Saturday, May 23, 2020

Education Outside the Fishbowl: Observation, Evaluation, and How Children (Really) Learn

If a child learns in the forest, and there are no adults there to see it, did they really learn at all?


The summer my sister turned 13 was spent in a patch of woods--one of the few semi-wild spaces near us to be spared from development--with a group of neighborhood kids. They dragged in used furniture found on big-pickup trash days, set up complex political systems, and built and played from when they staggered out of bed in the early afternoon until everyone got too hungry and made it back to their respective houses for supper. There was arguing and conflict resolution, wild creativity and hands on problem solving. Sometimes I’d tour the small world they’d created, hidden away behind suburban backyards (though being an entire 2 ½ years older than my sister, I was definitely too cool to participate myself).

This was long enough ago that a group of 11 to 14 year olds disappearing all day, unsupervised, was considered pretty normal by everyone’s parents (something it seems is increasingly unusual now), but I think my mother was probably the only one of the lot who saw what was happening as learning. All the other adults seemed more likely to see it as kids just messing around, albeit in a harmless way, which was fine and definitely better than, I don’t know, drugs or partying or any of those other things parents start panicking about as their children ease into teenagehood. So they got to spend their summer days in peace, playing and learning under the trees.
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I have to believe that most adults realize, at least on some level, that learning happens outside of the classroom (after all, that’s the way most of them have been learning since they left school). Yet they often behave as if they don’t. “Every week without learning is causing a lifetime’s worth of harm!” cry the politicians and pundits, eager to “reopen” an economy in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and parents nod along in concern. How can you just let kids not-learn for so long, after all? Isn’t that irresponsible?

Learning happens all the time, as any unschooler will tell you. Yet to many, it’s invisible. Their eyes slide over it. They can’t hear its rhythm in joyous laughter or in focused silence. “Learning” is supposed to occupy a specific place, to conform to a certain shape, and to follow all the correct rules (in the proper order). Learning, to them, means schooling. Anything else is a distraction.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to guess that the reason many parents don’t see learning when it happens for their children is because they don’t see it for themselves. They may learn informally, but without an official stamp of approval, I wonder if that learning remains invisible, too. One of my favourite John Holt quotes reads: “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves...and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

This (mis)understanding of what learning is and how it happens has lead to the strange phenomena of seeing learning (with all its incumbent change and growth) not as something arising primarily through a learner’s experience, play, socialization, fascination and dedication, but as something done to children by properly certified adults. If, as Paulo Freire said, students are seen as “vessels to be filled” then when left unattended, they’ll simply sit empty. 

Learning, though, is not only something which must be done to, it must also be seen by. If learning isn’t witnessed by an appropriate expert, or if it can’t be evaluated by those same experts in an easy to measure way after the fact, does it really count?

If a child learns in the forest, and there are no teachers there to see it, did they really learn at all?

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School isn’t a place where students get much privacy. In fact, every effort is made to make sure they get as little time away from prying eyes as possible. Some of this is genuine concern about what harm might be done to students by each other when no adults are watching. But I think it goes beyond that, as well. To know that learning is happening, children must be observed. If they’re not being observed, they’re probably not really learning (children, remember, cannot be trusted).

To be contained in a school building is to be almost constantly watched, assessed, and judged. Carol Black refers to the “evaluative gaze” of school, noting:
“There is something profoundly deadening to a curious, engaged child about the feeling of being watched and measured, or even, some studies suggest, the anticipation of being measured. Sure, some kids seem to dig it. They preen and pose for it, they compete with their friends for it, they want to be better than everybody else. But everybody can’t be better than everybody else, and this business of being constantly scrutinized and compared to others does something insidious to the life of a child. I've seen kids drop what they're doing in an instant when they realize they're being observed in an appraising way. A wall goes up. The lights go out.”
It’s always been clear to me, in my own life, that I need a lot of privacy to learn something new. I need to be able to struggle and make mistakes--to forget important facts and miss important steps--without the weight of eyes on me, correcting and judging and getting in the way. Even as an adult, to know you’re being evaluated can make you shrink, become stilted and overly cautious, the focus no longer on discovery or improvement but on not making any mistakes. The goal shifts to that of performing competence in a way that makes you look smart and accomplished. Actual learning, in all its messiness, gets shoved behind stage, where the audience can’t see any missteps.


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Learning can be both shared and social, deeply private and personal. Sometimes it starts as one and morphs into the other, or switches back and forth based on an individual’s comfort (and other people’s openness and ability to withhold critique unless asked for). The role of teacher and mentor can be important (as can that of friend, parent, neighbor, librarian, peer), and there is definitely a time and place for evaluation of one sort or another. But when and where and how much and what sort and by who? Those are all important questions, and the answers should often be when a learner asks someone for their opinion or assistance, and in situations a learner has chosen to be in, and much less, and varied and flexible, and by people the learner respects and trusts. But the default, the normal, the everyday of childhood should not be one of scrutiny and evaluation.

We as a culture have come to believe that learning is something which only happens in captivity, in carefully controlled environments and under the keen observation of experts.

But that’s not the way learning really works. It’s not the way children grow best, not the way any of us feel the most confident and brave and excited and free, not how we live our best lives.

When we go to the forest--wandering through dappled shade, identifying frog calls drifting in from nearby wetlands, standing very still so as not to spook a nearby woodpecker, and plucking sumac berries to chew on--the learning is real and true, no matter who’s there to see it.

Children deserve to learn in peace, wherever it happens.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Homeschooling in the Age of COVID-19: Advice from Six Unschooling Parents

We are living in difficult times. Around the world, people’s lives have been upended as everyone struggles to deal with this crisis. And one of those changes has been that suddenly, countless people who never expected to be in such a position are doing some version of homeschooling.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that this is not what homeschooling normally looks like, not how it’s supposed to be. The “home” bit doesn’t mean that school-free families are used to being chained to their houses, as homeschoolers generally take full advantage of various classes, homeschool co-ops, organized sports, community centers, museums, parks, clubs… And you’d be hard pressed to find a group more broken up over library closures. It’s an isolating time for all of us, most definitely including those who normally don’t go to school.

Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

But at the same time, there ARE aspects of our current reality that are more familiar to families who practice homeschooling of one sort or another. The no school bit is self-evident, but also spending a great deal of time together as a family, and plenty of unstructured time. 

With that in mind, I hoped it would be helpful to share some thoughts and advice from several different unschooling parents, people who practice self-directed life learning outside of school. There is overlap in what they have to say, but also some interesting divergences, and I hope at least some of their words will resonate with you, will give you ideas or comfort.

It’s a trying time, and I just hope we can all make it through it with as much kindness and calm as possible.
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One of the defining characteristics of our current western society is separation. So many families - whether out of choice or necessity - spend the better part of our days separated from each other.

Often, with separation comes disconnection.

This prescribed physical/social distancing has gifted us with togetherness. But togetherness, when we’re used to separation, isn’t always easy. So we need the other C - compassion, as we learn to be together, to find a common rhythm as we dance around and with each other.

So dance! Dance and delight in being with your children. Forget the online lessons and the infinite lists of activities that sustains continued separation and embrace connection instead.

These lists have value. As tools. Not goals.

Make your own lists. Lists of the different ways to build connection in your family.

There are as many ways to build connection as there are people. Connection looks like conversations, telling jokes, making favourite foods, sharing dreams and secrets, playing fantasy games, creating, sitting in silence, sitting in togetherness and sitting in solitude. Connection looks like finding the shared language for you all to advocate for you needs, for your mental and spiritual health. But mostly connection comes when we toss judgement out the front door and expectations out the back door and we just be with our children and embrace what emerges.

Zakiyya Ismail, parent of three unschooling kids aged 21, 20 and 13. You can find her on her website Growing Minds, on Twitter and on Instagram.

Photo by Johnny Wall on Unsplash
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1. Relax. I know it is tempting to replicate school at home, but I would suggest parents find their own rhythm and groove as a family. The coronavirus has put us in uncharted territory, and we honestly do not know what tomorrow will bring. This uncertainty gives us the opportunity to disconnect from the ways school does things and do things in the way that’s most beneficial to our individual children.

2. Enjoy them. What do you enjoy doing with your children? Making a special recipe? Playing video games? Having conversations? Drawing pictures? Reading together? Whatever you like doing with them, do more of it now. Your bonds will be strengthened through the time you spend with them. Play with them and let them play. Let them play more than you think they should. Children learn a vast amount through play. Make time to laugh with your kids. It won’t just help you feel more connected to each other, it will also help ease their anxiety during this confusing time.

3. Let them learn through life. Children are remarkably resilient, and they understand far more than adults usually give them credit for. Right now, they have a freedom they normally only have during summer vacation. Now is the chance to let them be curious and self-directed in their education.

Finally, my advice to unexpecting homeschool parents is to contemplate how you want this time to be remembered. Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your children will forget the content of the worksheet packets and virtual learning websites they had to do during their homeschooling experience, but they will not forget how it felt being home with their family during this time. They will remember how their parents responded to the situation because they are watching you and learning from you how to deal when things are unpredictable.

Tiersa McQueen, parent of four unschoolers aged 14, 12, and 9 year old twins. You can find her on Twitter.

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This pandemic is really a mirror showing us all the inequitable facets of our society, including this part where it has become acceptable for adults to wield control and power over children. It’s not a judgment on anyone as a person but an important social commentary I needed to give because if anything good should come from this, it’s that we can use this opportunity to reflect on all of the things this crisis is shining a light on. Only then can we start creating something new.

If you can sit with the discomfort you feel from all of that, here’s my unpopular advice:

Just let your kids play.

Yep, just let them play! It’s already a stressful time for all. Skip the strict Coronavirus schedule I see being shared left and right among parent groups. Please! Don’t replicate school at home.

Don’t squander this opportunity to give your kids unstructured time and space to just be.

Right now, your kids may not know what to do with all that freedom, especially the ones who have been institutionalized longer. Your kids are used to having a schedule and having someone else decide what they should spend their time doing.

So give them this gift of freedom.

Give your kids the gift to just play, to explore what they would do with this newfound spaciousness, discover a new hobby, find things you would truly want to do with them together. Let them direct their day. Let them be bored. Boredom is such a gift. It is amazing what emerges out of boredom.

If complete freedom to let kids just be gives you high anxiety, then create flexible and loose rhythms that feel good for everyone.

Do life with them.

Trust that your kids are learning all the time.

And here is the most radical idea of all: Let them CHOOSE.

Vina Joy Duran, parent of two unschooling kids aged 11 and 4. Vina kindly allowed me to share this excerpted/edited version of a longer post that she published on Facebook.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
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These are uncertain times. A lot of people are scrambling trying to figure out childcare, or where their next paycheck is coming from. If you do find yourself with the opportunity to suddenly be at home with your kids, be thankful! It is an opportunity not available to many. While your child’s school may be sending home assignments, or switching over to virtual classes, your job is to just enjoy. Treat it like a vacation. Enjoy having your kids around. Enjoy getting to spend this one and one time with them. Enjoy having this brief moment of time that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Take this time to connect with them. Watch them play their favorite video games (and ask lots of questions!), read with them, bake with them, play board games, do crafts, make a big batch of popcorn and watch a movie, play music together, let them teach you their favorite Tik Tok dances, make silly videos and take lots of selfies. Talk to them about their lives and their friends and their classes. Assuage any feelings of fear or uncertainty they may have. Remind them that they are safe. Get to know them on a whole new level. Meet them where they’re at. Shift your focus to one of gratitude rather than one of panic. This unexpected time with your kids is a blessing, not a penalty. Take this time to truly see your kids, to truly appreciate and enjoy them, and do not worry about what they may be “missing” in school. This is a strange and confusing time in their lives, and what they’ll be getting from you, the person they trust more than anyone in the world, is so much more valuable than anything they could be learning at school.

Jennifer Vogel McGrail, parent of four unschoolers aged 23, 19, 15, and 12, and author of the blog The Path Less Taken.
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Most of us have been conditioned to compartmentalize the lives of adults and children. Adults usually go off to do adultish things, children go off to do childish things, and never the twain shall meet except during the few hours of chaos before bedtime. Adults know how to control children, entertain children, “educate” children, and keep children occupied, but we really don’t know how to simply live life with children without doing things to them.

The situation with COVID-19 is scary and overwhelming, but it can also be an opportunity for us to practice being with children in ways that honor their agency, boundaries, individuality, interests, and needs…as well as our own.

Here are some thoughts about how we can begin practicing BEING WITH rather than DOING TO:

Connect. Don’t worry too much about academics. In these uncertain times, the last thing that matters is whether or not our child can add fractions! Instead, make relationship and connection our goal over “productivity.” Hold space for all the big emotions that may arise.

Respect their autonomy. Staying emotionally connected doesn’t mean we need to be attached at the hip. In fact, it can mean that we are more comfortable doing things independently because we trust each other. Instead of trying to micromanage and schedule every minute, give children the freedom to decide and self-direct their day. Support them if they need ideas or structure, but avoid coercion and ultimatums.

Communicate boundaries. Have a family meeting about how to keep everyone safe and how to get everyone’s needs met. Brainstorm together about win-win solutions so that kids and adults both feel valued and respected. How can the kids experiment with papier-mâché without making a huge mess that you’ll have to clean up? How can you have peace and quiet for your online meeting when the kids want to play Nerf tag in the house? When we as the adults are willing to compromise and listen to our kids, they’re usually willing to do the same.

It is a radical paradigm shift to learn how to have relationships with children that are based on collaboration and connection rather than coercion. Now is as good a time as any to begin practicing.

Iris Chen, parent of two unschooling children aged 12 and 10 and author of the blog Untigering.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash
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Besides the economic and practical adjustments that affect us all, the thing I'm seeing most schooling parents and carers worry about is their children being bored, or their children "falling behind" on schoolwork.

I see a lot of unschoolers responding with a version of, "don't worry, just chill out, take time to relax" and of course as lifelong unschoolers I know what is meant by that. My family has been “homebound” in that sense for almost twenty years - and we've never been "bored" nor fallen "behind"! But the fact is, schooling families are used to schooling concepts and attendant lifestyle and worldviews. Parents and children are experiencing a lot of anxiety right now and many adults won't be able to confidently switch to an unschooling mindset under this kind of strain.

Confidence is key, and confidence can be in short supply in times like this. My suggestion would be for parents to practice self-care, tune into the news for only short durations (then tune back out!), and employ whatever healthy behaviors best care for their bodies and soothe their anxiety. As a parent, it has benefitted me a great deal to care for myself with a dedicated fierceness so I wasn't constantly transmitting my anxiety to my children. We can leave our emotional processing needs for the most part to our safe grownup friends, our support groups, our therapists, and our spiritual mentors. Let's take care of ourselves so we can care for our children.

Most children are connected online and likely have some great communities and friendships to bolster them at this time. The things children and teens need most is a safe, nurturing, connected, and calm home. What can we do to move things in that direction? It's never too early, or too late, to make those kinds of changes.

Kelly Hogaboom, parent of two unschoolers aged 16 and 18, as well as clothier and designer at Bespoke Hogaboom.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Yes, There ARE Things Every Kid Should Know: Social Justice and Self-Direction

I’ve seen some interesting discussion from fellow leftists in and around the unschooling world in regards to social justice and the importance of children--all children--knowing certain things. The issue raised is this: if we can agree that there are important issues of power and oppression that all children should understand, how do you reconcile that with an approach which, on the surface, looks like children learning whatever they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks?

I agree that there is a baseline of knowledge and understanding necessary in order to be a thoughtful and kind person, and in order to engage in the work needed to dismantle structures of oppression. How are children to understand the current context if they don’t know the history of the Holocaust, of American slavery, of British colonialism, of Canadian residential schools? Children are generally taught about the ways in which they themselves are marginalized either by a hostile world which never lets them forget it, or by loved ones looking to prepare children for that world. But what about making sure all children, no matter their background, are equipped to challenge power and behave conscientiously towards those around them?


I believe the concern that these things won’t be learned if children just “do whatever they want” rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what unschooling is, or at least my understanding of it. I’ve often described unschooling as self-directed learning that is guided by the desires and needs of the learner and their communities. We exist in a world full of other people, and I would never disagree about the importance of living as morally and justly as we can, which requires being educated about important topics.

However, using oppressive and authoritarian methods to try and teach anti-oppression and anti-authoritarian politics is ridiculous and counter-productive. People learn what they live, and no matter how great the content being taught, if the structure or ways of relating reinforce hierarchies, dominance, and oppression--if children are learning that people who are bigger and older are entitled to control and dictate to those younger and weaker, they will not be learning the lessons we want them to. It’s simply unjust to use force and coercion to try to “make” children learn something, and the belief that the ends justify the means is just the type of attitude that sustains modern schooling, that continues a system built on the denial of children’s autonomy, and the enforcement of a colonialist Western model of education and social organization.

I think becoming educated on important topics can be achieved through unschooling. I further believe it’s imperative to try and nurture these qualities respectfully, and detrimental to try and do so any other way.

After all, people don’t tend to remember the things they’re taught against their will, when they don’t see the relevance or real world implications, when they’re somewhere they don’t want to be and are being taught by people they may not like. There’s a quote by Katrina Gutleben that goes “Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he's not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” This is why I don’t believe a mandatory curriculum covering everything any of us might decide ALL children should learn would be any more effective than current curriculums, where most information that’s taught is never truly learned.

One of the things that’s always appealed to me about unschooling is the anti-authoritarianism baked into an ideology that treats education not as something done to children by learned adults, but as an organic, collaborative, community-rooted process. It embraces horizontal ways of relating to other people, across age divides, and invites us all to question the oppressive structures we’ve been told are just and necessary. It is one way to start creating a different world, to live as we wish things to be instead of recreating harm.

Do all unschoolers feel this way? Not remotely. There are unschoolers with politics I consider terrible, who have very different goals than mine when it comes to embracing self-directed education, and who are passing on a lot of harmful ideas about the world to their children.

Here is where I agree with the people who believe that some things just need to be learned in order to challenge injustice. Unschooling, on its own, is not enough. Respectful parenting alone is not a complete solution.

So what to do? Well, here is where I think the importance of family and community culture comes into play. Who is part of a child’s life? What are their perspectives, experiences, and values? If children are surrounded by people who talk about and embody different ways of existing and living outside of the dominant culture, who discuss inequalities and structural violence, important history and current events, who work to unlearn their own prejudices and fight for justice, who care and learn and struggle and include children in all of that--then that is what they will learn to do themselves.

While some disagree, I’ve never seen unschooling as a way to shelter children, or as a way to control what they learn. As I’ve discussed before, I see unschooling as a way to open up more of the world, not to restrict it. I’m also never going to argue against having firm boundaries about, say, not using slurs or derogatory language about marginalized people. I am not suggesting that unschooling is a free-for-all, but that there are far better, more authentic, more consensual ways for children to learn than an “anti-oppression curriculum.”

I also think it’s important to note that while children do not have all the knowledge and experience that adults generally have, and so of course it’s important for adults to be role models and help children gain those things, we must recognize that children, too, have valuable experience and perspectives that add to adults lives, and to social justice and liberatory movements themselves. There’s a great meme I’ve shared before on Facebook, that states in part “Children's innate tendency to question the status quo as well as their ability to imagine an ideal world without limits makes their active engagement in organizing efforts an invaluable resource as we move together towards ultimate liberation for all.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing children as empty vessels to be filled, as people in training instead of people now, when the reality is that everyone has things to both learn and share, everyone has something to add across the spectrum of ages. And if any movements are seeing children solely as almost-people in need of molding they’re both perpetuating oppression and missing out.

To bring it all back around, there is definitely knowledge that is important in attempts to challenge injustice and create better ways of living. However, the best way to acquire it is to live it, to be surrounded by people who care. Kind of the same way adults gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make positive change. Children, though their needs, their experiences, and their development may be different from adults, are still every bit as deserving of basic respect, to be included instead of condescended to, to have relationships with people who see their involvement as valuable.

If we really care about making things better, we can’t do so by recreating the same power structures that oppress us all. Instead, we need to recognize every person as a potential ally and partner in the struggle for justice… including kids.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

On Seasons and Cycles: Unschooling and Nature

This post was originally published on my Patreon in February 2019. While most of my Patreon posts will remain exclusive to financial supporters, occasionally I share an older one over here as well.

You know winter is truly over when you hear the spring peepers. Even living in the suburbs, the wetlands, tucked discreetly behind houses with manicured lawns, would fill with with tiny frogs, their distinctive chorus echoing down streets and bouncing between buildings. A local zoo that focuses on fauna native to the Saint Lawrence River Valley would open up the gates at the back of their property when the peepers came out, allowing groups of people into areas generally reserved for zoologists and grad students, where we’d shine our flashlights around as darkness started to fall, trying to spot the small bodies clinging to stalks of grass. You could hear them before you even turned in to the parking lot, but as you made your way into the marshes the sound rose to deafening heights, exhilarating and consuming.

I can still hear the peepers from my house, when the snow has melted but the temperature still drops below zero some nights. The sound has grown fainter over the years as wetlands have been filled in for new housing developments, patches of forest whittled down, but they’re still there.

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Instead of heading closer to the city for activities, growing up we were more likely to head in the opposite direction, where suburbs faded into more rural surroundings. We’d go on hikes and on frog catching expeditions, learned to spot wood that had been gnawed on by a beaver and admired their dams, chewed on tart sumac berries and kept a lookout for poison ivy. We’d watch turkey vultures spiral high above us, and spot red-tailed hawks and downy woodpeckers.

There are children who are more nature literate than me and my sister were--quite a few of them and quite a bit more knowledgeable--but for children of the suburbs, we spent more time in wild spaces than most of the other kids we knew.
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When you grow up without school, you get to create your own structure, the what, where, how, when, and who of your choosing, which means that one of the “where’s” you can choose to focus on is outside. Without the segmentation of semesters and school vacation, you can allow other forces to guide you instead: the turning of seasons, the weather, when your favourite flowers bloom in the fields, that perfect stretch of time for hiking in the autumn when the leaves are at their brightest. You can fade into partial hibernation in the winter months, a fallow time for thinking and creating.

And, taking inspiration from the natural cycles, you can embrace the way learning itself follows its own patterns, periods of intensity and growth followed by stretches of absorption and rumination. 

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When I think of my childhood, I think of it in seasons.

Spring was peepers and fat tadpoles. It was burying peas in newly thawed ground, cold earth lodging under my fingernails. It was a carpet of white trilliums rolled out through the woods, ghostly on dusk walks, punctuated by occasional red ones, foul-smelling if you leaned too close. As spring grew into summer, we’d spend afternoons picking strawberries at the farm up the road, the sun hot on our backs.

Summer was for frog and grasshopper catching. It was fields filled with bright flowers. It was black raspberry picking, thorns sharp as they caught on purple-stained fingers, and fruit bright on my tongue. It was lying on soft-prickly grass and sunning on big, sun-heated stones like some warm-blooded lizard. For years when I was small we’d head northeast, following the Saint Lawrence all the way to Gaspe, right as summer started to fade into fall. I’d spend hours picking wild blueberries, running through un-mown fields and bushwacking my way through the woods to marvel at ancient, twisting crabapple trees. I’d walk along the beach, mesmerized by crashing waves, and sometimes seals would swim close to the shore, watching us with the same curiosity with which we’d watch them.


Autumn was leaves shading into yellow and orange, red and purple, and crunching most satisfyingly underfoot. It was ponds stilling and reeds browning, the scent of decomposition in chilled noses. It was carefully deliberating over the selection of decorative gourds at the farmstand, fingers tracing stripes and ridges. It was the excitement of halloween, clamoring over prickly straw bales, and trying to catch the first flakes of snow on our tongues.

Winter was chilled faces and sparkling fresh snow, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the strangely quiet, creaking woods under the muffling blanket of a heavy snowfall. It was the bright red flash of cardinals against a white backdrop, tottering out in ice skates onto a frozen pond or rink, or sliding carefully along in boots, arms outstretched for balance. It was winter festivals and toes too long in the cold, bright pain burning as they thawed out near a warm fire, or merely the car heating vents.
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Kids who don’t go to school do not have a monopoly on outdoor exploration or seasonal traditions, not by any means. But what I want to highlight is the flexibility life learning provides in allowing families to choose where and how they spend all the hours of their days, instead of only being left with a handful of evenings and weekends to do with as they wish. I want to celebrate the way that seasons can take precedence over a school calendar in structuring life, how nature can be the primary force that shapes your days, instead of a schedule set up with the best interests of an institution in mind, not the best interest of children.

When you’re not in school, you simply have time. Time to be outside, time to lie in the grass, time to organize last-minute group hikes, time to stay up late watching bats, time to go on a trip when other kids are in school. Not going to school doesn't necessarily mean you’ll spend more time in nature. But it means that you have the time--boundless, limitless time--to do so.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Learning is Like Breathing: On Awareness and Evaluation

One of the biggest revelations offered by people who live outside of schools and enforced curriculum is just how effortless, how ever-present, how natural learning can be. People sometimes ask me how I learned a specific thing, growing up, and I often have trouble answering. Both because, by now, my childhood was quite a while ago and my memories aren’t as clear, and also because, when you’re not using a curriculum, the exact mechanics of how learning happens are not always so easy to track.

This is definitely the case when it comes to writing. The short answer is that I just… started doing it, and got better over times as I gained more skill and experience.

Sometimes learning is as natural as breathing, and like breathing, when you become too aware of it, too conscious of lungs expanding and expelling, you can throw it off, start breathing too fast or unevenly, a natural process made complicated through hyperawareness. 


An author who was writing about self-directed learning once offered to pay me to document how I learned a new skill. At first, I agreed, but I quickly found that the act of scrutinizing the process irrevocably changed it, made it into something stilted and self-conscious. Even my own gaze could be turned into something that felt like evaluation, could be made somehow external and detached from self.

There’s a difference between that type of assessment and picking part of the process to offer for critique and observation. It’s a part of life to take a specific result--an essay or piece of art or demonstration--and present it to others for evaluation of some kind, and I have done that willingly, even cheerfully, many times over. It is not the same as intently watching and cataloguing each step, asking over and over is that learning? What about that? And, even worse, finding yourself judging which parts aren’t learning. To internalize that evaluative gaze is to self-police, to place yourself on a narrow track and administer scoldings when you stray too far into the bushes.

I think it’s important, for individual learners and those journeying with them, not to get too caught up in the details of what’s happening right now, if you can help it. It’s one of these things that forms a more complete picture only when looking backwards, when you can see how the different pieces of the landscape came together--a mountain dropping to valley below, that collection of happy little trees--to complete the whole.

I learned to write because I had something to say. Before I was capable of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard myself, I dictated to my mother, a child’s stories and thoughts laid out neatly in her clear print. Once I could read myself, writing seemed like a natural extension, and my stories and thoughts started to sprawl out far less neatly in scattered notebooks, and soon in Word documents and blogs. I did not consider whether I was writing at “grade level,” I was not compelled to write about what other people thought I should be turning my thoughts towards. I was not entirely free of what Carol Black refers to as “the evaluative gaze of school,” since as she further notes about parents who take their children out of school, “to their grief they may find that the gaze is inside them, and gets to their children through their eyes.” It is, I think, impossible to fully escape it. But I was cushioned from it. Protected, for the most part.

Learning can be as natural as breathing. But a gaze bent on recording and analysing learning, whether it comes from outside of us or is our own gaze turned inwards, has a weight to it, a heaviness that drags everything into its orbit, turns life into something that seemingly can’t function without scrutiny. If we want learning to happen as it should, to be a process owned wholly by the learner, then we must become aware of the evaluative gaze, and put our foot down, raise a shield: on this, you cannot gaze.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why Hitting Kids Will Never Be Compatible With Unschooling

Unschooling is all about respecting and trusting children. So when people who have liked my unschooling Facebook page start defending the practice of hitting children, I’m baffled as well as upset.

Because the thing is, and I can’t state this strongly enough, violence against children will never be compatible with a philosophy of respecting children. There is very little in this world that is less respectful than striking another person. (And while I’m not a pacifist, violence in defense of self or others is wildly different from violence used to intimidate, hurt, and gain the compliance of people you claim to care about.)


People have a lot of justifications, a lot of things they tell themselves (and often aggressively insist to other people) to try and make it sound better. There’s the euphemisms, like “spank” and “swat” that attempt to obscure the fact that what’s happening is an adult striking a child. There’s the deeply disturbing claim that violence done in the name of love can’t be bad (a claim countless abusers have used to gaslight their victims). There’s the assertion from adults that they were hit as children and “turned out fine,” a questionable claim when their version of “fine” includes hitting children.

No matter the excuses, the words used, or how little force is supposedly put behind palm striking skin, the act of doing so is domestic violence. Using fear and pain in order to gain compliance is the action of an abuser. And the research at this point is abundantly clear: “spanking” causes a whole lot of harm, without even achieving the goals its proponents claim to be aiming for.

I should be clear at this point that I don’t think parents who have hit their children are horrible people. But I DO think they’ve visited harm on a small person under their care, and the correct course of action is to immediately cease causing that harm, make amends, and put in the work needed to learn better strategies, ones that don’t involve using violence as a means of control.

We do not live in a world where parenting is in any way easy. People are overworked, have little support, and they can fear that if they don’t use violence to make sure their kids stay in line, others will use greater force against them. Yet I keep thinking of the quote by L. R. Knost, “It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

Do parents really want to be the first people to raise a hand to their child? The first people to hurt them? Do they want to introduce fear and pain into a relationship that’s supposed to be built on trust and unconditional love?

I don’t think there’s any moral excuse for hitting children. And if someone thinks that they can both unschool and strike their children, then they’ve failed to grasp the most important part of what unschooling is.

Trust and respect children. Base your actions on an ethos of love and consent. It might not be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

My thanks to Nola for reminding me that simple is often better and suggesting this title when I was stuck.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Children Are More Trustworthy and Capable than People Think

This post was originally published on Patreon in January of 2018. If you become a supporter for $1 a month you gain access to a brand new, patron exclusive post every month, along with the entire back catalog of Patreon posts. A few of them eventually make it onto this blog, but most remain available only to financial supporters! 

As I shared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I am continually surprised by just how little faith people have in children, in their ability to learn, to make choices, to do just about anything really. And since I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, I wanted to take the time to explore the topic a bit further, and to address some of the things people erroneously believe about kids…

Me and my sister were always welcome in the kitchen.


Children have to be taught how to learn


This one even crops up in self-directed learning spaces every now and then, and seems to show such a strange view of how humans function. It’s as if some people think that we’re born as blank slates, so devoid of any desires or drives that we must be taught to do even that most basic of all things: to learn. In reality, we come with that particular drive fully intact. It seems like a truly profound lack of respect to think children are incapable of this, when in fact it’s one of the things they’re absolutely best at.


Children will always make awful choices


There seems to be an assumption that children want to make dangerous choices, and if given half a chance will waste no time in doing so. Yet while it’s certainly true that children lack the experience, maturity, or impulse control of adults, that doesn’t mean they lack all caution, all sense, or all desire to do good. Further, the way children learn is by doing. As my friend Nola said, “Use it or lose it. If you make your own decisions, over time, you figure out how to make better choices. It works for adults, and for kids too.” With a little guidance and reasonable expectations, children can be perfectly capable of making their own choices.


Children can’t pick what they like


Content, be it books, games, or otherwise should be educationally enriching, so the thought goes, and if that’s the case then surely children can’t be trusted to pick out their own things. It must then be left up to responsible adults to choose what’s best for their children to engage with. I’m saddened by this theft of discovery, taking away the joy of picking out your own books at the library, your own shows on (kids) Netflix, getting to develop your own unique tastes and style that’s separate and distinct from the adults in your life. It’s such a simple thing, to allow children to make their own choices about their media (as long as it’s within age appropriate bounds), but it means so much. Children deserve to express their own likes and dislikes, to have their own interests, and adults shouldn’t be getting in the way of that.


Children aren’t allowed to participate in real work


So often the smallest dangers are blown out of proportion when it comes to children: a vegetable peeler in the kitchen turns into fears of ER visits, and children are barred from any work with any possibility of danger. While I’m certainly not suggesting getting a 3-year-old to help you chop wood, often fears of danger seem overblown, now even more so than when I was a child (and they were frequently overblown then). Children are capable of being careful. Children usually want to help. And the way that they learn how to be safe is by practicing, using tools, gaining skills and proficiency, and building on that base as they grow. As Laura Grace Weldon said in a piece on bringing children into the kitchen, “We spend much time and money on enriching activities and products for our children, but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.”

There are myriad ways that children’s abilities are frequently undervalued and many avenues to gaining greater competency that are often denied to them. But in taking a life learning path, there are a lot more opportunities to respect children, to trust them, to allow them greater freedom, and to engage with them in meaningful activities. I hope that the more examples there are of living respectfully with children, the more others will see just how capable they can be.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Unschoolers Aren't Products

Every now and then, someone talks about what type of people unschooling “produces.” They want to know about the products at the end of the line.

I flinch, a little, when I see that. I know the phrasing isn’t intentionally bad. Usually, people are genuinely curious and not in any way trying to be offensive.

But the thing is, I’m not a product.

Unschooling does not produce products, or even results. Life produces people, and all of our experiences, including education, shape us into who we are.


Sometimes I see unschooling being described as mere trickery. It’s a way to convince children to learn. You just sneak lessons into everyday activities, you see! With a wink and a nudge, one adult to another, they tell you that unschooling is just about making kids learn important things without the kids realizing what’s happening.

Thankfully, these erroneous definitions of unschooling generally come from people who are not, themselves, unschoolers. But they certainly leave me shaking my head in frustration and disappointment, to know that some people see trust and respect children as a mere euphemism for manipulate them into doing what you want them to, but in such a way that they can’t even tell they’re being manipulated.

I think that these two ideas go together: the belief in controlling children, and the idea that it’s possible to mold children into exactly the person someone else wants them to be. If you believe that, I suppose it’s natural to think that unschooling can have predictable results, can reliably create a certain type of product.

In an excellent, concise article on the topic of life learning success, Wendy Priesnitz had this to say:

“In our family, the foundations of life learning and parenting (which were interwoven) were respect and trust. And we didn’t raise our daughters with respect and trust because we had an idea about how we wanted them to turn out. In fact, I think having that sort of agenda would be counterproductive to trust and respect. We did it because treating them like we would any other human being was the right thing to do.”

What a relief that sentiment is, to me, seeing it laid out like that. I want children to be treated with trust and respect because I, too, believe it’s the right thing to do. While I offer my experiences, my writing, in the hopes it can contribute to more children being trusted and respected, doing so also opens up my life to a lot of outside scrutiny. “What do you do now? Can you support yourself? How is your social life? Did you ever go to college?”

I have, with my own actions and invitation, opened myself up to that, and I do not resent the people who ask such questions (as long as it’s done respectfully, and in the appropriate times and places). But at the same time, it feels like an immense weight, people hanging all these judgments on the experience of a single person, where my words can tilt people in one direction or another.

We are, each of us, made up of many things. Shaped by our genetics and the people who raise us, by where we live, what we like, who we make friends with, and where we spend our days. Unschooling undoubtedly has an impact on those who are raised with this philosophy, but it is just one part of a whole... and it’s also a way of approaching education that takes as many different forms as there are people living it.

It’s important to listen to grown unschoolers, I think. More than our parents, even, we have firsthand knowledge of what unschooling is like, what worked and did not in our own unique lives. Yet each of us, as individuals, is just that: a unique individual. Meeting an unschooler and hearing about how they lived and learned says more about them than it does about unschooling as a whole. It is neither rational nor fair to view individuals as products of unschooling, or to use us as the guidepost for whether you should really trust and respect children.

Children deserve trust and respect regardless of anything else. Regardless of perceived “results,” regardless of expectations met or not met.

Treat children well, today and every day, because of the inherent worth in all of us, because it’s the right thing to do. Everything else will work out as it will.