Monday, March 26, 2012

Sprummer, No Longer

I remember the first day of school, nearly every year when I was a kid.
Not being able to sleep the night before.
Waking up early, much earlier than I had the whole summer, in the dark.
One of the few days of the year that I'd turn the lights on when I got up.
Dressing in "school clothes" for the first time in weeks.

There was a sense of excitement, of "newness," as if the first week of September was the "New Year."

By the second day, or maybe the third, the newness would have worn off. No more restless sleep, no getting up extra early, no turning on the lights. 

My kids will never have that experience.
They'll never know that odd urge to buy new notebooks and pencils at the end of August.
They'll never do "back to school shopping."

Instead, our lives follow a pattern of seasons, governed by the rotation of the earth, rather than someone's decision about when the "school year" starts.

The current season here is... a very good question.

We have been having the strangest weather I can remember for about the last year.
Last April, we had a tornado- in a place that never has tornados.
While it's not exactly weather, we had a small earthquake- in a place that doesn't have earthquakes.
Last summer, we had a spate of days over 100 degrees, and that rarely happens.
Then, in the Fall, we had flooding, very serious nearby, and not-as-serious-but-still-a-pain-in-the-butt here.  As in right here. Our house.

So I suppose it shouldn't be any surprise that the odd weather is continuing.
After the mildest winter I can recall, contrary to the prediction made by Punxsutawney Phil, we've had an amazing early Spring.

For the entire month of March, we've had above normal temperatures. First in the sixties, then seventies, and eighties.
We've seen more sun than we usually see here in the land of grey skies.
We've dreamed of gardens, made plans to plant early, wondering- hoping, even- if we might be about to have the longest growing season ever.
We've seen fat chipmunks and red squirrels scampering across the lawn.
Birds making a racket every morning.
Brush fires popping up all over the county, about a month earlier than usual.
A structure fire where we were far more concerned about the heat than we usually need to be this time of year.

We've done yard work, started up a new compost pile, and have planned hikes and other outdoor activities. We've had the camera out, taking pictures of daffodils and magnolia. I've slept with the windows open, and the fan on. In March.  When the temperature was forecast to go above 90, I had to consider whether I would even consider air conditioning this time of year.

I didn't. :-)

It isn't even Spring weather. It's bordering on Summer. Sprummer.

Some of it is very interesting.
Lots of things are blooming- but not everything. Some plants bloom and grow according to the temperature, but others are dependent on day length.
There are flowers everywhere... but not bees. What's going to happen with that?
Some places are "greening up" nicely, which makes the risk of brush fire much less... but not uniformly. Some kinds of grass are growing like mad, and others aren't.
Sugaring was crazy this year- earlier, shorter, and if you missed it, you missed it.
Farmers aren't sure what to do. Plant early? Wait? Our "average last frost" date is still SEVEN WEEKS AWAY.
The ground, which would normally be frozen, or, at best muddy and cold, is warm and primarily dry. The little bit of rain we got today was more than welcome.

We've had pesto, sweet corn (imported, but it just felt right!) and salt potatoes. Plenty of ice cream. All those summer foods, falling just short of firing up the grill.

I think we've already had a better summer than we usually have in the summer.

It's crazy.
I wonder how the actual summer will go.
Are we in for a hotter than usual summer? Will it make no difference in the long run, this being some sort of "aberrance" that will fade away into history, to be recounted years from now, when my kids are telling their kids about "that weird year"?

And now, suddenly... we're being thrown for another loop.
I've checked the weather forecast nearly obsessively, and it had been holding on with predictions of highs in the fifties for another week or so. Cooler than it has been, still warmer than average for this time of year.

Until today.
Suddenly, whoever is making those forecasts is telling a VERY different story.
The predicted low for tomorrow night has been dropping all day.

It now sits at EIGHTEEN degrees.
A hard, hard freeze.
Likely to devastate any fruit trees that have started to blossom, and who knows what else.

Not an unusual temperature for this time of year in most years, but it's going to be a shock to the system THIS year.

So what IS this season, exactly?
Is it about to be the winter we barely had?
What will "Spring" be like when it finally, relentlessly, comes?

I can't help but be struck by how suited this "season" has been to our lives.
Not exactly like everyone else's.
Not exactly going according to the typical cultural blueprint.
A "bit" unpredictable.
Very interesting.
Maybe a little crazy-making at times.

Clearly, the weather doesn't have memories of those early mornings, heading to school.
If there ever was a time that something hasn't "read the textbook"- this is it.
And like the rest of us, if the weather wants to have an off the wall "sleep schedule," I'm good with that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How To Unschool

Over on facebook, someone posted a link to this article, with a comment about how it makes things easy to understand.

I think the article is not helpful at all, really.
It contains too many assumptions that are inappropriate.
As Frank said, it's crap.

So I thought that for fun, I'd make my own list.
For people who really need some sort of instructions, some guidelines, some rules.
I have no idea where this is going to go.

How to Unschool

1. Stop trying to understand what unschooling is. Trying to define it and trying to narrow that definition to something you can easily quote and use to defend your choices is counter-productive to actually doing it. It's like trying to put a label on a relationship.

2. If this is new to you, accept that you are a beginner, and know very little.  Embrace your beginner-ness. It means that you are not expected to know what you are doing, or to do everything well. It gives you the freedom to make mistakes and to continue learning more and more.

3. Stop measuring everything on some sort of "Am I doing it right?" scale, and start using the "Is my family happy?" scale.

4. Spend time thinking. Think about your childhood. Think about how you were parented. Think about your school experiences, if you had any. Think about all the terrible things that have happened in your life, how they made you feel, what you learned from them, and how you feel about them now. Likewise, think about all the wonderful things that have happened in your life. Think about what things you enjoy, what makes you excited, what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Think about what relaxes you. Talk to other people about their thoughts about these things in their own lives. Compare and contrast. Use all this thinking to help guide you in your choices. Make choices based on what you really, truly believe in your heart, not what other people have told you. It takes time and a lot of thinking and examination to move past cultural conditioning, and that will be at the heart of many people's choice to unschool.

5. Instead of constantly feeling pressured or defensive about criticism you hear, look for the truth in it, and use that to help you. It is true that your children will not have the same experiences as their schooled peers. They will not learn or do the same things. They will not socialize in the same ways. They will not have the same opportunities. If they WOULD be "the same," why would you be doing this? Start answering people with "you're right" rather than jumping to defend something that you don't yet fully understand.

6. Avoid the temptation, in your excitement over unschooling, to over-do everything. You do not need to come up with a dozen "exciting" activities to do that are related to something your child just said. If your child mentions, for example, that they like fish, you do not need to go get an aquarium and get a bunch of fish, get books about fish, learn how to fish, paint some fish, find new fish recipes, make a fish costume, go visit a fish farm, etc. Honest. Let your child's interests come and go, wax and wane, and develop as they will. Kids will be interested in more things than you could possibly fully explore. It's a big world. They will have many passing interests, and some intense ones. It will be easy to tell the difference. Don't worry that you might miss one. Do, however, pay attention.  While you don't need to go out and find a bunch of related things, if you happen to come across something your child might be interested in (and you will know what things they are currently interested in if you are interacting with them frequently), by all means, bring it to their attention. Seeing a shower curtain that has a beautiful fish design on it, and showing it to your fish-interested child, is a different thing than going out and trying to find every fish thing you can. Supporting their interests should not be or feel forced.

7. Stop sorting things into subjects, even in your head. For one thing, life is not organized that way, really, and separating things is largely unhelpful in the real world. Everything is interconnected.  For another thing, thinking of things as subjects encourages the idea that the really valuable things to learn and know are those subjects... school subjects. While things that are considered school subjects are mostly good things to know about, what is good and interesting and valuable is not limited to those things, at all.

8. Avoid confusing the concept of "unschool" with "anti-school." It is true that many people come to unschooling after bad school experiences. But not everyone has those experiences, nor are they relevant. If every argument you use to explain or defend your choice to unschool has, at its heart "anti-school" you're going to needlessly offend a lot of people, and it isn't going to help your unschooling at all. Not all schools are bad places. Not all schools are robbing children of their souls or self-esteem. As in many other situations, you need to be "running to" unschooling, not "running from" school. Choose this lifestyle for its benefits, its joys, not to escape from something else. Personally, we found that there wasn't anything we needed to be doing that the schools could do better than we already were. It wasn't that we "hated" them, it was that we didn't need them. We were having a great time... so we kept doing that.

9. If you understand only one thing about unschooling, let it be this: it does not guarantee perfect, happy, well adjusted, successful, peaceful children or adults. It does not guarantee a family without sibling rivalry, without disagreements, without conflict. It does not guarantee that your child will be brilliant, or that they'll find that all-consuming passion. Does it encourage good family relationships? Sure. But I've seen great family relationships in families where the kids are in school, too. 

10. Be honest with yourself about why you want to do this. I have seen too many people decide they should unschool based on some group they want to be part of. They somehow think that in order to be one of the "cool kids" they have to unschool. Maybe they want to be counter-cultural. Maybe they want to be like their LLL Leader, who has been such an inspiration. Maybe they've read an article, or a website, or been to a conference that made it seem like this was the only legitimate choice, or that unschooling is the only way to respect their child. If the decision to unschool is made for these types of reasons- extrinsic reasons- it will not likely be successful. You have to want to DO the thing, not just BE the thing. Unschooling ITSELF needs to be the reason, not all the supposed (or even the real) advantages or benefits. If you aren't really into the doing part, everything is going to devolve into excuses sooner or later. The vast majority of people who start unschooling end up sending their kids to school, often because they didn't really want to be that involved with their kids. They may quote other "reasons" or excuses about why it "didn't work out" or they "couldn't," but it all comes down to this: if living this way is a priority for you, you'll do it, and not even consider anything else. If it isn't in your heart and soul, you'll find all sorts of excuses not to continue. And, if it isn't in your heart and soul- it's better that you not pretend to do it anyway.

11. Ask questions, but don't expect answers. Or at least, don't expect to fully understand them. See #2, above. File them away, and revisit them every now and then. Your understanding may change. Sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in "Holy crap! How did I miss that?!?" sorts of ways. If someone who has decades of experience unschooling tells you that you are misunderstanding something, consider that they may be right. Even if you think you understand perfectly, there may be a paradigm shift between you. Expect paradigm shifts. If you go for very long and your understanding of things doesn't change, be suspicious. This isn't only an unschooling thing, it's a parenting thing. As your child or children mature, things should change. Your understanding should develop as your experience increases.

12. Be honest with your children as your understanding of things changes. Especially at first, you may be changing a lot of things about how you think and how you act. It might be confusing to a child whose entire life has been a certain way... and suddenly, it isn't. Be kind. Don't worry nearly so much about being "consistent" as you do about being open and honest and clear.

13. Do stuff. Lots of stuff. Don't worry about whether it is educational. Do things that are fun, interesting, challenging, exciting. Do things that are relaxing and comforting. Do things that are social, and things that are introspective. Do things with your body as much as with your mind. Play a lot. You will go through phases of relative activity and relative inactivity. Go with that.

14. Have a life where it is not possible to distinguish between "work" and "play." Do what you love and love what you do. If there are things that "must" be done (and consider carefully whether anything is truly required) reduce whatever is unpleasant as much as you can. If possible change either the activity, or your attitude. Or get someone else to do it.

15. Seek balance. Sometimes, you find balance by experiencing extremes.

16. Collect interesting things, be they physical things, or thoughts and concepts.

17. Be generous with your time and energy. 

18. Understand that raising children is a balancing act between meeting physical needs and meeting emotional needs. In general, for a healthy person, from the time a child is born until they are adults, those needs develop in opposite trends. An infant has primarily physical needs. Meeting those needs can be all-encompassing and exhausting. Meeting their emotional needs is simple: love them. As they mature, their physical needs slowly decrease, as their emotional needs increase. As adults, your children will have complex emotional needs- but physically, won't need you very much. In other words, as things get easier physically, they get more complicated emotionally. Your sleepless nights will change gradually from being up with a nursing baby, to staying up with an upset child, to waiting up for a teenager.

19. Share your children's lives. Hang out together. Talk. Argue. Play. Work. Be. Unschooling, while not requiring constant, 24/7 interaction, tends to lend itself well to being together a lot. Certainly more than the typical schooled family spends together. Make it good.

20. Seek out interests that you share. I wouldn't expect that any two people would have exactly the same interests, but I'd be surprised if there are many pairs where there is NO overlap. With very young children, it might be playing with blocks, telling stories, painting, walking in the woods.  With older children, it might be music, or games, or intense discussion. It could be anything.

21. One of the best things about unschooling is the opportunity to re-experience so much with your children, from a child's perspective. Consider it a time when you can live out the best aspect of "If I only knew then what I know now..." Look at the world through a child's eyes- but with an adult's resources. Instead of rushing your child to become an adult, spend time in their world. It's kind of like this: when I went to college, I was stressed out about grades, about graduating. I spent most of my time studying and worrying. Now, years later, I work some of the time at a University. It is ASTOUNDING how much opportunity there is there, the things there are to do. Movies, plays, lectures, discussions, performances, clubs, etc. At any given time there is a huge number of "extracurricular" activities. Huge. Something for everyone, without a doubt. Just about anything you could be interested in doing, there is someone else interested in doing. The trouble was that when I was in college, I didn't have time for ANY of that, so I let all that opportunity go by without taking advantage of any of it. I was too busy trying to get to the next stage. SLOW DOWN. Don't be in a hurry to get to the next thing. Just as I only had a limited number of years to experience college, and mostly wasted that time, you have only a limited number of years to experience having young children. Do it with gusto! Play in the mud, be a space alien, whatever it is your kids are into. Some of those interests, they may have lifelong, but some of them are typically done only by young children. Enjoy it, every second of it. If there ever was a definition of unschooling, that would be it. Explore life with your kids. Sometimes, lead, and other times, follow. Following can be especially rewarding when your child leads you somewhere you might be embarrassed to go on your own.

22. Stay up late with your kids. At some point, those late night discussions will be some of the most memorable in both of your lives. Find some private time with each kid so you can build these relationships.

That's my list, for now.
If there is something about unschooling that you are concerned about that I didn't include, consider that it might be because I don't consider it important.
Or maybe I forgot.
That, and it's about time for me to get to bed, so I had to stop somewhere.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Friends and Neighbors

The "American Dream" used to include the image of neighborhoods, where everyone knew each other, there were children playing in the streets all summer long, as families had barbecues together. It included the nearly-cliche concept of going next door to "borrow a cup of sugar."

When I was very young, in Georgia, I have memories of such a thing. One neighborhood I lived in had an alley that ran down the middle and all the kids played together there. We knew everyone on the street.

We moved away from that neighborhood when I was 5. I have never experienced such a thing since.

Most neighborhoods I've lived in, I've known a few people. The closest I came to that same sort of feeling happened twice.

Once was where I lived for a few years about a block from the downtown area of a small town. I knew almost everyone within a couple of blocks- but my parents and sisters didn't. I knew them because I spent a lot of time walking around the block. A lot.

The other time was when I was about 21. We lived in an apartment in an old house, and I because friends with the family that lived on the other side of the downstairs. I really did borrow a cup of sugar once, and used to go over there and hang out a lot. It was my first "real neighbor" since I was a young child. After a few months, they moved, then we moved, and that was the end of that.

Since then, I've lived in 6 places, and only one of those places for longer than a year.

When we moved into the house where we live now, I had high hopes of getting to know the neighbors. They even welcomed us by bringing over a basket of homemade goodies.

We live in a very small "town" with a population of around 3000. It isn't the population that makes it so small here, it's that there isn't really a town, at all. No stoplights, no businesses to speak of other than a few in people's homes. The only actual business we have is a bar/restaurant that is on the extreme edge of the town, literally a few feet from the town line, and it associates itself more with the larger town next door than here. We have no school, no gas station. No real community gathering place. Sad, in some ways, but if you're looking to be left alone, it's fairly ideal.

Our house is in a small group of houses. There are four on our side of the road, and three on the other. You might think it would make a nice little neighborhood, but not so much. Not for us, anyway.

When we moved here, it was like this:
The house to our East had an elderly couple who were nice enough, but in poor health, so they weren't outside much. One died not long after we moved here, and the other moved away. The person who bought the house a couple of years later is a single woman who is a violin teacher, who has never really chosen to be part of the community out here, instead maintaining her connections with the town where she teaches.
The house to our West had a young family with two kids, near in age to my own, but the difference in parenting couldn't have been greater. The kids were not allowed to go barefoot, and had a sandbox that they were only allowed to play with from outside the box, not being allowed to actually get in the sand. This family called child protective services on us once because my 2 and 5 year old were playing naked in our back yard in 90 degree temperatures. Concern about the kids? Not so much. The Mom "didn't want to have to see that." They "threatened" to put up a fence. We wished they would.
The next house over from them had a home daycare, where we overheard the woman yelling at the kids day in and day out.
Across the road was another young family, also with two kids, but also with an extremely different parenting and lifestyle. The Dad mows the lawn every day most of the year. Is he obsessed with short grass? Or is it so he can be out there watching all his neighbors? Turns out, he works at the same company as my brother, and would give him "reports" of what he saw. Peachy.
One of the other two houses has had a high turnover, being one of the few rental homes in town. There were some people we were sort of friendly with for a year or so, but they're gone. I've seen the most recent people one or twice, but that's all. The last house in the neighborhood is an elderly woman I've never even met.

The family next door (shoes, no sand) moved away a few years back, for which we were grateful. We run into them around town sometimes, and are on MUCH better terms with them now that we don't live next door. A young couple moved into that house, and while they lived there, had two children, but they were not very social, and although we were certainly friendly enough, when they suddenly sold the house and moved away, we had no idea why.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Just a couple of days ago, I had an experience that has me somewhat hopeful.

We have a new neighbor in that house, one who made the effort to introduce herself to me.

And I like her. Quite a lot.
She has more in common with me and my chosen lifestyle than anyone else who has ever lived in this neighborhood. Maybe more than most people in the whole town. We aren't exactly living the typical American rural lifestyle.
I have a feeling she may became an actual friend. The kind I can talk to. Hang out with. Share things with.

It's kind of exciting.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


A friend brought these to my attention today. Adorable.

I saw this one first:

Then I watched this earlier video:

And then I watched a few more older videos, including this one:


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Unintentional Bias

I was participating in a discussion on facebook a few days ago. It was about kids staying up late.

Someone had said that it was "inconvenient for kids to stay up late" and I disagreed. I don't think it is inconvenient, in and of itself, for kids to stay up late. It depends.

My kids have always stayed up later than is generally typical- but I stay up late, too. We are pretty much a family of night owls. I wish that in addition to 24 hour grocery stores, we could have 24 hour book stores and/or libraries.

Since for most of their lives, we havent' had any sort of schedule that would require people to get up early in the morning, it really has not been an issue for us to say up late, and then sleep late in the morning.

After I posted something about that, the very next comment pointed out to me that I have a bias that is something I hadn't even thought about for a second.

We don't have neighbors near enough to hear us.

Many people live in situations where they are in close quarters with other people, whether it's extended family, or they are in an apartment, or the houses are close together.  Having a child stay up late- and be noisy- could cause a very real problem.

The conversation moved on to talk about common courtesy, and being respectful and considerate to other people.

Even so.
I found it interesting that the idea of needing to be quiet because of very close neighbors simply didn't cross my mind, since it isn't our situation, and never has been.

I've seen other people have biases, or assumptions, that are similar in nature, if not in content. Like people suggesting we take a bus somewhere. Or order food to be delivered. The only bus here goes by twice a day, and the only possible delivery food comes from the gas station down the road in the next town. They do make good pizza, but they lack in variety.

My experience this week, of stumbling across a bias that was so invisible to me, was a great reminder to examine what I think and say, on a regular basis, to be sure I'm not making unfounded assumptions that I'm not even aware of. Also, a reminder that many times, communication is complicated when there are unrecognized assumptions.

I'm very accustomed to recognizing other people's biases.
Not always so perfect at seeing my own!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Been Busy

Been too busy to write for the last week.

We went to Baltimore to an EMS conference for a couple of days. I don't think I ever stopped moving. It was a huge success- we brought home a ton of information and materials and free samples.

Came home to a search for a missing person and spent nearly seven hours out in the cold helping. Unfortunately, the search did not end the way we all hoped it would.

The next night, we were out at a motor vehicle accident in the middle of the night. There was a sudden snow squall that covered the roads and someone did a "creative parking job" across a ditch.

In between, I've been teaching, conducting a training, and continuing my own research online.

Not getting a lot of sleep.

And now, we're up listening in to the fireground audio of a structure fire in a building I used to know well. Years ago it housed a book store that I used to spend a lot of time in, even sleeping there some nights. It was owned by a friend of mine, and whenever I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment a block away, he'd let me sleep in the store. Sometimes I'd sleep on the couch in the back, and other times I'd sleep in the basement.

My friend's dog had puppies in the basement once. She was a gorgeous black lab, and the puppies were adorable.

He sold the store a few years later, and the new owners moved it downtown. It never felt the same after that.

Now, instead of a friend owning the store, we have friends there fighting the fire. I can sit here and picture the building inside and out.  At the moment, it sounds like they are getting things under control. I hope that continues to be the case.

Tomorrow I'll be up late, picking up one of the kids at the airport, coming home from a trip to Florida. We've been missing him and are looking forward to having him back home.

We may also be buying a car tomorrow, if all goes well and we find what we're looking for. Plus, it's supposed to get up to about 60 degrees and I have a bunch of outdoor work to do. I'd far rather do it while it's warm than not. The weather here has been so crazy this year that I couldn't begin to predict what it will do more than a few hours ahead of time. I feel like I need to take advantage of the warm weather because you never know what the weather will do next!

It sounds like the fire is about out, so I'm going to try to get some sleep while I can. Nothing philosophical in this post, but now you're caught up on what life here is like these days.