Bottle Caps

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. 1.2.3.4.5. and 1.2.3.4.5.6.

OK, I know! I’ll get the extra black bottle cap from over there (pause) and now! Now we each have 1.2.3.4.5.6. 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?

Yes, ma’am. Yes, I can do that much for you. Mind if I take one picture of those first?

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….

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The Model

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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.

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Finding Our Path

WHEN WE BECOME parents, we begin a journey of choices that will inevitably go against somebody’s grain. Somebody could include your relatives, in-laws, former colleagues, or the general public. Our friends, of course, will respect our choices. Always. That’s why they’re our friends. Right? Un-learn that. It’s not true. You will most likely at times offend even your best friends with your parenting style or choices. That is okay. Getting to the point of saying those words- that is okay– is just another step on the journey of choice. It’s one I’ve grown more and more familiar with as I’ve forged my own way with my children.

Perhaps one of my most radical parenting choices is my decision to follow a path dubbed “unschooling” rather than send my children to school, cyber school, or even sit at the kitchen table over piles of textbooks and worksheets.

Unschooling is just as scary as it sounds. It is not schooling your children. In a country in which promotes classical education as paramount to a child’s success, and a culture that does not acknowledge learning outside of a classroom or without formal certificates to stamp the years of achievement, this is not an easy or light decision to make.

I will say that I am grateful to have witnessed many families successfully unschooling their children toward happiness, success, and the fulfillment of their life desires. I am grateful that I, as Parent, have learned to let go of my need to control, my belief that I am the one who knows the most, and my expectations that my children’s neurology and intellect will work on my timeline, presenting in the ways I think it should.

Many of us believe there is only one right answer to each question; we well-schooled have not been given the time or resources to search for other possibilities. This is a great tragedy; that cannot be overstated. It has become, and will  continue to be, the ever-outward-bleeding inkblot on the page of a nation founded by question-askers, boat-rockers, and risk-takers. We must stop taking everyone’s word for it- that higher and higher “education” is The Way To Become Happy and Successful- and begin again to see for ourselves. Ask a question. Observe. Think. Experiment. Analyze. Respond.

I have decided to create this blog for a few reasons. The first is because when I look at unschooling blogs, I am inspired, but also find a void. For parents like me, who wonder at some point: what does this look like?…how do I know my child is learning?…what are the hardest parts?, and all the other questions that come with making such a scary step, there are mostly books by John Holt, but no regularly updated blogs, for answers.

The second reason is to help my family and friends (and the general public) understand what we are doing; to open minds to something off the beaten path; and to give examine to both my own process in first deciding this path, and our process along it.

The third reason is to create documentation of my children’s learning for “end of year” evaluation by a certified Pennsylvania teacher, and review by the state of Pennsylvania. We will include many photos of our activities, book lists, and possibly some journal entries from my awesome kids.

While it is not generally a great idea to define what something is by what it’s not, I think that is important in this case. This not-list fits so perfectly with the negative prefix in the label of unschooling, with which I so struggle. Here is what this parent blogger is not about:

  • I am not an expert on unschooling, except by micro-experimentation and observation
  • I am not an expert on childhood development
  • I am not attempting to convince people to unschool
  • I do not identify myself as anti-school (I actually teach at a few), and this is not a school-bashing blog
  • this is not an attempt to make you believe that unschooling creates a perfect Pottery Barn photo-advertisement life. I promise to be honest about our struggles, as they are the hard rain and slimy earthworms of our organic growth.
  • this is not a guide to unschooling

My hope is that this blog brings inspiration, hope, innovation, and a sense of freedom to others living in our black and white, one-answer, textbook culture.

With that all said, I will end this introduction with two quotes by Albert Einstein, which have been a source of strength and inspiration during our transition away from traditional schooling. Ask questions! Don’t let your holy sense of inquiry and curiosity go to waste!

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry: for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

– Albert Einstein,  thinker and tinkerer