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.

 

 

 

 

Unschooling is About a Shift in Perspective

I recently became a translator. It’s not something I set out to do. It just kind of happened. An acquaintance asked me if I would translate a twenty-page document for her from French to English and without even thinking about it, I said , “sure, why not?” I agreed so readily, in fact, that I surprised myself. I’ve never translated anything in my life, and although I speak both languages, writing in French is not my strong point. But I tackled the project, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page. Then my friend recommended me to someone else and I took that job as well, which led to others: a study on tourism in Myanmar, a marketing study for an eco- hotel in Senegal, a warehouse fire investigation in Cameroon. And so without ever really meaning to, I find myself picking apart, rearranging and transforming other people’s words into another language and learning about different problems and solutions offered by people from diverse parts of the world in the process. And I love it.

Me. Who a few short years ago was terrified of taking personal risks–of failing or succeeding–in anything new; who would have emphatically turned down that translation job because it was outside my comfort zone; who would have insisted that I couldn’t possibly accept such a task because I wasn’t qualified. I had no training. No diploma. No degree in that particular field of work.

I once held tight to the notion that a formal education was the only way to learn; that the goal of an education was a diploma; that a diploma was a golden ticket to success; that success was quantifiable by the number of zeros on your paycheck; that the loss of that paycheck, or  job, or business was a mark of failure; and that failure was in some way a reflection, not of circumstances, but of our efforts. I once defined myself according to these narrow parameters and relied on them for much of my adult life. Luckily, at some point, they began to crumble and fall away under the contrary evidence of my life. And I have my children to thank for that.

I thought about why I had said yes this time. What had changed? And that’s when I realized that something important had subtly but steadily shifted in me. In the process of giving my children the freedom to create and learn from experience, I had witnessed genuine inspiration. While I was helping them to erase “should” and embrace “can,” I had broken down old barriers. While I had observed them fail repeatedly without shame or discouragement, driven to find a different solution or try something new, my fear of failure had lost its power. And I had come out on the other side with a whole new perspective. I had unschooled myself.

I’m not sure we ever stop evolving as unschooling parents, particularly if we are in the process of shedding old belief systems that no longer serve who we are or how we look at the world. We are all works in progress. If we choose to, we have the fortune to learn so much when we accompany our children on their individual life learning path. But perhaps more importantly, we have the opportunity to unlearn false perceptions and negative ideas about ourselves, our beliefs and our capacities.

When we look at life and learning the way our children do, as limitless and attainable, we have the rare chance to redefine ourselves as well. When we are not bound by others definitions or desires, we can take two steps forward and one step backward and still see it as progress. Loosely translated . . . even if we occasionally trip in life, shift happens.

The Learning Vacation

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Walking among the acropolis ruins on the island of Kos

I was telling another mom a few days ago that we just got back from a two week vacation on a small island in Greece. I explained that the trip had been part business and part pleasure, but that mostly, it had been a learning vacation for our children. She smiled knowingly and said, “Yeah, I guess every kid needs a vacation from learning sometimes, huh?”

What I had meant was that our vacation was intentionally centered around learning and discovery, that we had planned (and often improvised) our activities around things that my children are passionate about. What she heard, however–that children need “a break” from learning–reinforces a common assumption about education: that learning can only take place in a formal educational environment, i.e. school, and that by contrast, anything that takes place outside of that institution is considered leisure or fun. This mindset is so deeply ingrained, in fact, that time off from school to pursue intellectual or creative interests, or the discovery of a new place and culture is not only frowned upon, but isn’t considered valuable learning at all.

What we learn deeply as part of the human experience can’t be measured or compared or tested. During our two weeks in Greece, we each learned something valuable to us. We spent two days in Turkey roaming cobblestone streets, drinking sweet chai from hourglass shaped teacups. When we missed a boat connection from one island to our destination, the kids were tired and frustrated at being “stranded”.  But they quickly learned that a detour can turn into an unexpected adventure of climbing over ancient ruins in a field of wildflowers, followed by tasting wild thyme and honey drizzled over warm, tangy cheese.

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We met many new people and discovered two new cultures and languages. We visited historical monuments, museums and monasteries, talked to local artists about their work and influences, discovered hidden places by exploring the winding side streets against the flow of other tourists.

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My children learned from other people how to fish off a rock, which stones are best for ricocheting and how to play crazy eights. They learned about monks who live in solitude, small yellow flowers that close up when you touch them and the taste of figs eaten directly from the tree.

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We visited an organic farm and vineyard and learned all about WWOOFing, cheese making and how olive oil is pressed. We listened to people’s stories of ancestors who fled Turkey during the Ottoman empire and sailed to uninhabited islands in Greece, how they hid in caves, fishing and scavenging, fearing pirates and welcoming merchants, until the first house could be built. (“Come, I’ll show it to you. It still exists.”)

We learned about the Greek diaspora after World Wars I and II and the eventual return of new generations to Greece. For my son, hearing these stories showed him that history is more than a continuum of events. Its a hand-written memoir, a spoken memory. It’s about people and their very personal stories, very few of which ever make it into a history book. And the knowledge they impart can only be integrated and passed down, but never tested.

A few days after we returned from our learning vacation, I came across this exchange of letters between a school principal and a father who took his children out of school so they could share in his life-long dream of running in the Boston marathon. Despite three days filled with history, science, culture and endless examples of community, the children’s absence was labelled “unexcused” and the family was threatened with a possible criminal complaint for truancy if it happened again.

In response to the principal’s zero tolerance admonition, the father wrote,

“In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education. . . They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal. . . These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.”

His words echoed our experience. What struck me was that little phrase that got tucked into parentheses as though it was as afterthought to his argument about the three days they missed (“which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time”). Those few words speak volumes about the misplaced priorities of our educational system. When did standardized testing, which attempts to measure the conformed distribution and assimilation of rote information, become more valuable to our children’s experience than learning through the use of their five senses, their innate wonder and curiosity about the world, and their natural ability to make sense of and build upon those experiences? Simply put, how can anyone insist that school has a monopoly on learning? I think we could all use a vacation from that mindset by paying a visit to life.

Little Kids, Big Rules: Thoughts on the Criminalization of Childhood, Part I

photo credit: stomp.com.sg

photo credit: stomp.com.sg

When I was growing up, I was well aware of our family rules and those of our neighborhood, which were intended to ensure safety and foster kindness, integrity and good manners: Look both ways before you cross the street. Share. Don’t go swimming without telling an adult. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Pick up after your dog. Put trash in its place. Be home before dark. We respected those rules for the most part because we understood that, at the other end of this short list of restrictions, was a long tether of outdoor freedom. There was a great sense of comfort found in community. Parents knew each other’s kids by name. Everyone looked out for everyone else. Bikes got left on neighbors’ lawns and returned the next day. The bigger kids climbed the oak tree when the cat got stuck. Kids got in fights. And every once in a while, someone broke a rule. But we knew we were trusted even when we made mistakes.

We also knew that the consequences of breaking those rules would be proportionate to the ‘offense.’ If you pushed someone down, you said you were sorry and helped them up. If you destroyed a flower bed, you offered to replant it. If the baseball you threw ended up in someone’s living room, you took on a paper route or raked the leaves around the neighborhood until you could pay to replace the window. At least that was the idea. Things got worked out. No one called the police. Ever.

Unfortunately things are very different today. We’re seeing more and more serious rules with more and more disproportionately severe consequences imposed on increasingly young children. This phenomenon has been termed “the criminalization of childhood” and it is occurring in nature, in schools and in our communities. As neighborhoods, particularly private communities, continue to create and enforce ever more restrictions targeted at children, the limitations of natural play are numerous. As Richard Louv, Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, writes in his proposal to create a Forum on Children, Nature and the Law:

“(While) some community associations and public governments work hard to accommodate or encourage natural play . . . the psychological and legal landscape has changed. Girl Scouts can no longer climb trees at Girl Scout camp. Kids all over the country are hearing a double message from the adult world: Get off the couch, go outside, but oh, by the way, we don’t really want you doing anything out there. Other than organized sports.”

The obvious consequences of these restrictions on outdoor play are numerous, including childhood obesity due to lack of exercise, disconnection from nature (referred to as “nature-deficit disorder”), depression and reduced social interaction. Not surprisingly, many parents, deterred by a strong fear of liability and law infractions, feel helpless to create change for their children. As a result, they find themselves unwitting accomplices in the propagation of these rules. Louv goes on to state:

“In some communities, young people who try to recreate their parents’ childhoods may face misdemeanor charges or see their parents sued. Such legal barriers are not only created by public government but also by private government . . .One woman told me her community association banned chalk drawing on the sidewalks. Just try to put up a basketball hoop in some of these neighborhoods, let alone let the kids build a fort or tree house in the field beyond the cul de sac. In some planned communities, adult officials will tear down that fort or tree house within days. Too often, city governments do the same thing.”

What message are we sending to young children when we add on the threat of severe consequences for breaking rules that don’t make sense in the first place? For some, it is laying the groundwork for early societal control and obedience through fear. For others, it is surely planting the seed of distrust and future rebellion against authority. Although the term “the criminalization of childhood ” may seem exaggerated to some, it is representative of a larger problem stemming from infringements on basic human rights, namely over-policing. Civil rights attorney Chase Madar, in his article entitled “The Criminalization of Everyday Life,” says this “battlefield mentality” is what “leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court.” This same mind-set is spilling over into communities and encouraging an individualistic and exaggerated notion of “law enforcement.” How can we, as parents, hope to foster independence in our children in the face of over-policing and fear of legal ramifications? And what happens when we add the layer of fear that law enforcement has recently inflicted on the black community to an already restrictive landscape? A friend or mine recently posted on Facebook:

“I tried to not let this worry me but it does. . . The next door neighbor has complained about the boys running in her yard to get the soccer or football they are playing with and said it hit her door. (Our community) doesn’t like kids playing in the front (yard). I talked to the boys and their friends and told them the rules. I watch the boys from the living room and quickly tell them to get out of her yard and driveway when I see them chasing the ball. Monday was a nice day to play outside after school. The ball went over there a few times and I had them bring (it) in and play something else. Yesterday I get a message from my sweet landlady saying the neighbor had called her, complained that the kids were playing in her yard and driveway and running in her backyard and the ball was hitting her door again. She mentioned that the next time it happens she is going to call the police. . .It churns my stomach in these times to think of police rolling up on my kids and their friends playing in our yard having fun.”

She received many comments in response, mostly describing the neighbor’s reaction as disproportionate, possibly race related and certainly frightening. Some suggested taking a ‘kill her with kindness’ approach, suggesting perhaps this woman was just old and lonely. Others strongly suggested my friend find out exactly what the neighborhood rules were as well as her children’s rights. After days of distress and reflection, she ended up drawing from the pool of advice and compromised. She proactively talked to her neighbor and let her know that yes, her sons would comply with her wishes. She also let her know that she found her threat to call the police unacceptable and why. And she explained that she had gone to the police community relations division to apprise them of the situation in the event of further complaints. Knowing my friend, she did this with both grace and authority. And it ultimately worked. The neighbor backed off because she no longer had a victim. By arming herself with knowledge of her children’s rights and the courage to confront her neighbor in a firm but non-threatening way, she was able to defuse the situation.

The world is not risk-free. And we should always keep our children’s safety in mind. But we need to find a middle ground between zero tolerance and plain common sense. Buying into the culture of fear and propagating it by following rules which harm our children isn’t the answer. We need to rely on the knowledge of our rights as parents and those of our children in order to be part of the solution. The good news is that people are coming together on this issue on a community, national and global level by resurrecting the supportive role of small communities, by actively influencing local legislation, by enlisting local and national political support, by raising awareness of children’s rights and by offering solutions on how children can safely enjoy the many benefits of outdoor play and the exploration of nature. For more information, to find nature clubs or regional campaigns in your area, see the Children and Nature Network. In Part II, I’ll be addressing the criminalization of children in schools and how it affects homeschooling in the U.S.

Taboos vs. Trust: Answering the Uncomfortable Questions

 

 

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

 

I grew up in a family where certain things just didn’t get talked about. My parents, like many of their generation, directly avoided discussing any topic that made them uncomfortable or which they assumed we were too young, or naive or immature to understand. In this way, taboos got established and deeply rooted in our family. It wasn’t that my questions didn’t get answered as a child. I was discouraged from ever asking them in the first place. I found out about Santa and sex the way a lot of young children do–on the school playground. I was deeply disappointed on both accounts.

As a teen, if we did have a conversation about alcohol or drugs, it was to strictly condemn experimentation of either. Subjects like discrimination, violence, racism and large-scale human atrocities were the responsibility of school, often as an unemotional sidebar to a history lesson. The human body and its functions (that miraculous, mysterious, magical vessel of inner workings) was reduced to a diagram poster in the science lab or school nurse’s office. Sexuality, puberty and the female cycle (with its intricate web of fragile teen emotions) were thankfully addressed within the cherished pages of Judy Blume books.

I don’t blame my parents for this. They were raised according to a lingering post-Victorian authoritative parenting style. And while the more child-centered writings of Dr. Spock had largely taken hold by the 1960s, old patterns and perceptions die hard. However, the result was that my questions usually got answered by the experimentation my parents were ultimately trying to avoid. By learning that uncomfortable subjects should be swept under the carpet, I in turn avoided asking myself hard questions as a young adult.

My husband and I made the conscious decision to break the pattern of silence and taboos and replace it with trust–in our children and in ourselves as parents. We would answer all of our children’s questions, in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable they made us. And we would do it without drama, shame or condescension. We would answer questions like ”how many stars are in the sky?” and “how are babies made?’ with equanimity.

Interestingly, once we were faced with those questions (and there have been lots of them), answering them wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking as we had anticipated. The questions got asked, the answers came fairly naturally and, if their curiosity had been satisfied, my children would move on to something else. If not, there was fresh material for conversation, or research to be done until we found the answers they were looking for.

Paying attention to and addressing our children’s curiosity has led to many rich conversations about things like reproduction and their own birth stories, war, humanitarianism, sexual and gender identity, physical and mental disabilities, religious and cultural differences. Critics might say that we’ve offered too much information given their ages (9 and 10). I would argue instead that if a child is informed enough to ask the question in the first place, they are ready to handle the answer. If we remove the stigma from the subject matter, we ultimately demystify the process of talking about what our society deems “taboo.” With time and acceptance, we may even contribute to the dissolution of the taboo itself.

Having their questions answered in a safe environment by people they trust gives children the foundation to explore the world with confidence and ultimately removes the desire or need for future rebellion. Answering tough questions also opens the two-way door to asking them. Children are much more willing to share important emotions and events in a relationship where communication, respect and trust has been established. This seems like such a simple concept and yet I am constantly warned by other parents about the difficulties that lie ahead for us as we approach the “tween” years.

I lived through those years too. I remember them well. And I didn’t confide much in my parents, not because I didn’t love them, but because the path to open communication had never been paved. It’s my hope that by answering our children’s questions, we’ve eliminated their need to put up barriers of communication in the first place. As for what’s ahead, I can’t know for sure. I do know that we can’t avoid the questions themselves. They are universal, human and essential. And when we answer them, we may even uncover a few unexplored questions of our own.

The Importance of Sharing Unschooling Tales

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I read an article today that nicely sums up something I’ve been feeling for a while now. It’s taken from the introduction to the book Stories of the Great Turning which celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grass-roots activism taking place around the world.  This isn’t merely a message of hope. Neither it is a call to action. It’s telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know– that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians or industry giants, we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old fashioned way–by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflys”–which  is testament itself to the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.” In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very soul that it’s the right thing to do, even if our efforts ultimately fail. The lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanne Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbours planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavour is under way . . .(The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard  to really dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with (mostly) mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Or maybe we’ll finally get the bubble gum off the sofa with papaya juice and a little dish soap. Can we really make a difference? Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE”, which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate and share resources and work as a unity while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently.  And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many unschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change. If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls, “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

Why Wasn’t I Invited? Otherness and Unschooling Prejudice

 

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

 

My kids have missed out on a few birthday parties this year. It isn’t that their schooled friends don’t like them. They do. But the fact remains that my children fall into that vast group of people kept at arms’ length simply because they are different.  They are “other,” which has become a rather large and weighty umbrella under which society puts anyone who falls outside the parameters of what’s normal and accepted. Otherness can be based on cultural or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identification, religious or spiritual choice, mental or physical disability. And yes, otherness can be applied to those who make life choices which go against an established system. The list is long and it wavers and varies and morphs in tune with our individual and collective fears. Whether we like to admit it or not, at one point or another, we’ve probably all been guilty of employing otherness. It’s very notion is based on a fundamental lack of understanding, a reliance on assumptions and fear of the unknown. But it can also be eased by compassion and understanding.

My children like to play in the ocean, dig in the dirt and chase pigeons like all their friends. But they don’t go to school and that makes them different. Their otherness is particularly exaggerated because we are the only homeschooling family in our expat community. They stand out like two star-bellied sneetches who threaten the very fabric of sneetchdom. At least that’s how other parents view them. Their friends just see them as kids, and if they do make the unschooling distinction, it comes from a place of curiosity, not prejudice. They want to know what my children’s days are like, how they learn, what they do, what time they get up and what they eat for breakfast. They ask questions, they say “cool” and everyone goes back to being just kids. They have so much in common after all. But that doesn’t mean my children don’t get left out sometimes.

A few months ago, my daughter overheard her good friend inviting everyone in their judo class to her birthday party. Everyone except my daughter. When she told me this, her bottom lip quivering, my natural response was that there must be some misunderstanding. There was no way her best friend hadn’t invited her to her birthday party. The phone would ring, I was sure of it. A written invitation would be dropped off. Of course she was invited.

But she wasn’t and the day of the birthday party came and went. There were tears. Hers and mine. My daughter asked me if the reason she wasn’t invited was because she didn’t go to school. Although I couldn’t think of any other reason, it was a hard thing to say out loud. I’d protected both my kids from this prejudice before, but this particular friendship meant a lot to my daughter. Rather than stay mired in a puddle of unanswered questions and hurt feelings, I decided to encourage my daughter to be the good friend that she is.

So after the next judo class, she asked her friend if she could talk to her. They sat on the lawn together and  I watched from a distance as they sat cross-legged facing each other. At first, they both looked down at the ground, heads bent, hands fiddling with blades of grass or strands of hair. But eventually they began to look at each other, to laugh, to unfurl legs and arms.  My daughter gave her friend the pair of earrings she had made for her as a birthday gift. And the void that otherness had created was narrowed by understanding.

It turns out that this little girl had wanted very much to include my daughter at her birthday party but her parents insisted she could only invite her school friends. Her parents also didn’t want her to ask questions about how my daughter learned or talk about how lucky she was not to have to go to school. The subject was off-limits. This seemed to satisfy my daughter because she understood that her friend hadn’t rejected her, that the decision had been imposed on her.

I don’t know if every outcome will be as positive as this one. But my daughter got the answers she needed and her friend was given the benefit of the doubt. Some parents have accepted our otherness and even embraced the important exchange that can take place between schooled and unschooled children. Others are still threatened by our choice and the questions it brings up about education. But my children understand by now that choosing to do things differently is a risk and with the joy of that risk comes occasional disappointment. They also understand that it’s important for all us not to make assumptions about other people’s motives or actions.

That’s why our children’s friends are always invited to their birthday parties. It’s part of the compassion we desire from others. And it almost always leads to understanding and forgiveness. Young hearts are good at that.

Life Learning Yearning Brady McBrown

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(Based on the cadence and rhythm of “The Great Henry McBride,” By Dr. Seuss)

“It’s hard to be down,” said young Brady McBrown.

It’s impossibly possible to fake a frown.

When a fellow wakes up to a free day ahead,

he must kick off the sheets and spring from the bed.

No classes, no lessons, not even a bell.

No teacher to dictate, or lecture, or yell.

I’ll learn when I yearn and whiz when I wish.

I may look at a book, or cook up a fish.

 

There are so many things that would be so much fun.

It’s terribly hard to decide on just one.

I might go to the museum, perhaps, who knows?

I’ll take in the Monets, Manets and Van Goghs!

I could become a curator, a Master of Arts.

Or dig treasures from dirt and piece back the parts.

Yes! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll dig up a crown.

King crown-digger upper, Brady McBrown!

 

But now I’m not sure. Legos could be clever!

I’ll stack up a tower that goes on forever.

I could be an architect, maybe build a whole town!

Crown-digger, town-builder, Brady McBrown.

But why only two things? Say, I could do three!

I could put on my swimsuit and swim in the sea.

A deep sea diver! Yes! That’s what I’ll be!

Crown-digger, town-builder, diver McB.

 

And science is fun! So I’ll do that!

I’ll mix up a potion in a great big vat!

I’ll point to the map and pick a new place.

I’ll zoom in to cities and back out to space!

Or add up some numbers, divide them by ten.

I’ll count all the bird seed, then go feed the hen.

Then study some stars and the patterns they form.

Oh no! Those clouds! I think there’s a storm!

The rain’s pouring down like cats and dogs!

The puddles are filling with tadpoles and frogs!

I’ll stomp and stamp and jump in the muck!

Til my clothes are quite caked and my shoes are quite stuck!

 

The rain won’t stop me.

There are gifts to be known.

There is play to be played.

And seeds to be sewn.

On a day like today, with dreams in my head,

I can hardly wait to leap from the bed!

On a day like today, with dreams in your heart,

Today is your day! Where will YOU start?

 

photo credit: Redbook, Suessblog