Monday, July 27, 2015

How Do We Value Ourselves?

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine.

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.

It’s easy to find ourselves trapped in an invisible framework built out of concerned queries from friends and families about how kids who don’t go to school will learn math, and PSA’s about the importance of graduating high school, and parental insecurities born of what they themselves were good and bad at in school.

I think it’s important to look beyond that framework, though, to recognize the variety of important and amazing skills and strengths people can have, including skills that are definitely not taught in school.

My sister is a caretaker. She washes dishes and dusts and tidies, she likes doing yard work, and has increasingly been taking on odd jobs around the house that my father used to do (cleaning out the gutters and sweeping the chimney, snowblowing and mowing the lawn). She likes organizing things, works as the quartermaster in her Highland band, making sure every member is properly outfitted with everything they need. Her dream is to build her own house, a hobbit hole as she refers to it. She likes to take care of spaces, organizing and making things work.

This type of domestic work, work related to home care, is not exactly highly valued. I don’t think it’s an accident that this type of work (besides a couple of ‘manly’ chores) is generally coded as feminine, either, though that’s a whole ‘nother story.

It’s work that’s deeply necessary, often difficult, and that lives at the core of each and every one of our lives. We all need to eat, need to have clean clothes to wear, need to stay healthy by living in a clean environment. Even when we move past what’s strictly necessary in our current modern way of living, domestic skills often provide real enrichment: fresh food from a garden in your own yard, or homemade soap with your favourite scents. As soon as you move past the strictly necessary aspects of domestic skills, you move into the “artisanal.” Which, to a growing extent, is in. It’s trendy and popular to knit and make pie, at least for women.

We like cooking together.

But while the general movement towards a back-to-the-land and back-to-our-grandmother’s-skills can’t be a bad thing, I don’t think the movement is nearly broad enough in scope, as the majority of domestic skills are still being learned by girls and women only, and the trendiness only goes so far. These skills are still just considered hobbies, things women can do in their spare time. When it comes to the more mundane skills, they remain simply invisible: if they’re noticed at all, it’s probably just in an outdated sense of approval that the time honoured housekeeping skills are alive and well with some women, at least.

I believe the undervaluing of domestic work is reflected in how much money is usually made in such work outside your own home, and in who’s doing it (almost entirely women, and the majority immigrant and otherwise marginalized women). You can also see that attitude in what’s conspicuously not thought important enough to include in a modern school curriculum.

While certain select domestic skills might be valued when practiced by certain select people, they’re certainly not valued overall.

It seems strange that in many ways the most basic and integral skills needed to provide shelter and food are those valued least. Domestic skills, as mentioned above, but also trades, construction, and farming (which, even with the increased desire for organic and specialty foods, can be difficult to succeed at financially no matter what type of farming you're doing)... Some of these jobs, like select trades, do earn a lot of money (I don’t find it surprising that trades are also male dominated fields(1) as opposed to female dominated low-paying domestic work), yet they still lack a lot of prestige.

Money isn’t the only sign of value, of course, but in a capitalist society that values money over pretty much everything else (like the wellbeing of the Earth and the majority of people), how much money any given skill or knowledge set can make says a lot about what things--and which people--are valued most.

My sister is a caretaker. She takes care of people. Friends ask her for relationship advice, and go to her when they just need someone to listen. She told me the other day how much she likes helping out the newer people at her Ninjutsu dojo, and I’ve seen the amount of patience she has whenever she’s in a position of helping people to learn something. There’s been numerous times she’s stayed up late into the night and early morning talking to a friend or acquaintance who’s suicidal. She cares about the people around her, and is quick to step in and stand up to someone when she believes they’re being hurtful or inconsiderate. One of the reasons she wants to have her own land and build that hobbit hole is so that she has a place where loved ones can go when they need a place to be, no matter their financial situation. She cares about people.

And as you can probably tell by now, I really admire the skills my sister has a great deal. I admire her a great deal.

But it’s hard, as she confided to me recently, that the skills and strengths she values and cultivates in herself are not ones that are generally valued. They don’t make money, or at least not easily, which is all most people seem concerned about, and she’s left feeling like those skills, as much as her contributions have meant to so many friends and acquaintances, just aren’t good enough.

"There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature." William Upski Wimsatt

This quote has always felt grounding to me, reminding me when I start to panic about my (lack of) math skills or feel that my knowledge of certain parts of history seem less than a schooled friend. A reminder that the most important skills are those that actually help us function in the world we find ourselves in. This can mean knowing how to make healthy and tasty food for yourself or for a crowd, handling friendships when they get difficult, doing taxes, raising money, supporting a depressed partner while not losing yourself, or how to get soap rings off of the sides of your tub.

All the things, big and small, that truly make up the day to day art of living.

As unschoolers, we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink what’s valued and what’s important. It’s hard to let go (or maybe more accurately throw off) deeply ingrained ideas about what learning looks like, what important learning looks like, and what should be most encouraged in children.

I think encouraging life skills can be as simple as de-emphasizing academic skills a little bit (messages everywhere are telling us that they’re important. Kids are going to get that idea no matter what!), and working to expand our personal definitions of what learning looks like and what skills it’s important for children to learn. If we actually believe that all those important real life skills are valuable, I think everyone around us, kids included, are going to see that belief reflected in the way we talk and the things we do. I also think it’s important to, in an age appropriate way, involve kids of all genders in every aspect of running and maintaining a household: cooking and cleaning and fixing and yard work and finances and pet care. Making things into “chores” is often unhelpful; instead, I believe it’s important to just live and work together as a family, including everyone in both day-to-day tasks and big decisions. Easier said than done, I’m sure (and I’ll likely be even more sure of that once I have kids myself), but striving for that cooperative state seems important, and when you can achieve it it really feels great. I know it’s what I’ll be striving for when I’m a parent.

It’s great if a kid finds manipulating numbers comes naturally, or starts reading at age three. But it’s just as wonderful if a child has a real sense of when things are out-of-place and likes organizing the house, or loves working with wood, or has a knack for growing things, or a seemingly innate sense of the right thing to say when someone is sad.

Emilie tending to the garden last summer. Our garden is much bigger this year!

These skills and strengths are every bit as important as academic skills, and if we can stop the knee-jerk reaction of thinking that intellectual work is somehow superior, if we valued the unique strengths of every individual around us, both children and adults, I can’t help but think it would be a better world.

Unschooling gives us an excellent opportunity to value those unique strengths, and encourage kids to develop all kinds of important, exciting, and nourishing life skills.

My sister is 20. I'm 23. We're both still figuring out a lot of things, still struggling sometimes. I'm deeply passionate about food and cooking, and though right now I'm just working hard to get my health to a place where I feel I'm able to work a "real" job, I remain excited about working in that field.

My sister Emilie was asked to be the manager and caretaker of a fledgling intentional community being dreamed up by her Ninjutsu teacher (as well as friend and sometimes employer) and others. Though the land isn't bought yet, her near-future "duties" would be to do a lot of the learning and skill-gaining related to sustainable building and gardening practices, something that a lot of the older working people involved with the community don't have the time to do. In the longer run, some of the things she'd do would be organize who was there when, bringing in and managing volunteers to help build it, and living on the land during the week when those who still worked in the city couldn't be there. Basically an opportunity that perfectly suits her desires and skills! I'm excited for her, and I'm hoping it all works out. Even if it doesn't, she's still striving towards her dream of homesteading and sustainable community living.

Which I guess just shows to me that there is a place for those skills, for people whose strengths and passions are less of the academic persuasion and more about the domestic, hands on, emotional, and "life skills" realms, even if they can be difficult to find sometimes.

There are many skills that help us function and succeed in this world, whatever success looks like to the individual. Some of them are academic and some are not. They're all valuable, helping us in different aspects of our lives, some of which will help with earning money and some not. Regardless, they're all important. They all contribute to making life better, making life richer, and helping us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

In valuing all skills, not just the school ones, we're helping kids do well in all different parts of their life, and opening up doors to a wider range of possibilities.

I think that's one of the most important, and personally exciting, things we can do as unschoolers!

(1) I say this based on the findings in Women in Non-Traditional Occupations and Fields of Study by Kathryn McMullen, Jason Gilmore and Christel Le Petit from statistics Canada, and Women and Education by Martin Turcotte, the latter of which commented that, out of six trade groups (building construction, electrical, electronic and related trades, food and services, industrial and related mechanical trades, metal fabricating, and motor vehicle and heavy equipment), the only one in which women are a majority was food and services.

Monday, July 6, 2015

So You Want to Leave College. Now What?

I want to leave college--or just not go to begin with--but how do I start? Is a question I get fairly frequently.

As a lifelong unschooler, my transition into life learning in the college years felt like a natural progression, which has definitely coloured my view of college free learning, and how I’ve approached it. In light of that, I wanted to share the things that have been most helpful in my own journey thus far, just tailored towards those who haven’t come from the same background I have.

So, you want to leave college. Where do you start?

Find Uncollege Inspiration
Read books and blogs about learning without school. Watch TED talks on the subject. Google away, learn about the experiences of other college free learners, what they found worked and what they found didn’t, and from all that you’re taking in, focus on what sounds best for you. My choices might not be your choices, and you should never feel the need to follow advice that sounds like it doesn’t meet your needs or reflect your situation. Get inspired, and go with what sounds like a great college-free experience for you.

Figure Out the Practicalities
If you’re not going to college, what will your life basically look like instead? Will you live with your parents, rent an apartment, travel the world? Do you need to work, and if so, how will that tie-in with or be balanced with your uncollege pursuits? What resources (universities, community groups, maker spaces, libraries, art studios, etc.) are available in your community (or in the community you plan to relocate to)? Know the confines you’re going to be working within, so you can figure out how you want to proceed with your life learning over the next little while.

Find YOUR Inspiration
So you’re not going to college. What do you want to do instead? You can focus as broadly or narrowly as you want, on as academic or as hands-on pursuits as can be imagined. This can be overwhelming, which is why I think a great place to start is just free form research into whatever you’re interested in--or think you might be interested in. Read books on paleontology or writing, watch videos about dog training or coding. Reading blogs by people doing something you might want to do can be one of the best ways to see if you want to pursue something similar, in my experience. You don’t have to immediately find your “passion,” you don’t ever have to settle on just one thing. Just come up with a few ideas that you like, then see what books are at your local library, what activities you can get involved with in your local community, or who you might want to approach for mentorship.

Build a Support Network
If you’re going to skip college, you’re going to need some support. How much or how little will depend on your personal needs, but whether it’s supportive parents or friends, online communities, mentors in a chosen field, or a great local group who share a common interest, finding people who want to cheer you on and help you out is invaluable. Otherwise it’s just too easy to get bogged down in disapproval from less positive corners who think you should really just get a degree instead.

Check Out Your Local College or University
Even if you’ve decided you don’t want to enroll in college or university, they can provide really great communities, and often have a lot of associated groups, clubs, and events open to the general community. Through two big universities in my city, I’ve gone to numerous education workshops, as well as canning workshops, dance classes, artisan fairs, and more. Colleges can provide a really accessible network of young people, and lots of readily available ways to learn about important and relevant goings on in your area. So if you’re lucky enough to live near one, see what it has to offer!

Push Yourself Outside Your Comfort Zone
We all have different things that will feel scarier or more intimidating, even if we want to do them. Maybe now is a good time to explore those things, and start taking steps--small ones, if you need to--outside of your current comfort zone. Personally, I can end up becoming way too much of a shut-in, focusing on writing, baking, and following my daily routines, and I need to make sure I go out and do cool things, take classes that scare me a little, try something new, take time to travel (a good growth experience if ever there was one), and keep my life more varied and rich than it would otherwise be. Working to expand our comfort zones is always a good idea!

Make Something
In lieu of grades (a measure of accomplishment that I think has major problems), creating things can be a really great way of seeing your own progress, keeping records of what you’re spending your time doing, and making something that other people can benefit from. And when I say “something,” I mean almost anything: a blog, book, or ebook; YouTube videos; a short documentary; songs; a website or basic videogame; a photography portfolio; a bookshelf or chicken coop or garden… Find something you want to try doing, do it, make some record of yourself doing it, and think about sharing either your process and experience or the finished project (depending on what it is) with others. Wash, rinse, repeat. Don’t treat your education as a performance for others, and don’t choose your activities based on how good they’d look online. But sharing what you do can be an incredibly rewarding and useful way of improving your work and providing something valuable for other people.

Keep a Personal Inspiration/Motivation/Self-Care Journal
I first got this idea from a fellow college-free learner, who simply kept a Google document filled with quotes, passages, and thoughts that kept them feeling inspired about their learning lifestyle. I have a “self care” tag on my Tumblr blog to help me stay positive when I start to panic, and I keep a paper inspiration/self care journal which, though I don’t write in it as often as I’d like, nevertheless makes me happy. It can be hard doing something unconventional, and outside disapproval can really weigh you down, so creating something to remind you of your worth and the worth of your choices is a great thing to have when you start to wonder if you’re really doing the right thing.

Remember You Can Always Change Your Mind
Choosing not to go to college can feel like a Really Big Thing, both to you and the people around you. But all it is is a decision to not go to college right now. If at any point you decide that maybe you do want to go--or go back--to college, you can, whether it’s a year from now, or 5 years, or 20. I feel that one of the biggest perspective shifts in embracing life learning is realizing that there are no timelines of when you “should” be learning or doing certain things. The only timeline is your own, based on what’s right for you at any given time. So try not to panic: just take things one step at a time, don’t decide things aren’t working just because life learning doesn’t look exactly the way you thought it would, but also don’t feel locked into your choices, and know that you can always shake things up and change your mind about the whole college thing.

Ultimately, I can’t really tell anyone else how to unschool the college years any more than I can tell anyone else what to do with their lives: the two are the same. All you’re doing is trying to live life richly and well, follow your curiosity and devote yourself to exciting projects.

Unschooling college is saying what do I want to be doing right now, and what are the skills and resources I need to do it? And repeating that process a dozen, a hundred times, whenever you find something new to explore.

It can be overwhelming, and scary, and hard. It can be easy to compare yourself to others, both in and out of college or university, and worry that you’re lacking. But if you keep the focus away from comparison, and away from trying to live up to outside standards of what you should be doing, you can make the space in your life to create an education--and a life--that you’re proud of.

Want more inspiration, or to find out more about my own college-free experiences? See Unschooling for Adults; I Don't Want to Build My Own Curriculum, I Just Want to Live My Own Life; and Valuing a Different Kind of Education.

Friday, June 26, 2015

I'm Here and I'm Queer

I’ve been wanting to write this post all of June, since it’s Pride month, and today on a day when my social media dashes are blowing up with rainbows over the legalization of same-gender marriage in the United States seems like a pretty good time!

First thing you should know? I’m queer.

What does that mean to me? Basically that I have the capacity to be attracted to, get crushes on, and fall in love with people of any gender.

I’m pretty much as “out” as I can be in most areas of my life. I even make a point of saying I’m queer on my unschooling Facebook page every now and then, and I lose “likes” every single time.

I’ve had people say it’s inappropriate to talk about “what I do in the bedroom” which is such a ridiculous statement, since I’ve never said anything more than I did just now in this post.

I’m queer. I’m into people of all different genders.
It’s not about sex: it’s about who I like and love, and how welcome--and how safe--I feel in any given group. It’s about the internal struggles I’ve had to go through to accept this part of myself that I didn’t see reflected anywhere around me, that caused a lot of anxiety and fear and a little bit of shame, too. It’s about how I present myself, how I want to be seen and understood, how I experience the world. It’s a part of my identity.

My queerness doesn’t wholly define me. Of course it doesn’t. But it is part of what defines me as a person, a piece of the Idzie puzzle.

And as with many positive things in my life, unschooling had something to do with where I’m at now. More specifically, the unschooling community, and all the queer friends I made in it at a crucial time in my life. I was really questioning my identity in my late teens, and there were so many patient, supportive new friends who listened to my fears, validated my feelings, and assured me that I didn’t have to attain some pinnacle of queer perfection to identify as such.

Basically? I met a bunch of people who understood what I was feeling, and who welcomed my confusedly queer self with open arms.

So on this day, a landmark occasion in the US, I figured I’d take the time to be even more out, and to remind people that you’re surrounded by LGBTQIA+ people, whether you know it or not. Don’t make assumptions about who people are and who they like based on their perceived gender. Don’t assume your children are straight and cisgender. Leave space in your words and actions for people of all stripes, so that when someone you love is ready to start sharing more of their true selves, they’ll know you’re there to listen and support them.

Happy Pride month everyone!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Learning by Doing: Education Made Real

My sister got a new cookbook, all about making hot beverages: coffee, teas, flavour infused milks, hot punches. We looked through it together, quickly got excited about a recipe for spiced Moroccan coffee, and before we knew it we were pulling out the cinnamon and cardamom, toasting sesame seeds and readying my trusty little French press. It wasn’t long before we were settled down together, delighting in our tiny cups of spiced coffee, sweetened and mellowed by sugar and milk.

I share this afternoon activity because I found myself thinking, as I was sipping my beverage, that this was a perfect, small scale example of just what I’ve been wanting to write about for the past week, which is the importance of learning and doing always being connected to one another.

When I think about learning, more often than thinking about the processes involved, I think about the feelings. Excitement, focus, joy. When I was small, learning was doing. Reading about medieval Europe quickly turned into me and my sister digging through drawers to create our very own English peasant looks. An astronomy show sent us out into the night to spot constellations. A discussion of poetry lead to us settling down with notebooks and pens, furiously scribbling haiku. We learned about plants and trees and wildlife from going on hikes, bird watching, and catching frogs.

Exploring a topic or a skill meant actually exploring it, in immediate, hands on ways. Our house was frequently filled with science experiments and playacting, building and writing, painting and gardening. I think I was in my teens before it really occurred to me that most children had a very different experience when it came to the learning they were supposedly doing in school.

The realization that people learn better when they’re involved in hands on ways with various subjects is well known in education circles. A quick perusal of the popular education blog MindShift shows posts on the various ways that hands on, project based, and physical learning benefits kids of various ages. However, opportunities for students in school to experience this type of learning--nevermind experiencing it in the all-important context of self-chosen and self-directed projects and activities--are few and far between, still seen more as something highly experimental and innovative than the way all learning should be.

In that light, it feels even more special to me that my learning has always been that way. I’m so grateful that the associations I have with the word “learning” are all so very positive: delight and excitement, curiosity and exploration, immersion and just plain old fun.

I feel the same kindling excitement today, when I put together a new style of coffee with my sister, as I did when I used to rush out to watch how the ants in my yard behaved after watching a fascinating nature documentary. Trying new things, watching and doing and experiencing is fun, whether it’s in the kitchen, the backyard, or anywhere else.

I’d prefer all my learning to feel like it did when I was a child: tactile and immediate and exciting. That doesn’t mean I eschew hard work, just that I prefer my projects and my education to feel more real and personal. More hands on.

I think part of the reason I’ve stayed so enthusiastic about all things education--and the accompanying writing and speaking I do about it--is because I’ve held on to a lot of the attitudes about learning that I had as a child. I want to share how amazing--and amazingly simple--learning can be, without all the artificial construction of “learning experiences” that fill most schools (and some homeschools). Learning is one of the simplest things we can do (though not always the easiest or most effortless), because all you need to learn is to do. Small things and large; daily activities and all-encompassing, months long projects; writing and building; making food and budgeting for a trip; the things you need to do and the things you want to do…

We all learn and remember what matters most to us, so having a real connection between the abstract and the concrete, between the theoretical and the practical, is what builds a bigger picture in our learning. What makes an “education,” some might say. When you’ve cultivated an unschooling lifestyle, those connections are being made all the time, in everything you learn, everything you do. Our education becomes real in the truest sense of the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Don't Want to Build My Own Curriculum, I just Want to Live My Own Life

I read a lot of posts by young adults who skipped college in favour of self-directed learning, from both unschooling and traditionally schooled backgrounds. It’s pretty exciting for me to see people discovering unschooling at all different ages, and I love that so many young adults are embracing it! I love to read about the discoveries and experiences of fellow happily unschooling 20-somethings. But I find myself noticing lately how often “uncollegers” talk about the process of their learning, the detailed plans and self constructed curriculum, and I’m struck by how very different my outlook is. It gets me thinking about the positives--and the negatives--in my own learning, and how it compares to others’ experiences.

In some ways, I wonder if my own less structured approach is a sign of how long I’ve been unschooling, and how much deschooling I’ve done. Many seem to feel a strong pressure to create something school-like, something to point to and say “look, I’m learning, just like if I was in college!” This is a pressure which, while I sometimes feel it, it doesn’t really affect my learning. I’ve been an unschooler for so long that I’m very aware of how ever-present learning is, so I notice and appreciate how much I’m learning and growing without needing to justify the validity of my education, at least to myself.

On the other hand, I think a little more planning would do me good, and maybe a little more thinking about my learning. I’d like to have a posting schedule on my blog, and manage to convince myself that self imposed deadlines are still “real.” I’d like to get better at saving and organizing all the articles I read on a variety of subjects every day. I’d like to get better at networking with like-minded people in my local communities.

But when I start questioning whether I’ve been approaching my college free life learning in the best way, the conclusion I find myself coming to is that far more important than building your own curriculum, or getting caught up in all the details of your “education,” is understanding what you want from your life. Knowing your strengths, your weaknesses, your values, and what type of person you want to be. If you know the answers to those questions, from that base the paths to follow and the steps to take start to become a lot clearer.

I know that I’m good at communicating, and feel that that’s a big asset in my life. I’m not so good at consistently putting myself out there in the “real world,” networking, making friends, and getting involved in exciting projects. I find learning in front of other people scary, so I know that taking classes can be a really good way to stretch myself and overcome that fear. I write most prolifically when under the pressure of an imminent deadline, so I know that deadlines provide a certain helpful structure and much needed push when it comes to growing my writing career. I know that I pretty much always regret not trusting my gut, or making sure a situation or opportunity is in line with my values and with who I want to be as a person.

Yes, I need to get better at being organized, at being reliable, at producing even close to as much writing as I want to be doing. I’m working on it, struggling sometimes, finding moments of clarity other times. But whenever I start to flounder, detailed planning never seems to help much. Instead, going back to that base, those important questions, taking a deep breath, and setting a few attainable goals seems to be the best course of action so far. Different ways of learning work for different people, and I know for some, the excitement is in the details and organization. Just not for me.

I’m still figuring out what I want to learn and do day by day, and I think to some extent I always will be. As we all know, learning isn’t finite: it’s a lifelong journey, an endless series of experiences and choices.

My education outside of college isn’t perfect. My life is not exactly what I might want it to be right now. But it’s mine. It’s my choices, my experiences, my values and goals. And it’s something I value deeply. I’m not building a curriculum. Instead, I’m just busy figuring out what it means to live a good life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Building Life on a Foundation of Untamed Learning

I originally wrote this for possible inclusion in a magazine. It didn't end up getting accepted, so I'm sharing it here instead!

I never went to school. Or, to be accurate, I went to half a year of kindergarten before leaving to learn from life instead. My family practiced unschooling--sometimes called life learning--which basically means learning from parents and friends, group activities and classes, books and the internet and nature and everything else that comprises the day to day happenings of our lives. It’s learning that’s guided by the interests, goals, and needs of the individual and their family. Supported by parents and mentors, a life learning education isn’t confined by an externally imposed curriculum, by grades and test results and lists of what should be learned at what time.

It’s the opposite of standardized education. Instead, I’d say it’s untamed learning. And this way of learning has had a very large impact on my life.


When I look at the choices I’m making now, and at the type of life I want to lead, when I think about the activities I’m drawn to, what fills me with joy and a sense of purpose, and even my political views and world outlook, I find myself asking the question, how did I get here? Why do I think and believe what I do? What led me to this place? When I trace it all back, I always seem to find the roots in growing up as a life learner.

The ability for a child to freely follow passions is one of the core tenets of unschooling, if unschooling can be said to have core tenets. For years I was interested in anything to do with pioneer-settlers. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and I adored visiting a local living history museum. There was a textile mill, a smithy, a doctor’s office, a schoolhouse, a farm... I remember watching people bake bread, make candles, and milk cows. I loved getting to chase piglets at the farm and card wool at the mill. I even had a “pioneer” themed party for my eighth birthday, where we made candles by dipping wicks repeatedly into a pot of hot wax, and lanterns to place them in by hammering holes into old aluminum cans.

As I got older and learned more about the history of colonialism in North America, and the genocide and destruction settlers wrought across this continent, the way I viewed those pioneers certainly changed. But what had drawn me to that museum had never been the supposed pioneering adventure, it had always been the connection to the everyday necessities of life: building your own shelter and spinning your own yarn; growing and cooking your own food; caring for animals that provide you with fiber, and food, and even wax for candles. A life that felt connected to place, daily tasks that felt involved and immediate, not distanced and mediated by corporations and retail stores, until you never see where the products that support your life come from, and you never meet the people who grew or created them.

I recently laughingly told someone that my dream life--that of living somewhere both rural and wild, building community with friends and family, keeping goats and chickens, planting big gardens, and best of all, spending lots of time making delicious food in the kitchen--was largely the same as the dreams of my six, eight, and ten year old self. Time might have changed, but what excites me now in my early twenties isn’t all that different at all.

As a child, the choice to leave school was made solely by my parents. I was pretty indifferent to my brief kindergarten experience, and felt perfectly fine leaving after just a few months. I had a good childhood, filled with memories of taking turns reading poetry together as a family; learning about edible plants on homeschool group nature walks; catching frogs and grasshoppers; spending hours reading historical and fantasy novels; painting and playing and creating… I took the strangeness of the life I was leading--one without school buses and homework--largely for granted until I hit my teenage years and started to have doubts. It took a lot of personal research into radical education, along with some serious introspection, before I came to embrace life learning again.

In my teens I started questioning not just the necessity of schooling, but the necessity of many institutions and cultural practices that most people take for granted. Everyone thinks you have to go to school to “get an education,” which obviously isn’t true. So what else is everyone wrong about? Because of the way I grew up, I experienced learning, both hands on and more intellectual, as something joyful and exciting. Because I chose how and what and with whom I learned, I considered all different pursuits important, and for the most part I learned to value all different types of skills and knowledge (despite cultural messages to the contrary and the insecurity I sometimes still feel). Being trusted in my learning from a young age, I learned to trust my own thoughts and feelings, and perhaps that’s why I trace so many parts of my current identity back to the way I was raised. I see the influence of unschooling tangled into my thoughts on horizontal organizing instead of strict social hierarchies (hierarchies that begin in and are entrenched by the structure of both the traditional nuclear family and schooling institutions). I see it in my belief in the human potential for growth and change and living respectfully with each other. And I know that life can be more joyful than many people seem to think, because I’ve experienced what it’s like to live life on your own terms.

One of the definitions of “wildness” is that of being “uncontrolled and unrestrained,” and it seems when many people first hear about life learning, they automatically think that children must be running wild in the most negative definition of that term, without structure or what is believed to be much needed control.

In reality, life learning functions more like so many systems in nature function: there are routines, repeating cycles, stages of life, and surrounding environments that all shape an individual's day-to-day living and learning. It’s a lifestyle that sometimes feels calm and comforting, sometimes wildly exciting and exhilarating, and mainly something that just feels like living a rich life.

It is learning that’s uncontrolled by teachers or institutions, and unrestrained by externally mandated curriculum. It’s also learning that’s supported by parents or caregivers or mentors, who help an individual develop self-control and self-restraint of their own.

Untamed learning in the most positive definition of wildness.

It’s a good foundation, really, though building up from it can still feel incredibly daunting, frustrating, and difficult. I find myself still living in the suburbs with my parents, and struggling with how to create a financial reality that can support the type of lifestyle I most want to create for myself. I have to remind myself that every step brings me closer to where I want to be, and to focus on the parts of my life that feel good and right for me. It’s in the moments of flow when reading about the fascinating subject of fermentation, or the joy of kneading bread, or burying my fingers in cool soil that I feel the sparks of rightness. This is how life is supposed to feel, I think. It feels like the hours of make believe I spent as a child, like the unadulterated excitement of learning about something new. It’s that connection to the practices that shape my life, it’s about how authentically satisfying real work feels, and it’s about always pursuing the subjects and skills about which I’m most passionate. Life and learning that’s truly untamed, shaped by our communities, shaped by the natural seasons, by the stages we all grow through in life, and by the unique experiences and interests we all have and hold dear.

I’m always going to be a life learner, and it’s in this lifestyle and practice that I feel I can best create the type of life I most want to be living.

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.
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