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.