Category Archives: Unschooling Philosophy

What Really Matters

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I don’t mind the term at all anymore. I used to avoid it, because I wasn’t completely sure we’d stick with such a different way of approaching learning.  Maybe I wanted to give myself room to back out, if we needed to. When my kids were younger and we were “in the thick of it,” I didn’t really care about whether we were considered unschoolers or not.  We were part of pretty eclectic group of homeschoolers and people referred to us as one of The Unschoolers.   At the time, only one or two books about unschooling existed and, of course, we read them. But they didn’t govern our lives.

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Back then, the label didn’t have all the cool groovy connotations it has now.  Actually, people wrote about how unschoolers were going to be the unraveling of the homeschooling movement.  Terms like “educational neglect,” were tossed around. While we noticed their comments, we didn’t really react much. We just lived. We wrote about how much fun our families were having learning together.  We dove in, connected with our kids and got creative.  The kids continued to grow and blossom naturally.  And, yes, they learned – every single day.

Today, unschooling seems a little different. People want to BE unschoolers before they even understand it. They’ve read about it.  Unschooling sounds intriguing, so they latch onto it.  They want to leave the school system and quickly find a place to fit in.  We’ve been conditioned to need a group or a tribe to function.  But when people care more about the label of unschooling than actually unschooling their children, a problem exists. The cart is before the horse.  The bowl is hotter than the soup.

And lots of people want to take advantage of those fears. People declare themselves unschooling gurus and want to show you how to “do it right.”  Many of these gurus don’t even have grown children yet. They’re not even done! How could they possibly advise someone else?  All too many people are eager to sit and listen/read along.  People desperately want instructions!

The only real instructions are this:

1. Get to know your child. What makes them tick? What inspires them? Do those things.

2. Explore with them. Discover new places. Read maps. Go places.

3. Create a home environment full of interesting art and music and games and food. Let the home be the place where everyone feels nurtured.

4. Remember that your children are not extensions of you. They have a their own path and their own choices to make. Your job is just to clear away some of the undergrowth that’s trying to get in their way. Stay tuned into what THEY want to do or to be. Help them with that.

5. And know that your relationship with them is all that matters. Learning a particular thing at a particular age, but sacrificing your relationship with them? Please don’t. Realize that it’s years of programming happening in YOUR head saying things have to be a certain way. That’s not true at all.

I would caution anyone new to unschooling to worry less about if you’re unschooling the right way and pay more attention to your own kids. Notice if you have a tendency to stay on the computer to read “just a little bit more,” and if all these fabulous tools are a distraction or a way to procrastinate from plunging in.  Sometimes when we’re so focused on getting it right (which is translated into we’re afraid we’re screwing up royally!) we don’t get around to starting.  Or we don’t dive in and give it all we can. Of course, there are all kinds of psychological reasons for this, and everyone will have to identify their own obstacles.

My dad used to say,”Too much analysis leads to paralysis.”

It can. And as someone who OFTEN chooses to procrastinate, it’s a great tool for continuing to intellectualize all the nuances instead of simply starting.

So with school just beginning for many American kids, dive in with your own.  Create some new “Back to School” traditions. Remember that those blogs, email lists, websites and catalogs are just tools for YOU to use. Not vice versa. Don’t let any of it distract you from the fact that your kids are standing right there in front of you.  And you have this glorious adventure awaiting you WITH them!  Seize the day!

Your kids.  Their learning.  Your relationship with them.
Those are the only things that matter.

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If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

Boys and Writing

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frustrationWhy are those two words never paired together? I’ve been reading about families who try to create environments that might coax their sons to write more. So I think it’s time to share how we dealt with writing, when my son was growing up.

I never really paid a lot of attention to Michael’s penmanship or his writing skills when he was in school. Maybe because he was only there for Kindergarten and First Grade!

I hadn’t read a lot about homeschooling before we started, but we dove in after Michael completed first grade. I didn’t know about unschooling yet, so we purchased what was called, “School in a Box” by Calvert from Baltimore, Maryland. Purchasing this prepackaged curriculum made me feel like I could tackle this homeschooling thing. I’d just spice it up and make it fun!

Handwriting

Instead of evaluating all of Calvert’s materials, I really want to talk about the writing component. It was all about handwriting. One day a week, or maybe it was every other week, they’d focus on creative writing. But handwriting – that was daily! I didn’t really understand why Michael writhed so when I asked him to pick up that Number 2 pencil. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to artistically shape the letters the way they had them in the book. I had been awarded the oh-so-prestigious Handwriting Award in the 5th grade – clearly we were not on similar paths. So I wrote to the teacher (yes, my confidence was so low that I felt we should have an expert guiding us for that first year!) I asked her if he could write his own stories and we’d turn in those paragraphs.

Quick answer: Nope! Certain letter formations were being addressed, and, why wasn’t he happy writing about the little red car all week long? We may have continued with it for a 1-2 weeks – bribing, begging, scolding, demanding.

I was not happy with the way either of us were acting. So I declared a truce.

I decided right then and there that I was going to be on Michael’s side. I knew that if we continued on this path, we would simply be duplicating the schoolish ways I was trying to help my son avoid!  If we kept it up, I could make him absolutely HATE writing. As a writer myself, this was simply unacceptable!  I told him we weren’t going to do the writing part anymore. He was relieved.  We would go ahead and turn in whatever he wanted to write about, and we’d take whatever grade she wanted to give. No biggie.

But it was a biggie. On multiple levels. The teacher was unhappy that we weren’t complying. Michael was unhappy because he still had to write. It was never about the little red car at all. He simply wasn’t developmentally ready to do the physical work of writing. He gripped tightly, when he should loosen. His fingers worked down toward the lead. His frustration with all of it increased. He started to cry.

Usually, I would get mad that he wasn’t cooperating. I had two younger kids that were quite a handful, and he was my oldest. In retrospect, I’m saddened to think of the pressure I put on him to “be a big boy,” when he was still a very little boy.  I know I was just trying to manage, but sometimes our parenting techniques aren’t that great when we’re in the thick of it. But on this day, something changed. I looked out the window of his room. The snow was falling and collecting on the tree branches. Our Alaskan home felt very far from Calvert in Baltimore.

pencil snapped

It was at that moment, I felt the shackles of school fall away.

We weren’t going to turn in writing, hoping to squeak by with her approval and a passing grade. We weren’t going to turn in any writing at all!   Michael looked at me and grinned. I picked up the pencil and snapped it in two. Done!

Instead, we picked up a book and started reading together. He reminded me of the “book reports” he did in school. The teacher mimeographed (it was the 90’s!) a piece of paper. They had to write in the title, the author, check boxes about liking or disliking it. Maybe they had to write one sentence. It was, after all, first grade.  He was playing with his Fimo clay while we were talking and reading. He asked if he could make something representational out of clay for every book he read. And that’s what he did. We had a bunch of classics that had been adult literacy books on sale at the bookstore. He loved that he could read those books – and every other page had a picture! He made a bowl of porridge for Oliver Twist, a spear for Moby Dick, a small boat for Kidnapped  – all out of clay. He set them on his shelf and could easily see how many books he was reading.

Creative Writing

Then we decided to try something new. Michael was full of imaginary stories he wanted to create!  But the mechanics of handwriting made it impossible to get any of it down on paper. So we decided to do dictation. I chose an italicized font that looked most like handwriting from the computer, in hopes that that would help him be able read the cursive writing in letters from Grandma and others. Then we began creating stories. He would start telling me about the main character and I’d begin typing. When he started to slow, I’d ask him to describe the character – what was he wearing, how did he feel, what made him do that?  I told him that sometimes when we write, we have to really describe the characters and the environment, so the reader can feel like they’re there. And that’s what he did. I tried hard to let him just enjoy the flow of creating the story, with very little interference from me. In retrospect, I think I would have interjected even less.  We did this for a while, and still have some of those early stories.

Later On…

Life got busy, with three kids, and volunteer work.  After a while, Michael preferred to play video games or hang out with friends instead of our dictation time. Truthfully, I probably wasn’t making time for it much anymore. He was off having fun.

Years passed. Michael continued to read, but I never asked him to write. Occasionally, I’d plunge my hands into dish water and ask him to start a grocery list for me.  He wrote thank you notes to Grandma for Christmas and birthday gifts. At first, we used a program called Start Write. I could write out what he dictated, and then print it with dotted lines that he could trace. If you use a felt tipped marker or a sharpie, no one would even know he had traced the letters!  It looked just like a perfect little thank-you note!  As Michael got older, his writing improved. He could clearly form the letters and didn’t have nearly the frustrating time with writing any more.  His letters didn’t look that great, but in looking at the other boys in his scout troop or in 4H, he wasn’t the only one with so-so handwriting. He could type quickly on the computer, and it became clear that his generation might never have great handwriting.  I was well aware that handwriting is just a tool to communicate. And if he could communicate his thoughts through typing, then the goal was achieved.

Time passed for me too. I read more about unschooling, and the pitfalls of coerced learning. It all resonated with me.  We went on about our lives and writing simply didn’t make the cut for how we wanted to spend our time.

I will share with you that when my friends who had girls that were creatively journaling, I was jealous. Why didn’t my kids want to do that? I’d buy notebooks and pens, but projects out in the community would win out for Michael. He simply wasn’t interested in sitting down to journal.  And, of course, comparison is never a good thing. One kid excels in one area while another is busy learning a different skill. It’s school that brainwashes us to try to compete for that top spot. Learning, has very little to do with any of that.

Going to College

At about age 17, Michael decided he wanted to go to community college.  The entrance exam was divided into reading, math and writing. We knew he’d be fine with the Reading. He did some extra work on the computer to prepare for the Math. And, to be honest, I don’t remember doing much prep work for the Writing component, other than a little grammar labeling and whatever the college gave us as the practice test. He was still pretty resistant to writing.

The time came and he went in to take the exam.  He did fine with the grammar aspect, but the essay was all about Texas’ law, “No Pass, No Play.” Strangely, all of the community college topics for the essays pertain to a particular school “issue.”  He was familiar with what “No Pass, No Play” meant, because we had a habit of discussing the local news or we’d talk about the latest Time or Newsweek magazines. The essay was to be a persuasive paper, and he could choose whichever side he wanted.

I hadn’t really prepared him for that. So he simply started writing about the topic. He wrote about seeing both sides to the argument. But in the end, he ranted somewhat about “what if the only thing that kid is good at is football – how can you take that from him?” and “why do schools want to make everyone the same?” You get the idea.

While it might have been an interesting paper to an unschooler who wouldn’t mind a little rambling, it didn’t please the community college administration, and he failed.

This time, he was more inclined to listen to my input about how to write a persuasive paper that would pass.  I showed him the 5 part paragraph – Intro, 3 supporting paragraphs, and Closing. Minimum of three sentences to a paragraph.This was what they were looking for. Stick with one side, and present that in your three arguments. And, throwing in a fancy adverb or two like “incidentally” or “additionally” would increase his points when they were grading.

We did a practice run-through on what they suggested at their website and off he went the following week. His topic was School Uniforms – Pro or Con?  He followed the formula and passed the test. Not flying colors, but good enough to be able to take any of the classes he wanted there.

Michael's Graduation

Fast forward a bit more, and Michael transferred from the community college to a four year university. He decided that he wanted to continue to travel and needed a job that could help pay for him to go off and see the world. That’s when he thought about becoming a travel journalist.  He still loved storytelling and especially loved interviewing people. He landed a job at the University Star, the campus newspaper, and enjoyed writing up articles about local events or personalities in his college town.

At 21, Michael graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Journalism, and a minor in Archaeology/Anthropology. He primarily types his stories these days. And you can read more from him in his blog In the Nica Time.

In Retrospect

I feel really good about not pushing Michael with handwriting. I wish I had carved out more down time, so we could have done more dictating. We both loved that. And, today, with blogging, how cool would it have been to start a blog of the stories they create? Their imaginations are so fabulous!

We ended up developing his fine motor skills completely separate from holding a pencil.  He was busy forming clay figures, building Playmobile structures and playing with Legos. These activities fueled his imaginative stories, and he’d play with them for hours on end.

I’m so glad we didn’t stick with the handwriting exercises. All that would have done is create an adversarial relationship between us as well as additional obstacles to the idea of any writing whatsoever.

For those of you still concerned, I can only advise you to relax. Writing will work itself out – just like other educational pursuits do. If your child is already stressed about it, do what you can to eliminate that downward spiral. Shift gears. Continue with helping them find fun ways to build their fine muscle strength, or try our story writing technique! Give them time to develop a little more and then present some other opportunity down the road.

Reinventing the “What If Game”

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Reinventing the “What If Game”

When I was little, especially late at night, I could get myself into a tailspin. I’d worry about all kinds of things.  And, because I was a chatty little kid (surprise, surprise!), I’d go to my mom.

“What if things don’t work out?”

“What if they don’t like me?”

“What if there’s a car wreck?”

“What if.. what if… what IF??”

After a couple of these questions, my mom would shush me and say, “You’re playing the What If Game.”  What that meant at our house was that you’re borrowing trouble, worrying about things that may or may not happen. I spent a lot of time on that. Sometimes, it helped me figure out scenarios and what to do if something bad DID happen. But mainly, it just wasted my time.  I heard a saying once,

Worrying is like a Rocking Chair… lots of action, but going nowhere.

In my case, telling me I was playing the What If? Game was meant to help me. But it was also meant to get my mom a little peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, it ended up minimizing what I was thinking about. It made me be even more critical of myself, thinking,

“Why am I so negative?”

“Why do I bother people with my crazy thoughts?”

“What’s MY problem??”

I don’t think that was ever my mom’s intention, to make me feel worse. But I didn’t really have the power to shut it off, just because she slapped a label on it and implied I should knock it off. I just didn’t have the tools.

In parenting, we do that sometimes, consciously or not. We either step in to solve the problem, or we dismiss our kids’ concerns as not important.  Solving the problem for them prevents them from figuring it out, and then ultimately trusting themselves that they CAN figure out problems. It keeps them dependent on others for solutions – always waiting to be rescued by someone smarter, stronger, more resourceful. See the problem with this route?

And if we gloss over their worries, they’ll learn to take them somewhere else. They certainly will learn that they can’t share them with you! And you’re supposed to be the one helping them figure out the tough lessons in Life. If you take this option, you miss a huge opportunity to not only help your child, but also to reinforce your relationship with them.

So let’s rewrite the rules for

The What If? Game

Because, now I have tools.  I know these things:

  • Your mind can only think about one thing at a time.
    This is just a simple fact. We often think we’re multitasking, but it’s never really simultaneously. It’s a constant shifting. So, try to control your mind to the point of, “OK, I need to think about this instead right now.”
  • Attaching yourself to a particular outcome is where the suffering starts.
    We don’t know everything and we really can’t see around the proverbial corner. How many times can you look back and see that something really seemingly catastrophic turned out to either make you stronger for something else or yourself, allowed you to relate to someone in a different way, or opened you up to some unforeseen opportunity. So thinking, “I don’t get it – right now. But maybe I will down the road,” might be a helpful approach.
  • Is the bad thing happening now? Ok, then. Breathe.
    This is all about living in The Present moment. I’m not saying to live in La-di-da Land, look at what’s happening now. Is it where you want to be TODAY? Is it what needs to be happening NOW? If you can look at the situation more calmly, you’ll be able to assess the situation more accurately than if you’re full of anxiety. You’ll have time to panic when/if it does show up.
  • Visualizing GOOD things happening can be just as powerful as visualizing the worst case scenario – so do that!
    Getting in the habit of doing visualizations can start at any age. When you’re putting your child to sleep, help them to visualize some peaceful happy setting. Remind them that they can go back there in their mind at any time.  We spend so much time panicking about that imaginary horrible scenario – what would happen if we spent that much time visualizing great stuff? So how about taking it even to another level?  What if your visualization was about conquering that fear you’re worrying about? What if you think about succeeding in that situation that is distracting you from the Present?  Run a few of those scenarios in your head and see how that feels.
  • Which story you decide to tell yourself is TOTALLY up to you!
    Neither are based in facts, so why not be kinder to yourself? Physically, this will help you as well. A body that is constantly anxious and tense will act a completely different way from one that is content or even happy. So choosing a happier story is kinder to your physical body as well as your mind.
  • Have a handy list of your strengths or of things you have accomplished.
    This may seem odd at first, because we’re taught that focusing on our good points is conceited, egotistical – definitely not a good thing.  But when you think about it, how could being ACCURATE about yourself be a bad thing? Sure, you may not want to regale everyone at Park Day with all your wonderful accomplishments, but tell yourself the truth. Make a list of the things you feel good about accomplishing, things you are genuinely thankful for… this list will boost your self-esteem and help you when you’re at a low point.
  • Generosity trumps Stinginess. 
    It’s as if you are looking through two different lens: one of Scarcity and one of Abundance.  And it all boils down to your personal perception. If you feel full of whatever you’re wanting, you are much more at peace than if you are worried there simply isn’t enough to go around. When we’re afraid we’re not getting our fair share, we resent those who we think are getting more than us. It’s not a pretty picture – but it is incredibly common.  Unfortunately, this has a huge impact on our day-to-day attitude, on so many levels. It keeps us unhappy and negative. But using the other lens, think of yourself as having so much that you can share and be generous with others.  Society often throws us into unnecessary competition.    But think about when you helped someone else – with no gain for yourself. You felt happy and positive about the world. Why not try to do that more often? Help someone else. It doesn’t do anything to diminish your own light. Take a break from your own melodrama for a while and find someone less fortunate than you. Help them…and you will end up helping yourself.

That’s probably a pretty good start at my list. Incorporating these kinds of ideas into your child’s world – or even more firmly in your own world – will really help us all reinvent that dang What If? Game.