I was thrilled to hear that a new book on unschooling was being released this year, and even more delighted when I heard that it had roots in the town I grew up in– Hamilton, Ontario–and in the radio station that I listened to during my undergraduate days at McMaster University.
The book is called Natural Born Learners, and is edited by Beatrice Ekoko and Carlo Ricci. Allow me to introduce Beatrice Ekoko, of the blog RadioFreeSchool.
Robin: Tell me about your new book, Natural Born Learners…
Beatrice: I co-edited the book with Dr. Carlo Ricci (Nipissing University), founder and editor of The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning.
NBL is a labour of love. It’s a collaborative book project that took a community of advocates for autonomy in education to go live! Most of the pieces in this book are derived from interviews aired on the Radio Free School program that ran from 2002 to 2008 on 93.3 FM CFMU (McMaster University Campus radio).
We contacted interviewees and asked if they would be willing to be a part of our book. The next step was to transcribe all of the audio interviews into written text. Although most of the pieces are transcribed and edited versions of interviews that were conducted for Radio Free School, some are pieces that were written for the Radio Free School blogspot. A handful of pieces were ones we solicited later because we felt they provided a valuable addition to the book.
The book itself is divided into three sections:
What is unschooling/natural learning/self-determined learning;
2. What does it look like in practice, and;
3. The stories of those who unschooled and are now adults.
Robin: How did you discover unschooling? Can you tell us a little about your own journey into unschooling as a parent?
Beatrice: It is a tale of wonder. I was amazed at how my little daughters learned, what they could do, how full of life and exuberance they were and I wanted to preserve all that energy and love of life for as long as I possibly could. But before that, I think I heard about unschooling through a breastfeeding support group. At least homeschooling and then the more I delved into the subject, the more I thought I wanted freedom in learning for my children.
Robin: Why did you and Carlo Ricci decide to publish a book about unschooling? What was the process of producing the book like? What were the biggest challenges?
Beatrice: I had all this material (audio,) and all these amazing interviews–John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, Wendy Priesnitz, Gordon Neufeld… I felt that I had to do something with it all. I reached out to Carlo for some help in figuring out a vision for putting it into a book and he thought the idea was great to turn it into a reader. So that is what we did. But we realized really quickly that we needed help in a big way.Volunteers responded to my call out for help in transcribing the work. Volunteers helped proof read! It was awesome!
The biggest challenge? The amount of learning I had to do–in order to get this together in a solid, readable style and format. And the cover! Oh the cover!!
Robin:What are the most common misconceptions about unschooling that you encounter?
Beatrice: That unschoolers are insulated, disorganized, don’t like structure, can’t work in a team, aren’t educated. All nonsense.
Robin: What advice would you give to parents who are considering unschooling?
Beatrice: Make it yours. Hang with people who want to see you succeed, not those who are waiting to say, “I told you it wouldn’t work!”
Robin: What are some of the things that you learned during the process of producing and promoting this book?
Beatrice:I’m still learning (about promoting) but it’s nice to have people helping you along the way. Be willing to make changes and to check and keep checking to make it as perfect as you can.
Thanks so much Beatrice! I can’t wait to read it!
In the last few weeks, I have had several encounters with people who have expressed strong disapproval of the game Minecraft, seeing it as somehow harmful to their children– or at the very least, as a mindless distraction from more important things. I disagree. Full disclosure: Minecraft has been a huge part of my life, courtesy of my son, for two years. I play the game with him. We went to Minecon 2013. I jokingly refer to our approach to home learning as the Minecraft Curriculum.
And, um, our cat is called Mojang… after the makers of Minecraft.
So what’s going on? Why are kids so into Minecraft, and why is it such a source of parental anxiety?
At a party a few weeks ago, a parent of another boy told me that she had “very strict time limits” for her son’s “screen time”. Screen time is a really unhelpful expression. It could refer to watching cartoons, playing a game online, practicing typing, writing a novel, sharing a family movie night, learning trigonometry on Khan Academy, reading a book, looking up a history fact on Wikipedia, or Skyping with a friend. Why lump all these diverse activities together? Let’s pay attention to what our kids are actually doing.”
A middle-school teacher recently told me that a number of parents had said that their kids were “obsessed” with Minecraft or “addicted” to the game. These words carry a huge amount of judgement and fuel parental anxiety. But come on: Minecraft is not a drug and most avid Minecraft players are not addicted. They might miss it if they couldn’t play, but I doubt they would have withdrawal symptoms. And as for obsessed, why can’t we just say that they love to play it? That they enjoy thinking and talking about it? That they want to get better at it? After all, if a kid loves dinosaurs, math or violin, we call it a passion.
Another mom recently shared her worry about her son “thinking too much” about the game. But I think this can be because it is a hugely complex game with many layers and great potential for learning. Thinking is a good thing, right? It’s not a problem. Kids learn through play, and computer games have real benefits.
Over the past two years, I have seen unbelievable learning come from my son’s involvement with Minecraft: learning how to get mods, host a server, down-load plug-ins and make mini-games; creating adventure maps with attention to aesthetics and story lines; developing an interest in modding and coding in java; starting a YouTube channel; making and editing videos; learning about digital animation; making websites… the list could go on for pages. The learning is broader than computer skills: My son has developed skills in searching for information online, speed reading, fast typing and accurate spelling- all through play, which is, after all, how kids learn best. Perhaps most importantly, the game encourages creative thinking and problem-solving. The persistence and determination that I have seen kids show in trying to to understand and resolve a complex issue in the game is impressive.
Minecraft is always changing and growing, largely part to the enthusiastic and madly creative community that the game has given rise to. There are mods for kids who love interior design, kids who love horses, kids who like explosions, kids who like dirt bikes, and kids who like Dr. Who. There’s even a quantum physics mod.
A friend whose son just started playing joked that she wonders when she’ll she him again. It is true that the game can be consuming! But here’s my suggestion: Get your own account. Play the game. Seriously, embrace your kid’s interest and join him right there. Play together. If you don’t like battling monsters, then build cool stuff together. Or play on one of the Minecraft minigame servers—my son found one a few days ago that I loved: a Minecraft version of Pictionary! Find cool links, watch YouTube videos together, listen with real interest when your kid shows you what he has made. Minecraft won’t gobble up your kid.
Another parent, after I mentioned how much fun my son was having with Minecraft, asked, “Don’t you think he should be playing with friends?” But for my son, Minecraft has led to many new friendships. A shared passion is a great foundation for a relationship to grow on. Minecraft has provided hours of cooperative play and many opportunities to deal with conflict and negotiate shared projects.
As I type this, I am listening to my nine year old and two of his friends Skyping together while navigating an adventure map. In a couple of days, we’re hosting a Minecraft party and the living room will be full of kids happily playing together. Yes, kids should play– and they are. It has brought my son–and our whole family– many hours of great enjoyment.
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.
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