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.


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.


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.


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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Can't Teach You to Unschool

I'm not anti-teaching.
Some unschoolers are, and believe that there is nothing that must be taught to be learned.

I've discussed this in other posts.
Some things are much easier to learn if you have an expert who knows how, to help you learn it. Extremely precise psychomotor skills come to mind. Something that needs immediate feedback to correct.

I think that by FAR, most knowledge does not need to be taught, but can be learned in a variety of ways.

And, I've come to believe, some things CAN'T be taught.
I've learned this over many years of trying to help people in various ways.

I was a La Leche League Leader for several years when my kids were young. I spent a lot of time helping over the phone, and a fair amount of time visiting people's homes. Most of the time, I was able to help the new Mom at least a little, but not always.

When I wasn't able to help, I always wondered why. I thought that maybe if I could camp out in her closet, and see what really was happening, I might be able to figure it out. It's not that I thought the Mom was hiding anything or lying, it's that it can be so challenging to describe things, or to figure out a problem from a brief snapshot in time. If only I could be there for an extended period, I might be able to see patterns I couldn't see in a short visit, or hear over the phone. Maybe she was doing something she wasn't aware of, or something she didn't realize was important to mention.

Lack of access to someone for an extended period of time, lack of direct observation over time, and lack of ability to respond in the moment, is part of what makes it difficult to teach some things. The person's life goes on without you the rest of the time, and whatever other influences they have may well override your (and their) efforts.

Another piece of the puzzle is the idea that unschooling "is like being on vacation all of the time!"

It isn't. :-)

Some of the activities may be similar to the kinds of things many people tend to do on their vacations, but unschooling has an important- critical- aspect that vacations do not share.
That of not being a vacation.

The thing about vacations is that they are departures from your "regular," day-to-day life. They often take place at a location other than your home. People frequently allow or tolerate things they would not want to live with every day, because they know it is of limited duration. Unfamiliar foods, uncomfortable bedding, strangers being around a lot, a lack of usual resources, etc. People may make exceptions to their preferred diet, for a variety of reasons. They may go without sleep. They may choose different activities, because those activities are only available during the vacation, putting off things they normally enjoy. They may tolerate more disruptive behavior, under the belief that a vacation means "having fun," and everyone needs to "go along."

This is important to realize.

The most critical part to understand about the difference between day-to-day life and "vacation," is that most people defer dealing with anything difficult until the vacation is over, because they either don't want to make a big deal out of it and "ruin the vacation," or because the vacation is happening for the very reason of getting away from day-to-day stresses. Vacation isn't the time when people work on their difficult issues, or on interpersonal communication. It is, often, a time of purposely NOT doing or dealing with anything that is unpleasant, saving that for afterwards.

I understand what people MEAN when they say that unschooling is like a permanent vacation. They are referring to the idea of relaxing rules, doing fun things, and being together as a family, and in those ways, yes, it can be similar. It is possible to do fun things much more often than a once a year vacation!

Where the analogy doesn't work, though, is that unschooling MUST BE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE, not separate from it. You can't BE "on vacation all the time." If you are out doing all those fun things, but neglect your relationships, and put off improving communication, and simply don't deal with any difficulties that come up, it's not going to work very well. Pair this idea of "vacation" with people who believe unschooling means "never saying no," and what you get is confusion about why things "aren't working" and impatience waiting for kids to "self regulate." Unschooling is ACTIVE, not passive.

Both of these things- the lack of access for extended periods of time, and the fact that unschooling has to be your everyday life, and not separate from it, are the foundations for why I believe I can't teach anyone to unschool.

If I come into your life with the purpose of teaching you something, my very presence makes things different.
Unless I live with you, I am a) not there for extended periods of time, available whenever you need information or advice, and b)not part of your family.
My not being part of your family means I am a guest, and when a family has a guest in their home, their behavior changes significantly.
If everyone's behavior is not the same as it usually is, especially if they are on their "best behavior," I won't be able to observe the very things that you probably need help with, because they won't happen while I'm there. And even if they did, I can't be there to walk you through the process of recognizing, adapting, responding, softening, learning to be proactive, addressing future instances, etc. It is SUCH an ongoing thing that I can't possibly be there for as long as it takes to adapt and change, to learn new ways of being. 

In a sense, my presence will create many of the same issues as does a "vacation," in that things are suddenly changed, and won't go back to "day-to-day life" until I leave. I can ONLY see your family in that mode, which makes me very little help at all. I can't come in and teach you, based on observing your family for a short period of time. I can't "fix" things for you in an hour, or a day, or a week. If I'm not there AT ALL, but only communicating over the phone or online, I can only take your word for what is happening, rather than observe it directly, and without a history of good communication and understanding between us, it would take some time before we could both be sure that nothing is being misinterpreted in either direction.

I can share information. I can offer suggestions. I can tell you what worked for us, and things I've heard worked for others. I can suggest resources. I can help you connect with other unschoolers. I can reassure you that unschooling really does work, based on knowing an increasing number of adults who grew up unschooling. I can encourage you to find your own path. 

But I can't teach you how to do it.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Is My Child Doing What They Should?

One of the questions I've seen a lot, in one form or another, is about what a child "should" be able to do, at a certain age, or in a certain situation.

When parents are new to a way of parenting, whether it's parenting at all, or a change in parenting choices, many times, there is stress involved in "figuring out" whether things are "working." Whether their child is "on track," or either "ahead" or "behind."

The dominant culture would have us believe that there are milestones in knowledge and behavior associated with every age, and, specifically, with every grade in school. People with strong attachments to schooled ways of thinking, or who are being criticized by friends or family, often worry about whether their child knows what they should know, or is doing what they should be doing.

While there is a very general "guideline" for child development, the truth is that every person is an individual, with their own timeline, which may or may not fit the ones in the textbooks. Not only do they have their own long term timeline, but what a person is able to do or recall with comfort and ease changes all the time, from day to day, or even hour to hour.

The question becomes not "What should my child be able to do at this age?" but "What is my child able to do right now?"

If a person is usually able to handle certain situations with ease, but they are over tired, or sick, or frustrated, or distracted, or pretty much any potentially overwhelming emotional state, even more "positive" ones like excitement, they may well NOT be able to handle that very same thing at any given moment. It doesn't matter what they were able to do before, what matters is what they can do NOW. Being angry or frustrated that they can't do something doesn't help the situation at all, and, in fact, may easily make things worse.

This is as true of adults as it is of children. There is a constant ebb and flow.

The key is to pay attention, and notice the emotional environment as well as whatever else is going on.
Observe what a person IS able to do, rather than what you expect them to be able to do, and go from there.
Whether it's being able to read, or being able to sit still, people are able to do things at all when they are ready, and will learn to do them at their own pace, and retain that ability or not, according to their own nature and the environment in which they live.

Notice what helps, what leads to more happiness, more love, more self confidence, more fun, and what doesn't.
Work with each other, not against each other or preconceived ideas of what a person "should" be able to do.

Even if there is a real "developmental delay," a person still can only grow from where they ARE, not from where they "should be," anyway. Respect who they are. Love who they are. Move forward. That's really how life works, for all of us.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

THAT Time of Year

It's getting to be that time of year.

In the Spring, as the day length increases, and the ground warms, the plants respond by coming out of dormancy, sprouting, growing, blooming. It's a wonderful frenzy of life, suddenly bursting forth everywhere you look.

Towards the end of summer, the days start to get shorter, the nights cooler. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, whether it's taking that last minute vacation, or harvesting the garden, there's another, familiar feeling that comes every year.

An urge to buy new pencils. Notebooks. Markers. Maybe a dictionary.


School supplies.

Even though it has been many, many years since I attended school, and my kids never did, every year at this time, that feeling of wanting to  stock up never fails. It is accompanied by memories of setting an alarm for the first time in weeks, to get up before the sun, turn on the light, dress in nice clothes, and pack a backpack for the day.

I see the sales ads, with extremely low priced "loss leaders" designed to bring people into the stores, in the hopes that they'll go ahead and get everything else that they need, and the desire to go get those one cent pens is nearly irresistible. Manila folders. Three ring binders. Staples. Scissors. A ruler. Even those no-longer-really-used little white rings that you lick and stick to repair a ripped hole in your paper so you can stick it back into a binder. Rubber bands. Thumbtacks. A box of crayola crayons, 64 colors.

What on earth is really going on here?

I confess, I like having all those lovely, fresh, new supplies around. The look, the feel, even the smell of a newly opened ream of paper.

And never have.

So each August, I take a moment to pine for things I won't buy.
To recall the excitement of years gone by. Excitement that lasted about two or three days, if I recall correctly, before it dissolved into the same old same old, wake up late, grab whatever clothing is clean, dress in the dark and rush out the door, carrying the same things year after year. Never actually using most of those "school supplies" anyway.

I mention all this to point out something that should be obvious, but maybe it isn't.

THIS is how conditioned people become.
THIS is how difficult it can be to truly move away from school concepts.

Even without having needed "back to school supplies" for 35 years… two thirds of my life… the urge is still there.

And maybe this year, I'll succumb. Just a few new sharpies, some paper… a notebook or two. And the highlighters! Even though I've never highlighted anything in a textbook in my entire life.

ART supplies.
That's different. :-)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

They Won't Listen to Me!

I just saw a post on facebook where a Mom is asking for help because her child "won't listen."

I have to wonder what this really means.
Kids DO listen.
They may not choose to respond in the way the parent prefers, but that doesn't mean they didn't listen.

I think that much of the time, when someone complains that another person "won't listen" or "doesn't listen" what they really mean is something more along the lines of "They don't do what I say, even though I use nice words and phrase things in a way to pretend that I'm merely sharing information, or asking, rather than telling."

There are two separate, but related, issues here.

The first is simpler to describe.
There are unmet expectations.

If I say something to one of my kids, and have no expectations of any particular response, then whatever they do, or don't do, is fine. There is no feeling of "they don't listen." No expectations; no frustration. If I have expectations… then I'm not asking or sharing, I'm telling, and wanting them to do something in particular.

The Mom in the post I saw went on to say that her daughter "does the opposite of what I say" and mentioned a case of the daughter continuing to do something the Mom doesn't approve of, even though they "discussed it."

Maybe this Mom doesn't realize that she is wanting or expecting her daughter to do as she is told.
Maybe she believes that she is only sharing information.

Or maybe it's deeper than that.

Maybe she believes that unschooled kids always do what their parents would prefer, because of how they are treated more kindly and gently, with respect. That explaining things always changes someone's behavior. That if you phrase things in a "non-forceful" or respectful way, kids will always make "the right choice."


While unschoolers often make the choices their parents prefer, whether it's from understanding through discussion, or modeling, or patience, or whatever, they do not ALWAYS do so.
The whole point here is that the kids get to CHOOSE. They get to decide.
The parent doesn't get to control them, whether directly, through force, or indirectly, through manipulation.
Influence, yes.
Control, no.

There have been many, many times when I've patiently explained my point of view, offered information, and been supportive of my kids' choices, and they have ultimately made a choice that I would rather they hadn't. What I would consider a "poor choice."

Sucks to be me. :-)

The important part of this is what happens next.

Do I complain that they "won't listen"?  No.
Do I tell them what I think of their choice?  Sometimes.
Do I let them experience the consequences of their choice?  Yes, unless it truly is a life-or-death situation (which happens rarely).

Have they learned from those poor choices, and come to see the world the way I do, apologized, and then gone on to make the choices I would prefer?

Not exactly.

Sometimes, yes.
Sometimes, it has taken a very long time for that cycle to happen. Much like how, when my oldest was born, I suddenly had a different respect for my mother.

Sometimes, they continue to see things differently, and stand up for their own beliefs. Something I want them to be able to do, even if I disagree.

The thing that concerns me about all this is how often I see new unschoolers being very frustrated that they try to be kind and gentle and understanding and non-confrontational and open and honest and free with their children… but they somehow expect that the results will be a child who, given freedom, always makes the "right" choices, with those choices being what the parents want. The parents want the child to have the freedom of choice- or at least they want to think so, or be able to say so. Choices other than what the parents wanted are still seen as wrong, on some level, and, in cases such as the one I saw, as "they won't listen to me!"

Guess what.
That's part of freedom.
The freedom not to listen, or to disregard what someone says.
You don't get to have one without the other.

Is it difficult to see your child make choices you don't like?
Damn straight.
Is it hard to watch them struggle at times?

I read once, long ago, a suggestion that it is better to allow young children the freedom to make choices, including especially "wrong" choices at a young age, when the things they are deciding about are small, so that they LEARN to make better choices, when the stakes are higher. So many of the daily choices people are faced with aren't nearly as critical as some parents seem to believe they are. Often, it isn't the choice itself that is so important, it's the process of making it, and learning from it.

This means that it's important to recognize the process as critical, rather than focusing on being frustrated by the choice itself.

So… anonymous Mom on facebook… if your daughter drinks things with "chemicals" in them, even though you have explained about them, it's not the end of the world. It really isn't. All the explanation in the world does not mean that choices are always made logically, or that the "explainee" will change their mind. It doesn't make you a bad parent, or her a bad daughter.

None of us are perfect people, and none of us are raising perfect people.
The image of the free, independent, unschooled child, where everything is easy and joyful, where the parents and children always agree… is a fantasy.
Yes, there are days when our lives feel pretty damned close to that fantasy. :-)
And yes, it is MOSTLY the case, or we'd change what we are doing, how we live.

But there are disagreements, for sure.
Respectful, most of the time.
But still disagreements. Still challenging.
Still learning.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Classes? Workbooks? Textbooks?

Is it still unschooling, if kids take classes? Use workbooks or textbooks?

Some people say yes, it is, IF the child is the one who chooses to learn that way.

I think it depends.
It depends on WHY those are the choices the child makes.

The short version is this: if the child chooses those methods because they don't really know of or trust other methods, it may not be unschooling. If they choose them because they think they are supposed to study those subjects, as subjects, it may not be unschooling.

The long version is… longer. :-)

In a world where there was no compulsory schooling, it wouldn't matter.

For some people, that IS the world they live in. 
My own kids, for example, never started school, to be withdrawn because of some problem with it.
When they reached what typically would have be considered "school age," we continued learning the ways they had their whole lives. There was neither a switch TO curriculum, or a switch FROM curriculum.
It helped, tremendously, that my own education was non-standard. This meant that I had complete trust that we were fine, learning every day, through whatever we were doing, because I had experienced that kind of learning as a child myself.

We never "did math."
I didn't teach them to read.
We didn't do "unit studies." We never studied science, or history, or any other subject, as such.
We didn't follow any sort of prearranged plan, or curriculum.

The importance of this is not that those things are, in and of themselves, bad.
It is that my kids didn't learn to view the world as a set of "subjects," and specifically, did not learn to view learning itself as a matter of studying a subject.
For them, learning has always been interconnected, everything part of and leading to everything else, and focused not on a "subject," but on things they wanted or needed to do or to know. We all learned many, many things that could be mapped to the school subjects, if we wanted to describe them that way, but we didn't. It was not necessary to do so, except for on state paperwork, which the kids didn't have anything to do with.

For them to, at times, choose to take a class, or to use a textbook to guide their own learning, is no big deal. It's one of many resources they might use to learn, equally valuable as any other way. For what it's worth, they largely did not choose to do so until adulthood, when two of them wanted to do something that required specific training. 

But if a child has been to school, and has learned to see life and learning the ways schools present it- as separate subjects, largely without context- and, especially, if their parents have had a typical education, and see learning the same way, then things are very, very different.

For a person with that background and environment, choosing- or defaulting to- classes or workbooks may make it very difficult and unlikely that they will ever transition to an unschooling way of seeing learning and life, as completely interconnected. As long as they see learning broken up into subjects, they aren't unschooling.

THAT is why, when newbies mention using such things, and that "it's still unschooling because it's what my child chose to do," people who have been around a while often remind people that such things are not necessary. The issue is not with the THINGS, it is with the conditioning that has already occurred, often unrecognized because it is SO prevalent in the dominant culture. It matters, a LOT, what their mindset is when they make that choice, what understanding of learning they are making it FROM.  Just because someone asks for certain resources does not mean that they are really actively choosing them out of an understanding of what resources would be most appropriate. It might well be that they simply don't know any other way, or that they assume that these are the ways in which people learn. It is, after all, the most common way that young people in the dominant culture study things, and such things are easily available, and constantly promoted.