Monday, June 13, 2016

Unschooling Subjects?

People just discovering unschooling often have a lot of questions. How do unschoolers learn what they need to? Do schools really have the right idea in dividing everything into separate subjects? And can unschooling really work for every individual? My short answers would generally be lots of different ways; no; and every child can unschool, but not every parent or situation is compatible with unschooling. However, I really think I need to go a bit more in-depth with those answers…


When you really start immersing yourself in unschooling, you start to see that, barring any learning disabilities, it's easy to absorb all the basics from everyday life. Sometimes it can be helpful to observe just how seamlessly those subjects are being learned, even though eventually, you probably won’t think of learning as being broken into subjects at all!

  • Reading is learned from being read to, dictating stories to a helpful adult or older sibling, playing word games, picking out books at the library, deciphering a video game manual or board game instructions, using computers…
  • Writing is learned from reading, creating stories, communicating with friends online, blogging...
  • Math is learned through playing card and board games, helping with shopping, managing their own money, helping with budgeting, cooking and baking…
  • History is learned through conversations with friends and family, books and movies and tv shows (both fiction and non-fiction), looking things up on the internet...
  • Geography is learned from traveling and making friends online with people all around the world, keeping track of current events (online, through news on TV, and newspapers)...

When an unschooler wants to gain higher proficiency in any of these things, they can dive into researching something they’re interested in, find mentors or teachers (with parental help, depending on age and what the learner wants and needs), and take online classes or in person ones (at a homeschool co-op, college, or offered to the wider community). After all, unschooling simply means self directed (adult facilitated) learning. It doesn’t mean you have to eschew all structure, it just means that the learner should be calling the shots (in partnership with supportive adults in their lives).

...Maybe not

As you gain greater comfort with the unschooling lifestyle, you start to find that breaking everything down into distinct subjects--and trying to find or create learning in every moment--is extremely limiting. Reading is writing is history is art is geography. Learning is in large part the process of making connections, following the threads and seeing where they lead, what they intersect with, and how they affect each other. When we try to set firm boundaries between various subjects, all we do is impede those connections, restraining and interrupting the natural curiosity and desire to build an ever more complete picture of the world and our place in it. If we’re going to call anything “education,” perhaps it shouldn’t be about schooling at all, but instead about our continuous process of building and re-building that picture, looking at it from different angles, adding and subtracting from it as we learn and grow and change.

Learning is such an endlessly complex process, that to try and break it up into firm subjects seems almost absurd.

Everyone is born a self-directed learner

A lot of time I hear those who have limited familiarity with unschooling say that this type of learning helps children “learn how to learn,” and my reaction to that is always that everyone knows how to learn! Children need supportive people in their lives, circumstances that allow those people to invest the time those children need, and access to resources, but if you have those important elements, everyone is capable of unschooling. Obviously, those circumstances can be hard to find in our capitalistic culture, where many people just don’t have the financial ability for a parent or trusted adult to stay with children. My point isn’t to minimize that, just to point out that humans are built to learn, that we all have the innate abilities needed to do so, and that while external factors might get in the way, if the circumstances are right then we’re ALL unschoolers.

ALL children, you say? What about children with learning disabilities, or neuro-atypical children, or other children with special needs? It’s the job of an unschooling parent or guardian to help their children gain the skills and find the resources they need to achieve their goals, which can absolutely include specialized tutoring, therapy, support groups, or other services. Remember: unschooling is all about self-directed learning, cultivating learning partnerships between children and their parents/guardians/mentors/teachers, and using a variety of resources as wanted and needed. The nature of unschooling means that each learner’s “education” will be completely different, and can bend and adapt to the unique needs of everyone involved.

So there won’t really be a collection of subjects that every unschooler studies. There won’t be one standardized body of learning that every child has. But when it really comes down to it, the world is a very big place, and each person can only ever hope to learn a fraction of what’s out there to be learned. It seems to me that the best we can do is accept that fact, and work to support each individual in living a life and creating an “education” that feels meaningful to them, and equips them with whatever skills they need and want.

We can look at how various subjects are learned in different unschoolers lives, we can use examples to explain how it works to prospective unschoolers and naysayers alike, and we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we (or our children) are learning some of the same everyday skills that children in school are (supposed to be) learning. But in the end, it would probably do everyone a whole lot of good if we stepped away from the idea that everything can and should be broken into subjects, and that every individual needs to learn the same things in each of those subjects.

Learning is too big for that, and it makes a whole lot more sense to just take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Being A Good Parent--And A Good Person--Means Being Pro-LGBTQ

In the early hours of this morning, a man with an assault rifle walked into a gay night club and opened fire. After a several hour standoff with police, it ended in his death, as well as the deaths of at least 49 LGBTQ people who were partying in a place where they thought they were safe. Over 50 people were rushed to hospital, meaning the total death toll is likely to rise.

Over the coming hours and days, news outlets will be rife with speculation, as the investigation continues and new facts emerge. Already there’s lots of talk about it being an act of “Islamic terrorism,” with none of the news outlets seemingly capable of focusing on anything else. I know that, regardless of what the shooter’s religion was, I won’t be blaming Muslims, or people of any other religion, as the impetus behind this horrific massacre. The shooting occurred at a gay night club, during Pride Month, in the early hours of the US celebration of Pride Day. This was a hate crime, targeting a minority that, despite the progress made in the last decades, continues to face incredibly high rates of violence, especially the most vulnerable among the LGBTQ community (queer people of colour, trans women and especially trans women of colour). It’s not surprising to me that the largest mass shooting in the US since 1890 targeted LGBTQ people.


The blame might not lie with any religion, and I fear greatly for the repercussions Muslims, including LGBTQ Muslims, will face in the coming weeks, as once again a huge population is blamed for the actions of a single person. But the blame does lie with more than just the single shooter: it lies with a culture of homophobia and transphobia, and with every single non-LGBTQ person who with their words and actions contributes to a culture of violence against myself, and everyone else in my community of LGBTQ people.

I live in a country (Canada) and a province (Quebec) where it’s better for LGBTQ people than plenty of other parts of North America. Better, but not good. Trans people have to run a bureaucratic gamut to change their legal markers, and face a tremendous amount of transphobia from a frequently ignorant or even hostile medical establishment. All LGBTQ people still face homophobia from society at large, in popular media, in schools, in homeschooling groups, in almost every group not specifically designed for LGBTQ people (and sometimes even in those groups) that you can find. In times when I presented in a more gender-bending way, I had people on the street yell at me about my sexual orientation. LGBTQ friends have all been harassed in greater or lesser ways.

Violence always exists on a spectrum. At the extreme, it manifests as the largest mass shooting in the last 100 years of American history. But leading up to that exists a wide range of acts that nurtured that shooter. I blame everyone who’s ever sneered the words “faggot” or “dyke” or “tranny.” I blame every person who ever talked primly of “those people” with their “unnatural lifestyles.” I blame every parent who ever told their children that gays were “sinners.”

Because it all starts with parents. The choices you make, the attitudes you model, the words you say, they shape the future. Your words can be the difference between a child who knows they are loved unconditionally, and a child who hates an essential part of who they are with such horror and disgust that they kill themselves. Your attitudes can be the difference between raising a child who embraces their friend when they come out, and raising one who buys a semi-automatic weapon and opens fire in a crowded room filled with strangers they genuinely believe deserve to die.

Or maybe it won’t be that extreme. Maybe they’ll simply be the kid who sends me a message online telling me I’m going to hell. The one who calls my friend and his boyfriend faggots.

Parents don’t have all the power. Our culture is homophobic, our culture is transphobic. We will be affected by this, every single one of us. A young queer person with the most loving and supportive of parents can still feel that there’s something wrong with them because of their sexual orientation. The straight teenager raised by parents who always spoke positively about LGBTQ people can still learn it’s okay to use the word “gay” as an insult.

You don’t have all the power. But you do have such an important role to play in helping create a more just and loving world.

When I read the news earlier today, I sat and cried. Those people who were murdered early this morning, almost 1,500 miles away, were a distant part of my adopted family. I haven’t been able to get this imaginary image out of my head all day, an image of a dark bar, dozens of bodies scattered across the floor, screaming and crying and a bone deep terror I pray I never get to feel. I’m heartbroken.

And I’m begging you, please, no matter what religion you follow, to stop contributing to this violence. You might think your words are so far removed from this horrific act as to be entirely disconnected, but you would be wrong. Your words build on the words of others, your actions pool with those of your neighbors, your family, your friends. Isolated ideas gather strength as they join with others, building momentum until they are laws allowing health care practitioners to turn away a gay man having a heart attack so he can die on the streets; they become pastors preaching damnation; they become a transgender girl shunned by every age mate she knows for the way she dresses and the name she asks to be called; and they lead to the death of at least 50 innocent LGBTQ people who just wanted to celebrate Pride.

Please, be a voice not just for tolerance, but acceptance, and support. Speak up, stand up, raise up powerful LGBTQ voices, and work to end every tragedy, big and small, perpetrated every day against our community.

I want everyone to do better. Because I never want something like what happened in Orlando, Florida, to ever happen again.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Fun is More Important Than "Education"

I read a new post on how “fun for the fun of it” is good enough by Wendy Priesnitz, and it got me thinking.

I like to talk about how we’re constantly learning--how we can’t help but do so--and how unschooling is really just embracing that fact.

But just as important is realizing that we don’t always have be learning.

Bear with me for a second.

As adults, you probably enjoy doing a whole range of activities for pleasure: watching movies, listening to music, reading novels. Adults aren’t expected to justify these activities, it’s just accepted that they’re enjoyable, and that’s considered enough of a reason to do them.

Yet somehow when it comes to children, all that changes. “Education” must somehow be crammed into everything, from games to children’s TV shows. Even something as fundamental to childhood as play has to be defended by experts attempting to prove that it increases concentration, test scores, or the ability to work well in a group. Apparently if there was nothing pointing towards a correlation between play and success in school, play would be deemed useless altogether.

It seems that, in some ways at least, adults are actually given more leeway to have fun. Children are kept so busy by parents and teachers, determined to mold them into productive members of society, that some of the truly important things in life get pushed aside. Because when it really comes down to it, what are we trying to cultivate in our lives and that of our children? Is it perfectionism, competition, and academic achievement, or is it joy, creativity, and meaningful relationships? I know which goals sound better to me.

Me, my sister, and my mother.

Yes, talking about TV shows--about the plots and character motivation and how it compares to real life--might be “educational,” but at least as important is that watching a favourite show is fun. Reading novels might improve vocabulary, but the real reason we do so, no matter our ages, it because of the delight fiction brings us.

Play for play’s sake, fun for the sake of nothing more than fun, is valuable. Really valuable. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing with my sister, and some of my best adult memories are of laughing uproariously with those I love. Doing both fun and meaningful things is what makes us feel satisfied with our lives.

Unlike some homeschoolers have suggested, unschooling isn’t about sneakily teaching children what the parents want them to know: it’s about centering life, not education. It’s evaluating your priorities and realizing that learning runs parallel to a richly lived life, and doesn’t need to be artificially engineered in children’s lives.

When you realize that, you can let go and enjoy life, and allow your children to enjoy theirs. Play games, splash in the mud, watch TV, read comic books, do whatever it is that brings you and your children joy.

Have fun, and the learning will take care of itself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Classes, No Teachers, No Books? The Reality of Structure in Unschooling

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen article headlines proclaiming “Unschooling: No Classes, No Books!” I always shake my head in frustration.

I suppose when people hear that unschooling is not school, they jump to the conclusion that any and all even vaguely school-like trappings of classes and teachers--or even books, apparently--must be thrown out the window. Not school must mean nothing that looks like traditional learning, and nothing that looks like structure.

The reality, though, is quite a different story.

Unschooling might be against such school trappings as forced memorization and compulsory classes, but it’s not against individuals choosing to learn in whatever ways they feel work best for them. In fact, that’s kind of what unschooling is all about! It’s the ultimate in individualized and personalized learning, which means while the lives of some individuals will look very carefree and unconventional, the lives of others might look very traditionally “educational.”

Unschooling is characterized not by its lack of structure, but by its flexibility.

There are classes. As children me and my sister went to co-op classes and French classes and science classes. In recent times I’ve been to dance classes. My sister has been taking Ninjutsu for years, which at this point in time means two classes a week with an extra practice day thrown in. Unschooling is self-directed learning, which means you choose what classes you take (or don’t take). What it isn’t is learning only by yourself with no help. I’d hope that everyone can recognize that learning in group settings can be helpful and fun for some people some of the time. Would I like to only ever learn in class settings? Definitely not. But sometimes, it’s really great, and no one should ever believe that unschooling means shunning a specific type of learning just because it looks traditionally educational. It’s all about choosing what works best for you.

There are teachers. Not only present in classes of various sorts, but also in one-on-one situations. Sometimes the best way to learn something is by seeking help from someone skilled, which means a teacher or mentor of some sort. It may end up looking like a familiar school teacher-student relationship, or as is more often the case, it might hopefully be a more mutually respectful and reciprocal relationship. I have learned so much from other people: learning in isolation would be a sad and, well, isolating thing indeed. But by freeing ourselves from the need to be taught, I (perhaps ironically) feel that we can become much more open to all that is to be learned from those around us and those we seek out, both professional teachers, “experts,” and community members.

There are books. In some cases, lots of books. In my house, the house I grew up in, there are two over packed bookcases in the living room; a bookcase stuffed with cookbooks in the kitchen; two bookcases in my bedroom; one in my parents room; two bookcases plus towering, precarious stacks shoved everywhere they can possibly fit in my sister’s room; and I don’t even know how many more bookcases are scattered around the basement. Point being? Between us, my family owns a whole lot of books. The internet provides lots of useful information and access to a ton of terrific essays and stories, but there’s still a lot to be said for both novels and nonfiction books. It seems absurd that I should even have to say this, but generally unschoolers like books a lot. While some people are never going to really enjoy reading books for pleasure (or will be unable to due to learning disabilities), the vast majority will at the very least use books when appropriate to get the information they need.

We’ve established that some unschoolers will appear more “school like” in their pursuit of knowledge, or in the ways they choose to structure their learning. But while that may be one sort of “structure,” even for the most freeform unschoolers out there, the patterns of life will create a structure of sorts. Daily habits and rituals, visits and activities, will build a scaffolding for the unschooling life, a structure that evolves and changes over weeks and months to support the needs of each individual and the family as a whole.

Unschooling doesn’t mean doing away with any structure whatsoever: it means creating a structure based on the needs of actual people, instead of following a structure designed for the needs of an institution.

This means that sometimes unschoolers will go to classes, seek out teachers, and read books. And sometimes, they’ll learn quietly by themselves, they’ll teach themselves a new skill, and they’ll play a video game.

However much or little structure their lives end up including, life learners are trying to open themselves up to as much of the world as possible. To pick and choose what works for them, and discard what doesn’t, all with the knowledge that they can always make different choices in the future.

And those choices will quite likely include classes, teachers, and books!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

For The Love of Learning: Exploring Unschooling With Pat Farenga, Pam Sorooshian, and Idzie Desmarais

I was happy to be part of a recent conversation on the online TV show For the Love of Learning, along with Pat Farenga and Pam Sorooshian. We covered many interesting topics, and I was left feeling like there was so much left we didn't get to explore. While I don't agree with everything my co-guests had to say, I was still blown away by many of their insightful comments and stories, and was thrilled to be included in such good company. I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I enjoyed doing it!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: A Gateway to Learning

This is the third and final installment of Unexceptionally Exceptional, which is the text from the talk I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference at the end of August. You might want to read part one and part two first: The Meaning of Success, and Time for Struggle, Time for Joy.

Downtime of all sorts can be valuable, and one of the way that manifests is in boredom.

I decided that me and my sister should sing a duet for the talent show because I was bored. I’ve been bored a lot in the past year, mainly because when things aren’t going great, I’m less likely to have a good routine going with regular activities, and more likely to feel restlessness.

So, in some ways the boredom I’ve felt has been a sign of things not going as well as they could be. But in other ways, boredom has always been a force of creativity in my life. As I wrote in a post on the Home School Life Magazine blog back in February:
“Boredom acts as a gateway, as the beginning of something new or different, or the introduction (or reintroduction) to a new hobby or passion, something that will go on to be an important part of our days. 
Or not. As important as the productivity that boredom can lead to, equally important is simply the space of boredom itself. The time for us to get past the initial restlessness or discomfort of not being busy, not doing, and settle into reflection, observation, stillness. We need the time to process and digest our learning, our experiences, and sometimes boredom can be a part of that.”
To struggle, to be bored, is part of the process of learning, and of healing.

I’ve never sung a duet in public before. I sung in a church choir and a homeschool choir when I was young, but my voice, when others are listening to me perform, has always been part of a crowd: a hopefully harmonious small part of the whole. I’ve sung in small groups, casually, where everyone is messing up and messing around, playing instruments they’re less familiar with and maybe trying out a new harmony. It hasn’t felt like much pressure.

But what I was suggesting to my sister when I turned to her and said “we should do a duet at NEUC” was scary. Everyone would be listening to my voice. They’d hear if I messed up.

But, I was bored that evening, and I wanted to sing with my sister, and once the thought crossed my mind and the words left my mouth, I became determined to follow through with it.

We sung Safe and Sound by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars.

Sometimes, too, boredom is the impetus to actually work through emotional shit. Keeping busy, always talking and working and doing, can be a way to hide from difficult emotions, to avoid facing difficult experiences. Boredom, an absence of busy-ness, has forced me to process what’s been happening in my life, to reflect, accept, and work towards moving forward.

And as I move forward, I find myself asking again and again, what is success? It’s layered and multi-faceted, and my definition is constantly changing. I’m working on being at peace with my life, with where I am right now.

I’m learning to move forward. I may still be grieving the loss of two cats who meant the world to me, yet I have two different cats who have now come to mean an incredible amount to me as well. I’m still not living the dream life, there are still so many things I might want to change. Yet the garden still grows, and my family still loves me.

My darling Bea, of the no-tail and too-many-toes.

Success isn’t something you can attain in one grand swoop. I’m reminded of an Allie Brosh comic, where the author in scratchy comic form is shown gesturing sweepingly towards a purple ribbon wrapped trophy on the mantlepiece. “That right there is my ability to be responsible” she says. “I won it when I was 25.”

People my age, whether unschooled or not, have so many flawed and conflicting beliefs about what it means to be a successful adult, and how that can achieved. I guess we’re all floundering, at least some of the time, and just trying to figure out what we’re doing.

Unschooling, too, is a practice of learning and un-learning and re-learning, trying to find a path to respectful relationships, a peaceful home, and joyful learning.

Ah, the joy. Because the thing is, no matter how hard some times in our lives might be, no matter that our lives might not always look how we think they’re supposed to, there’s so much joy.

Pursuing an unschooling life is pursuing joy. It’s cultivating the excitement of discovery; the satisfaction of doing hard things on your own initiative; the companionship of strong relationships and time spent with people you not only love, but like.

Me and my mommy.

I spend as much time as I do talking and writing about unschooling because, despite none of this being new to me, it still fills me with so much excitement. My mind spirals into thoughts of what I’ve learned, with great pleasure, to do: bake pies and ferment kombucha and grow zucchinis. I think of all there is that I’m going to get to learn in the future. I think about how learning feels: the playful, relaxed, yet deeply focused intent of doing something I truly love, something that hits the perfect sweet spot of challenging yet attainable. It feels like freedom. And it’s one of the best feelings there is.

How can I not consider that joy, in and of itself, a form of success? I delight in learning, and in sharing, and in making the tenets of unschooling a continuing part of my adult life.

This past year may have tested me in a hundred different ways, but I’m proud that I managed, through everything, to find those joyful moments.

It takes a shift in focus to start seeing the success in your own life. It’s hard. Do I ever know how hard it is! I struggle every day to truly value my unique education, to recognize how much I’ve done and am doing in my life. To really feel my success.

But whenever I force myself to stop and really look, I can see it. I see the learning, and the growth, and the joy, and I know that I’ll be okay. I’ve got this. I’m busy building the life I want one messy, difficult, enthusiastic piece at a time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: Time for Struggle, Time for Joy

This is part two of my talk Unexceptionally Exceptionally, which I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference a couple of weeks ago. I'd suggest reading part one, The Meaning of Success, first! Look for part three on Monday.

As much as I might often be seen as “successful” by unschoolers, this past year has not been one which looked very good from the outside, and one that often didn’t feel very good on the inside. This past year in my life has been rough. When I was writing the outline for this talk, I put down “the year of hell” as the heading for this section. For any Star Trek Voyager fans in the audience, you’ll remember the episode of that title, where in an alternate timeline, everything just keeps going wrong: aliens keep attacking; equipment breaks; people keep dying.

My own year of hell has been a time of great difficulty for my whole family. In December, a beloved cat who had been with my family for almost 14 years passed away unexpectedly. In January, my great aunt died. In february, my grandmother’s basement flooded, and shortly afterwards, she fell down the stairs, hitting her head on rough cement uncovered by flood repair work and getting a concussion. In March our other elderly cat, who had been with us just as long and been just as loved, got sick and died shortly after. In April, my father had surgery.

When I see people criticizing unschooling for its supposed sheltering of children from hard things, I laugh. My response to that concern, whenever it’s expressed to me, is that the world provides plenty of difficulty all on its own: no need for parents to artificially engineer misery in the lives of their children.

There’s a quote I really like by Alfie Kohn, who says:
“People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. On the contrary, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the real world is to experience success and joy, to feel supported and respected, to receive loving guidance and unconditional care and the chance to have some say about what happens to them.”
I guess my parents did something right, because I seem to have ended up as an adult who can cope with adversity. This past year success has felt like being there for my mother when her aunt passed away. It’s meant rushing out of the house in record time to meet my grandmother at the hospital, and bringing my father in for his surgery along with my sister, hiding the terror we were both feeling so we could joke with him while he waited. Success meant bringing my cat’s body to the veterinarian's office to be cremated, even though I wanted to just curl up at home and grieve, because she was my cat and it was my responsibility.

Sometimes success means simply doing what you need to do.

And, through it all, learning keeps happening. Not even in a growing from adversity way, though that can’t help but be part of it, but just through everyday exploration. Books are still read, questions Googled, words written, Ninjutsu classes attended, skills honed and projects completed.

A large part of unschooling is seeking joy in learning: embracing learning as a playful, exciting process. But it seems that in all our discussion of that joy, some people seem to take to heart that that’s all unschooling should and can be. I see people concerned that their house isn’t constantly filled with light, or that life sometimes gets in the way of living in a way that looks how they think unschooling is supposed to look.

I think that cooperation and exploration and yes, joy, should always be the goal: of course we all want that. But there needs to be the recognition that circumstances will sometimes intervene in surprising and on occasion devastating ways, and what happens through that might not looks like the ideal of unschooling, but it will be real, and genuine, and the learning will still be happening, every step of the way.

My year of hell has included a whole lot of time spent not in crisis, but simply in living.

“When life is busy testing your endurance, it seems like the perfect time to bring a bit more magic into your days.”

I wrote that line back in January, and that thought, that idea has come to mean a lot to me in the past year. More than any other time in my life, I’ve been reminded over and over again of the importance of finding joy each day, in all it’s forms and in any way you can. Bringing little pieces of magic, of inspiration, into even the most difficult of days.

For one thing, I could spend hours picking berries. The only thing that generally drives me back indoors is when I’ve found every last ripe one in whatever patch of brambles I’m delicately working my way through. Sometimes I hum to myself. More often I’m silent, moving slowly, listening to the soft rustle of branches, hum of insects, and birdsong. Even the thorns on my favourite black raspberries seem more like a challenge than an inconvenience.

Black raspberries.

A lot of what bringing inspiration into my life has meant is self care rituals: picking berries; making myself and anyone else who’s around a fancy coffee; making a beautiful plate of food; cutting flowers from our yard and putting a bouquet on the table; baking a loaf of bread… Much of my self care involves food, because that’s what’s important to me, but everyone will have things that make them feel grounded and nourished.

And a lot of what “magic” has meant to me has been learning. I haven’t taken any classes since last fall: nothing has been formal, and little has been with other people. Even turned inwards, as I’ve been, towards family and healing, I’ve found myself still learning constantly, in countless simple ways.

Gardening has been a big thing for me and my sister this Spring and Summer. My sister Emilie has spearheaded things, at times dragging me along, short on motivation, behind her. Conversations on car rides have been about the ideal soil composition for beans versus tomatoes, and how best to treat powdery mildew on zucchinis. There have been sweaty days spent building a large trellis out of branches and reclaimed posts for our winter squash, building raised beds, and transplanting small growing things. In more recent days, time spent in the garden has waned, as more and more that’s left to do is simply harvest, take stock of what we did wrong and right, and discuss how we want to do things next year.

The tomatoes did especially well this year.

Besides the garden, bringing two new cats into our home, in a desperate attempt to fill the holes left by our recently deceased furry family members, has lead to plenty of breed research and new discoveries about cat behaviour, as each new animal always presents new challenges and new joys both. I canned some jelly semi-successfully for the first time this summer--the canning part was successful, though the “jelly” was more syrup than anything else. I’ve learned more about areas of history I previously knew little about; I’ve learned to cook new foods; I’ve learned that I can step up when needed even when I’m personally struggling.

A whole host of learning, from how to handle an overstimulated kitten and how to create an ingenious tomato watering system, to deep personal growth.

Remaining aware of all the learning that keeps happening, no matter what, can be encouraging and soothing. When it feels like you’re “doing nothing,” it might be a good idea to pay more attention to all the things that you, and your family, ARE doing.

We live in a culture obsessed with productivity. Whether you want to blame it on capitalism or on the puritanical work ethic, the fact remains that busy-ness, doing something, is generally considered good, and not doing anything “productive” is seen as laziness, as wasted time.

The idea that time can even be wasted, that every moment should somehow be accounted for seems like a deeply toxic idea. It’s definitely proved a harmful one in my own life. I’ve struggled with mental illness for years, and this year has been a particularly trying one with all that’s happened, and I struggle with the idea that I’ve “wasted” so much time in struggle.

In a culture that sees a lack of productivity as one of the seven deadly sins, people who are struggling are often seen as lazy. They just need to get over it, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The reality is that big life struggles are sometimes inevitable, and there isn’t an exact recipe for how people are “supposed” to deal with adversity. Sometimes you just need time and space to heal, and to get back on your feet.

Our two new black cats, Silver and Bea.

Both children and adults need time to struggle with those big life events, to make sense of them.

One of the core tenets of unschooling is recognizing that everyone has their own timeline when it comes to learning. The same is true of emotional difficulties and growth. When we take constant productiveness as a measure of success, we’re doing a great disservice to ourselves and the people around us. Time is a great gift: time to figure things out, to grow, to process, to hibernate. Periods of downtime are essential, especially when life has been extra hard.

Part of learning to be kind to myself is learning not to beat myself up over a lack of productivity, not to punish myself for struggling. Sometimes picking a full container of raspberries is success enough.
As a grown unschooler, I might feel the pressure to excel in obvious ways especially keenly, but recognizing that the only timeline I’m on is my own allows me that space to breath, and when I’m kinder to myself, I’m more able to do and learn and grow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: The Meaning of Success

This is the first of a three part series exploring what success is and means, unschooling when the going gets tough, and finding joy in the simple things. The text is from a talk I wrote for the Northeast Unschooling Conference, and I've broken it up here into more manageable post lengths. Look for parts two and three on Thursday and next Monday! 

As I was preparing for this talk, I found myself thinking a lot about what success means. What it means in this culture, what it means to unschoolers, and what it means to me, personally.

Culturally, the most common middle class narrative of success runs neatly from elementary school and high school, through college, and straight into a well-paying office job.

Unschoolers, obviously, have strayed from that path right near the beginning. And I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all questioned whether that’s really the best--or the only best--path to follow. After all, as soon as you start re-evaluating the place institutional education holds culturally and in each of our lives, it’s a pretty natural step to start wondering if that education is really seeking the right “results,” or if we want to be focusing on different goals.

But, I often wonder if we haven’t just replaced one set of expectations with another one, which, while less rigid, still falls far short of encompassing all the ways that humans can create their own versions of success in this world.


It’s a day a couple of weeks ago. I’m curled up in the corner of the couch, knees tucked underneath me, the television playing something I’m not watching in the background. I’ve spent most of the day caught in a negative thought spiral of failed attempts and disappointments. In other words, it hasn’t been a good day. “I’m a loser.” I say. The words slip out without my thinking them through beforehand, but in that moment, I believe it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want a degree: I’m supposed to have one, aren’t I? I don’t have a “real” job, and despite the fact I’m earning a small amount of money doing something I care deeply about, or that ongoing health problems have gotten in the way of outside work, it seems like something I should have. It doesn’t even matter that, at the core of all my beliefs about people and politics and everything else lies the belief in equality, and that there aren’t--or at least definitely shouldn’t be--any ranking of people based on how well they’re “winning” at capitalism or success or anything else.

But in that moment, I’m convinced that I’m a failure.

Those moments are just that: moments, and ones that pass. But I’m reminded of how strong cultural messages are by how easily I can get caught up in (and dragged down by) those narratives, especially in moments of emotional difficulty and uncertainty. Unschoolers or not, I think many of us can’t help but be affected.

In the unschooling community, ideas about success are different. I usually feel like people consider me pretty successful in unschooling spaces: popular blogger and speaker definitely falls under the range of well-thought-of unschooling endeavors, right alongside world travel and entrepreneurship.

Writing, writing, writing...

It’s nice to see other accomplishments beside the typical college to good career track being recognized for their validity. But, the things that are viewed as successful by some vague yet very much felt unschooling consensus are things that, well, look good. Things that are somewhat performative, public, and easily seen. It’s the public intellectuals, the travelling writers, the startup superstars whom it seems we’re most proud of.

I think it’s no coincidence that the word “performative” was the first one that came to mind for me. Unschooling is often faced with such harsh criticism from uninformed non-unschoolers, and even legal difficulties in some places. When people first learn about unschooling, they don’t usually get an image of the type of lifestyle many of us have lived and are living. Instead, they see one of chaos and ignorance and maybe even neglect, You mean you don’t teach the kids anything?? How will they ever become productive members of society??

With that type of outside reaction, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the lives of teenage and especially grown unschoolers can get turned into performances of success, most clearly seen in what and who we choose to talk about. Individuals become not just themselves: uniquely flawed and skilled people with their own lives to lead, but results. A product of a pedagogy, instead of simply people who’ve lead a different lifestyle. We broaden the definition of success, yes, to include more varied options. But we still want it to look damn good.

I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice, or a deliberate ranking of some pursuits as more important than others, yet regardless of intentions, it can sometimes feel, as a grown unschooler, that you’re caughts between a dance of sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary pressures to prove unschooling success in one way or another, whether that means more mainstream or counter-cultural narratives. And when none of those paths looks like one you want to take, it can feel really difficult.

My sister, Emilie is a musician, a martial artist, an amateur Arthurian scholar, and a writer of fantasy fiction. I think she’s pretty impressive, as does pretty much anyone who knows her. But unlike my own life and work, which I’ve chosen to share in a very public way, her pursuits are much quieter. She’s an excellent writer, but she only shares her writing with a select group of trusted friends. She’s very close to getting her black belt in Ninjutsu, and her teacher, who’s moving, wants Emilie to take over her class. Her accomplishments are real and important, but they’re not necessarily ones that receive much recognition outside of the specific groups in which she practices her skills.

She makes adorable plushies, too.

Many people, unschooled and not, lead quieter lives, with less outgoing passions. In holding up the unschoolers doing TED talks or getting into prestigious colleges as the pinnacle of unschooling success, I feel like we might just be missing an opportunity to discuss, and to truly embrace, a vision of truly unique life learning. If we mean it when we say that all interests are valid and important, then we must follow that belief through to it’s natural conclusion, which would be that all life paths, as long as they’re not harmful to others, are also equally valid, no matter how they might look to outsiders.

If we’re to do that, it seems that we need to be making a lot more space in discussions of success for people whose success doesn’t follow the most popular forms.
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