Monday, February 2, 2015

You Don't Need an Ideal World to Unschool: Why the Concerns of Progressives are Misplaced

There’s a frequent criticism of unschooling that comes from progressives, liberals, and even anarchists of various stripes, which is that, by removing children from schools, parents are hurting the schools themselves; lessening the quality of said schools (since they’re no longer involved in school improvement); and taking money away from where it’s most needed.

I’ve always found this argument to be both puzzling and misguided for several reasons.

Parents are unable to make a real impact on schools and how they function. Even teachers have virtually no control over the structure or curriculum found in schools, and are often left frustrated by the bureaucracy and standardization stopping them from making any significant changes, even in their own classrooms. If teachers have that little impact, than parents certainly don’t have a bigger one.

Secondly, in many regions a large portion of each school’s budget comes from property taxes, meaning that schools situated in more affluent neighbourhoods will have a bigger budget, leading to more resources, more enriching activities, and at least nominally better schools. This is a true cause of inequality between schools and students, along with institutional privileges and prejudices that lead marginalized students to do worse, even in the same schools, when compared to more privileged peers. Some parents choosing to take their kids out of school, or to not send them there to begin with, are going to have a negligible impact on the finances of a single institution.

Yet even if both of the above concerns could actually be backed up, the argument still doesn’t hold a lot of weight to me. “Other children have to attend an outdated institution--one that often feels like a socially toxic environment, where the basic rights of students to free thought and movement are sharply curtailed in favour of imparting a top-down, universally mandated curriculum to be given to age segregated groups of children--so you have to go too.”

To me this seems akin to deciding that, because some communities are food deserts-- areas where poor residents have no access to fresh and healthy food--everyone, no matter their finances or neighborhood access, should avoid fresh food on principle. Instead, the approach should be to recognize that inequalities exist, and start having important discussions with people in your communities about what can be done to help solve those inequalities. Start taking real steps to enact change, or support the individuals and groups who are doing said work. Whether we’re talking about food deserts or a failed education system, the proposed solution shouldn’t be to subject everyone to the same level of bad, but should instead be a search for solutions that allow everyone to have access.

It seems to me that progressives have a long list of reasons not to unschool: It takes away from schools by removing parental and student involvement; there aren’t enough community resources; there isn’t enough parental support… All of these seem to hinge, not on a disagreement with the actual underlying philosophy of unschooling, but instead on the premise that the world at large and the individuals in it just aren’t ready for unschooling.

I wonder if this points towards a larger problem in how progressives and anarchists attempt to solve various societal problems. Most progressives don’t actually seem to be making all that many different choices in their lives when compared to people with more mainstream political views, regardless of their economic status or the amount of support available to them. Is the issue of education just another sign of fear holding us back? Is there a widespread feeling that we just need to wait, need to focus on broad incremental change instead of radical changes made in our own lives, and those of our families and close communities? 

Individuals have to make the choices that are best for them, based on their unique situation, and I certainly don't believe that everyone should or has to unschool. But I also don’t think we need an ideal world to be able to make important and radically different choices about how we live and learn. Yes, to focus only on our own lives at the expense of the wider culture would be a mistake. But I don’t see why we can’t have both: a push for broader change, and choices made that are actually best for you, your families, the people you care about most, when it comes to where, or whether or not, your children go to school.

We need to stop waiting for everything to be perfect to make any significant changes, or we’ll never make changes at all.

I hope more progressives can stop making excuses about waiting for the ideal, and instead focus on creating something better for the children in their own lives, as well as pushing for better alternatives for all children.

Further reading 
Learning About Culture & Community: Unschooling in the Real World by Eva Swindler

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Learning to Eat: How Life Learning Principles Helped Me Develop a Healthy Relationship With Food


Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Life Learning Magazine.

I made a chocolate pudding with a whipped cream topping this past week. Using just coconut milk and semi-sweet chocolate, with some vanilla and rum for added flavour, the pudding tasted and felt more like a mousse than anything--rich and dark and creamy--and was in fact rich enough that none of my family could eat much at a time.

In other words, it would be classified by some as “not good for you,” though I think it was an ideal treat, fun to make and eat.

My sister and I, both adults now, have grown into adulthood with remarkably few issues around food. Neither of us have ever dieted, we’ve never counted calories or gone out of our way to avoid “bad” foods. I care whether the food I’m eating is healthy for me (which is why I tend to avoid soy, which messes with hormone levels), but I also feel strongly that health, when it comes to food and other areas of life, is about our emotional health as well as our physical health, which means that when I get a craving for noodles with fried tofu, the next time I’m at the grocery store I buy a big block of the stuff.

In short, my approach to food is one of listening to my body and mind, and approaching both cooking and eating with an attitude of excitement, fun, and enjoyment.

Guilt or limiting has nothing to do with it.

The fact that my sister has a similar attitude kind of amazes me. Two women from the same house, and both of us have a healthy and joyous relationship with food? In the world we live in, which places a whole lot of pressure and guilt on women especially when it comes to food, I don’t think there is a magical set of steps that guarantees children will grow up with a good relationship to food (I certainly have my own set of issues when it comes to other aspects of life, regardless of my upbringing). Some of the reasons are probably as diverse as genetics, the communities we’ve been a part of, our personalities, and pure chance. However, I feel like some of the ways I was raised created an environment that was conducive to that positive relationship.

Life learning wasn’t the sole contributor, for sure. But, I can’t help but think that my upbringing did have an impact… We weren’t radical unschoolers, we didn’t have unlimited access to sweets, and we were generally only allowed to have dessert after supper. I can’t really say whether that was a harm or a help, though I have felt that certain foods being “treats” meant that I only really discovered I wasn’t so fond of them later in life. Mostly, though, I don’t really care about what limits were or weren’t placed on food when I was young, since at this point in my life food is such a marvelously positive thing.

I was never told I had to finish what’s on my plate. It was okay to stop eating when I was full.

I didn’t have to eat if I wasn’t hungry. We had regular mealtimes because it was important to my father that he get to eat at certain times, but I didn’t have to eat then if I didn’t want to.

My mother felt very strongly about never trying to trick us into eating “healthy” food. I never had to look at my meal suspiciously, wondering if something I hated was mixed in there. Any discussions we had about healthy eating were open and honest, and not a matter of manipulation.

My parents never commented about our weight. It just wasn’t mentioned. There was no “you need to exercise more, you’re getting chubby” or comments about food being too fattening. While my mother might have frequently had insecurities about her own weight, that was never transferred to me or my sister.

My parents very clearly and vocally valued us for things other than our looks. While my grandmother focused very much on prettiness and looks and activities that she deemed appropriately girly (in a well-intentioned though very misguided way), I always had the strong feeling that she was wrong to do so, a feeling that my mother very much validated.

My mother always had great excitement for trying new things. That doesn’t mean my sister and I always felt the same. Children especially can be good at being very picky! But both of us did eventually develop a similar love for new flavours, cuisines, and dishes, as well as a love of making exciting new dishes ourselves.

When I started to become really into food, my parents supported that passion. They didn’t discourage me from pursuing something so un-academic, or feel that I was wasting my time. Instead they just found me cookbooks, acted as very happy tasters, and encouraged me to pursue more food-related opportunities. They liked seeing me so happy about something, and I don’t think it much mattered to them what that something was.

I’m a cook, and I’ve done some cooking professionally, and I’ve spent many more hours in my own kitchen. I can tell just how passionate I am about creating tasty food by how exciting a thought it is that no matter how many new dishes I make, there will always be more to try! Food holds a large and important place in my life. I love reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows, talking about food with friends and thinking up new dishes. Cooking is a main artistic outlet for me, and just generally causes a whole bunch of warm and fuzzy feelings.

I’m drawn to the philosophy of “intuitive eating,” as it just seems really right to me that most people, if they’re never taught to distrust their own bodies, can figure out quite well what and how much is best for them to eat. We’re all different, and will all require slightly different fuels in different proportions, guided by personal tastes and preferences and availability. Instead of fighting against an individual’s naturally developing relationship with food and eating, telling them that certain foods are bad or “unclean,” and introducing a whole bunch of guilt and body shaming into the picture, it seems we would be much better served by always treating food with the respect it deserves. Food is about our physical and emotional health, it’s about our cultures and community, it’s personal and it’s social and it holds and expresses so much history and creativity and innovation. No matter how you look at it, food is important. And if we can embrace it with a sense of joy and discovery from a young age, hopefully it can remain something deeply positive throughout our lives.

My upbringing wasn’t perfect. And no matter how good my upbringing was (because it really was pretty good), there are still a lot of negative messages and pressures to be found in our current culture. However, I do think that my parents got some things really right when it came to food, and I’m so grateful for the place it now holds in my life.

I have a beautiful relationship with food, and I think that life learning helped me to develop it.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Why You Should Start Unschooling

I'm seeing a tag going around, proclaiming today to be National Start Homeschooling Day. In honour of that, I figured I'd share my top reasons to start unschooling. I understand that, for any number of reasons, unschooling just might not to be doable in your life. If that's the case, I hope you can still glean inspiration for doing your best to devalue standardized assessments and instead place value on passion lead, self directed learning, no matter where it takes place. If, however, you are considering leaving school or taking your kids out of school, I hope these reasons will prove so inspiring that you actually do it!


Building a self-directed education

Forget teachers and standardized curriculum dictating what and how and when you should learn. Instead, learn about whatever really interests you, what you feel is truly important and relevant. Your learning then becomes truly personalized, unique to you and based on what you want and need. You get to spend as much time as you want doing whatever it is that you wished you could be doing instead of sitting in a classroom, bored by the current lecture.

Learning and growing without externally imposed timelines

When you control your own learning, timelines of when certain things "should" be learned become irrelevant. Your child isn't a "late" reader, and you're not "behind" in math when you're no longer comparing yourself or your kids to others, based on what the school system thinks you should be learning. Instead, you can learn and grow at your own pace, and in your own way. We all learn differently, and unschooling allows us to truly embrace that.

Recognizing that we all have knowledge and skills to both learn and share

In school, there are teachers there to impart knowledge, and students attending in order to have knowledge imparted to them. Outside of school, you start to recognize that everyone can fill both of those roles at different times, and that the relationship between those who are teaching and those who are learning can be a cooperative, collaborative, and respectful one.

Improving relationships between parents and children

Parent-child relationships, especially parent-teen relationships, can often be contentious. Fights often revolve around issues of homework, bed time (early school days seem to require one), and other school-related things. When you remove school from the equation, and when parents start striving to trust, respect, and truly listen to their children, relationships can change dramatically, and "teenage rebellion" can become a thing of the past.

Socializing on your own terms

The forced socialization of schools, complete with bullies (both other children and sometimes even teachers), a lack of freedom of choice and movement, and an inability to choose more or less socializing based on each individual's needs, does not exactly promote the development of a healthy social life. As an unschooler, socializing can be based on the emotional needs of each child, and you can build a social life that truly feels good to you.

Learning in the real world

Instead of learning in a single, age segregated building, unschoolers learn in the real world. You can learn at home, in nature, at the library, at museums and community centers and yes, in classes. The world opens up, and you start to see all the myriad opportunities that are all around you for learning that feels relevant and important in your life.

Growing in an environment that feels supportive and safe

For many students--including LGBTQ people, disabled students, and students with mental illnesses--schools can feel anything but safe or supportive. People learn best and are most creative in their learning when they're not stressed and afraid, so if family life is nurturing and loving, home can make a much better base for learning.

Having time to daydream

Instead of being pushed to focus constantly, school-free learning leaves plenty of time for relaxing, processing, daydreaming, playing, and quiet introspection. As an unschooler you can reject ideas of "laziness" and choose to value the whole learning process, including boredom, not only the parts that look most active and productive.

Doing real work

When you're not simply studying for a test or producing a project or paper that will never be seen outside of a single classroom, you can instead focus on work and creation that actually feels real. You can volunteer doing important work in your community, get a job or apprentice in a field that fascinates you, write blog posts and articles for an actual audience, create visual art for a community exhibition, and otherwise share yourself with the world. You have the time to do things that feel genuinely meaningful, and that make a real impact on the lives of others.

All of these are compelling reasons why many of us have chosen unschooling for ourselves or our families. I hope that they encourage you to choose a freer, more personalized, more exciting way of approaching learning in your own lives, as well.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Unschooling Isn't "Unparticipating:" Responding to Attacks on Unschooling

Looking over the writing I've done this past year, I'm realizing how many things, though they were shared multiple times on my Facebook page, never made it onto the blog! For instance, that I was interviewed for an article on unschooling in the Montreal Gazette way back in August (a sidebar to the accompanying longer and more negative main piece), and the reactions lead me to send in a letter to the editor. One particularly frustrating letter lead me to write a long response for Life Learning Magazine, and fellow frequent contributor Jennifer Head was also moved to write a response! Those two pieces were then put together by Life Learning into a lovely free PDF booklet. Here's a sample from my portion of the booklet:

Will children really gain the exposure they need outside of school?

“The premise of the ‘learn what excites you’ is one that we all hold in high regard,” Writes Ms. Sanders, the author of the aforementioned letter. “That being said, we don’t know when we are young what we don’t know, and education is that door opener.”

No, children don’t “know what they don't know.” But where the mistake is made is the idea that a. schools are the only place to gain exposure to different topics, b. that schools provide exposure to the most important things, or the things every single child should know, and c. that schools do a good job of imparting knowledge on the subjects they do expose students to.

I'd counter that all three of those assumptions are wrong. Inside of schools, only a few subjects are taught. Outside of schools, learners have the whole world to choose from when it comes to their learning. It's also important to note that unschooled children are far from alone in this process. Parents, acting as facilitators, seek to provide exposure to a variety of things, and children find interests--find learning--through friends, neighbors, family, the internet, the library, homeschool coops or groups, local classes, museums, travel... The world is a big place, and it's full of a whole bunch of options.
To read the rest of my article, as well as Jennifer's great piece, click on the image below!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Authentic, Personalized, Flexible Learning: Why Curriculum Will Never Be Good Enough

I've always been against the use of any type of curriculum that isn't chosen expressly by the learner themselves, but I found myself wanting to explain why I felt that way. What was so irredeemable about externally mandated educational plans? This is the answer I came up with.

A curriculum is stagnant. It's created as a solid, linear plan, detailing what facts, theories, and formulas an individual should know and in what order they should learn them. It's designed by people other than the learners themselves, it's based on the idea that there is one core body of knowledge and set of skills that hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of children should all have, and that they should all learn it at the same age. It doesn't grow with the individual, it doesn't bend or adapt. It exists as a series of check marks, a string of benchmarks and numbers that have little to do with what's actually best for the learner, what they care about, their unique strengths and quirks and ways of being in the world.

True, deep, and meaningful learning can never be contained in something so stifling as a standardized curriculum.

There are some words and phrases I go back to again and again to describe my own life learning experience. My learning was always authentic, I say, because it was always learning that felt relevant and interesting. It was personalized, unique to me and what I wanted and needed at any given point. It was flexible, because I could always choose to learn different things in different ways with different people.

This kind of learning is pretty much the exact opposite of a pre-packaged curriculum. It's learning that is constantly evolving and changing as the learners themselves evolve and change, alongside their family and communities. It's the ultimate in authentic, personalized and flexible learning, better in my mind than any faddish new curriculum or teaching methodology that's taken those terms as handy buzzwords.

Reading selfie!
If the learners themselves aren't deeply involved in the shaping of their own education, if they aren't able to make important choices about what and how they learn (with supportive adults there to give a helping hand, find resources, play games, and otherwise enjoy the ride), then I don't think learning really can be any of those things. It becomes, instead, a pale shadow of what learning should be, as it's strangled by adults' desire for control over a process they can never truly own, a bureaucratic need for measurable educational progress, and a deep-set distrust of children and their innate abilities.

In this desperate attempt to make learning into something controllable and measurable, not only do we miss out on the richness that comes of learning for the sake of learning, but learning also becomes something that's complicated in really unnecessary ways. The more talk of methodologies and new teaching practices, or the latest curricular advancements and improvements, the more education--and by extension learning--starts to sound like something arcane and difficult, something that must be left in the hands of well-trained experts lest ordinary folks mess it up by not knowing the correct approaches or methods.

This has always bothered me since in my own life, learning has never been complicated. Difficult sometimes, confusing on occasion, but never complicated. You go where you need to go to get the knowledge and skills you want, which means that sometimes turning to an expert for a specific topic or trade is what will serve you best. But the actual process of learning isn't nearly as complex and hard to understand as so many educational experts seem to think (or at least seem to want other people to think).

If you believe that learning is complicated, then you believe that it has to be carefully designed and constructed, which means curriculum. But when you realize how unnecessary and actively harmful a standardized curriculum can be, the whole world opens up. Suddenly there are so many different things you can learn about and explore and do. There's no rush, so it doesn't all need to be packed into a certain time frame; you can learn from many different people, not just teachers.

It's exciting, fun, difficult, sometimes overwhelming, but it is always rewarding. Outside the confines of a curriculum, I've been able to focus on what's interesting and important to me, the things I feel genuinely matter. I feel very good about my "education," because it's mine. It's not the education someone else thought I should have.

That owning of your learning, the authenticity and joy it can bring into your life, can never be replicated by outside forces with big plans. It has to come from you, and your own exploration of the amazing world around you.

A big thanks to Sol, Chantal, and Lua for their editing assistance on this post! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Socialization, Homeschooling, and Life Lessons

I currently have a very unpleasant cold, so getting something new written for the blog this week hasn't really worked out. But once I realized if you don't subscribe to my newsletter, then you probably don't know about all the writing of mine that's been shared other places over the past month, I figured I would share that content. There's a fair bit of it!

There's a new home education magazine out there, with a terrific layout, and secular content covering everything from books reviews and resources, to thoughtful columns by such writers as Patricia Zaballos. While the magazine is not an unschooling magazine, plenty of contributors to Home / School / Life are unschoolers. Including myself! Or, more accurately, I'm a regular contributor the the Home / School / Life blog. I've been pleased to share two posts on that blog so far, and I'm happy with how each of them turned out!

How to Talk About Homeschooling (So That People Will Listen)
I left kindergarten for a life of school-free self directed learning, so I’ve had many years to get used to talking about home education. Some people are curious or excited, some angry or defensive, but what remains a constant is that almost everyone has an opinion on the topic and some questions to ask. I still freeze up sometimes when asked an unexpected question, or stumble over a simple explanation, but for the most part I feel that I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with the range of questions and reactions that come from different people. 
The approach I take hinges on a couple of key questions: who is it I’m talking to? And, what’s my goal for this conversation? It all depends on the answers to those questions. (Read more)
How Unschooling Shaped My Social Life
We’re all familiar with the tired old myth of the “unsocialized” homeschoolers, spending their days locked inside, interacting only with their family members. I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time disputing these myths (earlier this year I even wrote a post addressing every possible misplaced socialization criticism I’ve ever heard). Yet while there are plenty of wrong ideas on home education and socialization, I find myself pondering how unschooling has impacted the friendships I make and the communities that I’m a part of now, as a 20-something adult. 
Like many homeschooled families, when I was young my family participated in a range of activities, from homeschool coops to French classes, group hikes to choirs. What set us apart from many other home educating families in my area at the time was just how much input my sister and I had in the activities and outings we were involved in, and on whether we stuck with those activities. I knew that my mother would step in when asked (and occasionally when not asked!) to help solve a problem–such as when the musical director of a production I was involved in was trying to use me, a “good” kid, as a human buffer between the two most disruptive children in the group–and that if there wasn’t a good solution that I was free to quit. If I didn’t like a group of kids, or found that certain adults treated me and other children unfairly, I was never forced to spend time around those groups or individuals. (Read more)
Not only am I now a regular contributor to the Home / School / Life blog, but also to the new website Vermicious, created by author and unschooling parent John Seven. I've only shared one piece on that site so far, but I'm excited to be taking a departure from my usual education writing, in order to explore some different topics. My tagline is "Idzie Desmarais learns from the rituals of life," which really sums it up perfectly.

Lessons from the Dog Park
Last year my family brought a new dog into our house. I’ve grown up with dogs, we’ve
always had them around, but while I still live with my parents, this dog search marked the first one that I truly participated in as an adult. After months of searching, of countless calls and emails and visits to shelters, we finally found an Irish Wolfhound cross named Blue, with soulful eyes, a habit of leaning against your legs to better look up at you with said soulful eyes, and a deep streak of goofiness, who very quickly won all of our hearts. 
This year, in an attempt to help him get the exercise he needed–and hopefully socialize him out of the habit of jumping up and down at the end of his leash screaming at other dogs–we started bringing him daily to the local dog park. 
As human socializing goes, it’s pretty low key. The dog owners sit and stand around a central picnic table, watching their respective furry creatures romp, talking about funny pet stories and pet health problems, discussing which dogs haven’t been seen in a while and which dogs we hope never to see at the park again. It’s pretty telling that I remember the names of a couple of dozen dogs (not just my own dog’s best friends Crystal and Lexi, but also Heaven and Elvis, Bunker and Merlin), yet only know the name of one dog owner. It’s pretty clear to everyone who the truly important individuals in that park are, and it’s sure not the humans. (Read more)
Now I'll leave with an excerpt from another piece of mine that has recently been shared, this time in Home Education Magazine. If you're a subscriber, check out the November/December issue!

How Do We Value Ourselves?
In our culture, it’s very obvious that we value certain knowledge and skills more highly than others. Namely skills that are academic and intellectual, communication skills, and social skills (somewhat less tangibly, seeing as those are harder to test). It seems everything else comes a distant second. 
Schools are all about teaching academic skills to the exclusion of all else (though how good a job they do at imparting those skills is very debatable). 
When we take school out of the equation in our own lives and families, we have the option, the opportunity, to take a hard look at what skills are valued, and decide to broaden what we personally value and encourage. 
But are we taking that opportunity? Too often, I don’t think we are. 
My family didn’t, or at least didn’t to as much of an extent as we could have. This isn’t meant to place blame on my parents; we’re each of us constantly learning and growing, and unlearning ideas that have a negative impact on ourselves and others. My parents did the best they could in the places they were at, and I’m grateful for it. But looking back, it’s very obvious that the skills they were most concerned with me and my sister acquiring were those taught in school. It was subtle, because it was unintentional, but that preferencing of academic skills, at least to some extent, was very much present.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Unschooling Works: Finding Balance and Learning in Place

When I received a message yesterday from a prospective homeschooling/unschooling parent, I thought that I would respond in the form of a whole blog post. She brings up a couple of concerns I hear expressed a lot, so I wanted to take the time to address them in-depth!

Learning in Place

How do I as her mother give her opportunities to discover things that interest her? S. writes, concerned that as an expat, Many of the opportunities that I would have given her in the US (parks, swimming pools, zoos, museums, and so many other things) are infinitely more difficult [here]. However, there are opportunities [here] that would be impossible in the US. I worry that she may be interested in things that we won't be able to explore as fully...as we could in the US.

Our learning will always be shaped by our geographic location, by our family, and by the communities we're a part of, as well as by our personal interests and goals. The world is full of an infinite amount of things that can be learned, experienced, and explored, and each of us will only ever know a fraction of those things. So I think it's kind of exciting to just work on embracing the experiences, the culture, and the community you find yourself in, no matter where in the world that might be. The unschooling community online looks pretty US-centric (even as a Canadian I sometimes feel kind of frustrated at how US-centric it is), so the examples we see can look similar in a lot of ways. I don't think that says much about what an "ideal" unschooling life should look like, though, and instead just says something about the relative popularity of unschooling in the US! There are travelling families, such as Lainie and Miro, who took their learning on the road and never looked back. There are also families like the Hewitt's who, while living in the US, very strongly value the intense on-the-land learning that's afforded by their subsistence farming lifestyle in rural Vermont. Successful unschooling doesn't depend on being able to have a specific body of experiences and resources: instead, it's shaped by our surroundings, whatever they may be.

It seems that parents often feel a lot of pressure to expose their kids to everything, or at least as much of everything as they can possibly fit in. However, I think exposure is more about quality than quantity, and can simply be having an internet connection, access to both fiction and nonfiction books, some games of various types, some crafting materials... The specific interests expressed by the child can guide any further things you introduce, and beyond that, just exploring what's available near you is enough, I believe. We'll all have different experiences and different educations, but that's largely true whether or not you’re unschooled. School curriculums vary by country and by region, what's taught in a more or less exciting way varies by teacher, and what you actually remember is dependent on what seems interesting and relevant to you personally.

All we're doing with unschooling is embracing the uniqueness of each person's education, encouraging individuals to approach learning with curiosity and joy, and working to value all different types of learning, not just the learning deemed properly "educational" by schools. While lack of access to time and resources can be a major impediment to unschooling, if you have those things, you have enough.

Finding Balance

How do parents balance providing guidance and a certain level of boundaries (based on their greater experience and responsibility to protect) with giving the freedom to learn for yourself? S. asks. I am truly interested in knowing how to find the balance for my family between child led learning and parental involvement in teaching.

I think Pam Sorooshian said it well when she expressed that, instead of unschooling being "child-led learning," it was "more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in sync with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other."
My mother and sister, circa 2010.


It's a very school-based way of thinking that sees one person as a teacher and one as a student, one a leader and one a follower. In reality, unschooling quickly starts to look more organic, more flexible, and more collaborative than any ideas of people having to embody just one role (that of a learner, or one who imparts learning). Sometimes a parent excitedly learns about something alongside their kid, who finds the subject at hand fascinating, and thus initiates the exploration. Sometimes a parent will introduce a subject or activity, and be the main force behind bringing it into family life.

Can it be difficult for parents to find that balance? I have no doubt it can be, and I'm sure unschooling parents would be in a much better position to talk about that difficulty with you! I know that from the perspective of an unschooler, I was pretty good at letting my mother know when I felt she was being pushy about something I had no interest in learning, and I think that's true for most kids. They're pretty good at letting you know when they're not interested!

Experience is Better Than Theory

Ultimately, while I hope the words of unschoolers can be helpful to you, I think actually practicing and experiencing life learning is the only real way to feel out how it works. It's a matter of deliberately and consciously working to let go of schoolish ideas about what an education should look like, and instead focusing on the actual learning and growth happening for your child, and yourself, moment by moment and day by day. It's a difficult process--even for someone like me who spent very little time in school, yet still managed to internalize a lot of bad ideas about successful education--but an infinitely rewarding one.

Wishing you all the best with whatever form life learning takes in your own family!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Valuing a Different Kind of Education

This piece was written back in July, for a writing project that ended up being shelved for the time being. So, I thought I'd share it here instead! A look at how I value (or don't value) the uniqueness of my education.


I had an epiphany about my own relationship to my learning and education recently. This came about after a couple of different minor events.

First, I had a lovely exchange with a reader. They referred to me as a “successful young professional,” and continued to say that “I guess my definition of success (at least what I had in mind when I was writing to you) is that it is based on the connections you've made with the fellow people in your field, the ideas you offer to your field, and your mastery of the subject. Your blog has allowed you to make those connections and get those ideas out there. And considering that you've been unschooling for more than awhile, I assume you are, at the very least, on your way to mastery.” I was taken aback, never having been referred to as a “professional” before, and flattered that someone thought I seemed so successful.

Secondly, after my parents had spent the day with some old friends they hadn’t seen in a while, I nervously asked what they’d said about me and my recent pursuits. How did they make me sound? I wondered did I come across as successful, or a real loser?

The next day, in the car with both parents, I got in a conversation about school and work. I said that I couldn’t see myself taking courses in non-fiction writing through a university, because I felt for the most part they were teaching a style of writing and communication that is somewhat outdated, as I don’t think most universities (and the professors who teach at them) have fully embraced the changes that the internet and blogging has brought. I also talked about how outdated traditional CV’s and resumes are becoming, as increasingly what’s important is building some type of online portfolio, especially when showcasing any type of work that you can fairly easily do without any type of degree or diploma. Experiences are now starting to matter more than degrees, I said.

Later that day, the epiphany came. I thought, wait a second, I say all this, but I don’t actually believe it when it comes to myself. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become expert at making myself sound as traditionally successful as possible. “I worked catering last year,” I say. “I’m considering going to culinary school.” I tell people “I was homeschooled,” and try to assure them that I turned out perfectly fine.

I’ve become invested in making myself seem as normal as possible.

I didn’t set out to do that, and in part I ended up doing so just out of a desire for privacy. Why should I expose my life and choices to the judgement of near strangers? I thought. 
"Normal" sisters? I don't know about normal,
but I think we're pretty cute regardless!

That’s not the only reason, though. There’s a part of me that feels ashamed of my background. Ashamed of what I haven’t done. Namely that I haven’t worked in a “normal” job, ever, or ever been financially independent. Ashamed that, at 23, I don’t have more to show for myself.

This has lead to a series of attempts to at least try and look successful, even if I don’t feel like I’m actually that successful.

I suppose this says something about how deeply embedded these cultural messages are, that someone with my background in education, who regularly talks about how great self-directed learning, unschooling, and skipping college is, can so blithely fall into a trap of judging my own success by such rigid standards.

Not only is this bad for my self-esteem, it’s also bad for my success. If I really believe in everything I say, which intellectually I do, then I need to actually start acting like it.

I have been successful in many ways. I’ve built an extensive online portfolio, in the form of archived blog posts and a personal website chronicling various pursuits and experience. I’ve had my work published in various alternative education magazines, journals, and even a book, and have spoken at several conferences. I’ve turned down some media interviews and accepted others, and I’ve had many people express that my work has impacted their lives in a meaningful way. I’ve met and talked to people doing similar work whom I admire and who provide inspiration to me.

All this is to say that I’ve created a body of work that is appreciated by lots of people in specific alternative education circles, all while feeling really positive and excited about the work I was doing.

In Blake Boles’ book College Without High School, one of the suggested Zero Tuition College “assignments” is to “become a public intellectual.” Expanding on what that entails, he writes: “public intellectuals research, think, talk, and write about a social problem but don’t necessarily hold formal credentials. They spread their messages via blogs, websites, books, magazines, podcasts, videos, and other media platforms.” I told my sister, Emilie, “apparently I’m a public intellectual.” she laughed. “That sounds amazingly pretentious,” she added.

It does sound more than a little pretentious, it’s true. But it’s the first time I’ve seen essentially what I’ve been spending the usual university years doing laid out as a desirable and worthwhile alternative to college or university.

It’s also yet another reminder, among the many that lead to my aforementioned epiphany, that what I’ve done in my life, so far, is not just important and meaningful, but “marketable.”

When I strive so hard to make myself seem more normal, my choices more conventional, and my experiences more in line with my traditionally schooled age-peers, I lose out on an opportunity to not just sound more impressive, but share the genuinely cool accomplishments I’ve made and experiences I’ve had.

My unique background is an asset, not a weakness. A reason people might find me interesting to talk to at the least, or offer me amazing opportunities at the most. The reputation and body of work I’ve built for myself can continue to be both meaningful and challenging, as well as leading to money making opportunities (either through opportunities I create myself, or through a potential employer wanting to hire me based on my experience).

Perhaps all this should have been obvious. Bits and pieces have been, at different times. I’ve been proud of some work, greatly valued some experiences, knew that some of what I had done was important to others.

But I didn’t really value the unconventionality of my lack-of-college experience, or appreciate just how much I’ve gained by doing things differently.

After having the thought that I was ashamed by what I hadn’t done over the last few years, I was quickly flooded by excitement at the idea that I could speak with pride about what I had done.

Such a simple yet profound shift, to go from “look at all I haven’t done” to “look at everything I have done.”

Whether you’re a teen or grown unschooler, an unschooling parent, or a young adult who’s chosen to forego college or university, I think it’s important that we cultivate just such a mindset. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves to those who are doing things more traditionally, but we do a great disservice to ourselves when we do that. In focusing instead on the value in the true uniqueness of our experiences and education, we can instead be proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve chosen to “get an education” in our lives so far. Feeling confident in the skills we’ve gained and things we’ve done outside of school seems important to me primarily because of how much better it is for my emotional well being. But it’s certainly also of great benefit being able to share that confidence with others. If you’re secure in the worth of your unique experiences, work, and skills, you’re going to be better able to present yourself and your accomplishments to the important people in your life, and better able to turn your skills into ways to earn money, make important connections with people doing work you admire, and build a life that feels truly successful to you.
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