I love Freedom to Read week, for a whole bunch of reasons. Here are some of them:
1. I love books. All kinds of books. I love reading them, and I always have. I read widely as a kid and teen, and I read lots of books that wouldn’t necessarily have been considered– I hate this expression– age-appropriate. I also read lots of books that I only half-understood. This was fine– it gave me plenty to think about.
2. I do not like being told what to do. Or not do. Or not read. Actually, just thinking about someone trying to limit people’s access to a book makes me mad. Grrr.
3. I’m queer and I’m an author. I get email from queer teens. I know how important it is for them to see themselves– their identities, their lives– reflected in the books they read. I also know that these are among the books that tend to get challenged or banned.
4. I’m a mother. I don’t censor my kid’s reading and I don’t want anyone else to impose their ideas abut what he should or shouldn’t be reading. In fact, one of the experiences that pushed us in the direction of home learning was his strong desire to choose his own reading materials– and my strong reaction to his reading choices being interfered with. Yes, I do realize that taking your kid out of school could be seen as an over-reaction to a teacher’s insistence on boring leveled readers instead of science magazines.
I could go on… and on… but I have a new stack of library books calling me. So- happy Freedom to Read week! If you feel like reading a challenged book to celebrate, here’s a list to help you find one!
Not all homeschooling families start out with the intention to homeschool. Some do, of course—I’ve met lots of parents who knew they would homeschool long before they had school age kids, who came to homeschooling as an extension of their parenting philosophy– but others, like us, had blithely assumed that their kids would happily head off for school at five and spend most their days there until they were, oh, eighteen or so.
I love homelearning, I love unschooling, I’m glad we’re living our lives this way… but this was definitely not Plan A. We started homeschooling because, for us, school just didn’t work out. It wasn’t the right place for our kid.
We’re not alone in that. Over the last couple of years, I’ve met dozens of parents of young kids who have started to homeschool because their kids, for various reasons, were struggling in the classroom. Maybe they were frustrated or unhappy or bored; or maybe they were being bullied; or maybe they were spending more time in the principal’s office than in class… but they were all, in one way or another, not fitting in.
The other thing that many of these families had in common were that their parents were regularly at the school, meeting with teachers, trying to understand and mediate and advocate and somehow make things better for their children. And although none of these kids had been diagnosed, various labels were starting to float around the edges of those conversations with teachers and principals: Attention Deficit Disorder. Hyperactivity. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Autism Spectrum. Dyslexia. Anxiety. School Refusal. Selective Mutism. And on, and on, and on.
I’m not denying the very real challenges that some kids face– or the fact that a diagnosis can be useful in helping in getting appropriate interventions and support for a child. I’m not suggesting that it is as simple as square pegs and round holes. But, but, but…
It seems to me that the range of what is considered “normal” in the classroom is becoming far, far too narrow. Too many of our kids— too many of the eccentric collectors and the quirky tinkerers, the endlessly energetic kinetic learners, the fiercely strong-willed debaters, the artists and the day-dreamers, the deep-thinkers, the outside-the-box kids—are being told that something is wrong with them. That they need help.
But when we’re talking about five and six and seven year old kids… and the problems are only occurring in the classroom… when the summer holidays are happy and unstressed… when the child is in tears on Sunday night and refusing to get out of bed on Monday morning… and when the number of these kids seems to be steadily increasing to the point of absurdity… surely we should ask what exactly it is that needs to change.
About one in eight boys is diagnosed with ADHD– making it more common than left-handedness or red hair. If teachers’ ratings of their students were used this number would double to closer to one in four. And then we have doctors are prescribing stimulants for kids who don’t even have a ADHD diagnosis, because it improves their school performance. Think about that for a minute… At some point, don’t we have to admit that just maybe it is the school environment, not the kid, that needs to change?
We don’t force kids to sit up at six months or walk at one year just because many are ready to do so—and yet schools are set up with the expectation that all kids can and should learn on same schedule. We may know that some kids are ready to read at two or three, and others at nine or ten or twelve, but we don’t allow for this diversity. What is the effect of being forced to focus on reading or writing before you are developmentally ready? Of spending years learning that you are not good at certain skills? Of being made to sit still at a desk when you need to move? Of having to wait to learn about things that interest you because they don’t appear on the curriculum until middle school?
Is it really surprising that so many kids struggle?
I’ve been fascinated by the stories of parents who’ve left the school system after these kids of struggles. Most of the highly anxious kids I know who have left school to learn at home have had dramatically decreased anxiety. I feel like I’ve finally got my kid back, one parent told me recently.
Many kids who were diagnosed with or being assessed for ADD/ADHD have found that once out of school, medication was no longer needed. They may still have the same traits, but they aren’t such a problem outside the classroom. Peter Grey published some interesting research on this group of kids.
Outside of school, the quirky kids are still quirky but they often find their place in the wider world with far less difficulty than in the classroom. Outside of school, there is room for a little more eccentricity. Kids can find their people (hint: they don’t actually have to be born in the same year as them!) and they can work in their own way, at their own pace. Outside of school, there is time for daydreaming and for running and for spending countless hours learning about elephants or taking apart engines or discussing ethics.
People sometimes ask me (okay, they often ask me) how kids are going to be ready for the Real World if they don’t go to school. But think about the world we live in and work in; that world that doesn’t look anything like a classroom. Are our unschooled kids ready for it?
Of course they are. They’re already living in it.
I’ve heard this question a few times over the last month or so. Actually, it seems to be right up there with “What about socialization?”on the list of things people say when you tell them your child doesn’t go to school. Tiresome, maybe, but it’s actually kind of an interesting question to unpack.
First of all, “keeping up” isn’t really a concept that makes any kind of sense within a framework of unschooling, but I assume that the questioner probably means something along the lines of “How do you know if your child is learning the same things as schooled children born in the same year as your child?”
Short answer (for strangers in grocery stores, my dentist, and people whom for various reasons I really would prefer not offend): Oh, he’s learning all the time.
Longer answer ( for people who are actually interested): I don’t know that at all. In fact, with the wonderful richness and variety of things there are to do and learn– and the freedom to make his own choices and explore his passions– I very much doubt that my son is learning the same things as his schooled eight year old peers. Why would he be?
Cue the next question: “But don’t you worry that he’ll fall behind?”
Short answer: Not really, no.
Longer answer: I don’t expect his learning to follow the same patterns or trajectories as that of schooled kids—or for that matter, other unschoolers. He won’t learn things in the same order or at the same pace. He’ll probably continue to delve deep into his interests, spending days and weeks and months exploring them, rather than dividing the day into short blocks of time and jumping from task to task and topic to topic.
At a given moment in time—say, age ten– an unschooler might well look “behind” a schooled kid on a standardized test. Or they might not. Either way, I’m happy that we can opt out of these comparisons and the constant assessment of learning. What meaning would it have to know that a particular unschooled kid is “behind” most school kids in, say, reading? Math? Writing? Who would that benefit?
Learning should be about curiosity and enthusiasm. It should be fun. It shouldn’t be a race. One of the great things about unschooling is the freedom to learn on one’s own schedule. What message does it send to kids if we are constantly monitoring and scrutinizing and evaluating their learning? I love that my son is free to learn in his own way, at his own pace; that he chooses what he wants to focus on; that he owns his learning and takes pride in it.
To which the questioner usually says something like, “But what if he doesn’t choose to learn, say, math?”
And it is usually math that people worry about, it seems. No one ever says, what if he doesn’t choose to learn Mandarin, or what if he never studies Mayan cultures, or what if he doesn’t learn to paint landscapes… because people generally recognize that while those things might be wonderful they aren’t necessary in day-to-day life in the way at least basic numeracy is.
Which in itself kind of answers the question, doesn’t it? No one wants to be incompetent. No one wants to be ignorant. If basic math is necessary in day to day life, it will probably be learned in day to day life. The need for it will arise naturally. Case in point: My son has never followed a formal math curriculum but he had no trouble converting between dollars and baht on our recent travels in Thailand.
But what about more advanced math?
Yup, what about it? How much do you use trig or calculus? I’m guessing, for most of us, not at all. I’m guessing most of us, if we suddenly needed it, would have to relearn it anyway. I’m pretty confident that if my son— who is, despite relative strangers’ apparent concerns about his higher math, only eight— decides to pursue an interest which leads him to encounter a need for trigonometry, he’ll learn it without too much trouble. Motivation is a wonderful thing. So is KhanAcademy.
And it probably helps if you’ve never learned that math is boring, or hard, or pointless, or that you aren’t good at it. It helps if you get a kick out of the Fibonacci sequence, watch Vi Hart videos and make hexaflexagons, and have adult friends who announce, with delight, 3:14 pm as “pi o’clock”.
Bottom line? Keeping up is highly over-rated.
Here’s the cover for my spring 2013 novel, Record Breaker. I love it.
Many thanks to Teresa Bubela for the great cover design, to my fabulous editor Sarah Harvey, and to all the awesome folks at Orca who’ve helped make my story into a book. So exciting!
My friend Tom Ryan, author of the awesome 2012 YA novel Way to Go, has tagged me The Next Big Thing Blog Tour! You can check out his post and find out what he’s working on now at his website. And if you want to know about my work-in-progress, read on…
What is your working title of your book?
Record Breaker. It will be published by Orca in the spring of 2013. I just this week got the cover and it looks fabulous. I’ll post it as soon as I can!
Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple of years ago, while working on an entirely different project, a few ideas seemed to keep bubbling up from the back of my mind. They were just things that caught my imagination, small fragments of characters and places and times: JFK’s assassination almost fifty years ago… a mother grieving the loss of a baby… the small southern Ontario town I grew up in… and a boy obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records. Somehow, through that strange kind of alchemy that seems to go on almost unconsciously, these fragments started to coalesce and shape themselves into the beginnings of a new story.
What genre does your book fall under?
Record Breaker is middle grade fiction—it is aimed at kids age 9-13.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I’m terrible at one-sentence synopses (actually, I’m pretty bad at any-length synopses) but here goes…
It ’s 1963, the year of President Kennedy’s assassination, and Jack’s family is still reeling from the death of his baby sister. Jack decides that setting a world record will cheer everyone up and help his mother heal… but his attempts to break records from sausage eating to face slapping just cause more problems. He is about to give up when a new friend suggests a different approach, which involves listening to– not breaking– records.
Oops, that was three sentences, wasn’t it?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Probably about a year or so, maybe longer, but I was working on other projects in various stages of completion at the same time. I usually have a few books on the go at once, and sometimes one gets dropped and left alone for awhile… When I get stuck during first drafts, I have a tendency to just start writing another book. They’re so much easier to start than they are to finish! But eventually the characters always call me back and demand an ending.
Who inspired you to write this book?
My mother, Ilse, who managed to find me a 1962 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. My friends Holly Phillips and Michelle Mulder, who read early drafts and brainstormed ideas and encouraged me to keep writing. And my editor Sarah Harvey, who believed in the story and helped me to find the right ending for it.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s both funny and sad, and contains lots of strange but true facts about some early world records. And it is written for kids– but I think it might also appeal to adults, especially those who can remember the early sixties.
I love Halloween– and this Halloween is special, because we’ll be celebrating two years of learning at home.
Becoming a home learning family was unplanned and unexpected; a decision we made only after sending our son off to first grade and then realizing that it just was not a good fit for him– or for us as parents. Taking him out of school felt like a huge decision, and I had my usual response to feeling overwhelmed: I read stuff.
Actually, I read a lot of stuff. I read about child development and learning and the education system. I read about homeschooling, and the dozens of ways people go about it—unit studies and classical education and Thomas Jefferson and Charlotte Mason and Waldorf and Montessori and school at home and unschooling, and so on– not quite ad infinitum but just about…
I am somewhat allergic to dogma, and tend to resist classifying what we do too narrowly: Basically, we do what works for us. Having said that, what works for us so far definitely seems to be unschooling.
It’s been a learning process for me, or perhaps an unlearning process. My son, on the other hand, took to unschooling like a fish to water. He has always had many passions and he loves to explore and experiment and learn new things… so he was thrilled to have so much more time free to pursue his interests. And– despite my occasional am-I-doing-the-right-thing moments– I love it too. I love having more time to be with him– to dive into projects, stories and games together, to play at the beach or walk around the neighborhood, to spend lazy days drinking bubble tea and sketching in Chinatown, or snuggle on the couch with books and comics. I love seeing him learn and grow in his own way and on his own time.
As we celebrate our two years of freedom from school, I thought it would be fun to pull together some of the many ideas about kids and learning that I have found helpful and share a few quotes from folks whose ideas I appreciate.
So here, in no particular order, are a few of them:
- I could probably just list ten quotes all from John Holt… but this is one of my favorites: “Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world then anyone else could make for them.” ~John Holt
- These words from Pam Sorooshian were very helpful to me when I was just starting out and trying to extricate myself from the school mindset: “Don’t worry about how fast or slow they are learning. Don’t test them to see if they are “up to speed.” If you nurture them in a supportive environment, your children will grow and learn at their own speed, and you can trust in that process. They are like seeds planted in good earth, watered and fertilized. You don’t keep digging up the seeds to see if the roots are growing—that disrupts the natural growing process. Trust your children in the same way you trust seeds to sprout and seedlings to develop into strong and healthy plants.” -Pam Sorooshian
- Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not at all about home learning or even about children, but I love it for its clarity about how education is always political. Education can encourage or inhibit the learner’s desire to question and challenge, and in this way influence their understanding of– and relationship to– the world they live in. The book is worth reading for anyone with an interest in politics, education and social justice. It makes me think about the hidden curriculum of schooling– compliance, acceptance of authority, subordinating your own needs to the dictates of the system—and about how parenting, also, is political.
- “Give your love generously and criticism sparingly. Be your children’s partner. Support them and respect them. Never belittle them or their interests, no matter how superficial, unimportant, or even misguided their interests may seem to you. Be a guide, not a dictator. Shine a light ahead for them, and lend them a hand, but don’t drag or push them. You will sometimes despair when your vision of what your child ought to be bangs up against the reality that they are their own person. But that same reality can also give you great joy if you learn not to cling to your own preconceived notions and expectations.”—Pam Sorooshian (again, because this one is so awesome.)
- Unschooling isn’t that easy to define but Pat Farenga just says it so concisely. “I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an “on demand” basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.” –Pat Farenga
See how in this last quote Pat Farenga says “you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise”. The together should be in bold. Unschooling isn’t hands off or lazy, and it’s not unparenting—on the contrary, it means being highly engaged with your kids and involved with their interests and their learning.
It means having an ant farm in the kitchen, learning to solder, and making Minecraft cakes:
Actually, there are all kinds of misconceptions about unschooling– and no one does a better job of addressing them than grown-up unschooler, Idzie. Her blog, I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write, is fabulous. It’s also addictive. Check it out.
It’s September, which means it’s time to not-go-back-to-school.
It sounds like a non-event, and in many ways, it is. September looks pretty much the same as August in our house.
On the other hand, it’s hard to tune out the back to school sales, the fall program guides, the general flurries of haircuts and shopping and school supplies that seem to surround us during the last week of August.
Everyone from grocery store clerks to neighbors asks my son What grade are you going into? Are you looking forward to school starting? Enjoying your last days of freedom? Friends post pictures on Facebook of their kids heading off for their first day of school.
I feel overwhelmingly relieved not to be taking part in it all. We just get to go on having summer for as long as the warm weather lasts. I’m still going to be able to spend the days with my son, who is interesting and funny and great company.
I also feel slightly gleeful– like I’m getting away with something.
But then, the first week of school begins and all of a sudden, the world looks a little different. The kids have all disappeared. We go to Chinatown, or to the grocery store, or the thrift store, and my son is the only kid there. When we spot another child in the theatre at an IMAXmovie, we wonder if he is a homeschooler or a tourist. We enjoy the relative quiet at the park and museum, but I notice that we have become visible in a new way. We attract attention. Strangers and store clerks ask my son if he has the day off school.
It’s like we’re out after curfew.
It’s weird, the way all the children seem to disappear from the world in September, but after a couple of weeks, I get used to it and start to settle into enjoying fall. Life is less busy. The days start to get cooler and shorter, and we spend more time at home. We appreciate the luxury of unscheduled days, of free time, of long lazy mornings sitting on the couch reading together, of not having a plan. If my son wants to spend whole days taking electronics apart and playing Minecraft and reading Foxtrot comics, he can. Or we take our sketchbooks to the park, go downtown for dim sum and bubble tea, try out a new craft, ride our bikes around the neighborhood, go sailing, watch videos online, meet friends at the beach.
And I’m no longer thinking about not-going-back-to-school. We’re just living our life, and it’s good.
So while homeschooling– and for that matter, parenting– can be fun to blog about, I thought a blog post about WRITING was long overdue. Since I am supposed to be a writer and all…
The thing is, I had a rough few months, writing-wise. Actually, more like a year. Not sure why, but I have been in a bit of a writing slump and feeling generally uninspired. I managed to finish one book and edit another but it felt like hard work. Like grinding out words slowly and painfully. I felt rather like I was writing uphill against a headwind, if that makes sense.
I wondered if I’d ever get excited about another book. My friends listened to me whine a lot and said supportive things.
I wasted a lot of time on Facebook and hoped I wouldn’t have to do something drastic, like get a real job.
But somehow over the last few months, something has shifted and I am writing downhill again, racing forward with stories and characters and words and images and ideas… and it feels so good.
So now I am working on not one but FOUR new books! And I even have contracts for three of them. Here’s the skivvy:
Book 1: Is actually DONE, everything except the galley proofs. It’s coming out in the spring of 3013, and it is a juvenile novel called…. drumroll… Record Breaker. I am very excited about it and can’t wait to see what kind of cover the artists and magicians at Orca will come up with. More details coming soon.
Book 2: Is about two chapters from the end. It will be published in the Orca Soundings series and I keep changing my mind daily about the title… also about the ending, which is why I haven’t finished it yet!
Book 3: Is top-secret. But Orca is publishing it in the fall of 2013, it is about half-written, and right now various talented teenage girls are reading it and giving me wonderfully useful feedback. And that’s all I can tell you for now.
Book 4: Ah, book 4. Book 4 is a challenge, and it is tormenting me a little– but that’s nothing compared to what the characters are going through. It’s a YA novel and I love the characters… Two teens called Mel and Jeremy, Suzy, who is an astronomy-loving nine year old, and Mel’s very awesome parents. I feel rather badly about the hell I am putting them all through. Such is the life of a fictional character.
Four books! Who’d have thunk it? It feels like I am falling in love with writing all over again.
And this is a Very Good Thing. Writing gives me energy. It keeps my mind occupied and gives my brain something useful to ruminate about. Also, my friends were probably getting tired of listening to me complain.
For now, at least, I don’t have to look for a Real Job. Which is probably just as well, since I have come to consider flannel pants to be appropriate work attire.
I just stumbled across this page while wasting time on-line…. It’s a quiz on my novel A Thousand Shades of Blue. I’m relieved to say that I got a score of 100% on this one! And yes, I really should be writing…