The Great Turning

This is a guest post I wrote on Laura Grace Weldon’s beautiful and inspiring site!

Laura Grace Weldon

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the…

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Unschooling my Spirituality

IMG_3356_2I grew up with two imposed givens in life—education and religion. Education happened in school, a place I was obliged to go Monday through Friday. Religion, reserved for Sundays, was fortified and demonstrated by my family’s regular attendance at church and rewarded with warm donuts and scalding coffee served in styrofoam cups in the community hall. We usually skipped that part in order to be the first to get out of the parking lot.

These two obligations were not of my choice and I never really questioned either until I had children. Two uniquely designed, impossibly small bodies imprinted with years and years of genetic scrambling and combined ancestral traits and yet I didn’t see them as part of me, or as part of my husband, but rather as two free souls who chose us as parents. My husband and I have always described our children’s births as special occasions when we were introduced to the two most important people in our lives. Of course we felt fiercely protective of them (and still do), but we are constantly working to avoid any notion of proprietorship. We take Kahlil Gibran’s words to heart and to bed, and hope to remember them as more than a poem during the day.

Having my own children had the unexpected side-effect of stripping away old belief sets. It was as if, through their painful and clamorous births, I was given a fresh start as well. It wasn’t sudden, or obvious, or easy, but for their sake, I wiped the slate clean with some threadbare remnants that I no longer had use for. My vision got clearer, my heart and mind woke to a sense of self that swept away the imposed veil to reveal a very clear understanding that I had choices and that I would offer them to my children.

There would be no imposed school. School is merely a place, a building. But there would be expansive and meaningful learning. There would be play. There would be exploration and expeditions of the imagination. We would choose experiences over things, curiosity over information, expression over conformity. Because learning lives in all these spaces, seen and unseen.

There would be no imposed religion, no housing of beliefs. All doors of worship would lay open,  with their similar beauty and identical fears. There would be mindfulness. There would be gratitude. There would be loving kindness and equanimity and compassion. We would expose our children to mosques and temples and cathedrals, to museums and cafés and booksellers, to lectures and concerts and performances, and to mossy gardens and majestic forests. Because the spirit of life lives in all these places, seen and unseen.

As I watched my children pull together an education independent of time, pace, place or someone else’s agenda, it occurred to me that I could craft my own form of spiritual expression according to my own interests, my own curiosity, and whatever helped me make sense of the world. I could unschool my spirituality in the same way they were unschooling their education. And I could do it with joy, purpose and intention.

I put aside obligation and legacy and thought about what made my heart bloom. Gospel music, reciting the Gayatri mantra, a regular practice of Qi gong, the Hawaiian principles of Ho’oponopono, keeping a gratitude journal, Buddhist teachings and meditation, cooking a meal for loved ones, holding compassion for others. The spiritual patchwork I pieced together is nothing that could fit into a neat category. It can’t be extorted and will never be profitable. It wields no guilt and promises no rewards. And because I sewed it together, I don’t need to call it anything. It is what it is. We are who we are.

 

Book Release

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Dear Blog Readers,  Friends, Fellow Unschoolers/Worldschoolers and those interested in Self-Directed Education,

I haven’t been posting much here lately and I apologize for that. I have a good reason though. I’ve been busy writing a book, a true labor of love, and one I hope you will all enjoy reading. It’s a collection of essays about the personal journey of accompanying my two children on their life learning journey. It’s also about looking closely at my own formal education through a deschooling lens, confronting doubts, and embracing the joys and challenges of stepping outside the status quo. Woven throughout are threads of peaceful parenting, sustainable living, and anecdotes about living off the grid in Senegal, West Africa.

So without further ado, I am thrilled to announce the publication of

“Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning”

Click on the link above or the book icon to the right for more information about the book.

Please share the good news! And thank you for your continued support!

All good things,

Ellen

Math vs. Maths and the Wonder of Pi

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Depending on where you were born, you will identity with either the singular or plural abbreviation of the word mathematics. As an American, I grew up with the word “MATH”, a giant creature under whose opaque wings lurked all the mind-bending formulas which tortured me as a child. Math was a monster, and it had a looming bodily form, a black-hole face scarred with + x = – /, and a deep, monotone voice which closely resembled that of Darth Vader. And the worst part? The math monster lived on the BLACK BOARD.

While many people are able to make sense of the world with numbers, I’ve always preferred to decrypt it with letters, something that came naturally to me. I was conditioned to believe from any early age that I had a math handicap and the label became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Well into adulthood, I shied away from numbers, still counting on my fingers under the table as anxiety rose up to heat my cheeks and my mind became a jumble of floating numbers that faded just as I was about to seize them. It took me a long time to understand that being “bad at math” wasn’t a learning deficit, it was based on the fear of failure and a lack of a way to understand and make sense of math.

Having never been given formal math instruction, my children look at it as a useful ally in life. My son, who is mad about architecture, geography and aviation, learned percentages by stacking colored Lego towers. He uses statistics to understand the scale of buildings, places and the people who inhabit them. This year, he’ll be tackling algebra in order to get his pilot’s license so he can navigate the skies. My daughter, who at 11 has her own small jewellery business, learned to manage her finances in order to invest a certain percentage of her profits in new materials.

These days, I prefer the British reference, “maths”. Add on one little ’s’ and the word feels less threatening—lots of little concepts waiting to be examined and tamed. Or maybe it’s because my children helped me see that maths are everywhere in everyday life, not just relegated to one hour a day in a chalk-dusted classroom.

Maths are in the kitchen hidden in measuring cups, recipe division and the percentages we use when mixing certain ingredients together or dividing up a pizza for five. Maths are melodies and harmonies and crescendos intertwining and repeating in music. Maths are the algorithms found in the patterns of nature, in the weave of your favorite sweater and in the database that allows us to document and share our stories on the internet. I’ve even come to suspect that one little mathematical muse often helps me form sentences that carry a  cadence when I write.

Lately, maths have even taken on a soulful quality that I never could have imagined. The other day my son and I discovered the wonders of pi π. I relate to pi because it has been described, like me, as an irrational number. It just goes on and on at random. I like that about pi. And I like it because it sounds like ‘pie.’ But I had no idea that pi was so complex and playful. Did you know, for instance, that this infinite non-repeating decimal contains entire sequences such as our birth dates, driver’s licence and social security numbers, even binary representations of DNA? While it’s never been proven that the decimal expansion of pi contains every finite sequence of digits, it does contain many of them.

There’s even a website  to search number sequences found in π.

I wasn’t really expecting pi to recognize me, but I popped in the numerical equivalent of my name and my birthdate and hit the search button. And there I was, right there at position 142791179, part and parcel of pi. And I’m so happy we met. Contrary to what I have always believed, I was never “bad” at math. We were just never properly introduced.

This essay is adapted from my forthcoming book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: Reflections on Living, Learning and Parenting Without School” scheduled for release in the Spring of 2017.

My Kids Don’t Go to School. Get Over it.

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I’m considering using this as the title for the book I’m writing about unschooling. It came to me as we were travelling across France with our children so they could discover the origins of half their gene pool. This trip happened to coincide with “la rentrée,” that time of year when French parents, teachers, and government administrators place high hopes on children as they begin a new school year, armed with sharpened pencils, woolen sweaters and (admittedly) a lunch box worthy of a Michelin star.

Throughout our trip, our children were asked repeatedly why they weren’t in school. I at least admire that French adults target their questions directly at children and expect them to answer, rather than searching their parents faces accusingly. While it’s hard to summarize a life lived in intellectual freedom while ordering a cheese baguette at a roadside rest stop, my children’s answers were polite, succinct and honest.

“We are educated at home.”

“Yes, we learn in both french and English.”

“No, we don’t follow a curriculum.”

As the trip went on, however, and the questions kept coming, I noticed that my children’s answers became tinged with justification.

“We use a lot of internet learning resources.”

“We may go to school someday, who knows?”

“Well, we travel a lot, so homeschooling is really our only choice.”

What? My husband and I have always encouraged our children to speak for themselves about how they learn and why, because we feel they do a better job at it than we ever could. When they were much younger and I was the one faced with the questions, I was a defensive, bumbling mess because I always felt criticized. As I listened to the evolution in my children’s answers throughout our trip, I realised that they too were feeling judged and felt the need to justify their choices. Or worse, having doubts. If so many people were asking, maybe their choices were wrong or bad. Maybe they should be in school.

I was feeling it too. At one particular rest stop, as my son was helping a man with directions, tracing his finger along a huge plexiglass map, his wife kept looking suspiciously back and forth between my husband and I and the kids, as though there were a real possibility that we had abducted these children, forcefully taken them out of school and driven them across the South of France. What other explanation was there?

Although homeschooling is legal in France, it is rare, highly monitored and strictly controlled, therefore dissuaded. And while alternative schools such as Montessori are popping up like wildflowers in the garden of Versailles, they remain schools. Adult directed, institutionalized learning is still the norm and highly valued. So it isn’t surprising that people find it at best odd, and at worst unconscionable, that our children don’t go to school.

I don’t blame those asking the questions. We’re asked everywhere we go, in every country, by a wide variety of people. But I do find it sad that so few people are able to consider the learning value that comes with both daily living and exploration, be it discovering a foreign country, or visiting a local museum. Only one woman, of all the people we met, congratulated us. She was from Finland.

The idea that the only way for children to succeed in life is to spend their childhoods in a classroom is so ingrained in our collective conscience, that any other possibility is deemed threatening to our very social fabric. Compliance, competition and the dire importance placed on performance sends the message that doing well in school is no longer just about success, but survival. This notion is indeed something we need to get over, and quickly. I would have said so, but I couldn’t think of how to translate it in french. I’ll have to look it up.

The Learning Buffet

 

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I was having coffee the other day with another mom while our kids were practicing Judo. She wanted to know more about how my children learned without school and asked several questions about covering certain basic subjects like math and reading. Although she’s become increasingly frustrated and concerned about her child’s school education, she couldn’t fathom taking the leap to homeschooling because she had imagined herself in the role of teacher. When I told her that we didn’t follow a curriculum and that my children were autonomous learners, she asked,

“But how do you know you’re nourishing their minds with the right information? How can they learn if someone doesn’t teach them?”

This is, of course, an excellent question and one that’s not always easy to answer. I’m not sure if it was the word “nourish” that sparked my answer, or the savory odors emanating from the cafe’s kitchen, or simply the fact that I can relate almost any subject back to food, but this is the analogy that came to mind:

 

The  One-Meal-Fits All School Special

Imagine that your child is given the same meal every day with no choice and little variation. This meal is eaten exclusively indoors in rooms segregated by age. It is prepared on a mass level by a large institution with no regard for your child’s individual nutritional needs, personal tastes or possible allergies. The kind folks who serve this meal have little to no input on the menu and are not allowed to decorate the table. Due to a lack of funding by the large institution, there may also not be enough utensils for every child. Furthermore, this meal is parceled out into several unrelated courses (pun intended) throughout the day and relegated to separate plates. In other words, never shall the cheese and mac mingle in creamy, melty harmony! Never shall veggies linger with linguini! They must be served separately and consumed within a certain period of time.

If your child is able to properly digest this piecemeal, she will be rewarded with something that temporarily makes her feel different and even special–like a star, or a smiley face or a capital A. However, if your child is unable, for whatever reason, to assimilate what she is fed, she will either be given the same meal again and again until she can finish it, or her plate will be taken away even though she is still hungry. And at the end of the day, although he is clearly full and couldn’t possibly take another bite, your child will be given a doggy bag which he must consume at home. All this will make him sluggish, irritable and unlikely to converse.

Periodically, your child will be asked to regurgitate everything he has been force-fed in order to judge his potential as a future consumer and participant in this global gastronomy. Over time, your child may complain of dulled taste-buds, heart-burn and eventually a total loss of appetite.

 

The Learning Buffet

Now just imagine, if you will, an endless smorgasbord of a buffet table laid out with an omnium-gatherum, a grab bag, a jambalaya ragout of options to tantalize your child’s tastes. He is invited to rummage and forage, scramble and tumble over this table in search of whatever whets his appetite. He can float in alphabet soup, concoct a potpourried patchwork of a salad and linger over it for hours, days, months if he chooses. At this table, there are no pie-eating contests. Your child is not only given free reign over his choices at the buffet, but is encouraged to suggest and create what’s on it. This buffet is always available, night or day, and your child may come and go as he pleases. There may be periods, even long ones, when your child may not seem hungry or eat the same thing every day, much to your concern. This is O.K. Eventually, he will come back to the table, hungrier than ever, and try something new. At times, the buffet may appear cluttered and botched. Mistakes are normal. Hash is healthy. A ragbag can be ritual. And a mishmash is just marvelous.

The best part about the buffet is that it’s open to everyone –young, old, family, friends– to share and exchange recipes, to savor flavors, suggest and stew over ideas.

Your role as a parent is the following: Provide all the necessary utensils  with colorful diversity. Put a little bit of everything on your own plate and savor it with gusto. And sprinkle the table with lots of love and patience. That’s all it takes to nourish your child. Oh, and eat together. It makes everything taste better.

 

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Through the Back Door: Parenting Choices and Unschooling

 

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I often read testimony from parents who unschool their children that their choice was a natural progression from the principles of attachment parenting–breast feeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping, etc. This makes a lot of sense to me. Both are based on nurturing children’s emotional and physical needs while fostering shared trust in a safe and loving environment. I love reading these stories. They are deeply inspiring and deserve to be shared.

But this connection is so prevalent that when I was initially seeking solutions for alternative ways to approach education, I wondered if someone like me, who came at parenting from a different angle, was even capable of unschooling my children. It seemed to me that attachment parenting might even be a prerequisite. At one point, I shied away from these articles because they evoked an irrational sense of guilt and doubt.

For both medical and personal reasons, I did not breast-feed either of my children, who are eleven months apart. They were both miraculous gifts to my 39 and then 40 year old body which had been erroneously and hopelessly labelled “infertile.”  And while I did often carry my babies close to my heart in warmth and love, co-sleeping and feeding on demand were foreign concepts to me. I was a product of the system and didn’t question much.  I did my best as a mother based on how I had been parented and  while I got some of it right, I made lots of mistakes, the kind of mistakes that bubble up and ask for attention only when we are truly awake and open to real change, the essential missteps that allow us to revise, learn and grow.

You could say I came into myself as a parent through the back door. Attachment parenting did not lead me to unschooling; unschooling led me to a deeper understanding of the attachment I have with my children. In the process of deschooling myself over a period of  time, of detoxing my mind and soul of the societal messages and practices which had taken root since childhood, I was able to question nearly everything I believed about how children learn and how they view and interact with the world, as well as my role as a parent. I was able to allow my children to take the lead, to trust, respect and have confidence in their abilities and our relationship.  I often marvel, when I wake up in the morning and see my children, that my husband and I get to live with these two really cool people. They don’t belong to us; we are merely on a parallel journey with them. In the words of Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home.”

I share my story not to discount the link between attachment parenting and unschooling–because it is real, and lovely and logical. I share it because maybe there’s another me out there, or several, or many, who are considering unschooling but who, for whatever reason, approached parenting differently. If that’s you, I have a simple message: keep digging and questioning, and walking your children home.  And if you want to learn more, if you’re open to discovery and willing to scale a few crumbling walls, the back door is always open.

 

 

Learning in the Negative Space

 

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I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of negative space and the beauty that can be found there.

Artists and photographers often make use of negative space to starkly highlight what is represented in the image or create subtle second images receding in positive space. Take this illustration for example, entitled, “The Philosopher,”  by graphic illustrator Tang Yau Hoong:

The-Philosopher

The human cognitive process is trained to first take in the positive space, meaning the space that is filled with a familiar representation. So most people first see a question mark. But the artist has also created an image of a man’s face, visible within the negative space if we look a little closer. The negative space, no longer seen as a void in the image, takes on equal importance and often greater meaning.

So what does “learning in the negative space” mean?

The conventional way of understanding and measuring what children are taught in the school environment relies heavily on what is visible, recognizable and obvious to adults. In this way, the information that teachers impart to their students is “teachable.” The student’s grasp of this information, in the form of testing, is therefore recognizable as either right or wrong. With the implementation of standardized testing, there is no longer room for a child to look at a question in a unique way, see it from a different angle and provide a creative or alternative answer. This approach is ALWAYS seen as a wrong answer.

When our society talks about learning, we are no longer able to see the beauty or value in the negative space. Institutionalized learning has all but abolished the white canvas of possibility, and systematically dismisses the individual thinking that blooms around the edges of information. Abstraction is no longer valued, play is on its way to extinction, and creative expression is regarded as superfluous. Instead, we are marching our children down a sparse and sterile hallway of fact-filled, unfulfilling days, promising that if they trudge along like good soldiers, the key to freedom will one day be brandished, unlocking the door to a bright and successful future. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Real learning, for both children and adults, takes place in the negative spaces of our lives, and is often imperceptible, immeasurable and a direct result of a seemingly unrelated representation (the positive space).

My daughter spends a lot of time and effort making Brazilian friendship bracelets. She learned how to make them by reading craft magazines and watching videos on Youtube. Anyone watching her would see the obvious: a happy and focused little girl weaving a bracelet with colored string. Some might say, “she’s not learning, she’s playing.”

Not visible to the eye, but equally important is what’s happening in the negative space. In the weaving process, my daughter is employing complex algorithms that she learned on her own and by her own initiative.  Algorithms are essentially how computers process data. (“Using doubled strands start the bracelet with a loop and arrange the colors in a mirror image: colors 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1.”) She is also developing  hand-eye coordination as well as a sense of how colors work together.

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Information in the classroom is presented as linear and is broken down, sorted and categorized into subjects which are addressed within short time-frames with little room for deviation. Learning in the negative space happens when we take the root of a piece of information and have the time, interest and freedom to explore where its many branches lead and how they ultimately intertwine.

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Artist: Priya Nair

 

My son can often be found exploring the farthest reaches of the world. He recently discovered the small island of Jan Mayen off the coast of Norway using Google Earth. He’s pretty obsessed with Geography, which in school would most likely be taught as an isolated subject according to grade level. But discovering Jan Mayen also led my son to venture out onto the branches of geology, meteorology, volcanic science, the arctic whaling industry and Dutch history.

I’m pretty certain this small volcanic island, visited centuries ago by seal trappers and largely uninhabited, didn’t make it into the standard school curriculum. But it exists–in all its glory– in the negative space where my son’s curiosity brought it to life (for anyone who’s willing to listen).

If we give our children the time and freedom to explore around the edges and borders, to push the limits of learning and venture into the negative space, the void becomes a beautiful repository of infinite possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

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“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

Your Unschooling Story is Extraordinary

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photo courtesy of Kirsten Schroeder

Our family just spent several days on a small nature reserve close to the Senegal/Gambia border with about fifteen people we didn’t know. As there were no distractions at night , our evenings were spent eating communally and sitting around a blazing camp fire talking and singing under a dome of stars.

The subject of our children’s education came up fairly quickly and I found myself in that uncertain place within myself, not wanting to give too much information for fear of being judged. I tend to tread lightly when talking about our learning and life choices, offering the initial response, “my children are educated at home,” a truthful answer which gives people the option to dig further if they are curious about the how and why, or change the subject if they aren’t.

This was a particularly open group of souls concerned with preserving the local environment and the rituals and traditions of the Senegalese people who live on this small parcel of protected wetland. In my experience, people who are already thinking and acting for the greater good are usually receptive to alternative ways of living. But none of them were familiar with unschooling. The questions they asked were genuine, respectful and came from a place of open curiosity and admiration.

It was the first time since we made the decision to unschool our children five years ago, that I was invited to share our story, rather than defend our choices. And as the details slowly unfolded, I found myself talking freely and confidently about the many ways in which our children learn without school. Since none of this resembled the rehearsed answers I usually pull from my arsenal, I found myself making connections I had never thought of before, such as how my children have gained communication skills by being invited to sit in on business meetings, how their time spent in nature has given them the appreciation and motivation to become future environmental actors, and how the many films we watch as a family have given them a diverse exposure to languages, cultures, lands, music, creativity, cinematography, story-telling, images, and the various ways we express the human condition.

One woman, whose children are now grown, admitted that she’d always wanted to homeschool her children, but that her husband had been adamantly against it and so she had backed down. Another woman loved the idea of how we embrace apprenticeship as a valuable means of gaining knowledge and experience. Although she isn’t in a position to homeschool her daughter for several reasons, she told me our story had inspired her to incorporate community and life experience into her daughter’s learning. I was told by several people, “your story is so inspiring.” Really?

Many years ago, I took a class in creative writing which focused on drawing from everyday experience. On the very first day, the teacher, a seasoned writer,  said, “the details of your lives are extraordinary and you need to write about them.” I don’t think any of us felt particularly extraordinary because we all looked around at each other in bewilderment. Someone said, “I wouldn’t know what to write about, my life is pretty boring.” The teacher asked him to tell the class the first thing that had happened to him that morning. “I brushed my teeth?”

“No, dig deeper.”

After a few seconds of reflection, he said, “Oh yeah, I did get woken up early this morning because there was a parade or people passing by my building. When I went to the window, I saw it was a bunch of senior citizens protesting for their rights. So I  cheered them on. One of the women blew me a kiss.”

I imagine that some of us feel the same way about our unschooling lives, that not much is happening, that our days seem “normal” or routine,  or that people probably wouldn’t be interested in the details. But we are wrong. Our individual unschooling stories, as they are being lived and told, are themselves an expression of the human condition. The choices people are making all over the world to embrace learning as something innate, individual, joyful, fulfilling and above all, personal, is and will have enormous impact on the future, not just in terms of liberating our children’s learning experience, but for how we will approach and solve small and large problems in every area of life and ultimately how we will relate to each other.

Our voices need to be heard. The beauty of unschooling is that, while we can share information and offer guidance, our experiences are unique. Each how, why, where and who is different, which provides for richly textured and inspiring stories. Tell yours, as an unschooling parent, teen or grown life learner. Dig deep, make the unexpected connections and then share, verbally, or in writing. Send your story to publications dedicated to promoting interest led learning. Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, and Otherways Magazine are just a few that welcome submissions. Start a blog if you haven’t already. Or simply document your experiences for your family.

Tell your story, because its full of courage, risk, determination, overcoming obstacles and embracing change for your children and yourselves. Tell your story, because it’s extraordinary. Not everyone will listen. But those who do will not be left unchanged.