Monday, October 18, 2010

how we got to this unschooling place

It occurred to me that I spend a great deal of time writing about this thing we call unschooling. I write about it's philosophies and how positively it has effected my family. My writing has been somewhat impersonal. Distant.
I would like to share with you how we got to this place, because it was not the obvious choice and has not been without it's challenges. In fact, there have been a few occasions I need to remind myself why this is the path we have chosen.
(I will warn you, this is long...)

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was a pretty conventional mama. I had a doctor. I birthed Olivia in the hospital in a rather artificial way. (which I will save for a later post) I tried to breastfeed, but alas, breastfeeding was not going to happen for us. As is the story for so many moms. So like so many moms, she drank formula. And I continued reading the common, average parenting books. Listening to the advice of anyone who would give it.

I was a mama who was very unsure how to mama. I was lost. I made a lot of "mistakes".

As she was becoming a toddler my husband and I happened to read the story of the bible character, Daniel. In the story, Daniel and his 3 companions are taken as captives to Babylon. In Babylon, the king orders that they be a part of the education system in Babylon. The king strips them of the names given to them by their parents and gives them names related to the Babylonian deities. He tries to make them change their diet. In the school, they are required to learn all about the Babylonian ways; their language, their holidays, their gods. The education system in this bible story did everything it could to strip the boys of their identity.

My heart hurt for these boys. In exploring the story with my husband, a few things jumped out at us as note worthy.

The goal of this education system was to strip the boys of their identity, to force them to learn what the government thought valuable. Ideally, the king wanted to integrate these boys into their way of life. We noticed the similarities to our current educational system. Trying to create cookie-cutter children- dressing alike, thinking alike, celebrating alike. I did not like the idea of my child being a part of a system whose goal was to mold her mind; to make it fit in with this world's ways. I also reasoned that at 5 years old there wouldn't be much of an identity for them to strip away, before inculcating her with this worlds culture.

The boys were teen-agers when they were taken captive. Before being taken, it is quite likely that they had many years spent with their family; learning from their parents, and others in the community who cared about them; others who shared their way of life; and their values. The boys in the story succeed in keeping their identity, and I suspect that the large amount of time spent with their families before being taken captive helped to create strong bonds and a strong foundation of beliefs and values. Their way of life would have been "inculcated" in them daily for at least 13 years, before this separation.

The boys were taken captive, against their will, and against the will of their parents. Their parents did not say, "this will be good for them, this will make them stronger." They were not willingly sent.

At this point, I knew I would not be sending my child to school. It didn't feel right. I wasn't sure what that meant we would do yet. Just that she wouldn't be going.

I gave birth to my son about a year before Olivia was to start kindergarten. I had come along way as a mama. I birthed him at home with midwives, my hubby, Olivia, my sister, and my close friend. I was confident. I knew who I was at this parenting gig. We co-slept. We nursed. (until he turned 4) We massaged one another. We loved. We were together.

The month before I was to register Olivia for a homeschool program, I had doubts.
Life was challenging with two children. My house was always a mess. I was exhausted. A good deal of the time, my body hurt and I had no clue as to why. The idea of someone else watching my child a few hours a day was kind of appealing.
~I questioned whether I had been over thinking it before. ~I questioned whether keeping her home with me would be taking on too much.

A friend of mine had put her son in school the previous year; she told me that 2 children, in this elementary school had been sent home for having oral sex at the school! I didn't know which part of this story shocked me the most. I felt sick.

Also, her son had been having some struggles with the work he was given to do; the school was wanting to label him with some disorder to explain his difficulties. This all sounded terrible.

~What if my daughter was exposed to kids engaging in these kinds of activities? ~What if she had trouble with the curriculum?
~Would they want to label her too?

My husband said, "Look, I know, you know what you really want to do. So do it. And stop worrying. We will work it out." Little did I know what a life altering statement that would be...

After a lot of searching, I came across a home-school that gave the children choices about what they would learn. All the subjects were mashed together in work-booklets that had been prepared on various topics. Butterflies, dinosaurs, cats.... The teacher was very nice, and the borrowing library was pretty big. The school said Olivia would have $800 to put towards lessons. This sounded good. A month or so into the school year, we were feeling the weight of my health problems and our huge mortgage.
~We wanted to make sure of what was now very important to us.

We sold our house, bought a cheaper townhouse that needed some serious renovations before we could move in. Our family moved in with my in-laws. Obviously, this provided a new set of challenges. But my in-laws were incredibly hospitable to have us! And they supported me in taking care of my kids. I really needed and appreciated the help. Eventually, we got moved into our new home, and I found that a gluten-free diet vastly improved my health. We switched to the home-school program offered in our new town. The workbooks were similar, the teacher was nice; and we were able to be a part of the group art, drama, and science activities offered locally. Also, this new school offered Olivia $1200 for recreational lessons.

There is no easy way to say this.
The workbooks were boring. Olivia was expected to do about 4 worksheets per day, on various things. A lot of it was skills she already had a handle on, so they were boring; some of them were beyond her abilities, and were frustrating; and a lot of them were simply irrelevant to her life. Our "school-work" time quickly turned into a power struggle, with plenty of tears to go around. This was not working. I was beginning to feel that I was out of options.

My husband happened to come home with two books for me; he had stumbled on them, discounted for $2 each. Both were about home-schooling, from what he could tell. One was "De-schooling Our Lives"- a collection of articles from various writers; the other was "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto. I love reading, and dove in. In the first one I read article after article about this thing called "unschooling", and stories from families who had done this mysterious thing; and something called a "free school" where children were free to learn whatever they wanted, however they wanted. This all sounded very new and wild. Crazy! I came across an article by John Holt in this book. This is one of my favorite quotes from him:

"This faith is that by nature people are learning animals.
Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn.
Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning
by wheedling, bribing, or bullying.
We do not need to keep picking away at their minds
to make sure they are learning.
What we need to do - and all we need to do -
is to give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for,
listen respectfully when they feel like talking,
and then get out of the way.
We can trust them to do the rest."

It felt like a fire was lit in my heart. This wild, crazy, trusting thing called "unschooling" felt true.
Indeed, my child had learned to walk and talk on her own, and in her own way. I observed that in the times we weren't struggling about "home work" she was playing and learning happily. ~Could this really work? It felt scary. I approached my husband about it. He was not interested in reading the books; this idea sounded way out there to him too. I think it felt scary to him too. He said he trusted me; and he was willing to give it a try for a certain amount of time; provided that he could still see that she was learning.
~Would she learn to read? write? Oh no, how on earth would she learn math?! This was an overwhelming and exciting place to be.

So here I was- public school was out of the question; and now home school was over too.
~Where exactly did that leave us?

I wasn't sure. I told Olivia that for the remainder of the year I would not be forcing her to do her homework, providing that she could explain to her teacher why she wasn't doing them. She did. "They are kind of boring. I didn't want to do them anymore." It made me smile, and I felt proud of her. She was able to begin to re-claim her right to learning.

Over the summer break I read "Dumbing Us Down". My mind and heart sucked it all in. This book was written by New York's "Teacher Of The Year". He outlined from his experience what lessons the school system he was working in were Really teaching. Many of the lessons being the downright opposite of the lessons most parents would want their children learning. Lessons on confusion, position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and lack of privacy. He explained the difference between "education" and "learning".

One of the things I came across in "dumbing us down" that made the biggest impression on me was a breakdown of kids time: "Out of 168 hours in a week my children (his students) sleep 56. That leaves 112 hours a week out of which to fashion a self..... children watch 55 hours of television a week. That leaves them with 57 hours in a week in which to grow up. My children attend school 30 hours a week, use about 8 hours getting ready and traveling to and from school.... average 7 hour per week in homework- a total of 45 hours..... that leaves them 12 hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness...." it continues to factor in eating time, and time in extra curricular activities.

I started to think about my own children and their time. Their precious time. Out of 168 hours in a week, my children sleep 70 hours, leaving 98 awake hours. If I gave 30 to the school.... and 6 getting ready for school, and 6 doing homework, a total of 42 hours per week, Isn't that the same amount of time an adult puts into a full-time job? That would leave me with a mere 56 hours per week to just BE with my children. Take away time that I am distracted, cleaning, cooking, or persuing my other interests; or time my children spend at friends houses, or time watching tv. At best, I would get to spend a mere 14 hours per week more time with my children than the school.

Now what? Someone told me it was legal to write a letter to the school board stating that you were teaching your child yourself. So perhaps, this is what I would do. Write a letter stating that I would like to raise my own child.
That I would like to use my right to teach my own.

Sometime in that summer someone told me about a "homeschool" who supported "unschooling". After a lot of meditation, I enrolled her. When the lady who was to be our "learning consultant" called us; I was very upfront about what I wanted our year to look like. Free. No pressure. No boring workbooks. Would that be okay? Yes! Was the answer I got. I was still unsure of how this would work. I just just knew that the below was what I hoped for:

"Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die."~John Taylor Gatto

In all honesty, that was merely the beginning of our unschooling journey. We have had many challenges since then, but I will save them for another day...


  1. Thank you so much for posting this journey, Meaghan! It fed part of my soul.

  2. Thanks Yvonne! i am so delighted that you enjoyed it :D