Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer Rules?

There’s an image I see going around Facebook a lot lately. Titled “Summer Rules,” it sets a long list of requirements that must be met before children are allowed to “use electronics.” While I’ve certainly seen some dissenting voices, the overwhelming response seems to be one of great satisfaction. That’s the way to make kids live life right, people explain, congratulating each other on assuring that children make exactly the choices that the adults in their lives think are most appropriate, even during what, for many, is their one real break from school all year long.


As you’ve probably already guessed, I find this graphic frustrating at best, infuriating at worst. Why? Here are just a few reasons…

I already fail to meet this list of requirements every single day. My bed gets made at night, right before I get into it, because that’s my routine and there’s nothing wrong with it. I spend plenty of days in my PJ’s. My hair rarely gets combed out (the breakage! The frizz!), as a light finger combing that doesn’t unnecessarily disturb my curls is usually all that’s needed. I tend to brush my teeth while I open up my computer for the day, checking email and Facebook notifications while tending to oral hygiene. Ditto for breakfast. I get to make all these decisions for myself, because I’m an adult, but I also got to make these decisions for myself when I was younger, because my parents respected me. As I hope I’ve just made clear, doing all of these first section “rules” before electronics every morning, or even doing all of them every day, is pretty arbitrary. Yes, I get that we want children to be clean and to eat well and all that, but there are a whole bunch of better ways to encourage healthy habits besides holding electronics over children’s heads as bribes/blackmail.

Making some things “good” activities, and others “bad” (the old books versus screens dichotomy) is a great way to teach kids just that… But not necessarily in the direction you want. What is forbidden usually becomes more desirable. Screens! What is forced generally becomes less desirable. Books! Art! Playing outside! Tidying! Helping others! Is that really what anyone wants? When activities are instead presented as equally valid choices, when children are involved in family life, and when adults themselves are engaging in a range of different types of activities, children are going to be influenced by that. And sometimes? Sometimes they really love something and will want to spend all their time engaged in that something, and if we want to nurture passion, sometimes we’re going to have to accept that other people--children included--will be passionate about something we neither like or understand, and learn to be okay with that. No one gets to choose what someone else will love, whether they’re children or adults. Also? Lumping things like artistic creation and reading into the same category as cleaning is a good way to extra, super duper discourage them. Like, has anyone really thought that one through?

There are a whole lot of different uses for “electronics.” I’m going to assume here that the creator of the List Of Rules means computers and video games here, and not, say, a microwave, because they’re not very clear. If we’re talking about video games, see above on passion. If we’re talking about computers… Well. Some of the things people regularly do on the computer include: writing emails, reading (fiction and articles and essays and poetry), writing (blog posts or essays or fiction), watching YouTube videos (for both instruction and entertainment), playing games (strategy games and simulation games and puzzle games), talking to friends, creating art, participating in online discussions and forums, researching any topic you can imagine, looking for new hobbies or activities, looking at art… Whenever people decide to generalize “screens” or “electronics” I can’t help but be exasperated. You’d think that when we opened up our computers, there was just one option: Stare At Blue Screen Like Zombie. In reality, the amount of activities it’s possible to engage in on screened electronics is huge. It’s a really big window into a whole lot of the world, and dismissing it as bad, or deciding (as the above image seems to be doing) that virtually any activity off of screens is better than any on seems completely absurd.

Luckily, someone out there named Laura Sweet did a bit of fixing:

“Have you: Woken up today? Then you can enjoy summer like kids should.”

Now that’s something I can get behind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Regulating Unschooling? Only If There's No Testing Involved

As unschooling in particular and homeschooling in general become ever more widespread, the rumblings of unease from everyone not unschooling (or homeschooling) also seem to get louder: wait, why isn’t there more oversight? These families could be using this as a cover for educational neglect. Shouldn’t someone be testing these kids?

Ah, testing. Again and again it comes up as an answer to better controlling the homeschooling population. After all, isn’t that the best way to compare school free learners to those in school, and make sure they’re getting a real education?

It makes sense. If, that is, you believe that testing is an accurate judge of education… And that’s increasingly being called into question not only by fringe groups of educational radicals, but by ever more mainstream groups of people--teachers, parents, children, and concerned citizens--who see how increased standardized testing is harming learning and stressing children to the point of illness. The “opt-out” movement has gained traction across the US, and in it’s New York epicenter the last several years have seen over 20% of students refusing to take standardized state tests. In countless op-eds and articles educators, parents, and students expound on the flaws and failings of our mass cultural reliance on standardized testing.

If testing itself is failing in schools, institutions built by their very nature to standardize education in order to test it’s supposed efficacy, then why on earth would it be a good idea to export standardized tests to school free learners, as well?

The reason people choose to forgo schooling is because they want a different type of experience, one they’re not able to achieve in a traditional school setting. While some homeschoolers will re-create the trappings of a school education outside of the institution, many more (unschoolers most of all) are looking to leave schooling itself behind, believing that our modern method of education largely ignores the importance of self-directed learning, free play, internal motivation, building respectful multi age relationships, authentic work, and all the other marvelous benefits available to a child with supportive and available adults in their lives. When life and learning are inseparable, testing seems like an absurd intrusion on a natural process.

But how do you know they’re learning? critics cry. Well, that’s actually pretty simple. Firstly, a lack of curriculum doesn’t mean a lack of (learner chosen) goals, whether stated or not: to be able to read well enough to enjoy getting through Harry Potter; to go to space camp; to learn Japanese. Secondly, when not being taught to the test children will engage in authentic and clearly visible projects and activities: planting their own garden; writing a novel; building a video game. Thirdly, and most importantly, when engaging in adult supported self-directed learning there are strong relationships formed between adult and child, and the adult(s) sees the learning happening: in enthusiastic discussions; activities practiced together; books read aloud and shows watched together; in narrations of whatever was done in science club/book club/Scouts/4H/art class/martial arts, etc. When you live and learn together with children, you can’t stop seeing the learning happening.

This isn’t to say I’m 100% against any regulations of school free education. I’m just against any regulation that takes the model of schooling as an unquestioned success, and deems anything different to be suspect. I understand that self-directed learning seems strange and unmeasurable to many, and in all fairness it usually is unmeasurable and is sometimes strange (depending on your definition)! And I can understand fear of school free learning being used as a “mask” for child abuse, at least in that I’d hope that we all want children to be safe and happy, and would be concerned at anything we think might not support that. But in looking to regulate home educators, I think there are some important things to consider (and here I take inspiration from what my province’s largest secular home education organization is recommending to the Quebec government as it prepares new legislation):

  1. Most parents are deemed innocent until proven guilty. This makes sense, because the majority of parents are essentially decent. Yet when it comes to school free learning, suddenly some view parents in the reverse: guilty until proven innocent. There is no proof that school free children are at a greater risk for abuse, and in fact plenty of people turn to home education precisely because their children are experiencing abuse in school (from either other children or teachers). It seems pretty hypocritical to single out school free learners for scrutiny. Instead assume good intent: that the parents or guardians want their children to be happy and gain the skills needed to function in society, and only investigate if there are signs this isn’t the case/a complaint is made to the local child protection service. Bonus? Enact laws that protect all children from physical violence by outlawing corporal punishment, whether practiced in schools (still legal in many US states) or by parents.
  2. Recognize that there are many different “methods” practiced by school-free learners, and while it’s perfectly reasonable to expect parents to be able to express to an official why they choose not to send children to school and the type of learning environment they hope to create instead (whether they have a name for it or not), it’s not reasonable to expect home educators to recreate school at home. Doing something different is precisely why families are home educating, after all!
  3. Separate the stereotypes from reality. In many parts of North America home education is synonymous with conservative religious practice, but that’s never been wholly accurate, and is becoming even less accurate as ever greater numbers of families are choosing home education for secular reasons (whether they’re religious or not). If there are risk factors associated with certain groups--for instance the popularity of the horrifically abusive Pearl parenting method among certain segments of evangelical Christians, for whom homeschooling is also common--focus on that, not the entire home education demographic.
  4. Home educators frequently make good use of any and all resources available in their community. Isolation is the exception, not the rule, and many school-free learners would be quite happy to have access to resources in local schools as well. Think band, sports, labs… School boards are only the enemy when they insist on trying to get school-free learners to conform to a common curriculum, instead of respecting the differences inherent in an educational alternative.
In a world where education is--ever so slowly yet ever so surely--becoming more diverse and more individualized, school-free education is going to keep on growing. I think it now falls on those of us comfortable speaking out about our experiences to share them, and those who worry to truly listen, and begin the process of questioning their assumptions about education. Standardized testing in elementary and high school levels has never and will never be an accurate method for establishing whether authentic learning is happening, even inside of schools, and unschoolers as a whole want no part of it. Unschoolers seek to work with children, instead of against them, and perhaps it’s time the rest of society to take a page from our playbook and start working with educational alternatives instead of shutting them down. I have great hope that, with the progress alternative education ideas have made just in my lifetime, real change isn’t only possible, but inevitable.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

There's No Such Thing As "Self-Taught"

The term “self-taught” is bandied about a lot in self-directed education circles. People learning outside the strictures of formal institutions, classes, or tutors are deemed have taught themselves, taken on the internal role of both student and teacher.

And yet “self-taught” is not really a term I like or use myself.

To me, self-taught implies that learning happens in a vacuum. Alone, without external influences, without help, without the plethora of human resources available in this world. Unschooling is too often viewed, in my opinion, as something both insular and perhaps even lonely (that age-old “socialization” myth), along with being almost arrogant in nature: you think you know enough to teach yourselves? You certainly have a high opinion of your skills…

While there are really great aspects of independence that life learning obviously provides--after all, the whole point is self-directed learning, making your own decisions about what you choose to do with your time--I think there’s an important distinction to be made between independence and isolation. Between learning which is self-directed, and knowledge which is supposedly self-taught. The reality of unschooling is that it functions best within community, with the support of myriads of different people--sometimes even teachers! Besides, being “self-taught” may not even be possible. After all, even if you learn something from books, YouTube videos, or observation, someone wrote those books, filmed those videos, and is practicing their skills in a place you can observe them.

I’ve said it before, but as far as I’m concerned it bears frequent repetition: unschooling is about opening up more of the world to children than they’d generally encounter in school, not less. Spending time around a wider variety of people (ages, backgrounds, skills), not fewer. Life learning is truly a community venture, rooted in the unique places we inhabit, not a solo-expedition in self-teaching.

What do I personally like to emphasize, instead?

Delight-driven: Learning that starts with a spark, building curiosity, a burst of inspiration, excitement, delight.

Inquiry-based: Finding the answers to a question (or a hundred questions), the solution to a real problem, exploring the world with interest and thoughtfulness and wonder.

Self-directed: Choosing which pursuits are worth pursuing, who you turn to for support and direction, what you spend your time in doing.

Life learning doesn’t seek to turn everything into teaching, whether by yourself or others, and it certainly isn’t about going it alone and lonely (at least if you can possibly help it). Instead it’s about taking advantage of any opportunities available to you, if they seem important or interesting, and shaping a collaborative, self-directed education.

Doesn’t that sound a lot better than self-taught?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"That's Not Unschooling!" Tips on Sharing Unschooling Advice Kindly and Effectively

This post was originally published on Patreon in October 2016. Patreon is a crowdfunding platform I use which lets supporters like you pledge any amount you choose--from $1 to $20 or more--per month to support my work, and in exchange you gain access to my patron only online feed of exclusive posts, interviews, newsletters, behind the scenes updates, and more. Most of the posts I write for patrons will remain exclusive to Patreon, but sometimes, many months later, one of those posts will make its way here. I hope you enjoy this one, and I also hope that if you appreciate my work you'll consider becoming a supporter!

Something I see sometimes that makes me scratch my head: "We use a curriculum that's really unschooling friendly!"

...Which seems to be missing the point more than a little.

If a child chooses to do a curriculum of their own free will (as in, there wasn't strong parental pressure to do it) that IS still unschooling. But if the adults involved have chosen a curriculum and are forcing their children to in any way adhere to it--even if it's a “relaxed” curriculum, even if it allows children to choose from a list of pre-determined activities--that's still, well, schooling.

There is a strong cultural story of what school looks like. It has separate classrooms; separate teachers; knowledge is transferred in a neat one-way direction from teachers to students; there are clear distinctions between periods; clear separations between subjects; there’s a cafeteria and recess and homework to do afterward…

So when people choose to break away from this vision of school, and don’t create an exact replica of school inside of their own homes, I think it can be easy to think that what they’re doing must be UN-schooling. And I mean, it almost certainly IS better than school! An important step (many steps) away from mainstream schooling!

But it might not be unschooling just yet. And if a parent is enforcing any type of curriculum (no matter how loosely) on their children, it definitely isn’t.

This isn’t a criticism, so much as an observation of just how deeply we, as a culture, have internalized How Education Works based on a model of forced schooling, so that even when someone has shed the most obvious trappings of schooling (the classrooms, the periods, the different teachers for every different subject), they’re still usually harboring a lot of schoolish ideas. They’re still looking at things, as I once pointed out, through “school coloured glasses.” There might not be a whole cadre of professional teachers, but an adult still has to be planning lessons of some sort. There might not be periods divided by that old fashioned ringing of the bell, but there are still “learning activities” and activities from which children are apparently not learning (video games, anyone?).

For prospective unschoolers, it often takes a whole lot of deschooling, an unpacking of all the myriad beliefs of what learning is “supposed” to look like, and a gradual understanding of how freeform and ever present life learning actually is.

For those of us who are further along on that journey, whether by a little bit or a lot, I find myself often wondering--even after many years now interacting with new unschoolers myself--how to gently point out what isn’t unschooling, and suggest a change of direction to those who are looking to embrace life learning. It’s a continuous process of learning to do better, and I think I will always be working on being clearer and kinder in my communication, but there are some things I try to keep in mind. Note that I’m talking specifically about people who WANT to unschool, who are interested in learning more, and just don’t have a very accurate grasp of just what unschooling is yet. I am not talking about people who stubbornly insist they want to call their homeschool unschooling even when it’s anything but, and have no interest in moving further in a self-directed direction.

Now that we have that out of the way…

Be gentle. Maybe instead of a straight up “that’s not unschooling,” a softer yet still clear approach is better: “Unschooling is all about adult facilitated self-directed learning, so if you’re making your kids follow a curriculum or do workbooks when they haven’t chosen to do so themselves, I’d consider that to be eclectic or relaxed homeschooling. If you and your family are happy with that, then that’s fine. But if you’d like to move in a more unschooling direction, I’d love to share some resources with you or tell you a bit about how we do life learning in my family.”

There are so many great resources to share. Some of my personal favorite sites right now are Living Joyfully With Unschooling; Unschooling Mom2Mom; Offtrail Learning; and of course my own archives may also prove helpful.

Talk about your own breakthrough moments and successes. That time you realized your child had started reading without you ever trying to teach them to do so; how much more happy things became--and how much more learning you observed--when you ditched your curriculum; how focusing on relationships instead of “education” lead to a wonderful family project… Whatever it was that made unschooling “click” for you might help someone else in their own breakthroughs, all while keeping it focused on things that work for you, instead of telling the person in question what they’re doing wrong.

Give concrete suggestions. If someone is actively asking for help with a difficult situation, or bemoaning the fact their attempts at unschooling (based on their potentially flawed views on just what it is) isn’t “working,” it can be really helpful to make some suggestions. Unsolicited advice is usually a bad idea, but when people are looking for help, so many unschoolers have so much wisdom to share. And in my experience, phrasing things in the form of questions is often the most effective approach. “Have you tried looking at things from her perspective? I wonder how she feels about X thing?” “Are you focusing on your interests, too? It’s great for children to see their parents passionate about their own activities, and maybe he’d like to join you!” “Have you talked to them about how you’re feeling, and asked them how they feel? If you work on having open lines of communication, it will probably be easier to find a solution that works for everyone.”

I think there will always be times when we find ourselves frustrated with misunderstandings of how unschooling works and what it even is, but for those who want the benefits of a truly life learning educational experience, we’re in a wonderful position to share our own experiences and help all the new folks find their own unschooling groove, in a way that’s both kind and effective.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unschooling Helps Raise Critical Thinkers

When asked what education is supposed to do, what it’s supposed to instill in the minds of growing humans, one of the most common answers is “critical thinking.” After browsing through definitions from various dictionaries, all of which amount to essentially the same thing, I found Google’s version to be the most succinct: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”

That seems reasonable. We all want the people around us--and we want ourselves--to look at issues thoughtfully and come to conclusions through careful consideration, instead of snap judgements based on little knowledge.

But how do you foster that type of thinking? And are schools really the best place to do so? You can probably guess that my opinion on the latter would be a big “no.” So how do you encourage critical thinking outside of school? I have a few thoughts on the subject that have proven true in my own life...

When others make choices for you, there’s no critical thinking. Or as Alfie Kohn put it, “The fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” By giving children greater control over the everyday choices in their lives and including them in the realities of family decision making you’re automatically introducing them to the art of critical thinking.

Experiencing differences. Neighborhoods and school districts are often made up of a roughly homogeneous group of people in similar socio-economic brackets and racial backgrounds. This isn’t always the case, of course, but too often it is. If you value critical thinking (not to mention social justice), this is bad news. Exposure to a range of different people is generally understood to be a good way to build empathy for others, gain a more nuanced view of different experiences, and figure out where you stand on important issues. In other words, experience with other people and other views helps build critical thinking. Funnily enough, this is one that unschoolers--all school free learners, in fact--are frequently accused of doing a poor job of. Plenty of times that’s true, but it’s every bit as true of schools.

With all of the above, I don’t mean to imply that entertaining bigoted or abusive views in the name of “respecting different opinions” should be the goal. Certain views are considered unacceptable for a reason, and don’t deserve respect. I’m just trying to touch on the importance of joining or building many different communities, not only spending time with people who are exactly the same as you.

Talking about and learning to recognize biases in the world around you. While the term “fake news” might be being bandied about a bit too loosely, it is important to understand that not all sources are equally accurate, and even the best sources are still not wholly unbiased: everyone perceives the world through their own set of prejudices, and even a journalist doing their best to report accurately is going to be subtly influenced by their unique set. So how do unschoolers--or anyone, for that matter--learn to recognize bias? You talk about it! Or at least, that’s what I learned to do. What unquestioned beliefs underlie this storyline? What identities does this reporter hold that might tell you something about their perspective? Is there a reason the creators of this film might want to influence your thinking in a specific way? I ask myself these types of questions all the time, and I discuss them with family and with friends. This type of deconstructing is contagious, spreading among friend groups and instilling habits of questioning everything in the children in your lives.

Looking at studies, not headlines (and looking at those studies critically). I’m sure all of us have posted an article a time or two without verifying the accuracy of its claims. I know I have! But as a general rule, I try to look past the headlines and figure out what exactly is behind them. For instance, while scientific research or surveys are often sensationalized in headlines, the breadth of the study, its quality, what the conclusions the researchers reached actually were, and any caveats they share in their own overview is very rarely (wholly) reflected in mainstream press coverage. So I generally make a habit of looking over whatever part of the study in question is available for free, and looking over it thoughtfully. What I mean by that is that the very first things I ask myself after getting some basic ideas about the methodology of the study, the demographic groups surveyed, etc. is “how could the choices the researchers made have affected the results?” How long were the study participants followed? If a wider range of demographics were surveyed, might the results have been different? Too often we learn to see experts as infallible, and while there are certainly many areas where I respect the knowledge others have as greater than my own, that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t turn a critical eye to any and all things I read, and use my own reasoning to decide how reliable it is.

Emotions are as important as rationality. Sometimes people like to take the idea of critical thinking to mean “feelings don’t matter, stop acting like emotions are important and coddling people.” Critical thinking is about knowing what elements exist in any given situation, and considering how they do or should affect the outcome. In human culture and human interactions, emotions will always be an important consideration. The whole debate about content warnings in university syllabi come to mind. On one side, you have people ranting against “political correctness run amok,” and higher institutions no longer being about that all important “critical thinking.” Yet all students are asking for is more information. What is going to be covered in this course? Critical thinking is all about gathering as much information on a topic or situation as possible in order to make an informed decision (in this case, that decision would be, “is this the right course for me, my goals, and my needs, or not?”). Those who oppose content warnings in academia or in online spaces seem to have no similar problems with the content warnings on films and TV shows. You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the relevant information, and whether a movie has PG rated violence or R rated violence is going to make a big difference in who you choose to watch it with (your 10 year old nephew or your friend who can’t stand gore are not going to be a good fit for the latter). Our emotional lives and limitations are part of critical thinking and making good decisions for ourselves.

This is, of course, just an overview of some of the things I’ve found helpful to incorporate into my own life, and though I certainly don’t always do as good a job as I’d like, I have managed to grow into a person who is mostly used to dissecting the media I consume, having thoughtful conversations with friends, verifying sources, and all that other good stuff. And that holds true for a large portion of the adult unschoolers I know as well! When you grow up with a lot more self-determination, it tends to create an environment that fosters what everyone claims to want in children: critical thinking.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Personal Manifesto On Learning Bravely

Most of what I share is advice and theory, deeply rooted in my personal experiences, but not often about my own learning journey. So as the new year starts--and thanks to a bit of inspiration from Sue Patterson’s unschooling manifesto--I wanted to sit down and consider what types of attitudes I want to cultivate, and what pieces of advice I want to give to myself, as I continue my own grown-up unschooling. These are not so much specifics: “read more books” or “take up running,” these aren’t new year's resolutions (easily made and as easily broken), but instead I hope will act more as my own mini-manifesto for the coming year, a year in which I hope I can work on growing, healing, and learning bravely. Here goes!

My unschooling mug! (Society6)

  1. Recognize when I’m stuck, and don’t let myself stay stuck for too long. 
  2. Get help when I need it. Professional help, support from friends, classes, whatever. I’m not a one-person island, and reaching out for support, in whatever way is needed, is a good thing.
  3. Push outside my comfort zone. This is one of my biggest goals for this coming year! As a person with generalized anxiety disorder, pretty much EVERYTHING is outside my comfort zone, and the longer I stay in my little zone, the smaller it becomes. I need to always be expanding it, step by step, little by little, outwards if I want to do better.
  4. Fun is important. Really important! It’s okay to enjoy something even if it doesn’t have an immediate, obvious “point.”
  5. Quiet times are good in moderation, but a balance needs to be found. I love daydreaming and enjoying the small things of everyday life: --a good cup of coffee, a good cuddle session with my cat, a wonderful new novel. However, I can get so wrapped up in them I become isolated. Other people need to be a regular part of my life, too.
  6. Stop comparing myself to others, and finding myself lacking. If I truly believe what I say about each person having their own unique timeline, I can’t keep thinking I’m at the “wrong” point on it.
  7. Don’t ever be embarrassed to share what I’m interested in or excited about, even if--or maybe especially if--it’s something that I know some people would dismiss as unimportant.
  8. Celebrate every tiny little success as if it’s a Big Deal, because it IS a big deal! It’s important to recognize progress, whether it’s big steps forward or small ones.
  9. Despite what I tell myself, coffee does not actually help me do anything. Use it in moderation.
  10. Inspiration doesn’t usually just pop up all on it’s own. Finding inspiration is work, a deliberate practice of paying attention, doing new things, engaging in conversation with others, and being genuinely thoughtful about what I read and see and hear. 
  11. Being brave in my work doesn’t only mean talking about my struggles (with anxiety and depression, mainly), it also means branching out with my writing, choosing topics that interest me, but I don’t know if others will want to read. It means creating more things in mediums I haven’t explored much before (video, audio). It means saying “yes” more to interview requests. 
  12. Productivity is a self perpetuating cycle. While it’s okay to not be productive sometimes, and my value as a human being is not attached to my productivity, when I do more, I feel better. And when I feel better, I do more. Once the ball starts rolling, I have to keep it rolling, even when things are hard. Doing only a little bit feels a whole lot better than doing nothing.
If you choose to join in and write your own mini-manifestos, please share the links in the comments. I’d love to read them!

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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best Young Adult Fantasy Novels of 2016

I know, I know, this isn’t exactly a post about unschooling. And on an unschooling blog no less! How could I? But as the year comes to a close, and I look at my list of books I’ve read in 2016 on Goodreads, I wanted to share some of my young adult fantasy favorites. Why this genre, in particular? Because fantasy (aimed at both teens and adults) makes up at least 90% of what I read, and because I thought some of you might appreciate some good recent books about young people doing extraordinary things. Each of the novels that made it onto my list is the latest in a series, so essentially I’m reviewing each series rather than each book, and I’ve listed the books which came previously--and which were not published in 2016--in brackets. I hope, if you choose to check out any of these books from your local library, that you’ll enjoy them as much as I did!

Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives) by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott has long been a favorite of mine thanks to her Spiritwalker series, so when she made her first foray into the world of YA fiction with Court of Fives last year, I eagerly snatched it up! And neither that novel, or this year’s follow-up, dissapoint. Our protagonist, Jessamy, wants nothing more than to compete in the dangerous and prestigious Court of Fives, a competitive obstacle course popular with all levels of society. An athlete through and through, she doesn’t want to have to worry about politics. But having been born to--and, shockingly, acknowledged by--a high ranking Patron soldier, member of the ruling class and race, and a Commoner mother, a colonized and oppressed racial group in this Roman-esque empire, for Jess her very existence is political, a fact she just can’t escape. Because change is brewing. Rebellion is simmering amongst a people desperate to hold onto and reclaim their culture; deadly political maneuvering is taking place in the highest tiers of power; and war is approaching with neighboring countries. Jess must carefully make her way in this fraught landscape, striving to protect her family and make the right choices when there are no good choices. More tightly plotted and faster paced than Kate Elliott’s adult novels, I look forward to the next installment.

Reader discretion: Some rather disturbing/gory violence; reference to and threat of sexual abuse/violence; the murder of children.

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes) by Sabaa Tahir

Whereas the above series takes place in a carefully drawn world with distinct cultures, Sabaa Tahir’s world, though similar in some ways to that of the Court of Fives series, feels like the world is simply sketched in. A staged setting where, while a couple of elements might stand out, the majority fades into the background. While that might not be something I’d usually excuse, I can overlook it in this series because the story itself feels meticulously built: Tahir isn’t flying by the seat of her pants, she knows where this story is going. And let me tell you, where it’s going is some pretty dark and brutal places! The viewpoint characters, Laia and Elias (in the second book a third viewpoint is introduced) could not come from more different backgrounds. Laia is born to the Scholars, a conquered people now brutally oppressed by the Empire, and Elias, taken as a child to be trained as a member of the elite soldiers/interrogators/assassins known as Masks, is a bitter and deeply reluctant tool of the Empire itself. When Laia’s family is torn apart, she makes the desperate decision to become a slave and spy, and as her and Elias’ paths cross and their lives become tangled together, they both have to find their own kind of strengths, and figure out just what sacrifices they’re willing to make--and what horrors they’re willing to commit--in order to survive, save those they love, and try their best to do right. This is one of these extremely grim, dark stories with truly horrible things happening pretty much constantly, but which still manages to have hopeful threads throughout. The characters and plot both are extremely compelling, and these books have stuck in my head long after I finished reading them... I really hope the bright spots are built on in the final novel(s?) so that the darkness doesn’t feel completely overwhelming.

Reader discretion: Torture (of both adults and children, including viewpoint characters); murder (again, of both adults and children); slavery; genocide (yes, really); attempted rape.

Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows) by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows sets itself utterly apart by being something I almost never see in fantasy fiction: a heist novel, complete with a mastermind criminal who’s always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else; a sharpshooter with a gambling problem; the best spy (and thief, and occasional assassin) in the city; an incredibly dangerous magic user; an explosives expert with a secret; and an ex-soldier and (mostly ex) zealot who’s roped into all of this very much against his will. Members of an up-and-coming street gang in the bustling mercantile city of Ketterdam, all of them are hand picked by the aforementioned mastermind to travel across the sea in order to steal something of immense value and dangerous political ramifications… Following their theft and all that comes after it, this series is fast-paced, quite dark, often funny, and all around delightful. Watching the bonds develop and deepen between these characters is a real pleasure, and I hope to see more of them in future novels.

Reader discretion: Gore, torture, murder, reference to past sexual abuse/rape, all involving children and teens.

A Gathering of Shadows (A Darker Shade of Magic) by V. E. Schwab

Take multiple Londons (grey London, with no magic; red London, steeped in magic; white London, vicious and starving; and black London, shut off from the others lest it consume them all); a rare traveler able to move between worlds; and a ruthlessly ambitious cross-dressing thief with dreams of becoming a pirate, and you end up with this series. Forming a slightly uneasy truce, world-traveler Kell and thief Lilah must work together to stop a creepy body stealing being, defeat a desperate sorcerer, discover the true nature and limits of their respective magic, and find their own place in the worlds. Though the first book started off a bit slow in my opinion, once I got into it, I was hooked. I positively adore mean and prickly Lilah, and I’m pretty darn fond of brooding Kell and his beloved and rather dramatic brother Rhy (who gains a whole lot of greatly appreciated complexity as the series progresses). In many ways this is classic fantasy: dark sorcerers and evil worlds and the like, but there’s so much about it that feels fresh and original, and I very much appreciate V. E. Schwab’s distinctive voice.

Reader discretion: Attempted rape, murder, torture, creepy body stealing being, mind control.

The Raven King (The Raven Boys; The Dream Thieves; Blue Lily, Lily Blue) by Maggie Stiefvater

If I had to pick just one favorite YA novel of 2016, it would be this one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more misleading cover jacket description of a first book, which I believe goes something like “romance blah blah first love doomed to die blah.” In actuality, this is a book about relationships: romantic ones sometimes, yes, but every bit as important are friendships and familial relationships, in all their incredible complexity, fierceness, devotion, tenderness, jealousy… Maggie Stiefvater is a truly marvelous writer, moving from laugh-out-loud funny to lyrically moving between one sentence and the next, dragging the reader deep into a world where the rural Virginian countryside and it’s stark class divides are overlaid by a hidden world of sleeping Welsh kings and mystical forests and dark beings. Following a year in the life of five friends--the decidedly un-psychic daughter of psychics; a ferocious dreamer; a scholarship student desperate to forge his own identity; a quiet, insightful boy prone to disappearing; and a driven, charismatic boy who is going to die. You just can’t look away from their relationships, the beauty of the world they discover, and the creeping horror that is every bit as much a part of these hidden worlds. This series also includes one of the most nuanced and real feeling “coming out” arcs I’ve ever seen, as well as deeply moving and sensitive explorations of the trauma of abuse, of loss, and of growing up. Those themes are every bit as magical as the more fantastic elements. Though there are a couple of things I wish were different about the final installment, it really does do an excellent job of closing one of the best series I’ve read in recent years.

Reader discretion: Child abuse; strong horror elements; murder; suicide (attempted and successful); drug abuse.

What were your favorite novels this past year? Share them in the comments below!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Ideological Nonsense" or Revolutionary Education? 5 Outrageous Things I've Learned as a Practitioner of Unschooling

Negative mainstream media articles about unschooling--like the tides, the changing seasons, and election years--are a perennial phenomena, as familiar in the autumn as falling leaves for those of us who keep an eye out for such things. Sometimes, though, it’s not even an article about unschooling, and instead the snide remarks--or in some cases even outright calls for governmental bans--are tucked into a wider-ranging piece. That’s the case in the recent article from The Guardian titled Is the state sometimes wiser than parents? Starting out with a defense of the state sanctioned body shaming of children in the UK (based on the extremely unscientific BMI), it quickly moves on to the topic of home education, broadly, with special mention of the horror that is unschooling:
Some may be getting an adequate education – we just don’t know. But it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
Frustrating? Yes. Funny? That too! I had to crack up at the “outrageous state of affairs” bit in regards to children--gasp!--learning from living. I could get into the author’s wider point about what role the state versus parents should play. As a (collectivist, anti-capitalist) anarchist my own views on the matter should be clear: I’m for children’s rights above parental OR state control, and am in favour of anything that contributes to children’s rights to bodily autonomy, freedom of thought, self-determination, and safety, and against anything that hampers those things. But instead, I’m going to keep things focused on life learning, and how very effective and delightful (another thing education apparently shouldn’t be!) it is.

5 Outrageous Things I’ve learned as a Practitioner of Delight-Driven, Inquiry-Based, Self-Directed Life Learning (a phrase I even put on a T-shirt, by the way)

Fun is as important as education, and the two tend to go hand in hand. In “progressive” education circles the term “play-based learning” has become very popular, and while play needs to be recognized for the incredible importance it has in learning, too often what is meant by that phrase is nothing like true (self-directed, collaborative, spontaneous) play. Instead it’s adult-directed activities designed to “educate” young minds, which usually isn’t that much fun at all, and even when it does manage to be fun, still doesn’t have the same benefits as children’s play. Unschoolers get LOTS of time to play, to have fun, to do things simply for the joy of them. Every single activity doesn’t have to be justified by it’s supposed educational value, and instead children--and adults, too!--can do their best to live an enjoyable life, confident in the knowledge that learning is ever present.

A curriculum has no place in real learning. When adults in power decide what every single child at a given age needs to know (and what they don’t), where the lines between subjects will be drawn (and that there should be lines between them), and how those subjects should be fed to children (regardless of the differences in how each child learns), children are robbed of the sense of excitement, discovery, and freedom found in self-directed life learning. Children have the right to make their own decisions and their own mistakes, to think their own thoughts and choose where, how, and with whom they want to spend their time, in an age appropriate way, and within reasonable constraints of family, community, and finances. What stands out to me about my own unschooling upbringing is how flexible and collaborative it was, something I never would have been able to experience within the constraints of a curriculum.

Solitude is as important as socializing. Arguments that unschoolers (and more broadly all home educated children) are lacking in socialization is predicated on the idea that there is one ideal level of socializing time that is right for every single child… Which is pretty absurd, when you think about it! Unschoolers can figure out, with help and support from the adults in their life, what type of and how much “socialization” is right for them and their unique personality and needs. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all curriculum, there’s no one-size-fits-all model of socializing, either.

Boredom and downtime are essential parts of learning and living. When every moment of a child’s life is planned, organized, and monitored, they lose out on the time needed to process experiences, daydream, and find creative ways to fill their own time. No emotion should be vilified in the way that boredom frequently is, and when it’s instead embraced as simply part of the experience of being human for many of us, it becomes easy to see all the benefits it brings.

Children and adults can work together as equal partners in the adventure that is unschooling. In schools there is a very clear hierarchy, with teachers making up the ruling class and children the very clearly ruled. When you learn outside of school, you have the opportunity to re-imagine what child-adult, teacher-student relationships can look like and be. Children have different needs than adults, are smaller and less experienced, and are at a different developmental stage than older people. But different needs don’t mean lesser ones, and respectful relationships between caregivers and children make up the backbone of unschooling. It’s through cultivating trusting relationships, open communication and good time spent together that a learning partnership is formed, where all parties can work together to pick activities, learn exciting new things, and reach chosen goals. Life learning isn’t neglect; it’s about living and learning together.

It can be easy to let negative media exposure get you down, but instead I choose to just re-iterate, again and again, what unschooling actually is, how it works, and the role this philosophy can play in transforming the way we, as a culture, look at education. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and sadly there will always be people whose reaction to not understanding a lifestyle is that it should be banned. But while change will always seem threatening to some, the reality is that unschoolers--along with other self-directed learners--are doing something truly revolutionary, and pointing the way towards a future of greater respect for children, and greater understanding of the way humans best learn and grow. Which I’d say is outrageously delightful.

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