September 16, 2012

Measuring Sticks

I went to school.

As an unschooling family life is never status quo. As an unschooling mother I have a lot to learn or rather unlearn. I've read all the literature, picked a million peoples brains and have seen many success stories of grown children who have unschooled. It all makes sense, 'let a child explore and learn naturally without any restraints put upon them and they will flourish'. I know I do when I'm left to be the person that I want to be. Why is it then, with all this knowledge, it is still hard for me to fully embrace this for my kids? I watch my children every day explore their world around them. I engage with them. I see their delight in discovering something new. I see their lives unfolding exactly the way they want it to. I watch them making their own decisions about the world around them, what they want from it and how they can contribute to it. They have no baggage. I have baggage. I have insecurities. I have self-doubt.

The rest of the world is busy shuffling their kids off to school, seeing results in report cards and extracurricular activities, and enjoying a constant barrage of evaluation. Be it good or bad these parents walk away with a portfolio to show the world. As an unschooling parent we have nothing to show because can't measure unchooling with the same yardstick.  All we have is trust and faith in our kids which according to the world is not enough.

So where does an unschooling parent go in a world of measuring sticks?

We go to our kids.

On the days I feel like I'm failing my kids by not keeping up with 'can they read?' 'can they write?' can they count?' 'do they know π ?' I drag the workbooks out and see where they are at. You would think after 8 years of unschooling I would be beyond this, but I am not. I have a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn about myself. When the workbooks come out my kids look at me with the kind of look that says  "don't you trust me to learn all that I need to learn in the way that I what to learn?"  I go to sleep at night with the shameful feeling that I was seduced by the portfolio that the rest of the world has, the measuring stick.

Then tomorrow becomes another day and I right my wrong. I follow my kids. I listen to my kids. I observe my kids. They inspire me and help me to open my eyes and I realize that a measuring stick is only my security blanket.

Time to let the blanket go.

• • •

I've pondered this topic on and off over the past several months, but it seems especially timely now. Kids are going back to school and for the first time, my always-unschooled 13 year old is among them.

We live in a highly academic community. DH and I have bachelors degrees and are among the lowest-educated people in this town. The huge majority of our friends have advanced degrees, and most of their kids go to school. Much is made over whether the kids get into the gifted and talented program or not, which classes the kids are taking, whether they play sports and participate in extracurricular activities and do "community service." (I have to put the latter in quotation marks because it so often is motivated by a desire to look good for college applications, not by any true desire to serve.)

DH recently said he finds it funny to hear parents all paying lip service to not overscheduling their kids, even as their kids to a one are incredibly overscheduled. Parents moan about being too busy and are quick to say that this is what their child wants, that they are only going along. These statements are always made with a thinly-disguised pride in how much the kids are doing.

In this atmosphere the hardest part of unschooling is deflecting the pressure to Achieve with a capital A. And while it's easy for DH and I to mostly ignore all that, our kids are not as immune.

One of the reasons S wants to go to school is that he doesn't want to be behind. I have wondered if there is some inherent desire that we all have to know how we stand against our peers, or if this is the result of living in a culture that is constantly judging children by their achievements in school. I will never know. All I know is that it is important to S right now to know where he stands, and so we are trying to provide that support for him. In some ways this is no different from how it's always been: he is where he needs to be, and where he is is exactly right for him.

• • •

Why is it that every September I feel the intense gravitational pull of Back To School? It's like a gale force wind, blowing down the street and my hair is being sucked into its wake. Everyone seems to be rushing in a herd to soccer practice, swimming lessons, ballet class, pre-k, first day of kindergarten, first grade, buying new school supplies, seeing all their school friends again...why is it I feel a bit like my kids are missing out on something?

It's sort of like peer pressure. Societal pressure, to conform. Everyone else is doing it, why aren't we?

I know unschooling is right for our family. We are totally down with the whole philosophy of mentoring self-directed learners. It's a lifestyle choice, not just an educational one. We love that we have stepped off the treadmill of over scheduled mainstream family life. Outside forces like school don't infringe on our flow of daily life. We set our own pace. It's sort of like summer holidays, always. 

Then September rolls around and the barrage of images and messages from the whole world are of starting anew. It's bigger than New Years! Next grade, new clothes, new haircuts, all new supplies, new books, new shoes, themed backpacks. Gotta get to bed early to start early.... 

...and we just go on at the same pace as always. We sort of look up at everyone rushing around and wonder why? Why do they have to do that, and perhaps, a bit, why are we not doing it too? Then I shake my head, and look around at our slow paced life of staying in jammies, reading books in sunbeams, listening to podcasts while sketching and letting the kids make their own breakfasts because we are not rushed.

This feeling happens to me every September and in another week, the back to school honeymoon will be over. We will be doing what we always do, exploring the world and all it has to offer.

February 26, 2012

When Unschooling Kids Choose School

Call me naïve, but I never anticipated one of my children asking to go to school. And if by chance some fortuneteller had given me a heads up, I would have placed my money on my older son.

But life seems hellbent on reminding me how little I really understand.

Last December, as we were driving to get groceries, S, 13, surprised me by telling me that he'd like to try school.

Did I say 'surprised'? You could have knocked me over with a feather at that moment.

This is a child who has always seemed content and never lacks for something to do. He reads, uses the computer, makes things, cooks, and plays his bass. He has learned to code over the last year, cares devotedly for the cat, plays paintball whenever he can. He has a seemingly full and happy life.

I pointed this out to him. But he insisted that this was not a rash decision, that he'd been thinking about it for a few months.

He had two reasons for wanting to go to school, he said. First of all, he was wanting someone to tell him what to learn. (His words. I'll let them sit here unadorned for the moment.)

The other reason he gave me broke my heart: he wanted more friends. I don't think many longtime homeschoolers escape this issue completely. In our community, at least, the kids drift off to school by age 10 or 11. S's friends have all been in school for years now, but until this conversation it hadn't occurred to me that it was affecting him so strongly. He has almost never asked to get together with other kids, and I assumed this meant he didn't care much about friendship. That was clearly not the case.

It may be evident by now that I had a difficult time wrapping my head around this. (You want someone to tell you what to what?! Okay, got that out of my system.) As parents, we make the choice to unschool because we believe it to be the very best option for our children. But what does one do when the child himself chooses something different?

What S and I did was to pull over in the car and talk. And talk. And talk some more. I told him what I thought. He told me what he thought. Some tears were shed. To be honest, one of my first reactions was fear around losing him. I love being with S and his brother, and his brother at 18 is already out of the house a lot. The thought of S being gone, too, was not something I was prepared to think about; it felt like someone was pulling a baby from my arms.

But as S quietly emphasized, he is not a baby. He is taller than me. His voice has deepened. He is growing up, and he wants this. A large part of why we homeschool is so that our kids have freedom in learning. This is S's choice. It is how he wants to take his next step and therefore, in the end, it's what I want for him, too.

The next day I emailed a teacher in the independent study program whom I knew to be particularly attuned to individual students. We met, and she agreed to take him on and help him prepare to transfer into the school system. It's more or less a done deal. He'll start in the fall.

And ironically, I received a call this morning from a mom who asked about unschooling her 14 year old. She would be moving him from school to unschooling at the same time S would be going from unschooling to school. We had a long conversation. I have done this often in the past as I was for many years an area homeschooling contact, and I am always careful not to promise too much. I told her it would probably be hard on her because unschooling kids don't always make the same choices that we adults might make for them. Her child might not necessarily decide to study chemistry at the local college, start a business, or volunteer at the shelter. He might instead lie on the couch and watch YouTube videos all day. He might play video games deep into the night after sleeping until noon. He might appear to be doing absolutely nothing for long stretches at a time, stretches that would likely challenge her own sense of what a productive life looks like.

But I also told her that I was sure it would all be fine.

I am confident that it will be—for her son, and for mine.

• • •

Suzie I can’t help but feel like I’m looking into a crystal ball when I hear your story. I know this day will come for me too and I’m never quite sure when that day will be. In the meantime, I grapple with what my reaction might be.

Right now my kids need me. They need me a lot, to help them find and navigate through the learning experiences they need and want. I feel I have a real place, a role that’s important and bigger than me. I really wonder what it will feel like to not be my child’s guide anymore.

I got a little taste of this one day when Simon said to me, “Mom, I’m thinking of taking school.”

‘Taking school,’ now if that won’t get him beat up in the playground.

My insides jumped a bit and I asked him what it was about school he wanted? Was it the classes full of kids, and if so, I told him I can arrange those, since there are lots of homeschool opportunities I'm not using. He said no, which surprised me because he always thrives in situations with lots of kids to be with. Then he told me it was the pop quizzes and tests. He actually wanted test anxiety!? He's recently read the entire Diary of a Wimpy Kids series and the Big Nate series and has been watching a lot of the t.v. series Arthur. The main theme in all these is school and test anxiety. So, perhaps he just wanted to see how the other half lives?

And he wanted a 'teacher' to mark his papers, not me. Fair enough. I jumped at his request and set up an appointment with our homeschool liaison to come in with tests to be marked.

I printed out a few end of unit quizzes from the math curriculum he’s dabbling in, he took them to his room, closed the door and completed them. He gave them to me and I didn’t look them over. I put them away to be marked by the teacher. We had our appointment, the tests were marked and he was satisfied.

About a week later he asked me when we are going to see this teacher again. I told him we can see him again tomorrow, next week, next month or never. It was up to him if he wanted to take more tests and have them marked. He told me he was done.

I was all ready for a life shifting direction change. I was thinking I'd have to get a curriculum happening and a real academic routine set up. Apparently not yet. Although he does seem to like more structure, he also likes to be able to choose when he wants said structure. I'm learning everyday.

Is this a situation showing intrinsic motivation, or a need for outside validation, beyond the family?

• • •

Being an unschooler, the intrigue of 'what other kids are doing' is always there. At around nine years old my oldest son's homeschooling friends started to disappear into the public school system. It seemed this age, especially for boys, pulled them to this gathering place. My son was lonely for his friends and was wondering where & why they had gone. One of the downfalls of living in a huge city is the element of disposable friendships, be it homeschooling or schooling.

I was raised in a small rural prairie town where many of my friendships are still strong; 40 years later, I take friendship to heart. It takes work as a parent to help your children's friendships stay strong but that is an entirely other subject to blog about!

Being a challenging & head strong individual, my son would never have come to me to ask to go to school, so I offered it up as an option. I left the decision up to him. We proceeded to visit the schools around our home in which he would be the one to choose. He knew exactly the school he wanted the minute we walked in. Even though he chose to go to school he changed his mind every day until the first day of school. My son's fears sometimes win over his courage, so a helpful push out of the nest was needed. He wanted very much to go but was really scared of the unknown.

At ten years old his first week of school was a huge learning curve. The 'do's and don'ts' of peer culture were like flashing neon lights. My son does not take commands very any of us? When an injustice was committed in the schoolyard he did not hesitate to speak up even if it was a boy two feet taller than him. He could not understand the pecking order or why you could not be yourself. He stuck with it though as he met a new friend who liked him for exactly who he was. They were inseparable. His year was filled with schoolyard games (his most favorite in which he still misses two years later), ski trips, talent shows and goofing around! It filled the loneliness and brought about new experiences he would never had encountered at home, that question of 'what are the other kids doing all day', he now knew the answer. At the closing of the year, we asked him if he wanted to return to school. He thought about this very hard, his reply "If I knew it was recess and lunch hour all day I would go back".

Unfortunately his best friend had moved back to Virginia so he felt there was not much to go back to. At one point my son said, "I'm glad you know me mom that I needed a push to go out and try new things".

Educationally he learned absolutely nothing and was bored and annoyed by the curriculum. His teacher who did nothing but yell at them all year was entertainment to say the least.

Even today my son has fond memories of his year at school or rather his year playing in the schoolyard. He tells his younger brother that he "has to try school out even just for one year, so you know what it's like!" Fortunately for my son he found his karate club through school in which two years later, has become 'his community' and many of his friends from school go to karate with him.

Our family looks at our sons year at school as just another experience in life. Who knows what tomorrow holds?

October 12, 2011

Learning to Read

Is there really such a thing as a 'late' reader? I suppose if you are in school and are not able to read at the predetermined timetable and keep up with your same aged peers, then yes, you will be considered a late reader. And then begins the defining moments in a child's life where this label now becomes his inner voice. But with unschoolers, perhaps there is no such thing as late.

One of the things I love most about unschooling is there are no timelines to meet academic milestones. Each of my kids is free to develop skills when they are ready and when there is a want for that skill. Having said that, it still doesn't stop me from having my own anxieties about what my kids can do academically compared to their schooled peers. I call it comparativitis. Some days I suffer from it quite deeply. Some say my worries are only because I haven't completely de-schooled myself yet.

My first child started to read at age 3. He got it. He just seemed to 'crack the code'. In those early years he wanted to be read to all the time from fact books. He needed to know everything he could about bugs, dinosaurs and cars. Every fact possible, even the Latin names. He was the child that at age 4 picked up the book Go, Dog, Go! and read it cover to cover to me while I had a shower. It's 72 pages long and geared towards grades 1 and 2.

Because it was obviously his passion, he was doing what most kids do about interests, he was obsessing about words! Filing them away in his mental sorting system. He would just simply read words. If he didn't know a word, we would just tell him it and he would never forget it. He wasn't a phonics reader, he didn't sound words out, I think he simply just 'cracked the code.'

Having this experience was great for me as a first time parent and first time home educator. This is easy! I thought. I didn't have to 'teach' him, I just had to facilitate and bring to him everything he needed. Fitting perfectly with our unschool philosophy of education. Along comes child number two — a completely different person in all ways. All these differences should be there, because they are different people. This begs the question; why are academics valued over other non academic skills? There are so many different ways to be 'smart', but only a couple of these count in our education system. Will it matter when they're older who started to read earlier or who had natural artistic talent? Are they just who they are? Focusing on what my kids can do and who they are is far more important to them then worrying about what they can't do and who they aren't!

It's hard for me not to want to sit down and 'teach' my daughter how to read. I read to her everyday because we love stories, but I don't teach her. I want to, and sometimes I try, because of my own insecurities. But she has a different agenda. She will not tolerate being taught. She's on to me and what I'm trying to do and it doesn't feel right to her. She will read when she's ready to read! And for now, she is able to be who she is and unfold her little life when she wants to, and for that, I am grateful.

• • •

As a previous Montessori teacher, being there when my students learned how to read was the one thing I waited for patiently. Seeing the light bulb go on for them when they learned to read always made me cry. It was such a privilege to witness this amazing development for these children. The smiles and looks of "I can do it" was nothing short of a miracle. When my own children came along I waited for the day when this discovery would happen for them. My ambitious nature lead me to 'hurry' the process along with my oldest. He learned phonetically through games & Montessori materials we used but honestly in the end it was my son who taught himself. I remember the day he 'just started reading' and has never had his nose out of a book since. He began reading fluently around 7 years but began reading small words and phrases around 3 years. It was a long gap of learning for him and I wonder if I had just let him be would he have made that connection earlier?

With my youngest son my approach has been very hands off. I have all the same materials available for him but we only use them when he chooses. He will sometimes take out the little readers that have 3 or 4 words on them and try to sound out the words but that's all the reading he's interested in. For him I think he prefers to make up his own story of what the picture might say in a book. His imagination is much more exciting than what is written on the page.

The one thing that is always constant in our home is my husband and I read to the kids every day. Even though my oldest possibly reads better than me I still read chapter books to him. It's a our connection time. My youngest loves me reading chapter books to him at bedtime and this is when much of his learning takes place.

Just like walking and talking, reading is something miraculous that each child will do when they are ready. As a parent we just have to be patient.

• • •

Reading and literacy are such markers of education for most of us that it often gets imbued with other value, as well. Early readers are considered bright and intelligent, whereas late readers are looked upon with some concern. And what we mean by "early" and "late" changes all the time. I remember a friend telling me that her extremely bright and verbal child was behind because she couldn't read upon entering kindergarten. Kindergarten, the first entry to formal education! This was not some academically elite private academy, but a regular public school.

With unschooling there are no deadlines for learning something, so children begin reading independently at all different ages. The stories of how unschoolers begin to read are always interesting to me. One friend's child started reading due his interest in cars and car magazines—he wanted to read what was written under the photos he liked. Another friend's daughter became frustrated that her mom wasn't reading Harry Potter fast enough. My older son began reading around age 7 and like many "late" readers, he never went through a stage of having to painfully sound out each word but was immediately fluent. One week he was not reading, and the next he was reading the Oz books.

My younger son began reading through writing. From a young age, he would leave us "notes" that had series of tiny loops on them, all between the lines and filling the page.

One morning when we were on vacation, he decided to leave a note to his sleeping brother telling him we were going to breakfast. The spelling was a little funky but for the first time ever, the note was intelligible. A few months later, he also began to read. He was 9.

We were once profiled by the local newspaper as an example of an unschooling family. It was an interesting experience because although I talked to the reporter for hours, the main thrust of the story ended up being about how our younger child couldn't read and how I "didn't care" about it. What unschoolers think of as acceptance of the natural learning process can look like alarming negligence to the mainstream media.

• • •

We would love an ongoing conversation in the comment section. What was your experience with your kids learning to read?