative modes of education perform in exams, university and their chosen careers?  This is like a trick question.  By presenting alternative options but reviewing performance using “traditional” standards, doesn’t that somewhat defeat the purpose?  Should there not be alternative systems of “grading” that doesn’t depend on the usual test scores?  How does one measure performance and results?  This can best be answered by asking the school leaders themselves how they measure their students’ efforts and output.  What are their goals and how do they rate the attainment of their own aims?

 

When we first thought of this idea, we planned to make the trip like the other families who bought one 4×4 vehicle and took it around the world.  When they needed to go over an ocean, they shipped the vehicle, flew to the destination and waited for the vehicle to arrive.  For our journey, we divided the trip into parts and are renting vehicles in some continents and buying second hand in another.  This is the general plan:

  1. China and Southeast Asia – use our own second hand vehicle
  2. New Zealand – rent a vehicle and drive for a month
  3. Australia – rent a vehicle and drive for a month and a half
  4. North and South America – buy a second hand vehicle, travel for a year or so and then sell the vehicle at the end of the trip
  5. Africa and Europe – buy a second hand vehicle in South Africa, travel for a year and then sell the vehicle at the end of the trip somewhere in Europe

 

 

Walk the Talk

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During the break of the English speech competition where I was a judge, a student asked me for advice on what to do if he needs to memorize reams of English words.  I told him that it’s more useful expanding one’s vocabulary in context, meaning to keep reading books in your field of interest and acquire the words naturally.  It’s the least boring, most exciting way to do it.

But why don’t I practice what I preach?  Why do I expect my six year old child, Joshua to read words out of context, in a random list floating in an ether of nothingness?  Why do I encourage my university students to use context and discourage them from memorizing context-less words, but when it comes to my children, expect them to remember words unrelated to anything.  Why?

Because my six year old son still doesn’t know how to read and I’ve been gnashing my teeth in frustration finding effective ways to get him to read.  I made power point flashcards using Star Wars and Ninjago photos since those were his favorites.  I bought Star Wars writing workbooks that were notches above in keeping his interest.  The ordinary workbooks were like pulling out our teeth – too painful for both of us with the ensuing whining and pathetic attempts to use reward as bait.  “C’mon finish this page and I’ll give you chocolate.”  I read to them every night and as much as I can so why isn’t that enough?  Why can’t I trust the process and have faith that they will eventually learn to read naturally thus it will all be about context.  From then on, I can get them any book they like, smooth sailing, no agony of phonics and sounding out letters like a lunatic – k – k – k – k – a – a – a – a – t – t – t – t.

A part of me wants to trust this organic process and what I read about respecting each child’s development pace but a part of me stresses over what other people say “What?  He’s six years old and he can’t read?  You’re obviously not doing your job.”  Nobody has actually told me the last sentence — that one comes from my own imagination but still, like any mother, I worry when I shouldn’t.  I have this new idea of doing a power point story book so instead of flash card words, we’d be working on sentences and produce a book.  I guess the worrying keeps me on my toes and I have to merely outsmart it.

 
I’m getting a tad obsessed with my thesis proposal, pondering about it, working on it every free time I have in between classes, when I get home, driving, strolling, the moment I wake up and before dozing off.  The irony is not lost on how I’m doing a dissertation on alternative education and my two kids are stewing in a Chinese kindergarten, imploring me almost every night not to go to school.  I don’t know how a kindergarten cannot be fun but the one here in Dagang where we live has managed to do that.

Everyday, I feel guilty I get to do something I love, enjoying the classes I teach, multiplying opportunities for students to bring out their talents, plus I’m working on a dream dissertation but my own two children are languishing — is that a fair word? – in what seems to be a not-so-enjoyable school.  Since I have Thursday and Friday off and since I had been spending too much time on my thesis, I decided to bring Joshua to the Science and Technology Museum in Beijing and walk the talk of unschooling.

We had three days of fun riding subways and his eyes lit up recognizing the names of the stops being announced and counting how many stops before our station.  When I was too tired to go to another exhibit after exploring four large floors of interactive presentations, he still wanted to listen to the Charles Darwin robot.  He still has to learn about being more gracious sharing gadget time with others lining up but I’ll make sure there’ll be more days like these.

Origins

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It started as a way to make up for a lost opportunity to write.  I gave up a writing job and was looking for a project to fill up the time left vacant.  I still wanted to write or do anything creative since my second semester load was relatively light.  After brainstorming with my British friend, Daniel, we came up with an idea to film foreign teachers in China.  The concept harked back to an old one I dreamed of with a fellow Filipina co-worker in Tianjin to produce a reality TV show about two foreigners starting a business in China.  It was a video targeting English learners but it would also allow us eager and desperate neophytes entry in to the business sector.

Then I had lunch with a Spanish teacher, Aihnoa at the foreign language university where I taught and she encouraged me to do a PhD so I toyed around with that in my head because it would be a good avenue to express my general frustration with the Chinese education system and finally make sense of and finish half-read books amassed in my kindle about alternative forms of education.

One day, I had a fight with my husband over something and I woke up the next day with a light bulb epiphany to sell our house and use the funds to drive around the world with our two children for a year.  My husband and I had less and less in common after marriage but this harebrained idea seemed to unite everything we stood for as a couple – nature, outdoors and travel.  It is the legacy we both want to leave our children.

I chucked the PhD concept out the window for this more worthwhile idea that was greatly in tune with what I wanted my life to be about.  I made a power point fleshing out the plan, tinkered with routes and simplified complicated diagrams.   The first route I made would probably take much, much more than three years so I kept paring it down to lines instead of loops.

One day, I invited Steve, a visiting professor from Australia to dinner.  I told him about the dream to drive around the world and he caught the excitement in my voice.  When I told him that I had abandoned the thought of pursuing a PhD for this more compelling notion, Steve then proceeded to turn my brain upside down and suggested what seemed unthinkable then – to combine the drive around the world with the PhD.  He told me about his friend from Canada who did a doctorate dissertation on consumer behavior while circumnavigating the globe in a Volkswagen van.  The combination wasn’t as far fetched as it sounded.

So I expanded my power point to include the PhD component overlaying the route over the schools and centers I wanted to visit.  Since then then the one page concept paper grew into a 22-page proposal that I’ve been emailing to potential professors, its title, Walden meets Ken and Gray: Journey as a Search for Knowledge in Nature, Creativity and Play.”  So far, I have not gotten any positive response and am thinking of doing this DIY so that even if I get university support or not, I’d still continue.

Some days I doubt whether I should be doing a PhD out of this adventure at all.  Doesn’t it make an already complicated exercise more complicated than it should be?  Should I not just enjoy the trip and unburden it with an academically rigorous exercise in abstruse language that I could accomplish in another easier way – say for example simply by writing a blog or a book?

On days like that, I contact my Yoda, the friend who gives me the courage to carry on.  This project perfectly fits the bill of what I had wanted – to keep writing and the genius is that I’m not writing for anyone but myself, no bosses and editors to contend with.  I do have a hidden fear of getting an adviser who proceeds to topple over what I built and make me totally re-do the thesis framework but I’ll cross that bridge when I have to or take another bridge.

 

Explanation Knot

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There should be a rule to avoid talking about this trip to people who would likely be against it because no amount of explanation can bring one side to the other’s or even agree to disagree.  Yesterday, I talked to my sister-in-law, Jiang Ping about our planned move to Yunnan, the concepts of homeschooling and roadschooling but it only solidified our positions – parallel lines that cannot meet. Imagine too defending my position in limited Chinese – it was still a feat.

The talk with her gave me a preview of what I would be up against when I talk to my mother which I shall be postponing till the very last minute like when we’re in another country commencing the road trip.  However, I think even my mother would understand based on what she knows about me, my track record, my whole life suspicious of authority and believing I’m a free spirit.  My mother would not be surprised but would be pissed off, disappointed and angry because it’s still a project with my husband and it takes her two grandchildren physically further away.  To her, my marriage is a scourge.  Aside from this, the trip, like it did to my sister-in-law would raise alarm bells about the education and future of our children.

Jiang Ping insisted that taking them out of school would be wasting their intelligence and potential as if school was the only way to nurture and develop young people’s minds.  But I understand where she’s coming from, where her anxiety stems from and one part of me is also worried.  But as I said in my grammatically incorrect and wrong-toned Chinese, there is something between adventure and danger – that is risk but I forgot the Chinese term for risk – that we need to take because if we don’t take it, it would be an even greater risk.

She made a valid point about the affordability of Chinese education.  If we ended up in another country, we may have to pay a premium price which we don’t have to in China because the kids have a hukou (household registration).  If they miss a few years, it would be hard to catch up with the rest of their peers, she said. What about the gaokao, the college entrance exam I’ve seen my students’ lives revolve completely around?  Jiang Ping’s son is attending one of the best high schools in Tianjin but his life is just like any other student’s life.  To me it looks more of a waste spending so much time buried in textbooks.

I should not be so harsh on a system I was once a part of, that once cared for me and watched me grow.  I went through primary, high school and university and I turned out okay.  My husband, too.  Many of us are products of such a system and there is nothing horribly wrong with any of us.  Can’t really complain.  There are both good and bad, successful and unsuccessful people who went through the education system so what are we arguing about?

Some people need to follow society’s norms and standards.  Veering away from the expected path is not encouraged because there is the likelihood that you won’t get the desired result – which is to get a good job.  Precisely why there is something inside me the rebels against this.  Our life is so short and is this all we are made for and put on earth?  Go to a learning place, get high grades, get a good job?  There is something in me that searches for a way that celebrates our existence more but I don’t know how to convey it to disbelievers or unbelievers.  This is not a religion that you believe in or not but it is something only an individual is accountable for himself.

Then you say but I am not only an individual.  I am responsible for bringing up my two children.  I, too want my children to become productive members of society but there are zillions of ways by which this could be accomplished and not only one way.

Maybe the best explanation would be no explanation.

I do feel sad leaving Dagang because my sons will miss being with Jiang Ping, who is such a great influence and one of the people I truly, truly hate to leave behind.  She has always helped our family much more than one can ever expect.  But there are simply risks I need to take that would be riskier if left untaken.