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.

Give Them a Voice: Children as Unschooling Ambassadors

We are the only family in our community whose children don’t go to school, so it’s only natural that we get asked a lot of questions about our learning philosophy by educators and parents. The fact that we live in a predominately french ex-pat community means that these questions are often pointed and direct. Many times they aren’t even questions but statements such as, “well, they’re still young, but eventually they’ll have to go to school if you want them to succeed.” I get that one often.

I can’t blame them. Homeschooling is extremely rare in France and isn’t considered a viable educational alternative. Most of the parents I’ve spoken to had no idea homeschooling was even legal in France. So from this deeply ingrained cultural perspective and the strict institutional approach to pedagogy and therefore future success, I can understand their deep skepticism for homeschooling.

But the discussion tends to get really uncomfortable when I get to the part about how my children don’t follow a curriculum, don’t use text books and sometimes spend ENTIRE DAYS doing nothing but watching documentaries or playing in the mud. I might as well have said they gamble all day and run a brothel at night. The idea is that inconceivable.

I used to dread these conversations, especially when we were just starting out on our unschooling journey and I was grappling with my own insecurities about how my children would learn and what my role as a parent would be. I was often flustered and unable to articulately talk about interest-led learning and the natural curiosity that leads children to discovery and passion. I could write about it, but face to face encounters were another story. Every question felt like an attack and every remark a judgement. I felt an overwhelming need to convince others–family members, friends, strangers–that we were doing the right thing for our children and by association, that I was a good parent. As a result, I often came across as defensive and maybe just a little judgmental myself.

Then one day something changed. We were talking with the father of my son’s friend who asked, “but if you don’t follow a curriculum, how do they learn crucial subjects like math, science and history?” Before I could open my mouth, my son, who is ten, started explaining that math is found in everyday experiences like cooking, making change at the grocery store, and in analyzing rhythms in music. He explained that he learned fractions by building lego towers.

My daughter, nine, piped up and said she learned about diameter and circumference in a horseback riding ring. As for science, they observed nature–the stability and structure of hives, birds nests and termite hills; the life cycle, survival techniques and predators of insects. They learned about oceanography through TED science talks. History, my son explained, is Geography’s inseparable twin brother. They go everywhere together. In other words, my children started answering for themselves. And when they did, people listened.

Because my children spend time with people of all ages and are given the freedom to participate in “adult” work and conversation, they are exposed to a wide variety of topics, debates and ideas. With few exceptions, no one has ever told them they were too young to understand something being discussed in their presence. As a result, they are at ease holding a conversation and possess the vocabulary to express themselves articulately. In addition, they are largely in charge of making their education happen, from exploration to choosing a topic, doing research and/or seeking out mentors and materials. So it makes perfect sense that they would be able to handle a tough question about their learning experience.

Who better, in fact, to talk about what unschooling looks like than the very people who are doing it? While I am certainly a facilitator and advocate for my children’s passion for learning naturally, I was educated within the school system, which is perhaps why I still struggle with explaining “unschooling” in a tangible way, at least to skeptics. I had been answering these questions for my children thinking I needed to protect them from uncomfortable questions or harsh criticism. Once I realized that my children held no such fears, it became obvious that I was only protecting myself, which is proof that I still have a few hurdles to navigate on my own path. They, on the other hand, are quite confident about their journey. They perceive obstacles as challenges rather than barriers. They view questions, when phrased respectfully, as genuine invitations, to be answered with abandon, not restraint.

If we can trust our children to know what they need to learn and learn what they need to know, then it makes perfect sense to give them the floor when it comes to talking about those experiences. As long as they’re comfortable doing so, step aside and let them answer. As ambassadors for passionate learning, they clearly take the stage.

Here is one of my favorite inspiring examples of a learning ambassador:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Hackschooling-Makes-Me-Happy-Lo

 

Love Letters to My Son

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On the morning of my sons’ 10th birthday I stood in the kitchen singing “Happy Birthday” to him in hushed tones, a plate of stacked pancakes with a single candle in my hands. We’re both early risers and I love sharing these stolen moments with him while  my husband and daughter are still sleeping. But this was not just an ordinary day. This was a momentous day! The day we first met ten years ago.

“Make a wish,” I whispered.

As he blew out the sparkling candle,  tears ran down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth as he tried to smile.

“I wished that I could read,”  he sputtered.

I  held him close and told him that everything would be O.K., that he would learn to read and that I would help him.

Reading has been a long and painful struggle for Jamie, one filled with shame, apprehension and confusion. This day, his 10th birthday, had been a self-imposed deadline for him. Surely, he would know how to read fluently by the age of ten.

By the time his birthday rolled around, Jamie could make out lots of individual words in both English and French and recognize and spell the names of all the countries, cities, oceans, territories, cultures and peoples which are part and parcel of his passion for Geography. But picking up a book and delving in was still a source of great frustration. “Why does “ea” make one sound in “bear” and another in “hear’? And why are certain letters silent when they should have something to say? “

We are a bilingual family which means we speak, read, listen to music, watch movies and generally experience life in both English and French. Sometimes a single sentence is a patchwork of several languages in our home. We understand each other perfectly. But reading fluently in either language has proved difficult for Jamie, made all the more frustrating by the fact that his nine-year old sister (also a “late” reader) learned to read fluently in french in a matter of weeks.

Jamie’s battle has been a bumpy path of ups and downs, fits and spurts, with long plateaus of disinterest. As soon as he would make progress and feel good about himself, well-intentioned adults would quiz him in not-so-subtle ways. “Hey, buddy, I forgot my reading glasses, can you make this out for me?” Or, “So what’s on the menu Jamie?”

And then there were the not-so-well-intentioned children who would taunt him because he couldn’t read easily. A sensitive child who is also a perfectionist, if he had any doubt in his mind,  he wouldn’t take the risk. This fear of being wrong was deeply seeded by his early experiences of being drilled repeatedly in school.

And then there was my own contribution as a parent, as a mom who is still groping with her own insecurities and wounds about being “wrong” and therefore judged. The mom who once cared way too much about what other people thought. The mom who felt embarrassed that her son couldn’t read. The mom who pushed a little too hard and then retreated.

I finally understood on that  morning that my son needed my help, not my absence (which I had equated with showing him trust). What he needed was my support, not in the form of phonic worksheets or sporadic prodding. I realized that while he genuinely wanted to learn to read fluently, there was a healing process that needed to take place.

A gift. It was my son’s birthday and my husband and I had bought him a gift which he would open and certainly appreciate.  But I wanted to give him something lasting. Rather than suggesting my son read a menu, a sign, a subtitle, a label, a book, I would write something for him.

I began leaving small notes next to his pillow, noiselessly lifting his mosquito net before the sun rose, so that when he woke up it was there.

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I did this with no expectations. It’s now a ritual, something I do with a cup of coffee every morning for my son and now my daughter. It felt so good to see how a small note could make them so happy that I do it for my husband sometimes too. And as odd as it sounds, I occasionally leave a note for myself.

So I don’t forget.


My son is now reading, not perfectly, but confidently, despite the stumbles. He reads my notes every day and is now taking “Harriet the Spy” word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page.

I’d love to hear how you’ve helped  your life learners overcome obstacles.

Is Pippi Longstocking an Unschooler?

 

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“You understand Teacher, don’t you, that when you have a mother who’s an angel and a father who is a cannibal king, and when you have sailed on the ocean all your whole life, then you don’t know just how to behave in school with all the apples and ibexes.”  

― Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking

My children were the first to point out that most popular children’s book series on the market today feature characters who go to school. Junie B. Jones, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Judy Moody are just a few examples that come to mind. The stories in these series usually revolve around conflicts generated at school:  jealousy, peer pressure, discrimination, competition, growing up, bullying and navigating their way around parental and teacher authority. Most of the time, a moral  is offered.

Field trips, friendships, experiments and lots of laughter are also shared in these books. In fact some of them are downright hilarious and we’ve immensely enjoyed reading them. But the fact remains that these are books written for and marketed to age-specific, even grade-specific, readers who, well . . . go to school.

There are of course, exceptions. My children really like the Lemony Snickett books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you’re not familiar with this 13-novel series, it features the recently orphaned Beaudelaire children, who spend their lives dealing with senseless adults who are charged with protecting them from a dastardly, greedy distant relative. Their education is rarely mentioned, yet much emphasis is put on the individual passions and talents which ultimately save them from disaster. So in that sense, they are self-directed learners. However, while these children use their intelligence, imagination and problem-solving skills to outwit bumbling adults, the series remains a black comedy about orphans who, without the guidance and protection of their parents, are left to fend for themselves.

Then there’s Pippi Longstocking, the unstoppable protagonist in Lindgren’s series. Pippi is both underdog and champion as she challenges unreasonable adult and societal authority in her quest to remain independent. Pippi’s mother is “an angel” and her father is shipwrecked on a far away island, leaving Pippi to her own devices. With the exception of one botched trial, Pippi refuses to go to school, much to the dismay of the adults. Pippi is loved and admired by other children for her ability and freedom to take care of herself and create adventures from everyday experiences. Pippy is never bored. And Pippi always succeeds at winning over her adversaries, children and adults alike. What reader wouldn’t want to follow her optimistic, care-free and confident view of the world?

Many children’s books of this genre reflect two deeply-ingrained societal messages. The first is that school is an unavoidable Petrie-dish of problems flourishing in an environment of competition and measured performance. And while these problems are certainly not exclusive to children who go to school, they are common themes in children’s literature. But rather than addressing why things like bullying and discrimination flourish in the school environment and how they could be eliminated, these books offer ways to deal with the resulting emotions, suggesting an absence of choice.

The second, and there are many examples in children’s literature (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Little Prince) there is the message that only children who are orphaned or without parental supervision and consent (or who live on another planet) are permitted to opt out of school.  In other words, parental absence equals freedom. Because, according to social norms, what parent alive and  in their right mind would keep their children out of school?

The first books in the Pippi series were originally published in the late 1940s in Sweden where education was mandatory (and still is with strictly limited and regulated homeschooling). So “unschooling” as a notion wouldn’t have figured into Lindgren’s ideas around adult authority. But the creation of Pippi Longstocking shows that she was definitely onto something. Lindgren was a controversial advocate for the rights of children and often criticized the imposition of adult authority. Pippi as a character is both the embodiment and the triumph of Lindgren’s protest.

But as my daughter pointed out, while Pippi’s endless curiosity and desire to learn from experience are proof of great life learning spirit, she isn’t really an unschooler. Why? Because she doesn’t have the guidance, consent, support or the loving example of a trusting parental figure. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much progress since Lindgren’s writings. Child autonomy and parental control remain at odds.

As homeschooling/unschooling continue to gain recognition as a viable educational alternative to school, I have high hopes that more and more children (real and fictional) will be at the helm of their own education. But until we can eliminate our deep-seeded societal and parental need to control and direct our children, Pippy Longstocking will technically remain a truant .

 

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A Plea On Behalf of Unschooling Newcomers

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As a relative newcomer to unschooling, I like to read up on blogs and online discussion groups dedicated to unschooling/homeschooling topics. Since we are the only expat family in our community whose children don’t attend school, I sometimes need support, even if it’s virtual. It’s comforting to see so many people out there asking the hard questions and seeking information. It’s even more encouraging to find so many others willing to share their experiences in a genuinely thoughtful, heartfelt and open-minded way.

What I find surprising is the amount of judgemental mudslinging going on out there. Some of it makes me cringe, and I can’t help wondering about the impact this might have on unschooling newcomers or those considering life without school.

I think we can all agree that, among the myriad of possible reasons we believe our children are better off without school, one of the biggest is that our educational system likes to break down and categorize both our children and what they learn. So why then is there so much sorting and categorizing going on within the online unschooling community?

My fear, in reading some of the exchanges, is that if rigidity exists in how we define our learning philosophy ( i.e. homeschooling, interest-led, unschooling, radical, etc.) that rigidity may create dissonance. And if someone is looking for answers or support within that community, but doesn’t necessarily agree with every aspect of that particular philosophy, they may feel either ostracized or pressured to conform. Which to me looks a lot like a subtle form of bullying.

There is a natural insecurity involved in stepping outside the educational box for most of us. Are we doing the right thing for our children? How will they learn? What does unschooling look like? Some may wonder, ‘what will others think?’ Those are the general questions that get asked and the responses vary greatly. The spectrum naturally exists, as it should. As to where each of us falls on it, the marker may fluctuate according to our individual needs and those of our children as they grow. Our diverse lives should shape our diverse learning philosophies. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a fair amount of the opposite. When a particular philosophy begins to define our lives, the whole notion of unschooling risks losing credibility and begins to resemble a fad, complete with trend-setters and gossip columns.

If we were each to fit neatly into an unschooling category further defined by what we eat, whose philosophy we follow (or don’t) and whether or not we have textbooks in the house, wouldn’t we then be classifying ourselves and each other? And isn’t that the exact thing we are trying to get away from by choosing to be autonomous parents who trust their children to learn passionately with our guidance and love?

And if we are willing to offer this respect to our children– often against social, familial and sometimes spousal opposition– shouldn’t we naturally extend the same courtesy to our fellow unschoolers? They deserve to be trusted to come to their own decisions and forge a unique path to unschooling without coercion, criticism or judgement. If we can do that for each other, the opposite ends of the spectrum have a good chance of coming together to form an endless circle. That’s a nice image in my book.

(Originally published in 2013 at SenegalEase.blogspot.com)