Somewhere along the line, I learned that a significant life is full of struggle. Did it start with the story of the exile from the Garden? The toil? The pain of labor? Did it start with my own father, who worked the night shift at the post office; and, around the dinner table, never made it sound like any fun? (Did he, as I do now, struggle with the guilt of having a job he secretly loved?) Did it start with my stay-at-home-mom, who I swear must have slept through the day, eaten her way through the afternoon, only to greet us at the door after school and begin cleaning the house and cooking? Did it start with the job I loved to hate as a Subway “Sandwich Artist,” scrubbing floors until 2am, so I could afford car insurance, college, clothes? Or did it start in AmeriCorps, where only those crazy-asses who worked 70 hours a week were promoted, and any expectation of decent pay was taboo? I was one of those crazy-asses, and it was less than a conscious choice- I somehow deeply believed that my ability to save the world must be directly proportional to my stress level.
Goal-making around unschooling is a natural and delightful process for us. And, yes, we do it in September, right after Labor Day. Swimming days are over. Neighborhood kids are boarding buses. The weather is chillier (sometimes). Back-to-school advertisements are in every newspaper, magazine, and storefront window. Outgrown clothes are sorted and taken to Goodwill, arms and legs are measured for “new” clothes. Vegetables are harvested. Excitement is in the air. We celebrate, too.
“What do you want to learn this fall?” is the big question at our family meeting. The question is for all of us. Last year, when I said, “I want to learn to make gluten-free bakery,” it took me 3 days to start, after a year of shying away from the daunting task. By November, I was happily baking every other day. Impressive, what saying our goals aloud can do for us.
Here are my 5 year old Fire Girl’s goals for this fall. She came up with every one of them on her own:
1. Listen to a lot of fairy tales
2. Learn some rhymes and clap-games
3. Learn to read
4. Learn to jump rope
5. Sing in choir
6. Go to library
7. Take art and dance classes
8. Learn how to make fairy crowns
And here are my 9 year old Water Boy’s:
1. Finish chemistry curriculum
2. Finish Story of the World 1 and start 2
3. Learn more about food science (this is the third year he has made this a goal, and he is beyond what I can teach him; we had to make a list of resources this year)
4. Take robotics classes
5. Play 30 games of Magic: The Gathering with people who are really good
6. Complete requirements for Webelos year
7. Sing in choir
8. Read science fiction
9. “I wish for a steel drum and steel drum lessons.”
Every morning, we dedicate time to working toward these goals. We don’t always look at the list, but usually we end up in the direction of one or two of the goals, anyway.
The other day, getting ready to do some work, Water Boy surprised me by becoming sad and expressing anxiety that he was perhaps not “on level” with other kids his age. In reality, according to last year’s standardized testing results, he is far above (up to college) grade level in some areas, and slightly behind (up to 6 months) in others, and right on target in yet others. If you want to measure intelligence this way, there you are. We don’t measure intelligence that way, and rarely talk about standardized tests or grade levels.
Anyway, I didn’t try to squash his fears. I just asked him what he wanted to do to help relieve that anxiety. He said that he wanted more structure to his learning; he wanted me to “make sure” he was covering 4 subjects a day. We already utilize our morning hours to learn in whichever way my children choose, but he was asking for more. This is who he is- responsibility and conscientiousness are just parts of his personality. He was noticeably relieved when I told him that of course we could do that if he wanted.
Here is a brief intermission to break some things down: Water Boy has Pervasive Developmental Delays and some sensory needs. He struggles in school-like environments. His body and mind start to “crash down” when he feels overwhelmed by work, too many expectations thrown at him at once, or when he is in high-stimulus environments. When he was younger, preschool settings- even very low pressure ones- were not working for him. He was melting down frequently; yet at home, he was happy, calm and content to do hard work. He likes to put extreme focus into whatever he is thinking about, and has a hard time with the stop/go routines of school, and all the interruptions to his work. This is one major reason we homeschool.
In cyber school, Water Boy still resisted the busywork he didn’t want to do. I didn’t blame him, as the work was mundane and unchallenging. I tried to make him do it anyway, but I didn’t like who I was or who he was in those forcing scenarios. We decided we could do better without the cyber school, and we have. Since then, I have seen more and more that- given freedom and support- both my children can be in charge of their education, as evidenced by their goals above.
So, now, when Water Boy asked me to help him be more disciplined about his structure, he was in fact having a crisis. The crisis he went through at the age of 9 is one that I went through at the age of 22: am I willing to work toward my goals even when there are distractions, so I can end up with the result I want? He is choosing yes. He is also asking me to make sure that when he chooses yes, I back that up.
I am proud of him, but also have a bit of a conflict with this, because it means that “unschooling” is now, “hey remember you said you wanted me to make SURE you did this every day…please do it.” But if we see unschooling as honoring our children’s choices, this is what I am doing. If we pay attention, we will find our children are “telling us” whatever it is they need: more or less structure, less ambiguity, more choices, more attention, or whatever. We will know by their goals what they want, and by their willingness to work how badly they want it.
For a few days after this conversation, my son needed no reminders. Then, he needed a reminder. And my feelings were hurt when he sulked about it. I said, “hey you can do whatever you want. I’m just asking you to remember what you said you wanted.” He went upstairs for about 4 minutes, and then came back to finish his subject work, with no attitude or resentment. I hadn’t really expected him to come back so quickly, but then I realized that this was something I had never really experienced as a kid, this level of choice. He had remembered he was free, and responsible for his outcomes. He chose to complete his personal commitment for the day.
That was a hard day all around for me, for a variety of reasons. I ended it not feeling great about it at all. There were many things I would literally have liked to quit right then, because of a sense of overwhelm and exasperation. I was reminded however, of my son’s predicament earlier that morning. I had to ask myself, “is it worth it in the end?” I went to my room for a bit longer than 4 minutes, and cried a lot. I resolved to not quit anything just then. The next day, I put my whole free self into the work ahead of me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was indeed worth the frustration of the day before. I offered a prayer of thanks, that even though I may be a late bloomer in the arena of Choice and Freedom, my kids are already figuring out how to make these decisions for themselves, and follow through.
This is a picture of my son. His eyes are bright. There is a half-smile on his face. He’s thinking about math. This didn’t used to happen.
I was playing a game of Magic: The Gathering with him tonight, when I started to become perturbed and pout like an angry 10 year old that he hadn’t put enough Mana in the deck I was using. (In Magic, you can build your own decks, which is a whole other lesson I may talk about in another post.) Mana are land cards you need to be able to DO ANYTHING in the game. I had pulled 2 Mana in 14 turns. I had a handful of destruction, and no means to use any of it. BRAHHH, frustration. Then, I calmed down and asked him, “how many Mana are in this deck?”
“Twenty-four,” he answered promptly. The experts suggest 25 Mana in a deck of 60. But this deck looked bigger.
“How many cards are in this deck, altogether?” I asked.
He hesitated. I counted. Seventy.
I honestly had to do the math myself to try to think of how many Mana should go into a deck of 70, if 25 go into a deck of 60. Maybe that is silly of me, but I don’t know exactly the number off the top of my head. So I showed my Water Boy how to do the math to figure out the answer.
It wasn’t easy math. There were algebraic functions, fractions, decimals and multiplication, division, subtraction…on and on the lesson seemed to go because every time I got to a new step of this (sort of) simple algebraic problem, I had to show him what I was doing and why. A lot of the work he had never seen before. He was intrigued. He did some of it for me. We ended up with the answer 28. We were 4 Mana short. He went upstairs to retrieve 4 Mana to make his pout-faced mother happy.
The game went on, and he eventually kicked my butt. As we were cleaning up, he had his own question. The card protectors are sold in packs of 50. Decks are supposed to be about 60. He said, “why don’t they just sell packs of 60 card protectors?” Then he grabbed the pencil and scratch paper and began to figure out, one step at a time, how much money a pack of 60 would cost, if a pack of 50 was $3.00. And he did it.
He asked me for reminders of the steps of short division (because there are a lot of steps!) and what to do when he got the answer of approximately $0.16 per card protector, but other than that, he did great figuring out (with no formal algebraic lesson) how to get to answer x.
All this about 10 minutes before his usual sleeping hour, and after a long day.
From now on, when people say to me, “but if you let them do what they want, wouldn’t they just play games all day?” I think I am just going to say, “yes.”
IF WE HAVE A FOUNDATION for learning in our home, it is being awake to truth and freedom. That may sound really flaky, a little abstract, maybe, but I guarantee you it is based on the principles and philosophy of the same people who first participated in formal education.
Being awake to truth and freedom ultimately gives way to the reality of human choice. Human choice is basic in concept, but I talk to a lot of people every week who don’t believe in it. They say things like, “I have to….” or “Children have to…” or something really absurd like, “I can’t.”
We animals of habit tend to walk around acting as though our lives have been put upon us by some unseen universal force, failing to recognize that we ourselves are also a force in the universe. Action. Reaction. It’s all Choice. Once we begin to peel away the layers of societal expectations, our God of Money, and the modern mythology of what life is “supposed” to look like, we begin to understand that we get to write our own stories. Every breath is a choice.
I just read a short essay by Tienchi Martin-Liao called “Ineducable, Even in Reeducation Camp.” She writes about Wang Xiaoning, who is being released from prison after a 10 years sentence for standing up for democracy, political reform, and human rights in China. Here is a quote from her I find quite moving:
“If you break the will of the people and tread down their dignity, then they become a kind of dough that you can form as you like.
“This is the secret of the Chinese Communist Party. With this tactic they have ruined generations of intellectuals. Yet there are still enough individuals made of special material who are irrepressible. In Chinese terms, these people would be called “ineducable” even when they are thrown into the “reeducation camp” and brainwashed for years. Wang Xiaoning is this kind of person. He has refused to show any regret or admit that he committed a crime. Had he bowed to the pressure his sentence would have been reduced to three years, but Wang stayed firm and served the full ten year sentence.”
I would like very much to speak with Wang Xiaoning. I don’t imagine him coming out of prison and complaining about his lack of freedom. He continues to exercise his human freedom by speaking out for what he believes. Maybe one day he will be killed for this. I sincerely hope not. But if he dies, he will die free. More importantly, he will have lived free. Wang Xiaoning is an example of a free human, even if he stood for a decade behind prison bars.
I remember the feeling of not thinking I could homeschool. Then not thinking I could unschool, even though it made so much sense to me. It was a feeling of bondage- to society, to expectations, to the rolling of eyes and clicks of tongues.
The strange thing is, Freedom is the river we all swim in, we only have to wake up to realize we’re in it. Waking up to that river is a daily practice for me. Sometimes I have to practice it several times a day. It sounds like this: I’m free. I don’t have to get angry about this. I do not have to make this appointment. I do not have to answer my phone. I do not have to agree. I do not have to be distracted right now. I do not have to hurry my children. Or it can sound like this: I am free to write poetry no one will read, just because I want to. I am free to be late to- or cancel- this appointment. I am free to be happy and smile. I am free to say “I’m tired and need a rest.” I am free to give a hug, hold a hand, reassure someone. I am free to say what I mean.
We all get to write our own story. More than anything, this is the foundation for learning I want in my home. Allowing our children to write their own stories means that we also have faith in ourselves to write our own. It means that we first exercise Choice. To deny ourselves that is to shut ourselves up in a prison of fear and doubt, of complaining about what life has brought us, of ultimate self-pity and frustration.
Look in the mirror. Remind yourself about Choice. Free the People.
This morning I was making some yerba mate, thinking about how I had gotten a later start on the day than I had wanted to, about the way summer keeps melting into autumn, and how I’m really going to have to get a handle on structuring our days…generally the kind of thoughts that make me feel like a loser of a parent. From the room next door, I can hear my little Fire Girl, just-turned-five, scraping bottle caps from last night’s party on the kitchen table. (So maybe you’re agreeing with me now that I am, in fact, a loser of a parent. But wait.)
Here is where the magic of unschooling happens. I hear this monologue:
1- 2- 3- 4- 5- 6- 7- 8- 9- 10- 11- 12
There are four of this black kind for me, three of this black kind for him. So wait, we don’t need that extra one for me, so…okay put it over here. (Pause)
And, look. There are three of this yellow kind for me, and…wait only two of this yellow kind for him.
I can’t make it even. 18.104.22.168.5. and 22.214.171.124.5.6.
OK, I know! I’ll get the extra black bottle cap from over there (pause) and now! Now we each have 126.96.36.199.5.6. And he won’t mind having four black and two yellow, and I’ll have three of each.
I say, casually, still making myself busy in the kitchen: cool, honey. So how many are altogether?
She counts again. 12. Six and six…or three and three and four and two. Can you please get our collection jars for me to put them in?
Later at the chiropractor, the receptionist asks me brightly, so you’re still homeschooling?…I could never do that…I just don’t have the discipline or patience it takes….
I had fallen into something. It was wrong for me- I knew it was- but I remained in it because I didn’t know where else to go, what else to do. After having two children, my scrambled, hormone-frenzied mind raced to find solutions to problems: how will we have enough money, what do I want to be when I grow up, how am I going to teach these children everything they need to know? Asking the wrong questions produced nothing but the wrong answers, and a general sense of discontent. I was working, homeschooling, wishing like mad to write, and I never had a moment to myself.
I remember seeing that a woman I knew was offering a group study on the book The Artist’s Way in the midst of my crisis of thought. I didn’t feel like I could take the time to commit to a study that would entail a few evenings a week away from home, plus the reading and exercises in the book. Thankfully, when I spoke to my husband about this, he encouraged me that he could support me to take the time.
The study of Julia Cameron’s famous work had a profound impact on my life. In short, she was the first adult older than me to “give permission” to play. Play is a deep instinct for me. Not like playing dolls with my daughter really; more like tinkering- with words, with interesting materials, with music, with thoughts and ideas. Julia Cameron, through the words in her book, challenged me to spend time with myself, taking myself on “artist dates” and writing every single day.
I thought I would not have the time, but soon found ways to drop unhelpful habits from my daily life that were just taking too much precious time. I even quit my part time job.
I was also worried that my son and daughter would suffer my absence. All the time it would take me to tinker, play, and remember my inner, innate artist- such selfish acts! I found instead the extent to which I am Model to my children. My children recognized that I was no longer harried, rushed, anxious. They saw that I was being kind to myself, requesting time alone when I needed it, and being serious about my “play-work.”
When my children saw me with my tea and journal every morning, they too requested tea and journals. My daughter, who was about 3 at that time, drew and drew, developing a strong eye for color and affect. My son- who was then 7 and would spend hours resisting my efforts to get him to write anything- began to pen lyrics to songs. He began to write poems and short stories. In one hilarious story of about 8 sentences, he invented Anansi the Spider teaching some elephants a lesson when they were arguing about whose trunk was the biggest. The moral was “don’t fight over small things.”
I could not believe what I was seeing. I went to our group (I was the only parent amongst us), and told them what was happening with my kids. We were all amazed at the impact of the parent as Model. It took a while longer to convince my husband to play his way back into art, but he too, is now engaged in the healthy act of creating beauty everywhere he imagines it.
My husband and I continue to see growth in our children as we ourselves keep arranging our lives to create space for fulfillment. This morning, while kids in our neighborhood were boarding buses and saying goodbye to summer, I was in my room brainstorming a blog on unschooling. My husband was developing a plan for a mason-jar chandelier we’ve been talking about making. My son was downstairs creating beautiful architectural structures from wood. He took pictures of them with my camera so he could remember them, before knocking them down and moving on with his day. My daughter was finding constellations on her Leapster and kept shouting things like, “I have 1,060 points! I’m learning so much about the stars!”
A very grateful feeling welled up inside of me this morning. I am grateful to live in a country in which these choices are possible. Grateful for artists and philosophers that encourage our growth. Grateful for my family who wants me to be who I am. Grateful for children who are still young enough to not want to be anything but that.
Do your children see you as a model for life-long learning? Do they see you as a model for living your true vocation (it doesn’t matter what your 9-5 grind is…are you also making time to live your dreams?) Realizing my responsibility to be true to myself for my children’s sake was truly- though I did not know it then- my first step into the world of unschooling and respecting that my children themselves are models of integrity and a holy curiosity. Recognizing that I have a deep desire to be a life-long learner gave clarity to the way I think about education and success.