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:

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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 always 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.

 

Taking Stock and Making Space in Our Unschooling Lives

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We recently made the decision as a family to paint our house inside and out, which  meant emptying each room, going through every single thing in it, and deciding which items really meant something to us and which things we were ready to let go of.

This simplification process isn’t always easy. It can be very emotional, this nostalgic letting go. Because we are inevitably confronted with the fact that we’ve changed,  physically or emotionally, that we’ve gotten older, that tastes or interests have waned or been replaced, that the things we cherished only a few years ago somehow ended up in the back of a junk drawer. We are also inevitably confronted with what we think we “should” keep, what either society, family or our own sense of moral obligation tells us we shouldn’t throw out or give to someone else even though we may no longer want or need them.

It had been about six years since we’d really examined our possessions and the pile of things that no longer fit into our lives was impressive. After my typical nostalgic procrastination of lingering over baby clothes, scribbled drawings, books and old photos (and lamenting several pairs of jeans that hadn’t magically gotten any bigger), the four of us really got to work at weeding through our things.

During the process of de-cluttering our home, I found an unexpected connection between taking stock of our possessions and the evolution that unschooling has taken in our lives.  I became acutely aware of how my children have evolved and how little they need to be happy and fulfilled. Few of the things I had supplied them with at the beginning of our decision to homeschool –things I had assumed were necessary for them to learn and grow intellectually–survived the cut. Expensive text books, science kits, times tables posters, writing guides and math workbooks had all been gathering dust while my children gathered the knowledge they needed and wanted in a natural progression of deep understanding and interest.

Initially those textbooks and other educational material were a reassuring presence for me, a reflection of my own insecurities, of what society deems essential to a child’s education. They had been brought into our home when I was still caught up in the doubt and skepticism that others had openly expressed about our children being able to learn without school. They had stayed on as vestiges of my old way of thinking and conforming. But just like those jeans that no longer fit, I finally had to acknowledge that they, too, no longer held a place in our lives and that it was okay to let them go.

Other things my children were willing to get rid of were a testament to the progression of their learning and their growing bodies and minds. They kept only those things which meant something to them personally, items that furthered their interests, supported their creative activities, inspired play or nourished their souls. My husband and I followed their lead.

What we cherished most turned out to be books-fiction, history, architecture, art. Not surprising for a reading family. We read alone in a pile of pillows on the floor or under a tree outside. We read to each other in bed, on the sofa. Sometimes a book catches our eye and we sit down right where we are on the floor and that thing we were on our way to do gets forgotten. That’s okay, it’s part of learning as we go. And we’re tactile readers. We love to feel the weight of the book, hear the satisfaction of turning a page, smell the history of old books. They are like steadfast friends.

With all the extraneous stuff that no longer serves us either given away, recycled, or tossed, we find ourselves surrounded by what we love and care about and what is truly useful to us. Being able to see those things clearly and have easy access to them has also cleared our minds and consciousness of old patterns and habits. I’m certain that over the coming years, as our family of four continues to grow and change, more things will be added and subtracted. But they will be chosen carefully and reflect a learning and living philosophy that more closely resembles who we are as individuals and as a family.

In the meantime, we’ve found more space to work, play, create and breathe. We intentionally left one shelf in our bookcase empty.  It’s a freshly painted reminder of the endless possibilities ahead.

A Big P.S. and a de-cluttering tip:

  • This is not meant to be a judgment of textbooks or other standardized learning material, or of those homeschooling families who choose to incorporate them in their individual learning philosophies. It’s about talking to our children and listening to ourselves, taking a close look at what’s working, and letting go of what isn’t in order to make space for new things to come into our lives, literally and figuratively.

  • I am not a clean freak. Nor do I like stark rooms or dainty meals (which would account for the jeans that don’t fit). And I love a good mess, which is always a sign of creation. However, taking the time and effort to simplify our belongings had a profound effect on our lives in several ways. First, it made us more aware of our consumer habits and the impact we have on the environment when we purchase unnecessary or cheaply made, disposable items that, if not recycled, end up polluting the environment.

  • Secondly, taking stock of our possessions ultimately led us to take stock of our lives and make some simple changes like taking electronics out of the bedrooms so we sleep better, and organizing our shared office space and the kitchen in a way that made sense for everyone.

  • Getting rid of or storing things we didn’t use on a weekly basis allowed us to really see, have access to, and appreciate those things that we value the most. As a result, our house has seen a focused, creative burst and a slowing down to enjoy peaceful moments at the same time.

  • Going through our possessions can also remind us of the personal changes we want to make as well as the things we’ve accomplished and the goals we’ve attained. Sometimes we forget that we are not static! Move things around as a reminder of that.

  • Lastly, this process took a while for our family, and patience was crucial. But my husband came up with a great technique for helping us de-clutter. When we were hesitant, rather than threatening to get rid of things, we each put ten items that felt important to us in a separate space (our garden shed) for one week. At the end of that week, if we couldn’t remember any of the ten things without looking, or if we decided we could live without them, they went. What remained were the essentials we needed and sentimental things we loved. This is a respectful and effective way to let go of things we are holding onto for the wrong reasons. And it empowers each family member to individually make the final decision about what stays and what goes, which fits right in with our unschooling philosophy.

Just Curious

 

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I wasn’t very curious as a child.

Writing that sentence feels both liberating and profoundly sad. The truth is, I was curious. Of course I was. But I quickly learned that there was little value in it.

Like most children, I was taught to stay inside the box (because it really was there to protect me), to color within the lines, not to read ahead in the history books, not to  speak unless I was called upon. I learned in school that information must be administered, monitored, measured and validated by adults in positions of authority. I was led to believe that I was categorically bad at math, but a star speller, so I excelled where I was praised and became ill when faced with numbers. I learned that if it’s not in a book or on a test it’s not worth learning, and that my physical and emotional needs were secondary to the material at hand. These messages, although never overtly stated, were reinforced daily by the routine and repetition of what constituted learning, namely, the unquestioning obedience to instruction.

The children we often hear about–the ones who retreat to their rooms, who don’t feel like telling their parents what they learned at school, who don’t seem to have any interests, the children who are labelled “sullen” or “introverted” or “dispassionate”  –these children are not part of a slacker generation, or emotionally void, or brain-fried from too much screen time. They are not, in fact, anomalies. They may just not know how to identify or explore their passions in the absence of prescriptive learning, or possibly even how to communicate without being prompted. They have learned to avoid anything that is not assigned or solicited. Most importantly, they have forgotten how to be curious. And this is when they get lost, to themselves and to us.

All children are born hungry to explore the world with their five senses on high alert. And since literally everything is unknown to a child when they are born, what a thrilling state to be in! The unreigned joy, the innocence of failure, the confident determination as they take their first steps, clap their hands or discover that dirt doesn’t taste very good. Isn’t that what stirs our own adrenaline and wonder as parents? Isn’t that what allows us to see the world with new eyes, what challenges us to be a little more curious ourselves? It’s what makes diaper changes, getting spit up on and sleepless nights bearable. We want to be around that joy, those pure discoveries, capture the grace and muck, document it and dream about it, and wake up wanting more.

But then one day, and increasingly too soon, most of us willingly hand  our children over to an institution in order to be “educated,” divesting them of the very same curiosity and wonder we so valued up to that point, and depriving ourselves in the process of the great privilege of witnessing our children truly alive.

People often ask me why I homeschool my children.  It isn’t because I hate school. It’s because I embrace choice.  I believe my children learn better by being free to ask questions at all hours of the day, and empowered to discover the answers at their own pace.  And I see great value in talking to and learning from other children as well as adults, and sometimes questioning their authority. I encourage my children to read ahead, to try ahead and to try again when they fail.  It’s because I now understand the fundamental difference between the deep knowledge we gain from being curious and the mere distribution of information. But it’s also because I’m a bit selfish. I’ve become addicted to my children’s curiosity. I want to be around it all the time. It’s worn off on me, inspired me and challenged the life I was taught to live. Depending on the day, It serves as either a kick in the ass or a healing tonic.

Life is an inexhaustible subject.

Finding Your Own Path: Homeschooling Choices and Parenting Intuition

 

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When we first made the decision to give homeschooling a try, I joined a few online groups and spent a lot of time reading through the conversation threads and asking questions of my own.  I was desperate to know how this at-home learning thing worked and how other, more seasoned parents dealt with doubts and insecurities. But mostly, I wanted to know what I should be doing. In other words, I wanted an outline for how to educate my children outside an institutional framework. But ultimately, there was so much information and so many, many opinions–often times conflicting– that I ended up feeling more confused and overwhelmed than ever, despite the (mostly) good intentions of all who had contributed to these conversations. I simply shut down.

This information overload seemed familiar. When had I felt like this before ?

When I was pregnant with my son.

Like many first time expecting mothers, I roamed the pregnancy and childbirth section of my local bookstore in search of the perfect tome to guide me through the changes in my body and how to best take care of myself and the rapidly growing baby I was carrying. Which led to birthing advice, choices and decisions. Then there were opposing “schools” regarding feeding, sleeping, wearing, bathing, diapering, and a myriad of other care-taking subjects to face once this little person arrived.  I got so much advice from doctors, friends, family and strangers that the books sat mostly untouched on my nightstand before they got shoved under the bed in favor of a vampire novel. (This was my weird pregnancy craving.)

I listened eagerly to all the advice I received. For a while. Then, when I started to feel anxious and overwhelmed about which path to follow, I took a  step back and began to listen to my intuition, which became more heightened as my pregnancy progressed. I sifted through it all, weighing and integrating what felt right to me and letting the rest fall away. Together, my husband and I made the big decisions about our child’s birth  based on our values, habits, and lifestyle. But mostly we drew from a deep well of resolve and trust in ourselves and our abilities. And we decided that  maybe we didn’t need to decide at all. . . that we could just be with our baby and the rest would come naturally. We continued to listen to our instincts as our two children passed through the differing stages of emotional development and physical growth, as they tested and explored the world around them.

Parenting techniques continue to be a widely-covered and controversial topic and there is certainly no lack of opinion on which is the right way to raise our children. Unschooling (and homeschooling in general) are also garnering a lot of attention as the benefits of interest-led learning proliferate. And with that coverage and awareness comes the division that is inherent to almost any movement that challenges the establishment. The homeschooling umbrella covers many different and legitimate ways to help our children learn outside of the typical school framework. Unfortunately, they carry labels based on everything from the reliance on or absence of curriculum, text books, bed times and even food choices.

How is a parent to decide which home learning« technique » is right for their family ? A more important question might be, do we each need to fit neatly into any one of these categories ? More importantly, do our children need to have the way in which they learn best (which may differ from child to child, within the same family) be so strictly defined ? In the end, it all comes down to our parenting intuition, our ability to identify which aspects feel right and which don’t. We can pick and choose and mix it all up and call it whatever we want because ultimately it only needs to work for our children within the greater family fabric.

Following our intuition is a learning process itself. Mistakes will be made, insecurities will surface, obstacles will present themselves in the form of setbacks, standstills and criticism about our choices. But if we consider our options carefully and observe and listen to our children, that same intuition that guided us through birth and parenting, and the accompanying peaks and valleys, will lead us along a rich learning path with our children. Eventually they’ll veer off onto their own unique life paths, patterned with experience and paved with intuition.

C is for Curriculum

 

When we pulled our two children out of school a few years ago and decided to homeschool, I was filled with giddy optimism. “Now THIS was going to be fun,” I told myself, as I rolled up my sleeves and began to set up a school in our home. (Yes, I took it that literally.) Blackboard? check. Textbooks? check. Desks and chairs? check. Alphabet on a string? check. Pencils, paper, paint, posters, rulers, maps, stickies, smilies, markers, doilies? check. Curriculum?

Curriculum?

Anyone?

For the love of doilies, I didn’t have a curriculum.

And that’s when panic set in. How on earth were my children supposed to learn? How was I suppose to teach them if I didn’t have an age-appropriate, time-tested, topic approved, standardized school curriculum? What time were they supposed to learn math? First thing in the morning or after snack time? (oh god, did I have any juice boxes?) Were they supposed to learn to write in lowercase, UPPERCASE, script or cursive? At  what point did history officially begin? with colonialism? the neanderthals? the big bang theory? oh no, wait, that’s science.

I quickly found said curriculum online. It was described as “co-ed, easy to use and teacher-friendly.” That was a relief. Since I had a boy AND a girl, that meant I could teach them both the same things! Phew!  I felt armed, confident, guided.

It lasted two weeks. Two weeks of feeling utterly defeated as a would-be teacher and a parent. Two weeks of  tantrums and tears. When I finally stopped crying, the seeds of our unschooling journey were planted. We haven’t used anything resembling a curriculum since. It was a long and sometimes confusing process filled with discovery, doubts, and missteps, but ultimately I came to understand that my children could not be neatly molded within the framework of a guided curriculum. When we finally left them to discover the world on their own terms and at their own pace, our children’s curiosity began to bloom right out of the pot and spill out in tendrils that criss-crossed and intertwined in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There was no way to separate geography from history, language, landscapes, culture, or art. We found fractions in the kitchen, patterns in nature, and science washed up on the beach. These things had been there in plain sight all along, only I hadn’t been able to recognize them as learning opportunities because I had been taught that they didn’t belong in the realm of education. Knowledge was something that had to be taught, acquired, instructed. And in my own personal case, paid for.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for us in the beginning was that neither of my children had any interest in learning to read. Experts from all fields–educational, psychological, developmental–were telling me that a child could not progress in their learning if they didn’t first know how to read. At the time this made great sense to me and resulted in a not-so-subtle campaign to get them on the reading bandwagon. Not only did it backfire on me, but it temporarily squashed their love of being read aloud to, so I backed off and let them navigate and explore their passions instead.

In the end, it was the exact opposite of what the “experts” had claimed. Because they wanted to learn more about what interested them, both my children began to put letters and words together in order to get there. Following their passions motivated them to want to read and write, not the other way around. Incidentally, their passions–geography and drawing for my son; horses and languages for my daughter– were nowhere to be found on the easy to use curriculum.

Which brings me to the glass of water. The one that some see as half-empty and others as half-full. Most people, when we talk about our no-curriculum life, like to point out that by a certain age, children should know a minimum of basic things. These basic things somewhere along the line were agreed upon and became universal– we need to fill our children up, drop by drop, to this level, at this age, with this information. And therein lies the half-empty glass.

What most people don’t understand is that while a standard curriculum may provide universal structure, it has crippling limits to children’s unique talents and capacities. The “basics” may get covered, but when children are allowed to learn without limits, to play, discover, fail, explore and experiment, the glass is not only half-full, it has the strong potential to overflow. The problem is that the realm of formal education doesn’t like overflow because it can’t be controlled or contained. It can’t be measured and tested. Overflow doesn’t fit the factory model generated by standardized learning.

In the absence of curriculum, C can no longer stand for conformity, or containment, or control. It now stands for curiosity, creativity and occasionally chaos. Oh, and most importantly, clown.

What Did You Learn Today?

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It’s a question I dreaded as a child.  Most days, having just walked in the door from school, I couldn’t answer it, especially under pressure. With few exceptions, I either didn’t remember, wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t easily express the information. The question made me anxious. So my response was usually a vague, “I don’t know . . . stuff.” 

I’m amazed at how many well-meaning parents and other adults ask children this heavily loaded question, which is really a quiz in the guise of “how was your day?” What is really being asked (perhaps with genuine interest) is, “what facts and formulas did you memorize, what topics were covered, and how much of it did you retain?” The fault lies not with the question itself but with the context. Asked within the framework of school, if every child were identical in their capacities, interests and development, then each child in the same class on any given day would be able to give a similar response. Which ultimately makes both the question and the answer impersonal. The “you” in “what did you learn today?” is collective by nature.

But what a lovely question it becomes when asked individually, with no right or wrong answer, in the context of meaningful learning born of curiosity. Instead of an inquiry, it becomes an invitation. Tell me. What did you see, hear, touch, taste, create? What mystery did you unravel? What gift did you unwrap? What questions fell upon you? What notions did you conceive? What answers did you light upon? Tell me. I really want to know.

The way my two children live and learn couldn’t be more different from my own childhood. Because they are unique and are given the freedom to pursue their interests and passions, what they each learn reflects how they individually look at and learn from the world. They will take away completely different things from the same experience. After watching the breathtakingly beautiful film, « Samsara », they both wanted to learn more about Tibetan Mandalas. We watched videos, researched their history, how they are created and the cultural and spiritual significance behind them. My daughter was intrigued by the creation process: the geometry, the colors, the method, the design. She wanted to make one right away, color it and appreciate it as a work of art. My son was drawn to the idea that after a painstaking period of patient creation, mandalas are immediately wiped away by their creators, the colored sand gathered and scattered to the wind, signifying the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-attachment to the material.

After finding an online mandala creator, they both designed, printed and hand colored their own. It took two days, several sharpeners and an entire pack of colored pencils worked down to stubs. The one above is my daughters. We’ll hang it up in a special place to admire.

It was hard to light the match– because it really was beautiful– but we watched the one my son created scatter and float away in weightless cinders. He remembers every detail.