Thursday, September 23, 2010

So sorry for the lag in updating; it has been oh so crazy around here lately. I've been trying to simultaneously step up two big challenges- getting more of my writing published as well as improving my photography (and thinking of doing some professional work). I really want these things for myself and I also really want to show my kids that dreams should be big and be chased! Unfortunately that leaves little time for blogging about my favorite subject, unschooling. We're leaving for a much anticipated trip to Walt Disney World tomorrow and I am definately going to make time when we get back! Until then, I thought you might enjoy this link...

Fellow unschooling mamma Anna Kiss shared this short but oh so sweet documentary about unschooling. It's so nice to see a fair and positive image of unschooling so I just had to share.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Just thought I'd share that I pitched a slightly modified version of my blog post titled "But what would you do?" to Life Learning Magazine and they accepted! It will appear in the Nov/Dec issue right along with the 'real' writers. :-D

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A while back I wrote a post about college. I was interested in college at that time for reasons explained in that post and I also wanted to illustrate that it is possible to go on to college after unschooling. However I did not address a fundamental tenant of unschooling philosophy- not everyone needs to go to college.

I can hear the gasps and see the heads shaking now. There is a prevalent myth in our culture that college is necessary for success and happiness and that without a college education your children will end up 'flipping burgers' for the rest of their lives. As tuition costs continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation many universities are banking on you believing that myth; but what are the facts?

The cost of a degree varies significantly depending on the school chosen. Earning a degree at state school costs about $30k on average and averages about $100k at a private school. The amount of time spent earning a degree also varies by school and course of study but on average it takes about 55 months.

That's a lot of time an money, so what's the payoff? Well, lets look at some statistics on earning potential:

Level of education/ Median salary
Advanced degree/ $69,056
Bachelor’s degree/ $53,300
Some college/associates’s degree/ $37,752
High school diploma, no college/ $32,552
Less than high school diploma/ $23,608

At first glance it seems pretty obvious that earning a degree is worth the time and money invested. However statistics can only show us part of the story. I have a bachelors degree and after ten years in education my salary was hovering near the top of the median for those with only a high school diploma. My husband on the other hand, who has no post-secondary training, has always earned more than me. Obviously, the field one chooses can play just as significant a role in salary as level of education. So, when analyzing this data keep in mind that these are MEDIAN salaries- so half the people in these categories are earning more and half are earning less.

In the recent economy it also seems wise to consider how level of education affects job stability.

Level of education/ Unemployment rate
Bachelor’s degree or higher/ 5.0%
Some college/associate’s degree/ 8.0%
High school diploma, no college/ 10.5%
Less than high school diploma/ 15.6%

Again, compelling statistics that show job security increases with level of education. Higher salaries and lower unemployment rates- college should be a no brainer, right?

Not so fast! After looking over these facts it becomes quite clear that while a degree offers statistical advantages for a higher earning potential and job security it is neither a guarantee or a prerequisite for either. Furthermore this data can only measure tangibles such as level of education and income. Intangibles such as drive, passion and job satisfaction are ignored. The statistics also can not take into consideration that while most people finish college for the same reasons (in pursuit of a specific job, income level or status) the reasons NOT to go to or finish college are vast. When it is an educated and well thought out decision it doesn't have to be a hindrance at all.

You may be wondering at this point, what are some educated, well thought out reasons not to go to college? A few instantly spring to mind though I'm sure there are many, many more:
-a passion or drive to pursue a career that isn't offered as a major course of study
-a learning style that isn't conducive to a college setting
-a unique opportunity to learn a trade in a non-traditional setting

What does this mean for unschoolers?

It will mean various things for various unschoolers. For us it simply means that there are many paths to success; including but not limited to college. When the kids are older and ready to start making decisions about their career paths we will guide them in the process of asking some important questions:

1- How do you want to earn a living?
2- What type of schooling and/or training will be necessary to make that happen?

Sometimes it will become clear that college is necessary and if that is the career path chosen then it is the responsibility of unschooling parents to assist and facilitate their child/ren in making that goal attainable. Other times it will become clear that an apprenticeship or entry level position with a company is a more realistic path for the goals chosen. Still other times practice and small scale freelance work might be the first practical step on the path to success (such as with a writer, photographer or musician). The important thing is to approach the process with an open mind and be ready to continue challenging the status quo. As an unschooler you probably already have lots of practice at this. ;-)

Source for statistical data can be found here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I suppose some of you have noticed that I haven't been meeting my self-imposed deadline. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all life has been busy lately with lots of summer activity. Second of all I haven't been inspired by a topic and I really don't want this space to be over-run with filler just so I can post something weekly. I need to rethink and regroup my strategy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Education is, as always, a hot topic in the political landscape of America. It seems everyone has an opinion about the best way educate our youth and for every opinion there are studies and experts to back them up. I see the range of possibilities and understand how it can be confusing for parents to know who to believe and figure out which method is the 'right' method. I don't think there is a 'right' method for everyone and that it is important for each of us to know the choices available and use that information to help us find the direction that our instincts point us to. Unfortunately I think many parents are not aware of the wide variety of choices they have or are overwhelmed by them and therefore stick to the status quo, no matter how stressful or maddening it seems to be.

There is a documentary called Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture that explores the growing amount of pressure placed on teens in America to succeed. I follow the filmmakers on Facebook as do many other parents. I am astounded by the amount of stress and pressure that parents are posting about but am even more astounded that they accept it as inevitable and see themselves as powerless against it. Students with hours of homework, no time for family or friends, being bullied by teachers and other students, the sad list of concerns facing parents is long and many feel hopeless and trapped within the system. Many of them are counting on the documentary, activists, and government leaders to enact change; I agree that all of those things need to happen. However in the meantime kids are suffering while we are waiting. Change is available right now in many forms. The beauty of choice is that we can all look at our unique children, families, financial needs/ obligations and decide what is right for us. But no matter what your situation you do have choices.

Choice #1: Homeschool
Unschooling falls under the umbrella of homeschooling but there are many forms of homeschooling. There are school-at-home types who have classrooms in their houses and strictly follow the school model all the way to the radical unschoolers like us. Most homeschoolers fall somewhere in between and find their own balance and rhythm. Many parents feel they can't homeschool if both parents need to work but there are a lot of people who make it work. Their kids are in daycare (cheaper than private school), family members help out or parents work different shifts. These may not be realistic possibilities for everyone but it is an option worth exploring if you are unhappy with your current situation.

Choice #2: School Choice
Private school, charter schools, magnet schools, or even paying tuition for your child to attend a different school district. Charter and magnet schools are public and therefore free but can be difficult to get into. Private schools and choosing another district may be expensive. None of these options are perfect but are worth exploring. If you look at your budget or find charter/magnet schools in your area and find that you are interested don't just assume that different equals better. Look around, meet with not only school personnel but parents and children who attend these schools. Come to these meetings armed with a list of questions that outline what is important to you.

If you are concerned about time for creativity and play, ask not only if it exists but how the school defines these things. Ask about the things that you wish were different in the school you want to leave as well as the things you'd like about it. Class sizes, teaching methods, discipline policies, grading systems and homework policies are just a few things that you should be interested in. Decide what you can compromise with and what are your deal breakers.

Choice #3: Guerrilla Learning
I've linked this choice to Amazon where you can find the book by this title. The authors lay out ways to take back your kids education and use school as it was originally intended- a resource for education, not the whole of education. Guerrilla learning is a great option for parents who simply don't have the resources for home or private schooling. It is a way to utilize the current system without becoming enslaved to it. It is more about a change of attitude than anything else. One of my favorite quotes from the book:
Like many other things in life, school can be a poor master but a good servant. As flawed as school is, it still wouldn't be such a problem if parents and kids didn't perceive it as the only source of learning and the final authority on education.

In other words don't be enslaved to the system- it isn't and can't be everything. You have a choice to limit the amount of homework your child will do each night, of how many extra-curricular activities they will join, how many advanced classes they will take. Don't assume more is better- talk with your children and establish goals for their education beyond diplomas and awards and then make informed choices based upon those goals.

I'm sure there are more options that I haven't mentioned or thought of and I'd love to hear them as I'm sure would other parents. The important thing is not which choice you make but that it is mindful and takes the needs of your family into consideration. Too many people are choosing by default and their families suffer for it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A link you might enjoy...

On an unschooling forum to which I belong there was recently a discussion about unschooling being a privilege of the first world while families in the third world want nothing more than for their children to attend school. I couldn't possibly express my feelings on this topic better than freelearners did in this blog post.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Needs and wants

Distinguishing between needs and wants seemed really simple when I was child. We were taught the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, water and air and it seemed pretty straight forward- everything else is a want, not a need. But then I grew up. I realized that I had needs beyond basic survival and that I might have life but wasn't really living if those needs weren't being met. In college this understanding was given a name when I learned of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. There has been some research to suggest that the hierarchy is pure myth- needs are needs and one is no more important than the other. Others contend that Maslow had it right because one can't begin to think about 'higher' needs if certain basic needs aren't being met. Whichever side of the argument people fell on however, the one thing everyone seemed to be in agreement about was the actual needs Maslow had put forward. These include:

paraphrased from Wikipedia
1.Physiological Needs
These are those basic needs many of us learned as children. Maslow believed that all other needs were secondary to these. On this point I agree with the hierarchy theory. It's difficult to care about much else when you are starving.

2.Security Needs
The need for safety and security include a desire for steady employment, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, etc.

3.Social Needs
These include needs for belonging, love and affection. Maslow considered these needs to be less basic than physiological and security needs and this is where I depart from his theory. I believe that the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the unemployed have a strong need for relationships. Their friendships, partners, and families may become even more important in their time of need.

4.Esteem Needs

The term self-esteem has been devalued in our society but the need for esteem is still vital. This is our sense of self worth and our belief that we have value in the world.

5.Self-actualizing Needs
Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others and interested fulfilling their potential.

When I look at all of the needs I begin to think about how I parent a little differently. My children have these same needs and it is my responsibility to ensure that ALL of them are met, not just those basic physiological and security needs that are self evident in parenting. This becomes tricky because the line between wants and needs become blurry. When I make something for dinner that one of my kids doesn't like they don't need me to make something different but they do need to feel valued in the day to day decisions made for our family. Kya doesn't need dance lessons but she does need the opportunity to actualize her goals and dreams. The same is true for Jace's desire to build his own gaming system. These are not frivolous desires but yearnings to fulfill their innermost needs.

The line between needs and wants is further muddied for children. In a recent discussion on an unschooling forum a member known as annakiss had this to say:

I think that children cannot often distinguish between wants and needs and that this is a good way of considering their perspective on matters. It does not mean that all wants should be considered needs, but that the desires of children are very serious to them and the expectations of adults should reflect rather than deny that.

In other words, it may not be a need but that doesn't mean the request shouldn't be treated with respect. Imagine if you went to your spouse/partner and stated a desire to purchase something important to you. Instead of talking it through and seeing if it were possible, empathizing if it it's not your spouse begins to lecture you about how great you have it and that you should be grateful instead of asking for more. That would not endear my husband to me (to say the least). Eventually I'd stop seeing him as a partner and instead as an adversary. This is what happens when we dismiss our children's requests. It may seem frivolous when Kya asks for another American Girl or Jace wants a new video game but these things are important to them. I realize, just now as I'm typing this, that one of the reasons I've been dismissive in the past is because I feel guilty. I WANT to give these things to my kids and I can't so instead of acknowledging the desire I try to diminish it, thus diminishing my guilt for being unable to provide the object of their desire.

So, when it comes to needs and wants I'm trying to say yes more and I'm trying to be respectful and empathetic when I must say no.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"But what do you do?"

A lot of discussions about unschooling focus on the philosophy; why we believe children learn better this way, why we say yes more often, why we choose trust and respect over fear and control. But new unschoolers, or those thinking about unschooling, don't want to know WHY, they generally already have at least a rudementary understanding of why. What they really want to know is HOW. Unschooling message boards and email loops are full of parents asking the question, "What do I do?" All too often they are given vague replies such as, "Just live your life." This leaves some people with the misunderstanding that unschooling is passive and parents aren't supposed to do anything to help their children learn. On the contrary unschooling has led me to be more actively involved in my children's lives, not less.

Before I attempt to answer this question I want to say up front that I don't think unschoolers are the only families that choose to do the things I'm about to describe. I have seen lots of people who's children are schooled, either at home or somewhere else, who have these types of interactions with their child. The difference between unschoolers and others is that we believe this is enough; the kids are learning everything they need to from simply living life in a purposeful, present, respectful environment. Furthermore, I don't think all unschoolers are doing exactly these things and I'm sure there are some valuable things other unschoolers are doing that we don't. These are simply the things that works for us.

Pay attention to children's interests and help them facilitate their growth.

Facilitation can take on many forms. If I notice an area of interest I try to send them links to websites, record TV shows, check out books from the library, rent movies, tell them about classes/workshops and suggest outings. How and what they utilize from these is entirely up to them but most of the time they like the things I share with them because I know them well enough to know the things they like.

In addition to sharing information I also provide support in the form of taking them to classes, buying the supplies they need, watching them practice, attending recitals and trying to authentically share in their enthusiasm (this is generally in the form of asking questions and letting them share their excitement even when I may not have previously been interested in the topic at hand).

Learn to walk the fine line between pushing and encouraging.

There is no guilt or sense of responsibility to follow through with my suggestions and if they lose interest after a lot of time and/or money has been invested that's okay. Kya loves dance today and I do all I can to encourage her and see the present value in what she's learning, not only about dance but how to carry herself and the intrinsic value of following your passions. However, no matter how much talent or passion I see I won't push her take more classes than she's ready for and if sometime in the future she decides dance isn't for her, that's okay too. It's important to all of us that the kids remain in the driver seat when it comes to their interests and that support doesn't become expectation.

Meet your child on his/her learning field.

I try to pay attention to the things that spark inquisition in my kids. Jace asks lots of questions when he watches TV or reads online. Kya is more inquisitive when she reads books or we go on outings. This doesn't mean that Jace never learns from books or Kya never from TV just that I notice what they are each drawn to most often. As a result of knowing this I'm better able to meet their needs and I don't waste a lot of time wishing Jace would read more or that Kya was more technologically savvy. I see value in both of their learning styles and am happy to help them work within their nature instead of against it.

Take children's questions seriously, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

I can't tell you how many times one of my kids has asked a question in the middle of a TV show or while I was trying to read. I also couldn't begin to count how many in depth questions have cropped up after 9 PM. It would be so easy at times like these to give short answers and basically blow off the child asking the question. But I don't. When the show is over, the chapter ends or tomorrow when I'm less tired the question won't be relevant any more and an opportunity for learning will have been lost. So when one of my kids asks, "What's a spleen," instead of saying, "An organ," and leaving it at that I might also ask if they'd like to google it to see where the spleen is and what it does. (This really happened and Kya and I ended up with a full size map of the body at 11 PM.) I am willing to take their questions as far as they want to go but am also always careful to follow my child's lead. When they stop responding to my suggestions its time to stop making them.

Some questions may not be inconvenient so much as uncomfortable. Jace heard the word erection on TV the other day and wanted to know what it meant. A few days before that he had a question about why I was buying feminine hygiene products again. These types of questions used to make me stammer but now they are just par for the course. I love that he can ask me anything and have seen it make him more confident in questioning other adults. Recently on a visit to the doctor he was able to speak directly to the doctor, ask questions and contemplate his responsibilities in getting well. At 11 years old he has taken more charge of his health than many adults and I'm confident that it's because we've created a safe environment for asking questions.

Seek opportunities for meaningful discussions.

If I'm reading, watching TV or hear about something that I think the kids should know about I share it with them. Just a simple, "Did you know..." or something along those lines. I don't really see these as 'teachable moments' so much as a desire to share information, much like I would with a friend. Discussing philosophy and current events is a natural part of my life and I share it with my kids with no hidden agenda. If they seem interested we'll discuss further, if not we don't. When I shared the news about the BP oil leak with them they wanted to know more and both impressed me with their questions, comments, and desire to help. When I shared news about the primary elections they couldn't have cared less- but you never know what will strike their interest if you don't talk with them about what's happening in the world.

Invite your child on outings as often as possible.

A trip to the ballet solidified Kya's budding desire to take dance more seriously and she was able to perform a small part with a real ballet company just a few months later. Outings are an important part of our unschooling experience and I invite the kids on as many excursions as we can manage. But, I use the word invite because they may not want to go.

Kya loves to get out of the house and is up for just about anything but I realized a while back that Jace prefers to be at home. When I stopped worrying about it and let him be himself it made life so much easier. I still try to find places I think he'll enjoy and sometimes he chooses to go, while other times he chooses to stay home. I have found that he's not interested in parks or libraries so I've stopped pushing him to go to these (although I do still invite him because you never know). But, I know that if I really want to get him out of the house I need to look for things on his learning field, not mine- when I do this he's happy to join us. Recently he's been to City Museum (an interactive children's museum where kids can climb on EVERYTHING), the swimming pool and a Mixed Martial Arts fight. The MMA fight wouldn't have been my first choice but he LOVED it and had a great evening with his dad. I want him to experience the world but I recognize that it's more valuable if it's on his terms.

I touched on this a bit when I wrote about noticing their interests. Strewing is the act of putting things out you think they may like. Checking out a library book and leaving it on their bed, forwarding a link to a great website, telling them about a new movie. I included it separately because in addition to doing this with things I know they are already interested in I also strew things I think they MIGHT be interested in if they were exposed. It's a big world out there and I certainly don't expect my kids to automatically know all it has to offer. I see it as my responsibility to expose them to great works of literature, history, other cultures, etc. Unschooling doesn't mean sitting on your hands and waiting for them to discover Mark Twain on their own. However it does mean that I have no vested interest in their response to things I strew. If a book goes unread, a link is ignored or movie unwatched I'm okay with that. It was just a suggestion and they're free to take it or leave it.

Create opportunities for fun and learning will often be a pleasant side effect.

We have a lot of fun. We laugh, we play, we learn. Fun and building relationships is often our goal and learning usually flows from that. I've found that trying to construct fun around learning is much more difficult and less authentic than just focusing on the fun and letting the learning happen naturally. Board games, for example, are something we all love, Kya especially. They do learn a lot from them but a while back I stopped trying to make the games about learning and focused on the fun. The funny thing is that when I did this the fun AND the learning increased.

Many times looking for fun in daily activities also leads to unexpected learning. Recently when I was cleaning a vase I used baking soda and vinegar and I knew the kids would want to see the reaction. Kya was busy but I showed Jace and he proceeded to take the materials outside to try some experiments on his own. Later he wanted to look up what causes the bubbles which was great but it also would have been okay if it had gone no further and he'd just had a fun afternoon watching bubbles explode. The learning was a natural byproduct of the fun, not the other way around

So, that's it. Pretty simple but also pretty difficult at times. Unschooling isn't the easy way out by any means and it can be frustrating to be available to your kids so much of the time. But knowing I've helped them create an environment where they are comfortable asking questions, experimenting, having fun and learning is worth it.

Note: This was originally the '100 Little Things' post but I soon realized that a list stating that we discussed vocabulary while watching TV eight times or forwarded 4 links to their email accounts was pretty boring and not necessarily relevant to a larger audience. Instead I tried to combine and condense the information I gathered to make it more useful for the average unschooler.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


TV viewing is a hot button issue in the unschooling world. Extremists on both sides of the argument throw out statistics, science and anecdotal stories to support their view and it makes it confusing for some to know what to believe. I choose to believe what I see happening with my own children, right before my eyes.

I have seen TV suck Jace in at times, I myself have been sucked in by TV at times. It can be numbing and a completely passive experience that results in hours upon hours of energy zapping, mindless viewing. The natural response of some parents when they see this happening is to limit the time spent in front of the TV. Other parents believe that lack creates desire and that if children are just allowed to watch as much TV as they want then they will eventually get their fill and make better choices for themselves without intervention from the parents. I reject both of these ideas for my family.

I don't think the amount of TV being watched is the issue most of the time. I think HOW TV is being watched is the bigger issue. My kids have pretty much unlimited access to television but they rarely watch it alone. Most of the time I watch with them and we discuss what we see as we watch. It might be a silly cartoon and we'll discuss how irony or parody are used in comedy. It might be a sit-com and the discussion will be about human relationships. Dramas usually bring up discussions about decision making. All shows can lead to discussions about plot and character development and why writers choose specific things to imply things to the viewer. These discussions are so second nature that I've noticed lately that the kids do it when they are watching TV together with no adults in the room. I'd be willing to bet that when they're watching alone they have some similar internal dialogue.

For me unschooling is about meeting my kids where they are, using the tools and methods which they respond to instead of those I WISH they would respond to. Jace in particular responds to television so this is where I meet him and it then becomes my responsibility to help him facilitate positive learning experiences with the tools he has chosen. I don't think TV is the only way or a superior way to help kids learn but I think it is equally neutral to all other tools. When left to their own devices and used as a babysitter it becomes harmful. When used as a place for discussion to begin it becomes a valuable resource. The harm or value isn't in the TV, its in the use.

I can already hear some protests about not having time to sit down and watch TV with kids but I doubt I'd hear the same argument being made for a kid who wanted to play lots of board games or read with an adult. I'm not at home with my kids so that the dishes are always done or to cook gourmet meals. I'm home with them because I believe the best way for them to learn is on their own terms and therefore their learning is my top priority. So, about 80% of the TV they watch, I watch with them. We laugh, we discuss, we learn together.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Lately I've been thinking a lot about colleges that are a good fit for unschoolers. It's a little silly for me to be spending a lot of time on this topic because it will be several years before I even need to give the issue serious thought but nevertheless I find myself scouring lists of homeschool friendly and non-traditional colleges and then looking at admission requirements for the schools that seem promising. There are several factors which have contributed to this latest obsession... err, interest.

First, one of my best friends has teenage boys and college is on her mind. We've had some discussions about this and her concerns are my concerns because she's my friend and because I know we'll be right where she is in a few years.

Another friend from our homeschool group, who also has a teenager, recently posted a couple of lists on Facebook that highlight non-traditional schools. I was immediately intrigued and soon became fascinated. The idea that some institutions of higher learning recognize the benefits of free learning and have thrown off the shackles of canned course requirements and letter grades is exciting. As someone who loves to learn about learning I just can't help but to want to know more!

Finally I have become more comfortable with the idea of radically unschooling and have embraced it wholeheartedly. I feel as if I truly understand the path we are on now and I know that it is the best way for my kids to learn and grow. However I was worried that because parts of society don't recognize our choices as legitimate pathways to success that some of my children's choices might be limited. Not because they won't be smart enough, self-disciplined enough, or simply good enough to attend college but because some colleges might not accept the way they have learned. Armed with a list of schools that not only accept but welcome non-traditional learners I am able to rest easier knowing that we don't have to close the window on college in order to fully embrace unschooling.

I'll leave you with a list of some of the promising schools I've found during the course of my research...
Note: Most of these schools accept narrative transcripts and/or portfolios in place of traditional transcripts. However, you will notice in parentheses that some of these colleges do require traditional transcripts. They are included in this list because they accept homeschool transcripts from parents as opposed to some non homeschool friendly schools which require accredited transcripts.

Non-traditional Colleges
Hampshire College
Savannah College of Art and Design
Brown University
Sarah Lawrence College
Antioch College (Though the school closed its doors in 2008, it will reopen in fall 2011.)
Evergreen State College
College of the Atlantic
The New School
Bennington College(traditional transcript required)
New College of Florida(traditional transcripts required)
Wesleyan University(traditional transcript required)
St. John’s College

Homeschool Friendly Colleges in MO
Park University- Parkville, MO
Missouri State- Springfield, MO
Stephens College (women only)
Truman State College (traditional transcript required)
Mizzou (traditional transcript required)
University of MO- Kansas City
Missouri University of Science and Technology- Rolla (traditional transcript required)
Westminster College (traditional transcript required)
Central Missouri State University- Warrensburg, MO
Kansas City Art Institute
St. Louis University (GED required)
Missouri Western State University (open admission)

Friday, May 21, 2010

How Wikepedia and I define Unschooling

Yesterday at our homeschool playgroup the topic of unschooling came up as another mom and I were chatting. We are both unschoolers and were discussing some recent activity on an unschooling email group to which we both belong. As often happens when having discussions about unschooling the topic turned to the strict regiment that some people put on what constitutes unschooling. We agreed that often people are too narrow in their definition but that some people go too far in the other direction and have a definition that is so broad that it loses any meaning.

I understand that unschoolers are viewed as people who are bucking the system, challenging the status quo and living outside the parameters of conventional wisdom. I agree with all of those statements. I don't agree that this means there are no rules. I decided to begin with the agreed upon definition. Wikipedia seemed like a good place to look because it is held to the public standard and anyone who may disagree with the definition may challenge or change it. The fact that the definition is written as is means that the unschoolers who have visited the page agree with it. I have visited and I agree. (Emphasis mine)

Unschooling refers to a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child directed play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities led by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

Learning through natural life. When you build a birdhouse with Grandpa you learn to measure. When you hear an unfamiliar word and Mom explains it you learn vocabulary. When you must share cookies with your friends you learn division. When you want to know why we have a holiday called Pearl Harbor Day you learn history. These things happen organically through living life with curiosity in an environment that supports and encourages that curiosity.

The question about Pearl Harbor Day may lead you to the library, The History Channel or the Internet. It may not. You may get all of the information which interests you from the person to whom you posed the question. If your natural curiosity leads you to the library that is unschooling. If your mom decides that today is Pearl Harbor Day and we must go to the library, find a book and read it together that is NOT unschooling.

This is the part where people get defensive, when you tell them what unschooling is not. But there are guidelines. It isn't a criticism of how you choose to do things, it is a statement of fact. I can call myself a vegetarian but if I then proclaim that I choose to eat meat three times a week then I'm not a vegetarian. There's nothing inherently wrong with choosing to eat meat (at least from my perspective) and stating that I am not a vegetarian isn't a criticism; its a fact. I can call myself liberal but oppose gay marriage, abortion, gun control and welfare while supporting large armies and school prayer. I can call myself a liberal within those circumstances but it doesn't make it true. The same can be said for unschooling. If you still have requirements for what your child must do, if you want to use a curriculum for just one subject, if you are still guiding your child's education instead of letting it unfold naturally then you are not an unschooler. Not a criticism, just a fact.

However, as I stated earlier, it is also possible to be strict in the defintion and squeeze people out. Leaving a book laying out that you think your child might enjoy is also still within the guidelines of unschooling, in my opinion. Making suggestions and bringing up interesting topics are all a part of unschooling. No one lives or learns in a bubble. My friends and I enjoy sharing book and movie titles with each other, filling each other in on the information learned in a magazine article, and just generally exchanging information. I do the same for my kids because it IS a natural part of life to do these things.

Furthermore I don't think unschooling has to reach into all areas of life to work. You can decide that tooth brushing is important in your house and that TV will be limited and still be an unschooler. You can even give your kids chores and be an unschooler. Demanding that these decisions are part of unschooling pushes people away who come to us seeking information and trying to learn about the philosophy. So let me be clear about my position- strewing books is unschooling, assigning book reports is not.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Big Book of Unschooling by Sandra Dodd

I received my copy of this new book in the mail a couple of days ago. It is a quick and easy read, well suited for new unschoolers. I didn't find a great deal of compelling or new information because most of the information can be found on Ms. Dodd's website which you can find by clicking on the title of this post. I am learning to tolerate reading from a computer screen because a) it's cheaper, b) it's more eco-friendly, and c) some of my favorite journals are only available online. For those who haven't made this transition and still prefer to hold a book in their hand then this book is a great resource. For everyone else, save your money and visit the website.

A few of my favorite gems found both in the book and on the website:

Unschooling is arranging for natural learning to take place.

Unschooling would be difficult to understand even if it were easy to define. From the point of view of the parent, it is creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning flourishes.

I like both of the above quotes because they highlight that unschooling isn't passive and doesn't 'just happen'. It happens because parents are dedicated to ensuring it happens.

School as a small part of a rich, healthy family life can be bearable and maybe even fun. School as a guarantee of learning or success is a fantasy school; it's a myth.

I LOVE this! It is difficult to explain your reasons for unschooling to a person who has had great experiences with school. And of course there are those who like to point to people they know who have homeschooled or unschooled and the kids didn't do well. I like to remind them that lots of people in public school don't do well either. This quote sums it up nicely.

A few other interesting tidbits too long to quote include the pages on
strewing and book worship. I must admit that I'd skipped the book worship page before having the book in hand because I was irritated by the idea that books aren't special and wonderful things to be revered. After reading Sandra's logical arguments about other ways of exploring the world being just as special and wonderful I must admit I'm a convert. That doesn't mean I don't still love books, I just don't hold them up on a pedestal as THE BEST way to learn (aside from doing of course) and instead see them for what they are- one tool in my unschooling toolbox. Television, radio, computers and video games are just as valid and valuable for learning as books and it would be unwise for me to reject these tools and rely soley or more heavily on one tool.

I know some of my book loving friends will have the same reaction I had to reading that but I encourage you to look at Sandra's page on book worship before making up your mind. I also encourage you to think about the big picture. When we first began homeschooling, before unschooling, I used to require the kids to read every day despite the fact that they both read at a high school level. They didn't need the practice but I still worshiped books and felt it was important. I never thought of requiring them to use the computer on a daily basis despite the fact that their skills with it were rudementary (especially Kya's). But taking a step back and looking at the big picture I can see that the ability to use a computer is just as important in today's world as the ability to read well, yet I still placed more emphasis on books. I think it all boils down to a pervasive belief that tried and true is always better than new and innovative.

I'll leave you with a short excerpt from the page to ponder:

There was a time when the only way for a kid to get information from outside his home and neighborhood was books. (think Abraham Lincoln, log cabin in the woods far from centers of learning.) Now books tend to be outdated, and an internet search engine can be better for many kinds of information. If Abraham Lincoln had had full-color DVDs of the sights of other countries, of people speaking in their native accents and languages, and of history, he would have shoved those books aside and watched those videos.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I have been frequenting some unschooling forums and joined an active Yahoo! group for unschoolers. The topics, especially for newcomers, always seem to be the same. There is a great misunderstanding that radical unschoolers sit back and hope for the best for their kids without any direction or intervention. This simply isn't true- the direction and intervention look different than they traditionally do but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

I believe one of the reasons this is difficult to explain is because it happens in the small moments. Lots of new unschoolers want to know what a typical day looks like for an unschooler but even this is misleading. I can block out the activities of the day but it doesn't convey all of the little things going on that make unschooling work. So, I've decided to do a project that I'll share here, and perhaps a few other places, to try to convey how radical unschooling works for us.

The project is called "100 Little Things" and is precisely that. I will be keeping track of all the little things I do, from using TV as a tool to encouraging exploration. Most of these interactions are less than 2 or 3 minutes but have a big impact. Because they are brief they are often overlooked by those exploring unschooling and I think that's a shame because these little moments are the HEART and SOUL of unschooling.

I'll keep you posted as I gather the moments. :)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Some days this life we've chosen is harder than others. I don't like to complain because I don't want to discourage anyone from pursuing this lifestyle but the reality is that no matter what path we choose there will be hurdles. My current hurdle is that Kya has developed delayed seperation anxiety and its making me a little, well... nuts!

I'm not really sure what's going on but she literally wants to be with me all the time- she sleeps in my room, goes grocery shopping with me, goes outside when I do. There are times when she'll get busy and will be okay playing in the other room but only if she knows where I am. She'll also go to my parents house next door or make a trip into town with her dad but only if she knows I'm going to be home- she doesn't want to do these things while I might be somewhere else. I have to accompany her on playdates and she's stopped sleeping over with friends. This is a complete 180 for her- she has never had any trouble sleeping over and has been doing so since she was about 5 or 6. She loved going places and I've joked before that she couldn't wait to be rid of me.

Honestly I was worried at first that something had happened to bring this on but we've had extensive conversations and she's still friendly and outgoing with new people so I don't think she's had a bad experience with an adult. My current theory is that this is somehow related to puberty and her feelings about her changing body. She knows she's growing up and is excited about that but perhaps part of her is also scared by it. Whatever the cause, she's just as confused by it as I am and will say that she's not sure why her feelings have changed.

In the meantime, I have no rest, no time away. I get lots of traditional advice but it doesn't fit with the kind of mom I am- ultimately I have to follow my instincts and feel good about how I handle this so I can't be the kind of mom that just walks away and lets her cry it out. I can't be the kind of mom that disregards her feelings as a phase that she'll outgrow.

So for now I appreciate my friends who understand and let me bring her along (with quiet activities to occupy herself) to adult gatherings such as luncheons and maybe coffee night. I cherish the times when she's happy to go to town with her dad or playing in the next room and I can get a few moments to myself. I accept her just as she is and know that ultimately her ability to express her feelings, even if I don't like or understand those feelings, is a good thing. Just yesterday I told her how proud I was of her ability to stand up for her feelings even when it was hard. I hope she always holds onto that.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Jace loves gamimg. Very often the first thing he wants to do when he wakes up is play a video or computer game. And probably just as often it's one of the last things he does before he goes to bed. It doesn't matter to him what type of game though lately RPGs (Role Playing Games) are his favorite. I know lots of people resist video games and there are many studies about the dangers of video games. I used to be a parent who whole heartedly believed that I must limit 'screen time' in order to protect my child from the brain draining powers of video games. We had time limits and rules surrounding games, they were used as leverage and I thought most bad behavior could supposedly be traced back to too much time spent gaming. And then I started reading unschooling boards.

Now, I'm not really big on the idea of doing something just to fit the popular definition of something. I don't think you have to publish anything to be a writer, sell a painting to be an artist, or let your kids do whatever the hell they want to be an unschooler. However, so many unschooling parents whom I respected on other topics were saying the same things about video games that I decided it was worth exploring. Even more so than the rally cries of unschooling parents the real deal-breaker for me, the thing that proved I needed to explore this idea of unlimited access to gaming is that I wasn't being consistent.

I figured out a couple of years ago that the things I find it difficult to be consistent about are things that deep down I don't believe. After all I consistently feed and clothe my children. I consistently tell them I love them. I consistently avoid HFCS and red dye in the food we eat. But I couldn't be consistent about this and that let me know that deep down I may not really believe what I was trying to do. Sure, if I noticed behaviors I thought might be linked to gaming or, more likely, I felt guilty about the amount of time he spent gaming then I would begin to get more strict about enforcing the rules. However, slowly but surely I'd always start to be inconsistent about it. So, I decided I should try this radical approach to gaming.

All I can say is WOW!

It has been several months now, maybe even approaching a year, since I let go of limiting his gaming. Some guidelines have remained such as a gentle word if I notice him becoming upset or a reminder that he needs to pay attention to and respect his own body cues for a break. That has been a process but one he has done really well with and lately he needs very few reminders from me about these things (admittedly he does still need that gentle word from time to time, just less frequently than before). That's really what unschooling is about- helping them learn to recognize their own natural limits instead of imposing my own. I realize in hindsight that this was my ultimate goal all along- I instinctively knew that my interference wasn't really helping him learn lifelong limits and that once he was away from my watchful eye he would overindulge and have to learn self control as opposed to parental control in a setting that wasn't as safe and loving as home.

Even though I realize my goal now I also see many other benefits to allowing him space to pursue something that captivated his attention. The pleasantly unexpected result is that Jace has found a way to bring gaming into many aspects of his life. He writes beautifully creative and descriptive stories based on games- either ones he's played or ones he wishes to create. Speaking of creating, he has taught himself to do just that- first by finding a website that let him create flash games and then moving on to more complex sites and even purchasing a book to help him with his endeavors. Recently he upgraded his membership on one of those sites to a "pro" membership so he can create three dimensional games. Through gaming he has also connected with other children who share his interests all over the world and shows genuine interest in learning about their cultures, languages and geography. He creates arts and crafts using many mediums so he can reenact games scenarios. He buys and sells games on eBay and in gaming stores and has learned about marketing, interpreting ads, finding the best value and an understanding of simple economic principles such as the laws of supply and demand, profit/loss and opportunity cost. He has learned the value of saving and delayed gratification when he wants a new game or game system.

He came to all of this knowledge not in spite of video games but because of them. He was given the freedom to explore a passion- a passion most of the world judges as frivolous at best and psychologically dangerous at worst. I admit that I swung between these two perspectives myself and in the beginning when he was binging on the games that had previously been limited I was concerned. But I trusted what my instincts were telling me and instead of my knee-jerk reaction to 'protect' him from this world I dug deeper and saw that what I really needed to do was help him develop the skills to guide himself through it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why we unschool

Today I realized THE reason I choose to be an unschooler. There are many advantages to unschooling, many of which I've already discussed on this blog, but those advantages are not what pulls me back day after day, even in times of doubt. So, what does?

I believe that the most important thing my children will learn in their entire lives is who they are and unschooling is the best way I've found to allow them to learn that. Everything else they need to know in life will flow from that sense of self and anything that doesn't come from that place of authenticity isn't worth knowing, IMHO.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Birthday John Holt

Yesterday was John Holt's birthday. For those not familiar Holt brought to the forefront the idea of unschooling through such mediums as his popular newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, and the library of books on the subject he authored. Holt was a true revolutionary who recognized that not only could children learn without schools, they should.

In Teach Your Own he makes his views about schools clear:

"I have used the words "home schooling" to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth in the word is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn't a school at all. "

I do recognize that not every parent can or should homeschool their child, much less unschool them. I also realize that schools are necessary for this reason, and that they do the best they can. This is the same reason that canned green beans are necessary. Fresh green beans from an organic garden are the healthiest possible choice but aren't available to everyone. Some people opt for green beans from the farmer's market because they can't, for whatever reason, grow their own. Other people will buy frozen green beans and still others will buy them in a can. Canned green beans do still have some nutritional content but not nearly as much as their fresh picked counterpart. This is how I view schools. They are doing the best they can with what they have. The green bean manufacturers aren't bad. The people eating them aren't bad either. But there is a better way.

So it goes with schools. A crowded classroom with an overworked, underpaid teacher who can't possibly attend to every child's individual needs is not the best place for learning to take place. There is a better way. Thank you John Holt for recognizing this decades ago and blazing the trail for the rest of us.

Friday, April 9, 2010


I'm not sure if anyone is still out there, I pretty much abandoned the blog after my last post that stated I wasn't sure what the future of it was going to be. Lately I've been having some unschooling thoughts and found myself wishing I had an outlet for them when I realized I DO!! :-)

A lot of things have been going on with the kids lately that were causing me to doubt myself. I have never really doubted unschooling or doubted my kids abilities to learn what they need to learn. I realize (thankfully) that the doubts stem from my own insecurities and my need for approval. I thought I was past that but there's nothing like motherhood to shine a light on areas where you're still a work in progress.

My specific issues have been wrapped up in Jace. He enjoys video games and electronics. A lot. He has gaming on his mind from morning until night. He plays games, creates games, emails people about games, reads magazines and books about games, sketches out ideas for games, draws comics and writes stories based on games, reenacts games with legos and action figures, makes videos about games, spends his allowance on games, (surfing eBay, Amazon, and Gamestop for the best deals and even occasionally selling one of his older games at these places)and talks about games. I didn't really think much of this. This is who he is, what he's passionate about for now, and anything else is artificial. I was happy that he'd found something to love and that he's a happy 11 year old who still likes sharing his passions with me. Enter the naysayers.

Imagine a judgemental, incrdulous tone with all of the following:

"It's such a nice day, shouldn't he be outside instead of playing video games."

"Jace never talks about anything but games.You can't even have a conversation with him."

"Why doesn't he ever do anything."

The thing is these things were starting to get to me, they had me thinking that I was wrong, that I should just MAKE him do something else, anything else. But when I contemplate what that would really mean, sacrificing his spark in order to please others I just can't do it. So instead I've come up with some responses for the naysayers:

It's such a nice day, shouldn't he be outside."

He does spend time outside. Quite a bit actually, but only when an activity sparks his interest. Ture, he does prefer to be inside, as do I. But it's okay, outside is not morally superior to inside.

"You can't even have a conversation with him."

I have conversations with him all the time. He also has no problem talking with other kids his age and adults. Maybe the problem is that you want him to talk about what you're interested in instead of listening to what he's interested in.

"Why doesn't he ever do anything?"

He does plenty. Just because you haven't taken the time to watch it and see the value in it doesn't mean there isn't any.

At the end of the day I realize that actually I'm quite impressed with the diversity of ways Jace incorporates gaming into his life. He is learning economics, reading for information as well as pleasure, problem solving, managing his time, creating art in many mediums, sharing information with others, thinking critically and so much more. He is passionate and engaged. And all on his own, without any need for me to push him.