Monday, September 8, 2014

On Teaching, and Learning to Ask For Help

(I haven't posted in a LONG time. It has been an... interesting... couple of years. Hoping to get back to posting regularly. We'll see. Will at least post an update to the kitten story soon, since there is much more to that story.)

It's a funny thing.
We're unschoolers.
Some would use the phrase "Radical Unschoolers."

The entire rhythm and flow of our lives is different from "average," whatever that means.

We are all active, interested, enthusiastic and fluent learners.
The range of things we've individually and collectively been interested in is both wide and deep.
All of us excel at figuring out how to figure out what we need to know, at finding resources.
All of us prioritize actual learning over any sort of paperwork that typically has no more meaning than attendance and possibly testing well.

Self-motivated, we are.
It's a good thing.

I spend hours online, trying to help people come to a better understanding of learning itself, of how people learn, and how it isn't necessary to "teach" kids all the stuff that people seem to think kids "need to know." 
Most of it really IS basic, fundamental to everything in our lives, and kids pick it up from using it, seeing it used, from needing information in order to do the stuff they want to do. 
The whole idea of sitting people down at a desk, standing up in front of them, lecturing, and then giving written exams (often "multiple guess") in order to have SOME way of "evaluating" students comes primarily from an educational system that requires large groups of students and a need to move them along to the "next grade." With individualized learning, that is not required. It's easy to know what a student knows if you have the time and opportunity to talk to them about it, to observe them in an ongoing way, and often, to be learning the same thing right along with them.

So it's more than a little funny that what I do a LOT of in my life is… teach.

However.
What I DON'T do is stand up and lecture, read powerpoint slides, and give written exams that don't measure anything other than test taking skills.

Living and learning with my kids has given me a very different foundation for teaching than most people have.
Having excellent mentors has added to that.

When I teach, I'm drawing understanding from my students more than attempting to put information "in."
My job is to help them make an emotional connection to the material, not to drown them with facts.
The content is far less important than the environment we create.
If I'm successful, if the students make that connection, then all the learning will be self-driven, with them actively wanting and seeking the information, rather than me needing to push, at all.

Sounds great, right?
Mostly, it is.

Except for one thing.
Many of them lack those very skills, of knowing HOW to learn.

MOST of them come to me with a learned helplessness surrounding any sort of "education."
They are so accustomed to having everything pushed at them, that they aren't sure what to do if it is not.
They are so used to trying to figure out "the right answer" or "what the teacher wants" that they filter everything with that purpose, so when there IS NO "right answer," they feel anxious, like they must have made a mistake, or missed something.
The fear of feeling stupid, or being embarrassed in front of the class is SO STRONG that it hinders people greatly.

Isn't it odd that one of the biggest challenges in teaching is helping students get past the idea that they somehow are supposed to ALREADY KNOW what they are there to learn, and that admitting that they don't, or showing any lack of knowledge is culturally, socially, and personally TERRIFYING?

One of the very first things I remind students of is that they are here because they DON'T know, and that's great.
That they all start at this same place of "not knowing," and that's exactly where they should be.
That not only is there no need to pretend to know anything, there is no need to try to impress anyone by faking it.
It is only by admitting what we don't know, that we begin to learn it. This is literally true: your brain tries to make things fit what it already knows, and it is only when it recognizes the need to learn something new, that it can do so.

And one of the ways to do that is to embrace asking for help.
Needing help is okay.
Everyone needs help with something.

In a group, people are often reluctant to ask for help, because they aren't past that fear of not knowing yet. In a small group, it is somewhat less frightening, so more people will ask questions. One on one, it's both easier to ask, and easier for both people to recognize the need without a specific question, some of the time.

A lot of my task in teaching a group is helping them see it as one-on-one, a learning experience JUST FOR THEM, even if there are other people in the room. I tell them to focus on their own learning, and let everyone else worry about everyone else. 
If you want to learn something, take ownership of that process, and ask for the help you need. That's how you'll learn, by making it all relevant TO YOU. 
Focusing on what anyone else is or isn't doing, won't help you learn. 
Waiting for someone else to ask questions won't help you learn.
Trying to copy, or be like, someone else who ALSO doesn't know, won't help you learn, even if it makes you feel more socially comfortable, especially if it allows you to hang onto ineffective patterns of thinking or doing.
Letting other people (other students OR whoever is teaching!) decide what things to focus on won't help you, unless you happen to need the exact same things, which is extremely unlikely. 

Speak up for yourself. Ask. 
Understand that the way things are presented right now, today, in this situation, will rarely be the ONLY way to demonstrate, describe, explain, or clarify something.
Keep asking, until you understand.
Recognize your own role in seeking understanding- sometimes, the "answers" might be more questions, and might require you to take further action, or time to pass, rather than just being "given" to you.
Everyone learns at their own pace, and in their own ways. 

Find yours.


This is all as true about learning about unschooling itself, as about everything else.

--------------------------

When I mention to unschoolers that I teach, I'm sure they are often confused, and may picture me as teaching public school, or something.
I don't often mention WHAT I teach, unless directly asked.
It's more than a little unusual. :-)

One of the things I teach is relatively common. 
I'm an EMT, and help teach new ones. 
I'm currently focused on teaching/facilitating the psychomotor and affective domain skills, rather than the cognitive information, although that is part of everything, of course.
That's the semi-normal thing I teach. Lots of great folks out there doing that, many with far more experience than I have.

But the other thing…
I'm one of very, very few.
It's so unusual that it is challenging to describe since the phrases that would have described it years ago no longer give an accurate representation of what I do, since the "modern" version is SO far removed from the fundamental skills, as to suggest an entirely different thing, with no real relationship whatsoever.
I teach people the skills required to be heroes. :-)

If that intrigues you at all, check out our website, where there is a bit more explanation.

If our mission appeals to you, and you are able, we are currently asking for help.
We are a not-for-profit educational corporation, and have no funding from anyone other than our students and our own pockets.
Our facilities are in desperate need of rehabilitation, and we don't have the money to do it without help.
We are running an Indiegogo campaign called "Unlock the Hero In Your Heart", and every little bit helps, as does spreading the word.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Finding Home

This story really starts last year.

Last summer, in the middle of a nice day, out of the blue, my son startled us all by suddenly saying "Kittens!" as he was looking out the window to the front yard. Sure enough, there was a litter of kittens living under a pile of old lumber. They must have been born there, and now that they were old enough to venture out on their own, we became aware of them.

They were adorable. We took blurry pictures, of kittens walking the plank, and kittens under a tree, and kittens with Mom. One looked just like my cat, who was an indoor cat, so we joked it must be my cat's baby (not possible).



We thought it would be a great idea to catch and tame the kittens, and find them homes.
We talked to the shelter about their "spay and release" program for feral cats.
We had several different ideas of plans for these kittens.

And then they disappeared.

Suddenly, no kittens.
No kittens on the boards.
No kittens under the tree.
No Mom cat with kittens.
Nothing.

The Mom had apparently been injured (we saw her limping), and at one point, we saw her with the kittens in a different part of the yard, but after that… nothing. They must have been "on their way out."

We don't know what happened to them.
There are plenty of wild critters around here that eat kittens. It is the usual assumed end of lost house pets, but we really have no way of knowing.

Sad. :-(

Fast forward through the Winter, and into Spring, and then to Summer.

Lo and behold, in August, and I don't remember how we discovered them, we suddenly had kittens again. This time, in our garage, way in the back, in a totally inaccessible place. Two of them. Totally adorable. There was a totally different Mom cat, one we had never seen.




This time, we were determined to take action.
We talked to the shelter again.
Found out that my brother has a live trap we could borrow.

The trouble is… they were living in a part of the garage we can't get to, and there was nowhere to PUT a trap that we could count on.

So we started feeding the kittens. We didn't know how readily they would take to eating cat food, but it was no problem at all. Before long, we had Mamacat and two kittens eating food we left for them.

Not long after that… Mamacat and one kitten.  :-(  One had disappeared.

Mama and baby made regular appearances, though.
They learned quickly to associate our appearance with food.
We would leave them food when we left the house, so they learned that if humans came out the door and got in the car… look for food.

The original plan was to get them used to coming for food, then use it to bait a trap, catch them, get them spayed, bring them back to the garage. 

Actually, that was Plan B.
Plan A was to catch the kittens when they were young enough to be tamed… but that didn't happen. We missed the "window" of 6-8 weeks old that is typically considered the best time for taming.

So Plan B.
Feed them. Catch them. Take them to get spayed and vetted, rabies shots, tested for various diseases, then let them live in our garage.

Seemed like a good plan.

It never happened.

For one thing, I realized that they were building trust, and that if we trapped them and hauled them off to the vet, where they had surgery, etc, they'd be TERRIFIED, and likely not be willing to trust us after that. What a nasty trick, to lure them in, get them to trust us, and then… a terrifying experience, complete with cutting and pain and all.

I didn't feel good about that idea, at all.
Strange, feral cats I had no connection to? Sure. No "betrayal" there.
It isn't that I think getting them spayed is a bad thing… it was the whole "trick them into getting trapped" thing that bothered me.

So we kept feeding them.
Days went by.
Weeks.
Seasons changed.
We hear the coyotes howling at night.
There have been bobcat sightings.

And we were, by the minute, getting more and more attached to this kitten.
We named her, by accident. Cutie.  Something we'd never intentionally name a cat!!

We feed her twice a day, and talk to her every time we go outside.
She talks to us, too.
Insistently.
"Where's my food, humans?!?"

She's a smart little thing. Ever vigilant.
Notices any change in routine, or habit, and is suspicious. Wary. Hesitant.
She watches us.

Slowly, over time (it has now been three months), she has gotten more trusting.

At first, she'd stay at a distance, watching, and then when we put food out, once we got in the car, she'd come eat.
Then, she'd wait from not-as-far-away.
Then she'd start eating before we got into the car- but only once we started walking away from the food.
It turned into a race- can I make it to the car before she gets to the food?  Nope.
Then she started being willing to eat before we walked away. She'd allow us to be about six feet away.
Then four. Or three.



During this whole time, we never made any movement towards her. Never made any attempt to get closer, or to touch her.
We just waited. Still. No pressure.

Recently, she has gotten more confident. 
A big noticeable change was that she started coming towards us, while we were carrying food to where we put it in a bowl for her.
We come out the door, and she hears us, starts meowing, and runs towards us, rather than away.
Not TOO close, but close enough to then turn around, and run back to the food ahead of us. She would get to her spot at the front of the garage, and keep meowing while we put food in the bowl. Leading us there, as if to say "hurry, hurry! I'm hungry!"




Mama cat… not so thrilled with us. Doesn't come towards us, doesn't eat if we are still there.
She stays off to the side, waiting until we are gone, when she will then join her kitten. We're pretty sure she is telling the kitten to be more careful, wary of those humans. I suspect she has a reason not to trust people- how did she get here in the first place? She was probably dumped when she was pregnant, as often happens in rural areas. It's probably where the Mom from last year came from, since she had NOT been a stray in the area before we saw her with her kittens.






When the weather started getting MUCH colder- winter is coming!- we got worried about little Cutie. She would shiver while eating, poor thing. We chose to close the garage door, leaving it open at the bottom just enough for a cat ( but NOT a coyote!), and she was okay with that right away, sticking her adorable little head under the door to watch us. We started warming up the food. We sometimes feed her IN the garage, rather than in front of it, and stay a while, talking to her, while she eats. We made a little "cat cave," thinking she might like a smaller, more confined (and therefore warmer) space, but there is no evidence that she has decided to sleep there.

Then it snowed.
Poor little cat paws. Shivery little cat.

And then something else changed.
My daughter, coming inside after hanging out in the garage, told me she thought that she heard Cutie purr for the first time.
Huh.

We did something that we saw recommended online, for taming feral cats- we took our indoor cats out, in arms, so she could see that cats are happy with us holding them.
The indoor cats were VERY curious about this loud-mouthed kitten, and she was curious about them. All to the good.

Then, a couple of day ago, Cutie jumped up where we put the food before I put the food in the bowl. That was a first. 
She started eating before I had gotten all of the food in the bowl. Another first.
And, sure enough, she was purring. Loudly.
And she let me stay right there, inches away.

I didn't move.
Didn't want to alarm her and set us back any.

Later that same day, after my daughter went out to feed the kitten, she came back inside absolutely thrilled, and practically yelled "Cutie let me pet her!!!"

What happened was this:
Cutie was on the porch as she has been for the past few days, running alongside, leading the human to the food place.
My daughter had the same experience I had had in the morning: kitten in a hurry, jumping up to get the food before it was all in the bowl.

And then.
What we have been waiting for happened.
The kitten rubbed her head on my daughter's hand.
Cat language for "you're okay."
After the head-on-hand rub, she settled to eat, facing away from my daughter, for the first time- every other time, she wanted to keep her eye on the humans, but this time, she relaxed.
My daughter cautiously touched the kitten, and with no alarm response, was able to pet her back. Several times.
Then she chose to back away, letting the kitten be, not risking ANY negative reaction.

And came inside, over the moon.


This has been a long story.

It could have been far shorter.
We could have trapped the kittens and Mom.
Could have forced contact.
It would have been faster, maybe easier, maybe "better" in some ways.

But if we had, my daughter would never have had this experience, of having a wild animal CHOOSE to trust her.
There is nothing else like it in the world- trust earned and freely given.

And that was when we realized that this entire experience mirrors our unschooling so perfectly.

We hadn't thought about it before, it was just who we are and how we treat others, even little wild kittens.
It was only because I had been spending so much time lately online, trying to communicate with people about the difference between a relationship without force, without making rules to prohibit things, working together to not need "rules," that I realized THIS was what I meant.

Trust, earned, and freely given.
Patience.
Looking at the long view.
Slowly establishing that you CAN be trusted, and never wavering. No pushing to get what you want. NO hurry. No making anyone do anything.

I'm absolutely confident that one of these days, we're going to open the front door, Cutie will be right there waiting- and will walk inside. Into the warmth, love and safety that will never be a trap.

Home.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Adding Up All the Little Things

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and have been thinking about how best to describe my thoughts. I still don't have it perfect, but I saw something on facebook last night that encouraged me to start writing anyway.

A woman was asking questions about unschooling, because she had some doubts about all that "free access." One of the things she said was that at the age of eight, her daughter was too young to understand ANYTHING about sex.

I find that attitude disturbing and potentially dangerous, but that, in and of itself, isn't what I want to write about.

My immediate thought was that if someone believes that a child is too young to know something at the age of eight, and, in the case of sex education, puberty becomes a little late for beginning to explain… then when, in there, will that person talk to their child about sex? At the age of nine? Ten? The day her period starts?

The same could be said about every topic out there.
When does someone need to know something?

Sometimes, it's fairly simple.
If it's a small, concrete thing, it can be easy to figure out.
For example, if I need to drive to Boston, I need to know how to get there.
I can look at a map right before getting in my car.
I might like to know the details of how to drive there sooner than that, but I don't actually need the specific driving instructions until right before I start driving.

So that's easy.

Or is it?

What do I need to know, in order to be able to understand the driving directions, and to safely and successfully make the trip?

I need to know how to drive.
I need to know how to read a map and/or follow directions.
I need a plan for what I'm doing when I get where I'm going- where to stay, where will I eat, etc.
I need some idea of the costs involved.
I need a general idea of how far I can drive before needing to refill my gas tank.
I need a general idea of how long it will take.
I probably need a plan for who is taking care of my animals while I'm gone, and there may be a variety of other things that need attending to, that I need to have made arrangements for.

In short, there is a LOT of information that goes into the trip, besides the last minute, simple information of what route to take.

This is true of pretty much everything.
Everything someone does, and everything someone needs to know, is based on everything they already know.

Here is where I think unschooling absolutely shines, compared to other educational models.

For one thing, we already recognize the interconnectedness of everything.

For another, we have the time and ongoing interactions that are critical for a foundation of an infinite number of small moments, that add up to form a wide-ranging web of knowledge, ability and interests.

One of the things about school that makes things easier to quantify, is the concept of following a curriculum, and often, a lesson plan as well. That way, each class is pre-planned, and at the end of the day, the week, the month, a teacher can show exactly what was "covered in class," and therefore, what specific information they expect their students to know. It makes things very organized, for sure. It lends itself well to keeping track of a group of students.

Unfortunately, what it does NOT do, is ensure that the students actually DO know the material, and it makes no effort at all to be sure that any of the specific material is of use to any individual student.

Homeschoolers who do "school at home" fall into much of the same trap, although it is a little easier to tailor things to individuals when there aren't as many of them. Even so, any choice to follow a curriculum provided by someone else means that the specifics of the subjects may or may not be the most appropriate for any particular student.

All curriculum still has two things in common. One is that life is separated into subjects at all, and the other is that there is an order in which things are taught that is decided on by someone other than the person doing the learning. So how does the person creating the curriculum decide what should be taught when, in what order, at what age? And how do they account for all the tiny bits of knowledge that may or may not be known by the student?

Unschooling (Finally! Actually on the subject!) depends on having all the time in the world, really, to learn.
It isn't about "introducing" a "subject" at the most appropriate time, it's about building a foundation of learning that extends into anything and everything. It's about literally millions of little moments, all adding up to better understanding.

It becomes almost impossible to identify when anything was "introduced" because everything is so interconnected, that you can't see where one thing changed to become another, or where someone stopped learning one thing, and began learning another, because there are no such moments. There is a LOT of overlap.

Things come up in conversation, or in passing. Maybe in a book, or a game, or a movie, or an unfamiliar word on a sign. In thinking about one thing, as someone starts to understand it, they start considering all sorts of related things.

My younger sister and I are masters of this. :-)
Perhaps you are, as well, and this will sound familiar.
She and I talk on the phone infrequently, but when we do, the conversations are long and very wide-ranging. Everything reminds us of something else we wanted to say, or discuss, and each of those things is a pathway to more stuff we want to share with each other. It is a rapid-fire experience, bouncing from one thing to another and back, and I have at times actually TAKEN NOTES during a conversation because I know that we will dance from thing to thing so fast, with each new thought so intriguing that we want to follow it, and yet, I don't want to miss some of them, so I write them down to be sure we loop back around.

We never do "cover" everything.
We ALWAYS find things to explore in conversation together that were not what we called to talk about, or at least weren't what we thought we meant to discuss. 

Life is like that.
Mental pinball.

A touch here, a thought there, a more intense exploration for a while, then on to something else, looping back around like the grand rollercoaster of learning.

There is no way to keep track of it all.
There is also no NEED to keep track of it all.
Everything, every little bit, each thought, each rambling conversation, each paragraph read, or each time someone shows someone else how to do something, or make something, all of it extends that foundation, so that when a time comes when some specific bit of information is necessary in order to accomplish something in particular, it is possible to fall back on a HUGE base of knowledge and experience and interests, and move forward from there.

If, instead, knowledge has been parceled out in discrete packages- today, we will learn addition- without a rich context, it will be much more difficult for someone to connect everything, and make USE of what they know and can do. If, instead, certain things are saved up to be taught at certain times, or certain ages, or in a certain order, if it comes to pass that someone needs some of that foundation, and it hasn't been allowed them yet, hasn't even begun to be part of their consciousness, it is much more difficult to figure out what to introduce and when and how, in order to help them do what they need to do.

Not impossible.
It isn't that if they didn't learn to read by the age of eight, they are forever doomed.

It isn't about COMPLETION of learning by any specific time or age.

It's about the beginnings.
With a curriculum, or a lesson plan, there are concrete BEGINNINGS of when something is introduced. Usually at a certain age or grade. Math. A foreign language. Reading. And if there is a specific beginning point, then, by definition, it was not begun earlier. If someone believes that the things that are specifically taught in this way DEFINE learning, they miss out on a LOT. They may well wait, or avoid certain subjects, expecting it to be provided to them later.

In "real life," everything has begun, is beginning, is in progress, all the time.
It's the recognition that everything builds from what came before, and is the beginning of something else, that is important. The recognition of the flow of learning, the overlap, the connections. 

So back to the woman who thinks that her daughter, at age eight, is not able to understand ANYTHING about sex, and therefore, should not be exposed to any information about it.

Really?
Nothing?

First, how is that even possible?
Unless, for that person, the subject of "sex" is very limited, perhaps only to intercourse?

But even working with that hypothesis, how well would it work to avoid all information about something, and then, at some specific age, decided on by the parent (or a teacher), not the person needing or wanting to know, they…. what? Sit them down and have "the discussion," with never having talked about any of it before? "Now that you are <some age>, it's time, there is something I need to tell you that I've been keeping from you your entire life…you need to know about sex, now, today. Didn't need to know yesterday." Pity the parent who has that sort of plan, and then has their child (too young!) suddenly start asking questions they are not prepared or willing to answer.

That doesn't work well with ANYTHING, let alone talking about sex.

Learning isn't a straight road, with specific stops. (Suddenly, the sex talk!)
It's a lifelong meander through the world, leaning one way here, another there, depending on interests and goals and opportunities.
Some people like a well worn path, knowing where they are going. Others prefer to blaze new trails. Most are probably somewhere in between.

It's all in the details.
The chance observation one day, that leads to a conversation another time, perhaps looking up information, deciding to participate in an activity, leading to greater interest, more conversations, more exploration. Maybe a lifelong interest, or a calling, that had its genesis in one small connection many years prior. Or it could just as easily go a different way, something thoroughly enjoyed for a while, before moving on to something else. It doesn't even need an endpoint at all; it's fine to discuss things just to do so, no big deal, an interest in the moment. It's okay to mention a little bit when an interest comes up, drop it, talk about it again later, a little more in depth, without ever needing to force a subject.

It's all good.
And all the richness and variety, whether of activities, or of thought, is part of who a person becomes.
Adding up all the little things along the way.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Quiet and Peaceful

The school year has started.
Facebook is filling up with posts about it, both pro and con.

One theme I'm starting to see is this: "With the kids back to school, it's so quiet and peaceful."

It struck me this morning that I have never had that experience, of sending my kids off to school.

It makes me wonder about other people's lives. What were their summer days like, that the first thing they say once it ends, is "things are so quiet and peaceful"? What are their relationships with their kids like? If it is suddenly "quiet and peaceful" today, what was it like yesterday?

"Quiet," I get. There have been times when all three of my kids went somewhere with someone else, and the house was suddenly quiet, with a sense of emptiness. The little sounds, so subtle as to be almost unheard, the sounds of breathing, or moving around, were absent. Like how, when you walk into an empty house, you can tell that no one is there. When everyone is home, even if all three kids are sleeping, I can still feel them, hear them.

So I understand why someone might comment on things being quiet.

But "peaceful," as if that is an unusual state?
Where does that come from?

My kids grew up with their share of disagreements and arguments, for sure. Being unschoolers does not exempt us from human interaction, in the least. There have been times when it has felt tense and stressful, at least until people have been able to catch their breath, regroup, calm down, think things through, make amends, or whatever was necessary to maintain and improve connections with each other. We've all had times of more- or less- difficulty in getting along, based on temperament, circumstances, external stressors, etc. At no time, though, do I think I would have remarked that an absence of all that interaction was "peaceful, " as if the interaction itself was NOT "peaceful."

Maybe it's the combination, that people often combine "quiet" and "peaceful" as if those are always connected, that puzzles me most.

Around here, things are rarely quiet, but often peaceful.
There may be conversation, or music, or heated discussion. We may be playing a game that involves a lot of talking, laughing, even yelling. The TV may be on, or the radio. The animals may be talkative- the cats frequently make all sorts of cat sounds and the dog may join in with some barking (but he can't howl, and his attempts are highly amusing).

Through all of that, there is rarely any sense of non-peacefulness. We are, typically, a pretty happy group.

I've never heard anyone say "It is so loud and peaceful."

Only quiet.

I'm far more likely to suggest that it is "quiet and lonely" than I would be to say "quiet and peaceful."
And it isn't even really "lonely."
I think it's closer to "quiet and anticipatory."
Waiting for someone to wake, or to come home. Collecting up thoughts and ideas I want to share with them the next time I see them. Completing tasks that take my attention, at a time when I have no need of focusing that attention on other people.

As I'm writing this, my house is relatively quiet.
We are all here, but two are sleeping, two are off in another room where I can't hear them, and the animals are all relaxed.
It is, amusingly, both quiet and peaceful.

But not because my kids are off somewhere else.
And I say it, not with a sense of relief, but a sense of home, of connection, of contentment.

Peaceful, for me, has never been the result of an absence of my kids.
It is the presence of my family, and our connections with each other, that bring that feeling.
And even if someone is angry, or frustrated, we all recognize that as a temporary state, not our default way of being, so much so that a departure from that is unusual enough to comment on.

I think all the "peaceful and quiet" comments reflect cultural expectation more than they are a direct comment on someone's life with their kids. I think it is what parents feel they are supposed to say when the kids go off to school.
At least I hope that's the case.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reading, Writing, and Communicating

I learned to read at a very young age. I barely remember looking at the newspaper at the kitchen table, puzzling out words. I have a strong memory of being in First Grade, and the class taking turns reading sentences out loud from a book, and being SO incredibly bored that I would read ahead, and then get in trouble when I didn't know what I was supposed to read when it was my turn.

When I was 7 or 8, my mother got me a book intended to increase reading speed and comprehension. I don't remember much about it except it had stories with word counts at the end of each sentence, and you were supposed to time how long you read, then take a short quiz to see what you remembered. I loved it.

I loved everything about words, really. Word search puzzles. MadLibs. Crosswords. Reading. Writing stories with a friend by alternating lines, or paragraphs, or pages. Telling stories. Writing plays. Poems. Puns. Especially puns.

At a young age, I (and my younger sister) had a vocabulary that was far larger and more rich than average.

This was not a universal advantage.

From very young ages, we ran into situations where people with less interest in language, in words, in discussion, simply did not understand what we were saying. It did not sit well, especially with people much older than we were. I lost count of the number of times I was accused of being a "smartypants" or of trying to prove I thought I was "better" than someone with all those big, fancy words. My sister had this experience even more often, and, being seven years younger than I was, found it even more difficult.

What has happened to the world, to the culture, that made it so that knowing MORE, is somehow wrong, or rude, or inappropriate, and especially so for children? How did we end up with a culture where people are proud of not knowing how to spell, or not being able to read well, where ignorance is somehow more "honest," and where anyone who cares about being precise with language is accused of looking down on others, and of trying to confuse people?

Nowhere is this more evident than on the internet.

I admit, I am biased.
I strongly prefer communicating with people who are ABLE to communicate verbally, whether it's orally or in writing.

I don't have a problem with people who, by circumstance or opportunity, have not had the advantage of growing up in a very literacy-positive environment, and who are aware of their difficulties with language and make an ongoing effort to learn and to improve.

My problem is with people who simply don't care, don't make an effort, and who then are somehow "offended" if people have trouble understanding their writing.  

In these days of spellcheck and even the ability to have the computer check your writing for grammatical or punctuation errors, with easy access to online dictionaries, what is someone's excuse for continuing to misspell, use words incorrectly, inappropriately capitalize (always, or never!), write long run-on masses of words with incorrect or no punctuation, and otherwise massacre the language? Then, when what they write is both long and unreadable, get offended if someone suggests they proofread?
It suggests to me that many of these people are not, really, attempting to communicate. They want to hold center stage, but have little of value to offer.

They may argue (or simply insist, lacking the skill to present and defend a position) that their thoughts and opinions have as much value as anyone else's, and they very well might. The problem is that no one knows for sure, since those thoughts and opinions are not communicated in any sort of coherent or understandable way.

What does all this have to do with unschooling?

I find it totally fascinating.

How is it, when people learn what they need to know, when they have a need for it, that we have SO MANY adults who have not learned, and WILL NOT learn, how to communicate effectively in writing, who then spend a lot of time in a primarily written environment such as the internet? Why aren't they improving their reading and writing skills? What is going on there?

It isn't that they are unaware of making errors.
Do they not care?
Do they think their way of writing is "just as good" as anyone else's, even when it isn't readable?
Are they so damaged by earlier experiences of being shamed, that they can't move past them?

At the same time, some of these people make me wonder why they are even interested in unschooling.
It begs the question of whether or not it is possible for anyone, or everyone, to unschool.

There is no set education level, or body of knowledge, that someone needs in order to unschool.
It seems obvious to me, though, that it isn't going to work very well in a family where the adults are not active learners, where they are not striving for better communication, better understanding. If the parent(s) can't communicate effectively, things are going to be very difficult. SO much of unschooling is about communication. Anyone who is set in their ways, who refuses to make multiple attempts to be understood, and who is offended by someone's inability to understand them when they make NO effort, is going to find unschooling uncomfortable, at the least, and perhaps impossible.

It also makes unschooling, as a whole, look like it is not an effective way to learn, when adults who have no ability to communicate effectively are the ones cluttering up online forums with poorly written, poorly argued, rants and attacks on other people. Any new unschooler, or interested person, whose first experience, the first unschooling information they see, looks like an English teacher's nightmare, is not going to be impressed, and may well find it difficult to even consider looking further.

It's not that I think everyone who writes anything about unschooling has any sort of responsibility to unschooling itself, to present it clearly, objectively, and most of all, intelligibly- but I would think they'd have that responsibility to THEMSELVES, not to come across as ill-informed, or, at times, just plain unintelligent. I would think they would be highly driven to learn, to improve, so they could be UNDERSTOOD.

I am quite puzzled that this is often not the case.

People so often point fingers at math, as the thing that "no one would ever want to learn," but in practice, it seems strange that the focus is all anti-math, when so many people are functionally illiterate- but that is ignored, and, in some cases, flaunted.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Visit to Mushroom World


Nothing terribly philosophical this time. Sharing our afternoon.

Two of the kids and I went on a short hike. We have been limited in our ability to go on longer, more difficult hikes lately, and were itching to get outside on a beautiful day. There is a nature preserve nearby that I had never visited, though my daughter has, with a group she used to work with. She had been wanting to share it with us for some time, and the time finally came!  Since I grew up around here, and spent much of my younger years in the woods, it was an unusual pleasure to be able to explore a new place, and especially, for it to be one for my daughter to share with us for the first time, rather than the other way around.
There were several trails to choose from, but we already knew which to take: the one to the water.

Below are some photos from our day. If you click on them, you can see a larger version.

As we started down the path, through a field, there were a variety of trees lining the path, between us and the creek.

Crabapples

One of many now-wild apple trees.

We saw a wide variety of berries, and concluded that this area is probably very popular with birds. This was confirmed later, when I read more information about the preserve after we came home. Apparently, it's a birder paradise.



Sarah says these are Nannyberries, and are edible, although she does not particularly like them. The other common name is Sweet Viburnum, and they have a variety of medicinal uses. I've never tried them, but we may go back some day when more are ripe.

In the midst of all the apples and berries, we got our first glance of the creek. We could hear it, a few feet away, hidden behind the trees. At this part of the path, the creek was at the same level we were, although obscured by vegetation, but soon, it headed down into a gorge.


There were many wild flowers. Some on shrubs, others in the fields. Some familiar, others not so much.

Bumblebee on red clover.

I don't know what this is, but it looks like it will make some sort of fruit for the birds.

Queen Anne's Lace

More flowers that are destined to be fruit.

Black-eyed Susans in a field next to the path.

Goldenrod.

Milkweed pods- the area was full of them, and it will be gorgeous in the Fall, with all the silk. I have a special fondness for dried milkweed pods.

Before entering the woods, there was a lovely little field to our left. The creek had meandered over to the other side of this field (or did we do the meandering?), where it begins to become a gorge.

The path leading into the woods. I love the sunlight and shadows, as we headed deeper into the shade.

In the woods now.

Once we were in the woods, we came across this lovely red "berry." Trillium is a protected plant here, and I've rarely seen the fruit; only the flower.

As we headed more deeply into the woods, we soon discovered that we had entered the land of mushrooms. I don't care for eating mushrooms, so have never needed to learn to identify them, but on this day, I wished I could have. So much variety! So many colors!

Little orange mushrooms, like little caps. Some were alone, but most were in groups like this.

Mushroom growing in an old rotting log.

I don't know what these are, or if they really are a kind of mushroom or fungus, but they looked more like a fungus than some sort of sprouting plant.

What is the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool? I don't actually know. This one had a circle on the top, like a brown "bullseye."

Indian Pipe

Another brown one, but no bullseye top. This one had a more uneven shape.

I think this one looks like it has yellow sugar crystals on the top. Very bright, in the dim woods.

No mushrooms. I just thought this was pretty. It reminded me of a game I used to play when I was a kid. We'd make a circle of string, then go outside and lay the circle on the ground, and try to identify everything within the circle. How many different plant varieties can you see in this image?

Then we reached a resting place- a small lean-to built alongside the trail. There was a path leading down from there to the creek, gently sloping at that point. Not far down the trail, it was no longer possible to get down to the creek easily at all. We know. We tried.

Lovely little gentle falls.

Several branches joined together here, into the larger creek. (Six Mile Creek, if anyone wants to know.)

One small branch.. on which had fallen large branches!

Another of the smaller branches.

Yet another of the smaller branches.

The main creek.

Another view, with the sun shining on the distant part.

Another one of the tiny falls along the creek.

We found a lovely surprise, next to where the creek branches all joined the main creek. Clearly, many people have been here before us, creating this delightful display, a testament to love everywhere. There were dozens of heart-shaped stones placed or embedded in the wall.


Click on this one, so you can really see it.

Looking the other direction- downstream. Just past this fallen tree, there is a waterfall. It is about four feet high, but there was no safe way to get below it to take a picture where you could see the entire waterfall. We tried. Maybe on another day, with less water flowing. or maybe we'll be able to find a way into the gorge from below the falls, and hike back up. Not this time.

This is the best angle I could get. Right in front of where I'm standing- you can't see it in the picture- there is a part of the falls that is a straight drop, not the more gentle angle you can see. I could probably have gotten myself down that drop safely, but I wasn't entirely sure I could do so carrying my camera, and was not willing to risk it. I also wasn't sure I could get back UP.

This is the edge of the cliff where I stood taking the waterfall picture. It goes directly to the edge of the falls, which is why there was no way to walk around, or easily climb back out. The terrain just downstream from here is VERY different from upstream. A very abrupt change, which is fairly unusual, and not at all helpful.

I was not the only one trying to take pictures. :-) I'm pretty sure she has a very similar picture of me.

Another view looking downstream, showing what we had to climb around to get to the top of the falls. If you look closely, you can see that cliff edge behind the fallen trees on the right.

We went down the path further, to see if things leveled off any, and we could get into the creek bed. No go. The edges became more steep, the further we went. When we got home, we looked at some maps showing the terrain, and sure enough, there was no easy way back to the creek bed for quite a distance, and the only way we saw to get in was across private property. The property owners might not mind if we entered the creek there, and made our way up, but there is the challenge of figuring out who they are, and then deciding whether or not to impose. This little waterfall may have to stay one we can visit, and enjoy, but not really take good pictures of.

On our way back from exploring the edge, we were once again greeted by a wide variety of fungus. There was more than I have represented here, but I didn't get pictures of everything. My son found some blue mushrooms, but couldn't find them again so I could get a picture. Perhaps another time.


Looks like a sea anemone to me.

One of the larger ones we saw.

There were dozens like these.

Another pair of bright yellow; no sugar crystals this time.

There was an entire area covered with these, in sizes ranging from about the same as the head of a pin, to a couple of inches across. Lovely colors, and easy to spot.

A different yellow. Different color, and very different shape and texture.

Purple! Mushrooms of all colors.

And finally, right before we left the area, a critter. Maybe he knows the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool?


We've already decided to go back here again, and to bring along my other son and his girlfriend, both of whom also like to hike. I'd love to see it in the Spring, and also in the Winter.

This is one of our favorite ways to spend an afternoon. We are fortunate to live in an area of abundant beauty, with many hiking paths open to the public, and many creeks and waterfalls to visit. Between us, we are able to identify most of the local flora and fauna, but not mushrooms! This was by far the most different varieties I have ever seen in one day. I don't know if this spot always has this many, or if it is because of this year's weather patterns. At the next Library Book Sale, I'll be on the lookout for a mushroom field guide, for sure.