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.

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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.

A Work in Progress: Dealing With Unschooling Doubts

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Line drawing, “face of a Woman” by Henri Matisse

I have a hard time accepting the compliment when people tell me I’m a good mom, because like most mothers, I’ve made a lot of mistakes on my journey as a life learning parent. Although they’re getting fewer and far between, there are still days when I wake up and want nothing more than to be able to drop my kids off at school for the day so I can have time to myself. There are moments when I still yell, bargain and manipulate my children (think Italian mafioso mom with a dash of Irish Catholic guilt) without really considering the consequences. And yes, I occasionally lose patience and succumb to some form of testing, persuasion and reward system to ease my doubts about whether my children are learning “the essentials” according to someone else’s timeline. There are days when no, I don’t feel like Googling Genghis Khan or watching a Youtube video on how to make sand mandalas.

Those days, when I resemble more the mom I used to be, are not proud days, but they are nonetheless important. They are days that whisper, “hey, you, Ellen, yeah you, what’s the deal? What’s going on with you?” I’ve learned to recognize them as a warning sign to look at external factors that may be playing on my old insecurities. Did a family member or friend directly or indirectly criticize our unschooling choices? Am I just having a bad writing day? Perhaps I’m experiencing diploma envy, prom picture nostalgia or sports achievement angst brought on by seasonal Facebook status updates. You may laugh, but these can trigger my insecurities and doubts more readily than I’d like to admit.

You see, I’m still a work in progress. Even after three years of life without school, my days are filled with a wonderous, magical element of utter admiration for my children and their passion for learning . . . and all the nagging projections that go along with it. But I embrace the whole package. Because it isn’t just my children who are going through life as unschoolers. I’m right there with them, observing, probing and gently examining all the encoded messages I received as a result of my own formal education. My sense of worth as a human being, the way I think about intelligence and creativity, my definition of success–I’ve had to turn it all upside down and re-examine it from an entirely new perspective and ultimately decide what I want to keep and what needs to be thrown away in favor of my children’s best interests.

The circumstances which led us to homeschooling and eventually unschooling were so unexpected and foreign to my previous way of parenting that I literally had to reprogram myself and face some hard facts about myself and my own deeply moored ideas about education. Truth be told, if you had told me when my children were babies that several years later we would take them out of school and allow them to choose their own learning path, I would have said emphatically, “right, and they just found Jim Morrison alive and well in Bangladesh.”

When my children were babies, I was busy stressing about how to get them into the “right” school, prepping them, like all the other mom’s I knew, with Baby Einstein videos, early learning games and getting them on a schedule so they would be acclimated to the waking, eating and sleeping schedule dictated by school. And yet here they are, at 9 and 10, living and learning in a way I had no idea was even possible just a few short years ago. Which just goes to show that we are all able–armed with courage, guidance, information and conviction–to make our own choices and take steps towards liberating our children from the educational box. But first we have to be willing to take the risk.

I remember my freshman year in college writing an essay for English class on how I would define myself and what my college goals were. I distinctly remember writing that I was Catholic, a Republican and that I wanted to major in Political Science with an emphasis on Cold War politics in hopes of becoming an International Lawyer. The professor gave me a C on the paper because, while he said it was well written, I hadn’t answered the question which made up the second half of the essay: What factors have contributed to how you define yourself and your goals?

No one had ever asked me that question before and I didn’t have the answer. So I left a glaringly empty half-page of clean white space. The fact was, until that day, I had never thought about why I believed the things I believed or wanted the things I wanted. I was Catholic because I was raised in the Catholic church. I held conservative political beliefs because my parents were Republicans. And law was certainly a nobel and successful profession. The list of never-questioned beliefs went on and on, and as I began to think about how I defined myself, I realized what a gift that unanswered blank page was. I had the right and the responsibility to ask questions and inform myself. And I had choices. It was O.K. for me to be different.

I did a lot of soul-searching as a result of that unanswered question, and the difference between the assumed version of how I defined myself and what I really believed when I allowed myself to answer the questions was vast and liberating, night and day. Whether we’re talking about education, spirituality, politics or any other belief system, ultimately it isn’t about those beliefs being right or wrong. It’s about making informed choices that are in line with who we are and how we want to live our lives. It’s about allowing ourselves to fill in the blank page.

When those decisions fall outside the expectations of others or play on our sense of “should,” they can be challenging and even stressful. As parents, we may have chosen unschooling with purpose and conviction, but for most of us, we still have to go through the adult process of sifting through our own educational beliefs and asking ourselves some hard questions.  In the midst of all the joy and wonder we witness and share with our children, we may still have days filled with doubt, fear and impatience about the unschooling process, the unpredictable nature of it and/or how others perceive our choice. When that happens just remember that, like me, you too are a work in progress, which is just another way of saying you’re only human.