I was excited to see that Michael Reist has a new book out, What Every Parent Should Know About School. Reist is a veteran teacher (now retired), educational consultant, parent of four, and the author of Raising Boys in a New Kind of World and The Dysfunctional School: Uncomfortable Truths and Awkward Insights on School, Learning and Teaching. I had the privilege of getting to know him as a fellow co-founder of The Beach School, a Sudbury-model school that operated in Toronto from 2003 to 2008.
Essentially this book is about what is wrong with traditional schools today. What is it really like to be in school, in its physical, emotional and social environment? Most of us will nod in recognition at Mike’s descriptions. They ring true but are nevertheless eye-opening because in our society we rarely question the structure of school. In this book, Mike does not merely make theoretical criticisms; he brings these down to the level of students’ and teachers’ everyday experiences. He touches upon various current educational issues such as mental health, ADHD and learning disabilities, gender, bullying, evaluation, and curriculum. He offers suggestions of what can be learned from alternative educational models, such as homeschooling, Waldorf, Montessori and democratic free schools. Throughout the book, he speaks hopefully about how schools of the future will deal with the above issues, often borrowing practices from these alternative models.
What Every Parent Should Know About School is an easy read while still being extremely thought-provoking. The tone is conversational and the arguments are laid out in well-organized, easy-to-follow sections. This book cuts to the chase in a way that is rare among parenting or education books. There is no glossy-magazine filler of anecdotes illustrating the obvious. Neither does the book wend its way through a quagmire of statistics towards an erudite but brain-numbing conclusion. Mike speaks as a veteran teacher and calls it as he sees it. He speaks from a perspective that is insightful and sadly uncommon: he knows what it is like inside “the system” but he is neither a starry-eyed cheerleader nor a bitter pragmatist. He writes honestly but empathetically about the students, teachers, parents and administrators who must deal with an unwieldy educational bureaucracy and the weight of traditions which no longer work and maybe never did.
This book does a wonderful job of opening a window onto a broken system. Based on the title, though, I was hoping it would talk more about what parents can do about their kids’ school challenges. I hope the schools of the future will offer freedom and respect for the individual learner, as Mike says they will, but I have a daughter who just started grade one now. She attends a public alternative school with a great school community and an emphasis on holistic learning, and she still struggles with going every morning. I think she doesn’t like being a little cog in a big machine. She doesn’t like the big group, the age segregation, the fast-paced schedule, the sitting down and being quiet, the busy work. I want to know, what do I do with her tomorrow? This book does not answer this question, possibly because there are no easy answers. You can homeschool or you can find or start an alternative. But who will change the public system so it fulfills Mike’s vision, and how can they do this?