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December is CREATIVE HABITAT month. I’m looking at how artistic people make fulfilling lives, despite and also because of structures and limitations. Guest blogger Clare Tallon Ruen shares her story about how and why she balances public school for her kids with experiential and outdoor pursuits.

“Just send your kids to the f*%#ing public school.” —Shannon Heaton circa 2007

This post is about balancing the factory school model (FSM) in creative ways. Factory school is a term that refers to an educational model on which most regular public schools are based. Prioritizing book learning with existing/implied answers that are hidden from students; measuring learning by the ability to memorize; asking kids to conjure answers (vs. knowledge) via tests…

Just writing this makes my throat feel tight.

Since it began (in the late 1800s to prepare a factory bound working class—no kidding), the FSM has had critics who believe that learning happens when curiosity is piqued: when kids encounter problems, they question and consider. I know this as an adult. It’s how learning works for me now. It’s how I organize my work.

if you’ve gotta gather facts, why not be outside…

Capacity for learning is what students-turned-adults need. In order to succeed in our jobs and to be good parents, we must continually develop new skills of planning, prioritizing, connecting. We all laughingly agree that the “facts” we were taught at school are not what we took away—except maybe time tables and conjugations (and Schoolhouse Rock was probably more responsible for that). So why does the spine of the FSM still center around the transmission of facts?


Our neighborhood school, Oakton, did not have a good reputation. It consistently under-performed on tests, and the principal was consistently unavailable to parents. Neighbors who sent their kids to private or magnet schools warned of Oakton’s chaos and bad leadership. They claimed that high poverty and high level of English Language Learners were reasons to avoid the school.

Our family had just moved from an intentional community in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, where our two preschool-aged kids walked barefoot in glacial lakes, played in snow that didn’t get gray because there were no cars, and hung out in the pottery studio whenever they wanted. I just couldn’t picture this new scene called “School.”

So I researched the heck out of the alternatives:

— I visited two Evanston Home Educators (EHE) meetings
— I applied for admission to the arts magnet school and the English/Spanish Immersion program
— I applied to the local Montessori school

My aim was to seek the best option to support and inspire my daughter.

For different reasons we rejected these options, or they rejected us. (Serious helicopter vibe at EHE, full waiting lists at magnet/immersion programs, cost was prohibitive at Montessori.)

So we toured Oakton.

The assistant principal/soon-to-be-principal Mr. Daniels was a calm, kind African American man who greeted every student by first name (approximately 500 kids). The school was quiet and filled with art. And they accepted my request for half-day kindergarten.

With field trips, kids can have outdoor experiences during school hours.

Little did I know, kids could have artistic and outdoor experiences in school, too.

That vibe and other reasons led us to just go for it. It has remained a paradoxical decision and has never sat totally comfortably with me. But it’s got its plusses. And it’s the neighborhood school, which is a big plus. My partner Daniel and I, and friends whom we admire, feel strongly about investing in public education.


One friend argues that school is the kids’ place, not the realm of parents. It’s a place they identify with on their own. To be honest, our kids have thrived in many ways: they have developed compassion and resilience in dealing with a wide variety of people; they’ve met people we wouldn’t have known if we stayed in our middle class white bubble.

When I asked my own kids if they thought they would have been better off in a school with a more experiential educational model, or at homeschool, they resoundingly defended their schools and friends. My 13-year-old son said, “We probably would have been a little better at School, but not better at People…. and People is a life skill.”

Public School classroom walls can be flexible.

Public School classroom walls can be flexible.

Now, this post is supposed to be about creative offsets for Factory Schooling. So I guess I’d ask you: what do you do? How have you brought the experiences of life into your home and framed them meaningfully? What values do you highlight intentionally, and which values are just alive in the culture of your home?


My main value is outdoor, experiential education (rolling around in leaves, throwing rocks into the lake, getting muddy, and yes, skipping school). So I have emphasized unstructured time and no tech outside. Daniel my partner reads a variety of news sources every day and converses with the kids about current events. He also engages us all in meaningful social justice actions in the city.

Also, I lead field trips to the beach, where kids can learn about the Great Lakes, water filtration and conservation,  and just be outdoors.


Students participate in collaborative water study initiatives, to help face Chicago water issues like storm water storage.

I guess the kids are all right. And I haven’t turned my back on the rest of the kids, which makes me feel all right, especially on field trip days.

1415755Clare Tallon Ruen founded Pipes and Precipitation, a Great Lakes outdoor education program for the public school district in Evanston. All students tour water technologies, take field trips to the beach and study their school yard. A drop in the bucket, but with hope, a memorable drop and an authentic learning experience.


Leap, Little Frog

a musician's musings on nesting, being creative, traveling, and parenting