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.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Ending the Tyranny of the Classics

I’m someone who loves to read, loves books with a depth of feeling I find hard to convey in words. If you’re a fellow book lover, you know what I mean. But I’m also a reading rebel, of a sort, who believes strongly in people’s right to develop their own relationships with stories, read what they want, or not read at all. Prescriptivism only ever gets in the way of enjoyment.
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We pick our way through prickly grass, shriveled and brown from an excess of sun and shortage of rain, shake out our slightly musty lawn chairs, and settle in front of the stage, a simple fake-stone structure serving as backdrop to one of the most well-known plays in the Western canon.

My mother used to bring me and my sister to see a Shakespeare-in-the-Park show every summer when we were growing up, and after years of missing it, I’ve picked up the tradition once more as an adult. Two years ago the production was an all-women version of Julius Caesar. Last year it was a 50’s themed take on Much Ado About Nothing. And this year, a very queer Romeo and Juliet. Our local theater company that puts on these productions likes to do something fresh and modern with such well-worn material, as many great modern Shakespeare companies do. They’re also incredibly skilled, the actors featured often winning awards for their performances.

I’m watching the performance with my sister, who’s long been in love with both musical theater and Shakespeare. She’s watched the recording of the 2014 Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus multiple times, and tries to convince all her friends to see it, too. She once drove 2 ½ hours to Ottawa to see a National Theatre Live show that wasn’t going to be airing in our home city of Montreal. When she was backpacking in the UK, a highlight of London was seeing a production of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre.

I, on the other hand, am a much more casual fan. For the most part I’m purely a Shakespeare-in-the-Park person.

Romeo & Juliet: Love Is Love, put on by Repercussion Theatre.

Needless to say, we were never taught Shakespeare in a formal context. We were never forced to read plays, of all things--an exercise about as useful as teaching kids to read music so they can study the scores, instead of going to a concert. But when something so permeates a culture as does the works of Shakespeare, and when you live a life filled with books and media and other human beings, it’s impossible not to bump up against countless references that give you basic outlines of what you’re missing, or lead you to dig into the topic further, to understand for yourself why your culture has become so saturated with these works of art, and whether you think all the fuss is worth it or not

As my sister and I headed home from the play, shirts buttoned up against the surprisingly chilly summer evening, we were laughing about some of our favourite amusing bits (from the first half, before everything becomes tragic) and discussing the thematic relevance of making Romeo and Juliet a lesbian couple, with parents hell bent on their children only partnering with the “right” people. Sometimes classic works can really be imbued with a sense of timelessness, and bring joy to people long, long after their creators could have ever imagined.
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When I first started this post, I was thinking of “the classics” as the Western canon generally foisted upon high school students. But I quickly branched out to cover “classics of the genre,” and just anything that’s held up as classic in one way or another. The works people place on a pedestal. The ones people are told they have to read.

There’s a devotion in our culture to those canons, an awe felt towards works that have, as far as I can tell, been chosen as best somewhat arbitrarily. It’s not that classics aren’t generally good in some way (though some are, in my opinion, genuinely bad and just dressed up in enough pretension to fool people who aren’t looking too closely), but best? Out of everything countless people have created and produced and shared? When it comes to art and literature, I don’t think there is such a thing as “best,” a judgement that’s just far too subjective.
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My family’s home has always been filled with scores of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. It’s easily the most popular genre in this house. And as I reached the beginnings of my teens and started looking towards adult books, I tried picking up some of the supposed sci-fi greats, people you’d surely recognize even if you're not a reader of the genre yourself, like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. And that’s the first time I can remember questioning the place of “classics,” and whether the works endowed with such a title were really so deserving of my time.

There’s a certain way that those male writers talk about women, and though I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding back then to fully recognize why those books I attempted to read (and often gave up on) made me uncomfortable, I now know the simple reason is “misogyny.” Undaunted, I dove into genre fiction, preferring the fantasy end of the spectrum, and gravitating towards newer releases.

I’ve been loving SFF for many years now, choosing my reading material primarily from the ranks of genre fiction, but I found that same frustration I had all those years ago with big-name male writers creeping back in. Time and time again I’d read stories by very well respected male authors and find that the women characters were nothing but props and prizes or cartoon villains, cardboard cut-outs of straight male fantasies or “bad” women who didn’t perform femininity “correctly.” To say I was becoming disillusioned with all of those writers held up as masters, who seemed completely incapable of writing interesting women with engaging storylines, would be an understatement.

This Christmas I was gifted with a favourite, and somewhat obscure, fantasy
trilogy: The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells. An author who writes amazing
characters of all genders!

This is emblematic not only of sci-fi and fantasy, but of the majority of what are held up as great literary works, books that are strikingly white, male, and straight, and tend to have embedded in their pages either a callous disregard for or outright animosity towards all those people who aren’t white, or male, or straight. In Erin Spampinato’s piece How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel? she questions what topics have been enshrined in our collective psyche as important:

“I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. “

For myself, I just decided several years ago that my reading world would be richer and more rewarding if I severely cut down on authors most likely to write terribly about women (aka men), and I have never looked back. I haven’t cut out books by men completely: I still read some books by male authors I already know I like, books by marginalized men, and books by men that have been recommended by people whose taste I trust. But to put it in perspective, I’ve read more books this year by nonbinary authors than by men, and out of the 55 books I read in 2017 only 4 were by men.

I imagine this choice will strike some people as unfair, but I have only so much time to read, only so many books I can read in my lifetime, and each book I choose to read means another book left unread. Each book that leaves me disappointed is time that could have been spent on something that enchants me instead. My parameters for choosing books are designed to prioritize the books I think I’m most likely to like, and my experience has taught me that I generally prefer books by people who aren’t men. So that is what I read.

I also almost exclusively read newer books, those published in the last fifteen years or so. It brings me great joy to stay on top of new releases in my chosen genres, to read books that are extraordinarily timely (as they’re products of the world we are currently living in), and ones that will likely end up on the ballots of my favorite awards. I’m constantly asking my library to purchase new and upcoming books, and delight in discovering promising emerging authors. In choosing to focus on newer books, I also read more diverse books, since the industry is changing and the authors who used to get shut out--authors of colour, queer and trans authors--are at least starting to be recognized.
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As I mentioned previously, there can be a lot of gatekeeping in the SFF genre (and, I imagine, other genres as well), with ideas that you have to start with “the classics” when entering a genre. That you have to read Tolkein if you want to read fantasy. I almost finished The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings trilogy bored me immensely, meaning I never finished the first book, and if I’d believed those gatekeepers back in the day, the ones who say there’s only one door that everyone must pass through, I would have missed out on an entire world of literature that makes my heart sing.

As bestselling fantasy author V. E. Schwab has said about her own disinterest in Tolkein, “I have a very strong belief that reading should be an act of love, of joy, of willing discovery. That when we force someone across the wrong literary threshold, we risk turning them away instead of ushering them through.” (That linked article is well worth reading in full, by the way.)

Or, as another successful SFF author, John Scalzi, put it on Twitter, “Most ‘classics of the genre’ (whatever the genre) are just unbelievably dated and anyone who demands new readers to genre ‘start with the classics’ is going to ensure they hate it. Give new readers new books they have a better chance of relating to. They can work backward later.”
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I tried reading Jane Eyre at some point in my teens, and was deeply bored. I picked up a couple of other very old books in my teens and found myself similarly uninterested. It’s only this year, after diving into the world of modern historical romance, that I decided it might be time to give some books by Jane Austen a try. An audiobook would be a good medium to tackle such a novel, I decided, and I picked a narrator I was familiar with, one I knew I liked, out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of recorded versions. I know the story of Pride and Prejudice quite well thanks to countless film and book riffs on the story, and I’m happy to say I’m enjoying it! The immersion in a different time period, the sly humor, the differences in story construction between a Georgian and modern novel. It’s not that I’ve decided everything old is bad, just that newer generally means more relevant, unless you’re specifically interested in understanding the history of a genre, or a time period.
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If someone came to me and said “I want to start reading SFF. Where should I start?” by now it should surprise no one that I’d pull out modern suggestions, by women, as my top picks. Something by N. K. Jemisin, either The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Fifth Season, depending on how dark and complex a read someone was looking for. The Ancillary series by Ann Leckie, for certain. I’d say they should definitely pick up something by Naomi Novik and Martha Wells. I’d make sure to note some new authors to watch, like Ruthanna Emrys and Rebecca Roanhorse, C. L. Polk and Alexandra Rowland. I’d let them know about some of my very favourite series, like Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire, and the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.

But I’d also be very sure to make it clear that my beloved books might not be theirs, that the experience I’ve built in the genre is tailored specifically to me, to my interests, to the themes I find captivating. Maybe they would like entirely different authors, different stories, different experiences.

A statue I came across in Quebec City, by the
sculptor Rose-Aimée Bélanger

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My argument against attempting to force anyone, children most definitely included, to read “classics” feels like a very personal one to me: I don’t read many, and I’m fine. But going deeper than that, I credit not being forced to read things other people decided were best for me with allowing me the space to find what I, personally, loved about books and reading. I wasn’t turned off of reading, or turned off of a certain genre or type of book, by being forced across a threshold that was not meant for me. Letting people come to things in their own time, when and if they want to, allows them to figure out what’s right for them, which parts of the literary world they wish to explore and which parts they want to steer clear of. 

In trying to force the same set of books on everyone, you push people towards things that most will find irrelevant, outdated, and not at all in line with their interests. You turn what could be something positive for some percentage of those people into a chore instead.

There’s a big difference between introducing works you think are interesting and important, and deciding to dictate to another person what they themselves should like and care about. In the relentless amplifying of so-called classics, too many people fall into the latter category.

The world of books and reading can be a fantastic one to explore. Lets stop ruining it for others by insisting there’s only one path to take.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Why Can't You Just Unschool Part Time?

In every collection of unschooling skeptics I’ve come across--such as that found in the comments section any time unschooling is covered in a major outlet--you’ll always find the question of why people can’t just unschool part time. Why does it have to be a full-time gig? Can’t children just go to REAL school to get a REAL education and do that self-directed nonsense in their downtime?

I’ve found myself explaining, over and over, with as much patience as I can muster, that they’re missing the point. Here’s why…


Time


Between school, and homework, and extracurricular activities, and things like sleeping and eating, your average child has very little actual free time. And in what little free time they have? They’re tired. They need to relax, to unwind, to veg out. That time can certainly be an important part of learning, as I’ve discussed before. But to suggest that all the richness of a self-directed education can be squeezed into what little free time a child has leftover is completely absurd.

Values


The way education is approached in school, the fundamental ideas underpinning it, are antithetical to unschooling. Children in school are being taught that learning is something done to them; that learning can only be imparted by experts; that other people know what’s best for them and hey get no say in how their education unfolds; that children are not capable of making any decisions about their learning; that learning is always difficult and complicated. Unschoolers, on the other hand, know--and live the knowledge--that learning is ever-present, and happens with all different people in all different places; that play should form the basis of childhood (and of learning!); and that children are perfectly capable of directing their own education. Ideas about what education is and how people are educated differs dramatically between conventional schooling and unschooling, and without making a conscious effort to reject strict school-based ideas of how education works, you can’t really unschool.

Lifestyle


Unschooling is a way of life. It’s a full-time commitment to living a rich life with children, providing a safe and resource-filled environment, building respectful relationships, seeking out opportunities in the community, and trusting that children are incredibly capable learners. Unschooling is a philosophy that trickles into every aspect of your life, colouring all your relationships with a greater understanding of everyday consent and principles of non-hierarchical living.

While families unable to unschool can certainly take inspiration from unschooling in the ways they parent, talk about learning, live together as a family, or treat the children in their communities, that alone is not unschooling. There is no way to simply squeeze unschooling into the bits of life left over after school and on weekends. It’s too big to just fit into six weeks of summer vacation.

You can’t unschool part time, and those who ask why this self-directed learning thing can’t just be supplemental are showing a profound ignorance of what unschoolers are attempting to do.

*A note that sometimes unschooled kids/teens go to school by choice, and that is most definitely practicing self-directed learning. I think the most important part about unschooling is the bit about respecting children’s rights to make their own decisions as much as possible, which means fully supporting them if they decide they want to go to school. I hope it’s clear that what I’m talking about in this post is not that, but rather the skeptics who don’t believe in young people’s right to truly direct their own learning.

Friday, September 21, 2018

20 Ways to Make Kids Hate Learning

This post originally appeared on my Patreon in March '17. Occasionally I'll share an older Patreon post on the main blog, but most of them remain accessible only to patrons. Join me there to see all of them!

I talk a lot about ways that self-directed learning works, and how to embrace and encourage it... But now I’d like to take a moment to talk about the opposite, the anti-unschooling, what could more readily be referred to as--dare I say it--schooling (whether it actually happens in a school building or not). If you were to sit down, as I did, and say, how could I best discourage self-directed, delight driven learning? this is the type of list you’d come up with (or at least, it’s the list I came up with). What do you do? This is what you do:

  1. Tell them learning--or at least important learning--only happens in a specific place.
  2. Only allow them to learn about certain topics, in a certain order, and from a select few people.
  3. Make sure that they have very little--or even no--free time in which to pursue their own interests (unless, of course, they’re happy to forgo eating and sleeping).
  4. Discourage collaboration by deeming kids interacting with each other to be goofing off, being disrespectful, or even cheating.
  5. Ban or severely limit the use of modern technology (aka “screens”), thus cutting children off from their social groups, and effectively eliminating the easiest way in which to look up information.
  6. Tell them (or imply with your attitude) that their interests are silly, unimportant, immature, and worthless.
  7. Call them lazy and unmotivated when they appear to be doing “nothing,” or doing something deemed, as aforementioned, to be worthless.
  8. Constantly test their learning, compare them to their peers, and create hierarchies of best to worst students based on those tests and comparisons.
  9. Attach strong emotional reactions/acceptance/love to grades.
  10. Strip all real world authenticity out of learning in favour of teaching to the test.
  11. Convince them that learning has to have an obvious purpose.
  12. Focus only on major accomplishments in lieu of recognizing simple progress, no matter how big.
  13. Create an environment that feels critical, unsafe, stressful, or otherwise unpleasant, and mandate that children spend a majority of their time in that environment.
  14. Separate everyone into either “student” or “teacher”--those who have useful knowledge, and those who don’t.
  15. Focus on (potential) future problems instead of current reality.
  16. Turn every pleasurable moment into a “learning activity,” or somehow attach work to everything that could potentially be fun (i. e. book reports). 
  17. Force them to take on responsibility that they express clearly they are not ready for. Alternatively, refuse to allow them to take on more responsibility even when they clearly express that they’re ready to do so.
  18. Hammer in the point that learning has no personal relation to what they actually want and plan to do.
  19. Tell them you always know more about their needs/goals then they do.
  20. Make sure they feel incompetent and incapable of making their own decisions. Bonus: act surprised and disappointed when they reach early adulthood and struggle with feeling competent and making their own decisions.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Unschooling in the Positive: How to Live and Learn Without Schooling

There’s a complaint frequently voiced by a segment of life learners and self-directed education advocates, and it is that the term “unschooling” focuses too much on what isn’t happening instead of what is. That’s certainly the way that many mainstream news coverage treats it, as is the case in a recent article on unschooling in Canada titled “Unschooled kids learn what they want – no curriculum, no homework, no tests.” That article is largely positive (and I love seeing a spotlight on Canadian unschooling in particularly, since I myself am Canadian), but it’s typical in it’s highlighting of the don’t-do’s. So I thought I’d challenge myself to lay out some basic tenets of unschooling, things unschoolers know and do, using only positive language, describing our reality in terms of what it is, not what it isn’t.

  1. Unschooling is “delight-driven, inquiry-based, self-directed life learning.” That’s how I described it a few years back, and it remains my favorite concise description.
  2. Unschooling is social, learning from adults and children, from relatives and neighbors, community members and teachers.
  3. Unschoolers take advantage of a variety of resources, learning from the internet and books, podcasts and films, from all different types of media and on all different platforms.
  4. Unschooling is as structured or unstructured as the learner themselves wishes it to be, utilizing classes, teachers, and similar formal educational settings when wanted or needed.
  5. Unschoolers embrace the reality that every person is different, and will learn best on their own timeline, picking up knowledge and skills quickly once they’re ready and willing to do so.
  6. Unschoolers see parents and other caring adults as guides, mentors, and partners in learning, who help children find the resources they need, learn the skills necessary to function in the world, and cheer them on when the going gets tough.
  7. Unschoolers seek to remove unnecessary struggle from children’s lives, for as Isabel Rodríguez recently said, “Life tests us. All lives involve a dose of tragedy. Death, illness, heartbreak, natural disasters are all a part of life. But this does not mean that it is ethical to inflict unnecessary hardship on children and call it educational.”
  8. Unschoolers know that free play forms the foundation of all learning, and make sure children have plenty of unscheduled time in order to just play. 
  9. Unschoolers know that school is always an option, that a child who’s free to make their own choices might end up entering regular school, and that older/grown unschoolers can go to college or university if they want to (and many do).
  10. Unschooling is relationship focused, deeply valuing trust and respect between people of all ages, and building education on a foundation of consent.
  11. Unschoolers know that all subjects are interconnected, and take note of the links between disparate bits of knowledge, different skills, and different ways of learning, marveling as they all come together to create a unique whole.
  12. Unschoolers recognize that children are remarkably capable and successful learners, that learning is something we all have the innate desire to do, and when supported, nurtured, and provided with the appropriate resources, we’re all capable of gaining all the education we need (coercion-free!).
Unschooling can certainly be described in relation to school, an outline shaped by all the things we’ve removed from the equation, which will give you a general idea of what it looks like. But it’s unlikely to give you as complete a picture as if we were to just tell you what we do. Because all the things we do outside of school, the vision of education we’re cultivating outside of those strictures, is pretty great all on it’s own; no things we don’t do required.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Homeschooling the Right Way: More of the World, Not Less

I follow multiple grown homeschoolers on Twitter. Most of them are unschoolers who, like myself, had positive experiences growing up without school. But a couple of the people I follow had a very different background, coming from the world of Evangelical Christian (or otherwise ultra religious) homeschooling, and finding such a background to be neglectful at best, abusive at worst. I think it’s important to listen to a variety of experiences when it comes to grown homeschoolers, and for homeschooling parents to get a good idea of what not to do as much as what they should do. And I think I would do a great disservice to those who did not have good homeschooling experiences by deciding to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, just because they come from a very harmful branch of homeschooling.

However, I also find myself frustrated at times when people who survived awful situations present abusive religious homeschooling as the default. Homeschoolers are like this, homeschooling is like that. We’re always going to view things through the lens of our own experiences, and I don’t think it’s the job of people who had bad experiences to avoid stereotyping something that was, in their lives, bad. But the picture they’re painting looks nothing like what I lived. Their background is so wildly different that it really brings home how “homeschooling” as an umbrella term is largely useless when it comes to describing the details of our different educational experiences. In my life...

I didn’t miss out on pop-culture, or fashion, or anything else like that when I was growing up. I listened to top-forty type stations as a child, and I can still sing along to more Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears than I would like to admit. I watched Shrek about a hundred times (and can sing along to the entire soundtrack, too). My first solo-concert as a teen was Linkin Park. And though we got our gaming consoles when they were older instead of right when they were released, me and my sister spent plenty of time in our teens playing Mario Kart and Mario Party with friends, on first the Nintendo 64 then Gamecube. I wore clothes that were at least roughly in style. I waited in line for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter book. In short? I was pretty plugged into pop culture as both a child and teenager!

One of the (many) reasons it makes me uncomfortable when parents entirely cut off or severely limit “screen” access is because of how valuable it is for interacting with and discovering shared culture, shared media, shared interests and communities. I’ve seen many people who grew up with bad homeschooling backgrounds talk about feeling like strangers in their own culture, having never been allowed to have access to the wide range of media available to most people. That stuff is important, and has been something that’s allowed me to bond with people from a wide variety of childhood backgrounds.


I wasn’t isolated as a child, and I don’t have trouble fitting in with my peers now. I might be “weird” in some ways, and I might not fit in terribly well with groups that are too “normal,” but the points of difference and of commonality rarely have anything to do with educational background, now that I’m an adult. If I’m hanging out with people who are queer or feminists or radical leftists or geeks who share my specific geekery or yes, unschoolers, I feel perfectly at home. I often felt out of place in my teens, but that’s a feeling almost universal to teenagers, regardless of background, and I often found myself on the sidelines with fellow outcasts who did go to regular school, meaning I never really thought my education was to blame. That point seemed further proved by my unschooled sister, who was very outgoing and seemed to always find or make a friend group wherever she happened to find herself. Some kids find it easier to make friends than others, but as long as they have the opportunity to be around other kids, I don’t think it has much to do with education.

On the other hand, right-wing Christian homeschoolers are often extremely insular, interacting only with others of their faith and politics, and seeing the broader culture as being filled with bad influences. Children raised to fear the other, raised in isolated surroundings, who don’t get to spend much time with other children (or at least children that aren’t exactly like them), are unlikely to be happy or emotionally healthy, and will be at a disadvantage when it comes time to merge with the broader culture. Isolation, whether from other people or from pop culture, is a bad thing.

I think everything I’ve mentioned here can really be broken down between the two major groups of homeschoolers: those who want to give more of the world to their children, and those who want to restrict their children’s access to the world. This cuts across homeschooling approaches (though unschoolers obviously by majority fall into the first category), and seems from what I’ve witnessed to be the biggest indicator of whether a homeshooler has a good experience, or a bad one. Was it their parents’ intent in going school free to allow them more freedom, more exploration, more meaningful relationships, more engagement? Or was the purpose to isolate them from the “wrong” influences, “wrong” ideas, “wrong” people?

Homeschooling shines when it’s embedded in the world, suffused with an excitement for discovery and learning. When it’s instead just a way to exert even greater control over children? Then it’s better labeled simply as abuse.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Finding Balance in a Plugged-In World

This post was originally published on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform which allows people like you to make a big difference in my life by pledging $1 or more a month. In exchange, you receive perks like an extra post per month (among other things!). Most of those posts will never appear anywhere else besides Patreon, but occasionally I like to share an older one here as well. I hope you enjoy!

In the ongoing discussion of technology, its usage, and what is and isn’t appropriate for children, something that frequently comes up is balance. I shared a quote recently that I really liked by Zina Harrington that touched on just that:
"We have to stop pretending that we can 'unplug' our children. Technology is an integrated part of our kids' world--and it will continue to be throughout their lives. We need to change the conversation. Instead of restricting screen time, we need to teach our children balance in a world where technology is abundant. We must shift focus and introduce them to the concept of mindful usage." 
I want to first discuss just what balance means, because too often what someone means when they say balance is “someone doing things the way I think they should be doing them.” There are some things all humans ideally need to feel and function best: food to fuel our bodies; physical movement and exertion of some sort; sunlight and outdoors; access to intellectual pursuits and exploration; places that feel safe; enough sleep; time for leisure and relaxation, daydreaming and calm; human company and support and community… But the ways those needs are met, the limitations and opportunities dictated by each person’s body and mind and environment, and the quantities needed to satisfy each individual will vary wildly. Your balance isn’t my balance. Your balance isn’t necessarily your child’s balance.


So when I hear words like “mindful usage,” I’m cautious. I like the idea, if what it really means is helping a child figure out what’s right for them. I don’t like the idea if it’s just another euphemism for parents making their children do whatever they think is best for them, working on their children instead of with them.

What mindful usage can mean, to me, is adults working in partnership with children to help them decide how they want to engage with technology. This can happen by teaching important safety practices; by creating family/community cultures that embrace a range of different activities on and off screens; by prompting children to listen to what their bodies are telling them; by having open and honest discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of various activities; by modeling a thoughtful relationship with screens (talking about what you enjoy doing on “screens,” and also when and why you choose to take breaks or do something else)… And yes, it can definitely be the job of a parent to intervene when there is an actual, serious issue. But not to preemptively control, just in case your children might make “bad” decisions, or because you think their explorations are different than what you would choose yourself, to stop them in their tracks and never let them find their own rhythms.

I’m always cautious to point out that I’m not a parent: the ins and outs of how to parent respectfully, from the point of view of a parent, are better left to others. Instead, the perspective I try to speak from is that of someone raised with very few screen limitations, and someone who now seeks to place all of my writing in the context of children’s and youth rights: their rights to, within reason, make their own decisions about the way they spend their time, the things they choose to focus on, and the mediums they choose to use. I don’t think there’s only one answer, one way of doing things, but I also think that any answer that shuts children out of the decision making process when it comes to their own lives is a faulty one.

If balance is truly the aim, then that’s less of a static goal, and more of a constant query, a touchstone of daily life: how does this feel? Is anything off? If so, what needs to change? It’s a collaborative process, not something that must be imposed from above.

Children definitely don’t need to be “unplugged,” and instead technology can be an integral part of a well balanced life.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The History in Historicals: Learning Wherever Interest Takes You

I spend a lot of time talking about how ever present learning is, and how learning doesn’t have to look like schooling in order to be valuable. I also believe that fun and leisure are perfectly good pursuits all on their own, whether they lead to learning or not (and they almost certainly will, anyway).

But I also think it can be helpful every now and then to discuss examples of learning that looks “educational,” found in places that may be unexpected.


In the last few months I’ve been reading what’s certainly the most maligned of the broader historical fiction category: historical romance. People like to make snide comments about “bodice rippers,” and disapproving comments about what sort of people would read such “trashy” non-literature. Yet I’ve been not only enjoying the genre immensely, but also learning a lot. Shocking, I know! While books within the genre range from quite thoroughly researched and historically rooted to what’s perhaps best described as anachronistic, they’ve all lead to a whole lot of historical fact gathering. Thanks to my friend Google, I’ve been looking things up multiple times for every book I read, seeing what is and isn’t accurate, figuring out when exactly a story is set, and falling down rabbit holes in pursuit of more details about a particularly fascinating event or topic.

An incomplete list of things I have looked up and learned something about in the past four months of romance reading, in no particular order:

When (and where and for whom) wigs were fashionable; the British political party of the Whigs; the various “eras” in British history and where they start/end/overlap (Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Edwardian); the evolution of bustles and bonnets; the Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts; the Cato Street Rebellion; the Corn Laws; history of condoms from earliest examples to mass production; bloodletting and the theories behind it; when the link between hygiene and infectious diseases was first made; what railway surgeons were; history of “sodomy” and other anti-gay laws in the UK, France, and North America; Regency era sex clubs; British nobility, all the ranks and rules around titles and courtesy titles; the differences between various horse-drawn conveyances; Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication of the Rights of Women; history of epilepsy and treatment of epileptic people; the anti-slavery sugar boycotts of the 18th and 19th centuries...

Even the staunchest supporters of learning-that-looks-like-schooling couldn’t find fault with studying history, and all of this gaining of greater understanding of the United Kingdom in Georgian through Victorian eras is thanks to the humble historical romance novel.

Constant curiosity, the drive to look things up, discuss and consider, is in large part an innate human quality… Though it can, of course, be discouraged and suppressed. Even when that’s the case, cultivating a practice and lifestyle of curiosity can be done, by paying attention to those sparks, the ideas or comments or facts that our brains get snagged on, and seeing where it goes. It helps not to put pressure on yourself to make a passing interest into something it’s not: a passion. There’s no need to force it, just follow it for as long as you’re eager to do so, and veer off down a different path when the mood takes you. Unless you have a specific reason for sticking with something past that point (and if you do have a compelling reason, go you!), there’s no need to do so.

I’m quickly becoming almost as enamored with historical romance as I’ve been of fantasy fiction for the last 15+ years, and novels in general definitely merit a passionate interest rating from me. But my online historical fact-finding missions don’t usually go very deep: I’m content to know important dates and make connections between different political events and movements without feeling a need to check out six books on the appropriate topics from the library. What’s important to me is that I keep on reading what I like to read, researching where curiosity prompts me to do so, and just enjoying going wherever life learning takes me.