Recently, a teacher friend of mine asked me to write a blog post on the topic of “What Writers Wish Teachers Knew About Writing”. I thought a lot about it and found it rather challenging: After all, there are so many approaches to teaching writing and so many different learning styles among students—and most teachers already know far more about both of these things than I do.
As I mulled it over, I found myself thinking about something my son said when he was in kindergarten. “Work,” he told me, “is when you do something because someone says you have to. Play is when you do something because you want to.”
By that definition, I rarely work. I’ve written sixteen books, I teach creative writing to kids and adults, and I homeschool my nine year old son… but I love how I spend my time, and most of the time it all feels like play.
So I think that the single most important piece of advice I have is to let writing be play. Make it enjoyable for your students. Make it something they do because they want to. The more fun writing is, the more they will want to write- and the more they write, the more their skills will improve.
Easier said than done, right? How exactly do you make writing fun, especially for the reluctant writers in the group? Here are a few thoughts:
FREEDOM AND CHOICE: No more “what I did this summer” assignments: let them choose. A story about zombies? Great. An article about a favorite computer game? Go for it. Vampire romance? Awesome. All forms of writing are valuable- blog posts, poems, stories, comic strips, essays, lists, screen plays… try to open up possibilities rather than narrowing them. Sometimes it’s hard for students to start writing without a direction, but rather than assigning a specific topic, what about a list of possibilities? What about getting students to help generate that list?
PROCESS OVER PRODUCT: When I was a kid, I started hundreds of stories and finished hardly any. Sometimes you’ve taken what you need from a particular project and you are ready to move on, to start something else. As adults, we often focus on output—we want to see completed work. But producing output and completing projects isn’t always what kids need to do in order to learn. The end product that you see is only the very tip of the iceberg: there is a huge amount of deep, private, imaginative learning that goes on that you can’t- and sometimes maybe shouldn’t—see. As adults- teachers, parents– we have to trust children to know what they need, and trust that learning is always happening.
CREATIVE WRITING IS NOT HANDWRITING: I’ve met a lot of kids who say they hate writing but when I talk to them, I discover that they are overflowing with imaginative and original story ideas. Sometimes the barrier is that they find handwriting awkward, slow and uncomfortable. Sometimes they are avid readers—and their story ideas are so big, so complex, that their reach far exceeds their grasp. They have high standards and won’t be satisfied with a simple story, but haven’t yet developed the skills to tell the stories they want to tell. Providing a computer or scribing for these students can make a huge difference. Developing skills is important but just as important, we need to protect their confidence and their sense of themselves as storytellers. We need to make sure that when the writing (or typing) skills catch up, the desire to tell the stories is still alive.
FIND AN AUDIENCE: For a student to want to write, they need to have something they want to say—and someone they want to say it to. As much as possible, writing assignments should have a purpose. Look for websites where students can post book reviews. Start a school newspaper. Enter writing contests. Let students pair up and be beta readers for each other. Facilitate a lunch hour writing club. Help older students write picture books for younger buddies. Write letters to the paper or to politicians. Make it fun– and make it meaningful.
KEEP FEEDBACK POSITIVE: If you want students to take risks in their writing, you need to make it safe for them to do so. Support, facilitate, encourage. Give constructive feedback but don’t overdo it. If writing is play, they will write; and if they write, their spelling, punctuation, grammar and style will improve. Help them to believe that what they say matters, and that they are the only one who can tell their particular stories.
And finally, do some writing yourself. Fan your own creativity and take your own risks. Share your learning and excitement—and your struggles—with your students. And have fun!
In my 2009 young adult novel Inferno, Dante met her friend Parker while handing out flyers printed with the words: School. Prison. Can you tell the difference? I wrote that book when my own child was only four and kindergarten still seemed a long way off– but apparently my own not-so-great memories of school were vivid enough.
Plenty of people over the years have made the observation that school bears a distinct resemblance to prison, so the comparison is hardly new. But in the last ten days or so I have had a series of experiences that have brought me up against the realization that it is sometimes more than just an analogy. For some kids– the ones who are bullied or bored or just craving autonomy, who spend their days watching the minutes tick past or looking out the window at the blue sky and the trees, just waiting for three o’clock when they will be set free– school really is a prison.
A couple of weeks, my son told me that he was curious about school. Not curious as in wanting to attend, but curious about what happens in schools and what it all looks like. He attended kindergarten at a lovely and very small school when he was five, but that ended three years ago and he doesn’t remember much of it. So we arranged to visit our local public school. And then, because he was curious about the differences, we also booked a tour of an expensive private school.
Of course, there were some pretty obvious differences of the kind you would expect. The private school had a huge art studio, a music room, cosy carpeted classrooms, a big bright library with lots of books, and students who seemed happy and engaged with their work. The public school hallways looked older and a bit dingy, but the teachers were friendly and warm and clearly committed to their students, despite the challenges of working with large classes and a great diversity of issues and needs. Each was, in its own way, a good school.
And yet to attend either school would, for my son, mean surrendering his current freedom. (In fact, when he made pro and con lists for each school, the private school got an extra demerit point for requiring students to wear uniforms). At either school, he would be expected to attend every day for a set number of hours and expected to do exactly what he was told during that time, right down to how and where to sit and when to eat. He would be told what to learn and how to learn it and he’d be expected to do assigned work whether or not it was of interest or value to him. He’d have to raise his hand to ask permission to speak or to get a drink or to go to the bathroom. He’d be told when he was allowed to go outside and when he was allowed to leave. He’d be told what values he should embrace. Even after the school day ended, his free time would be infringed on by homework. From nine until three, five days a week, he would have none of the choices he has now.
To say it would be a huge adjustment would be an understatement. After three years of very free learning, I suspect being in a classroom would feel to him rather like it would to me if I woke up in the body of an eight year old and had to relive elementary school.
The day after our second school tour, we headed to Portland for the Life Is Good Unschooling Conference. Nine hundred unschooling kids and parents in one hotel. Yup, we took over the Hilton. Teens dancing and talking and laughing together, little ones running and playing, kids selling crafts and candies they’d made, kids in the swimming in the hotel pool, kids with Nerf guns in the park, a whole room full of kids with laptops gaming together. No bells ringing, no arbitrary rules, no required activities. No coercion. No one segregated by age, everyone choosing what they wanted to do and when (and the choices at this buffet of experiences were tough: like, hula-hooping or making stomp rockets or playing Minecraft or going to the International candy-tasting funshop.
Everyone learning all the time, in their own ways, according to their own interests. And so much joy. So much laughter.
I am actually a strong supporter of the public school system. Every child should be able to get the kind of education he or she needs, without having to pay for it. We didn’t plan to home school– that’s just how things turned out. It works for us, but it doesn’t change my belief in the importance of good public schools. As a former social worker, I have seen the huge difference a caring teacher can make in the life of a child. I think it is incredibly important that everyone have access to good schools– to learning, to resources, to generous and kind and passionate teachers and mentors.
I just think we need to figure out a way to add a hefty dose of freedom to the mix.
Almost three years into our unschooling life and I still find myself caught in ways of thinking that reflect conventional ideas about learning. Maybe not as often as in our first year, or our second—but fairly frequently nonetheless. I’ll see a friend’s kid doing his math homework or proudly sticking his spelling test on the fridge and instead of my usual internal reaction (SO glad we don’t have to deal with homework or tests!) I’ll have a moment of unease about how far we have wandered from the mainstream.
Often, when this happens, I feel impatient with myself—Move on already! We don’t do school! You’ve already read about and talked about and thought (endlessly!) about this! I re-read things I find helpful and I remind myself to pay attention– to our days, our relationships, our lives and our learning.
But it’s kind of a big deal stepping out of the school system, and maybe even a bigger deal to bypass homeschooling and go straight to unschooling. Unschooling, as I am reminded whenever I try to explain it to someone who is encountering it for the first time, is pretty far out there. So maybe it is inevitable that choosing this way of living and learning brings with it a certain amount of questioning.
Especially if you tend to overthink everything the way I do.
But most unschooling blogs read like a celebration of the awesomeness that is unschooling– my own blog included.
And unschooling is pretty awesome, but I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes struggles with questions or doubts. At least, I like to imagine I have company.
Here’s my theory: When one is part of a small community that is often misrepresented by the media and misunderstood by the majority, it is tempting to present only the positive. To ignore the niggling doubts or at least save them for private conversations with like-minded friends who will understand that occasional moments of unschooling panic do not mean you want to send your kids to school. You don’t even want to borrow the great math curriculum their kids are using.
We don’t want to fuel other people’s unease or disapproval so we say how great everything is and how well it works for us. So it is tempting to speak with certainty. But that can get in the way of having conversations that lead us to challenge ourselves and our thinking. I’d love to hear what other people think about this.
So talk to me. What are the questions that get the hamsters in your head spinning on their wheels at 3 am? Where are the snags and tensions? How do sort through your own experience, past and present? How do you filter all the contradictory research and theories and approaches to figure out what you really believe? How do you determine what works for you, your kids, your family? What lets you know when you are on the right track?
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.
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.
Here I am, age six, in our house in England. Engrossed in a book, as usual.
And here I am, two years and a move to Canada later, still reading and– although I didn’t know it– I am learning how to write.
Now, as a mom to an eight year old, I’m watching my son explore the world of books and words and stories. He doesn’t go to school– in fact, reading was one of the things that made us decide to pull him out of school at six. He started kindergarten already able to read, and going over the letter sounds repeatedly bored him. Having to read the same books over and over also bored him. And not being able to choose what to read made him furious. Being a rather resourceful little guy, he brought his own science books magazines from home to read during the dreaded daily “book bag time” but he was told that wasn’t allowed. He had to put those away now to read the levelled readers that were in the ziplock bag with his name on it.
He wouldn’t do it.
And in hindsight, I’m glad he had the independence and strength to object.
He still loves books, both fiction and non-fiction: fantasy novels, science books, graphic novels, and– especially– Calvin and Hobbes comics. I’m not convinced that he would love books if he was still in school.
Until recently, he hasn’t been interested in writing. In fact, it’s something he’s generally avoided. If he were in school, he would no doubt be seen as “behind” in writing. One of the lovely things about unschooling is that regardless of your interests or abilities, you are never ahead or behind– you are exactly where you need to be.
Over the last few months, I’ve been watching his interest in writing gradually emerge.
We’ve had great conversations about books. He’d comment on characters (“It’s hard to believe Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t real people. It’s so strange that they’re just text!”), motivation (“What do you think about Snape? Dumbledore trusts him but he seems bad. I guess sometimes a character can start out bad but maybe underneath they really want to be good…”), structure (“It’s kind of an ABC pattern, isn’t it? Have an adventure, get into danger, escape…”), and interpretation (“Do you think Hobbes is real? Or is it just Calvin’s imagination that he’s alive? I’m pretty sure he’s real.”)
Then he started to see stories everywhere. We’d come across a science story (genetically modified babies, for instance) and he’s say, “Hey, that’d make a great book. Imagine if a future government decided…” and he’d be off, spinning out ideas. He started wanting me to write these ideas down for him. Then he wanted me to write the stories with him. He’d dictate; I’d type.
Handwriting is slow and uncomfortable for him, as for many kids his age, so the computer opens up worlds of possibility. Thanks to his passion for Minecraft, his typing is getting faster and his spelling is improving (spawn, nether, kick, zombie and teleport may not be on your standard BC curriculum grade two spelling list, but given his interest in sci-fi and fantasy, Minecraft vocabulary is probably more useful to him anyway).
It’s fascinating to watch the natural learning of a child driven by his own curiousity and enthusiasm. And it has made me reflect on my own relationship with reading, writing and school. Although I had at least two great teachers (Mrs. Virgin and Mr. Lister, if you are out there somewhere, thanks for two good years!) I don’t think I learned much in school that really helped me as a writer. I learned to write by reading voraciously, and I became an author because I loved books and stories so much so much that I wanted to create a few of my own.
School has a way of turning reading and writing into work when they should be play. As my son commented at the end of kindergarten, “Work is when you do something because someone makes you. Play is when you do something because you want to.”
Which is something I need to keep in mind for myself, as writing has turned from my part-time hobby into my full time job.
So– off to play with my latest manuscript!
We spent the last days of May in Vancouver, Washington at the Life Is Good Unschooling conference. It was fabulous—and hard to describe.
Picture the Hilton filled with hundreds of families. Picture the lobby and hallways and conference rooms buzzing with the energy of hundreds of kids and teens running, dancing, playing, spinning hula-hoops, toting nerf guns, selling amazing handmade jewellery and cards and crafts, holding hands, making new friends, playing games—kind of like summer camp, maybe, only in a hotel and without the rules and the structured activities.
At home, I often feel as though I need to explain to people why our son doesn’t go to school, why we don’t follow a curriculum, why we don’t work on spelling or give him written assignments to do. For the families at the conference, all that was the norm. It was a given. (As an aside, I thought it would be cool for my son to meet people who don’t begin every conversation with a child by asking what grade he is in… but he was too busy playing Minecraft to notice.)
One of the things I loved about the experience was that I felt pushed in a different direction than usual. Pushed to have fewer rules, not more. Pushed to be more child-centred, more flexible, more accepting of exploration and play–and the mess and chaos that accompanies both of those things. Pushed to say “yes” more often.
Also, what’s not to love about a conference focussed on enjoying life? I’ve been to various (social work) conferences and while many have been somewhat interesting, having fun is rarely an explicit goal.
Let’s face– most conferences would be vastly improved by adding a Zombie Apocalypse Nerf War.
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