Monday, March 12, 2018

What Makes Unschooling Successful? Advice From Grown Life Learners

I’m delighted to be sharing some words from fellow grown unschoolers today, something I’ve been wanting to do more of for a while now. For this post, I asked people to share either something they think their parents did especially well, or an aspect of their experience they found especially positive. The ten responses gathered below are thoughtful and insightful, a collection of anecdotes and advice that I hope will be helpful for parents and carers still in the earlier stages of this journey. I’m always really fascinated seeing what others who grew up with a similar philosophy as my family have to say, and I hope you find these tidbits similarly interesting and helpful.

“[My parents] carefully respected my privacy, especially in my teens, and let me and my brother spend a bunch of time playing video games, reading comics and watching cartoons even as it seemed like the whole world was freaking out. ‘Oh my god, your kids do WHAT all day??’ They just ran with it and looked for the good in whatever we were doing.” -Nola A.

“My mother was completely judgment free about how I spent my time, never criticizing me for spending hours on my computer every day. This allowed me to cultivate many of the interests I hold most dear to this day.

[She] frequently offered my brother and I the chance to go to school if we wanted to, and supported me when I decided to shadow at local high schools as a teenager. I ultimately decided I wanted nothing to do with high school, but many of my unschooling friend's parents had a lot of difficulty when their teenagers expressed interest in high school. Having parental support through considering what school had to offer empowered me to make my own informed decisions about continuing to unschool.

Going to conferences and connecting with other unschoolers was one of the best decisions my mom made. Having the support of other young unschoolers got me through some of the most difficult times in my life. It made me realize I wasn't alone. Meeting grown/older unschoolers at conferences gave me a way to imagine myself as a successful adult- a thing that can be hard when you've never met anyone like you. Around my fellow unschoolers was maybe the first time I ever felt like I truly belonged anywhere other than with my family, like I was entirely celebrated for being myself, and like no one would question me or my right to exist.” -Emmett D.


"The best thing my parents did was let me sleep when I needed to. That meant the world to me." -Rachel H.

“Follow your kids' interests and provide them with resources to find more info. We were all into community theater so our mom would get us books about the plays we were in. When we did Annie Get Your Gun we learned about Annie Oakley, things like that. The trick was to NOT choose the topic for us, but to notice the topics we were already interested in (the plays we were acting in already) and then give us the tools to expand from there.

Relatedly, a story about why you shouldn't force kids to learn. I was late to start reading. My parents were new to homeschooling at the time and my mom got concerned and tried to push it, having me do this horrible reading workbook every day which I absolutely despised. It did not work, I made no progress, I hated it, and my mom probably hated it too, so eventually she stopped pushing it. Pretty much immediately I spontaneously started reading random things I'd see without any prompting. So we all learned that I am incredibly stubborn and that kids learn better when they're not forced to learn.

Make a learning experience out of EVERYTHING. My dad is especially good at this. He actually built the second largest home owned aquarium in the US in our house (huge conversation piece), which requires a lot of upkeep and for many years we'd help him do the iodine testing. That's how I learned, at like 7 years old, that saltwater life (as well as humans) need a very specific amount of iodine - not too much, not too little - to be healthy. He had to do the testing anyway, so he involved us, explaining why he did it, how the chemistry of the testing strips worked, etc.” -Jennifer L.

“The very best thing my mother (specifically) did was pushing us to do everything on our own. Calling to make doctor's appointments, doing our own laundry, taking us to the grocery store and having us weigh the produce (okay, we weren't forced to do that one!), etc. She never hesitated to step in to help if we asked or were really frustrated, but she always had us try before doing things for us. I think this is something a lot of parents are missing (I work in a daycare). Things like having your 2 year old put on their own pants after using the potty, for example, are more important than many would imagine. It not only teaches children real-life skills, it also builds self-confidence and mastery without constant praise (read Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn) or inflating self-esteem (which is different than true confidence).” -Casey H.

“Some things I really appreciate that my parents did during our unschooling years:

1. Made sure we had library cards and made going to the library a regular thing.
2. Honoring season rituals and other ways of marking time. I loved the abundance of unstructured time but having a rhythm to the week and season and year is grounding.
3. My parents were able to afford high quality art supplies and we always had access to lots of 'making' supplies which was really wonderful for satisfying creative play.
4. They gave us tools and helped us learn to use them to do stuff on our own: make our own snacks, do our own laundry, dress ourselves, etc. We learned a lot of skills participating in regular housekeeping and self care activities. I have really appreciated those practical skills as an adult.” -Anna CC

“My parents were good at seeing when I seemed to be lacking direction, and asked if more structure would be helpful. They didn't push anything on me, but helped me set goals and gave gentle reminders when I wasn't doing the things that were most important to me for long periods.” -Julian B.

“The best thing my parents did for myself and my sisters by unschooling us was encouraging us to devout our time to what we were passionate about.

I spent my high school years drawing and painting and reading books. I'm in my early twenties now, still working to put myself through college, but I have 5 years teaching experience as an elementary grade art teacher in museums, centers, and public school systems. If I hadn't been unschooled I wouldn't have had the time to devote myself to my art, which is one of the major reasons I've received the scholarships I have for programs and college.” -Ashley H.

“No ‘screen time’ limits. Instead, we used television, movies, the internet, etc. as limitless resources. These were topics of conversation, which turned into interesting tangents about all sorts of subjects, which turned into questions. Depending on the question, we would either talk with each other about our ideas and opinions, or look up the answer online (or both). Limiting resources would limited possibilities for one thing to lead to another this way.” ZoĆ« B.

“Over time, my mother's education mantra became 'the parent/teacher opens the door - it's is the child/learner's decision whether to walk through it'. In other words, I was allowed to try any subject (academic or practical) that I wished, and was often supplied with opportunities for new experiences. It was always my decision whether to participate however, and there was never any pressure on, or judgement of, my decisions.” Flora G.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why Assigning Books or Reading Time is a Bad Idea

This post was originally shared on Patreon back in October. I can't emphasize enough how big a difference my monthly Patreon income, small as it might be, makes in my life. Seriously, by investing $1 or more a month in me and my work you can have such an impact. And you also get extra posts, like the one below, most of which will never end up on this main blog, some of which will end up here many months after their original Patreon publication date. So please consider becoming a financial supporter, and whether you do or not, I hope you enjoy this taste of what I share with Patrons!

I don’t think children should be assigned specific books. I also don’t think children should be assigned specific reading times or amounts. Basically? I don’t think that reading should ever be compulsory.

Some of the biggest pushback I get when I say this is from people who fondly remember the works they were introduced to thanks to assignments in English class: If I hadn’t had to read Pride and Prejudice I probably never would have. I’m glad to hear of people discovering Things They Love, in whatever way they do. However, I find the underlying assumption that coercion is the best way to force someone to love something to be troubling, to say the least.


Compulsion is not the best way to create passion. This one should be obvious, really. For everyone who loves a book they were assigned in school, there are probably at minimum two other people who hated it, and decided they’d never go near that author again (or never touch another classic, or in some cases just avoid reading altogether). Humans as a whole do not react well to being forced to do things they don’t want to do, and often develop a strong resistance to the subject or thing they are being coerced into doing.

Compulsion shows a fundamental distrust of the child. “I know what’s best for you to do, so you should do it and like it.” Nowhere in an assigned reading list is there room for a child to make their own decisions, to explore what they’re most drawn to. And there’s little more room for a child to set their own pace, their own priorities, and their own goals within assigned reading times or logs, which turn what should be something joyful into a chore. Every piece of a child’s learning that is taken out of their hands is another signal to them that they are incompetent, untrustworthy, and incapable of learning on their own, which is such a sad message to be sending children.

Sharing really is caring. Enthusiasm is often infectious. If there are books that had a big impact on someone in their formative years, or that seem culturally important, or that they think a kid will like, it’s great to suggest reading it, to borrow it from the library and leave in a stack of books-I-think-you’ll-like, to initiate a read-aloud...It’s definitely the role of adults in children’s lives to expose them to things, to make suggestions, to share passions. But all that can be done without bringing coercion into the mix.


Developing a personal relationship with stories. As someone who really, deeply loves novels, who comes from a family of readers, I feel very strongly about the importance of individuals developing their own unique relationships with literature and more broadly with the written word (or spoken word! Audiobooks are great if that’s your jam). As all of us who love books know, they can be truly magical, but only if they remain an enticing option, and not the brussel sprouts of the learning world: do it because it’s good for you, not because it tastes good.

Ultimately, no one has control over what another person will like, or love, or be curious or passionate about. All you ever have is influence, and when used both enthusiastically and respectfully, you have the power to introduce exciting and beautiful things into the lives of children… Without compulsion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favourite Novels of 2017

I think it’s fair to say 2017 has been a difficult year for a lot of us, both on the world stage and in our personal lives. And for me, no matter how much I’m struggling with depression, no matter how bleak things are looking, books are a source of comfort, a way to grapple with difficult topics in more removed settings, a strange glimpse of other possibilities… And I wanted to share some of my very favorite novels from the past year. They’re all sci-fi or fantasy (because that’s what I love best), but within those genres they vary wildly, from historical fiction with just a sprinkling of magic, portal fantasy that’s just as much literary exploration of identity and abuse, a fast-paced murder mystery in space, and a series of linked short stories that act as a damning critique of the way women are too frequently used and discarded in the superhero comic genre. I tend to read both young adult and adult fiction without distinguishing much between the two, and I believe this list contains about a 50/50 split (I’m not sure how a couple of the titles were marketed). I hope you’ll find something here to love as much as I did!


Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
A murder mystery on a generation starship starring clones with missing memories, this is the definition of a page-turner. I think I finished it in under two days. The pieces come together for you as the reader at the same time as for the protagonists, giving you a genuine chance to solve the mystery, and skilled use of flashbacks serve to propel the plot forward instead of feeling like a frustrating diversion. This is very much a plot focused story, and the characters, though some are intriguing, never have all that much depth. But all in all, a very enjoyable read.


Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire
A beautiful little novella about a ghost who just can’t seem to forgive herself for either her own death or that of her sister--so she sticks around, takes in very old cats, and works at a suicide crisis call center. But when other ghosts suddenly start disappearing, she realizes she needs to help her fellow undead, and in the process learns how to finally forgive herself. Fast-paced, but also wistful, lyrical, and moving… A lovely story.
“The world is full of stories, and no matter how much time we spend in it—alive or dead—there’s never time to learn them all. They just go by so quickly.”
― Seanan McGuire, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Continuing with novellas (this year I read quite a few good ones), Martha Wells’ new sci-fi adventure is definitely worth checking out. This is the story of an AI who, unbeknownst to its owners, hacked it’s “governor” program in order to gain independence, a limited freedom which it mostly uses to watch soap operas. Because robot or not, Murderbot (as it named itself) has some serious social anxiety, and is generally much more concerned with being left alone than with murder. But when the small exploratory team on a remote planet that it’s assigned to protect start encountering strange problems, and the signals from nearby settlements go dead, Murderbot puts itself right in the path of danger for the people it’s reluctantly started to actually like… Funny, sweet, and full of suspense, I can’t wait to read more about the surprisingly charming Murderbot in future installments of this series.


Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
It’s been a long time since such a quiet, slow novel pulled me in so easily and completely. When I say quiet, I definitely do not mean dull! Over two decades before the start of this book, the US government became aware of the “Deep Ones,” a small community of people who, as they age, transform into aquatic beings who slip into the ocean depths to spend their remaining millenia. Spurred on by malicious rumours and fear of their strange powers, the government rounded them up and imprisoned them in concentration camps far from their ocean home, where due to neglect and violence both, one by one they died. This is the story of one of the only two survivors, Aphra, who’s reluctantly drawn into an investigation of the potential use of magic by the Russians. Far from a spy novel, this is instead a thoughtful and very real-feeling exploration of prejudice, trauma, family, and recovery. An excellent debut novel by an author I will now be following closely.


The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel that’s such pure fun! A historical adventure of a romp across 18th century europe, this story follows Monty, an unrepentant rogue, his best friend Percy, whom he just happens to be hopelessly in love with, and Felicity, his peskily sensible younger sister, as he savors what will likely be his last taste of freedom on his Grand Tour. But things take a turn for the dangerous when he sort of accidentally steals something precious, and the trio is forced to go on the run. While grappling with their feelings for each other, and how to find their place in a world that’s often very unfriendly to our characters (who are queer, multiracial, disabled/chronically ill, and have the wrong pursuits for a woman), this story is ultimately sweet, hopeful, and all around delightful.
“God bless the book people for their boundless knowledge absorbed from having words instead of friends.”
― Mackenzi Lee, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
An achingly sad novella, one that almost reads like a cautionary fairy tale on what happens when children aren't allowed to be themselves, when parental expectations become so huge, so crushing, that they break something, perhaps irreparably, in the small humans at their mercy. It's an exploration of abuse, and what it can do to someone. It's also a strange story about a strange world, one filled with mad scientists and vampire lords, a red moon and endless moors. One where blood and fear are an everyday companion. With that in mind, it says something that the part of the book which takes place in our world remains the most disturbing. It also says something that Seanan McGuire is the only author to show up twice on this list. She is an absolute master of the novella format, and I will read every single one she writes with great joy. Highly recommended, if you're up for something thoughtful, dark, and moving.
"It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own."
― Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
I’m sure I’ve said before how much I admire originality in my fantasy novels, seeing as I read so many of them, and this one here? Does not disappoint! On the surface, this is a story about a young woman, Jane, grieving the death of her aunt and surrogate parent, who accepts an invitation to a mysterious mansion. But things quickly start becoming more surreal, and more strange… How different would things be if you made a different choice? Or a different one? Or a different one? Many paths unfold, possibilities both bizarre and terrifying, as Jane seeks to better understand herself and her place in the world. Highly recommended.
“People tell you that what happens to you is a direct result of the choices you make, but that's not fair. Half the time, you don't even realize that the choice you're about to make is significant.”
― Kristin Cashore, Jane, Unlimited

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
This linked collection of short stories is surreal, furious, and sad. There are no happy endings here, as what unites the women protagonists is that they were all either the wives or girlfriends of superheroes (or supervillains) or superheroes in their own right, and that now they’re all dead. Taking direct aim at the “fridging” of women in the superhero genre in order to further the stories of men, this combination novella and anthology is disturbing and captivating.

Buried Heart by Kate Elliott
This is the only book on the list that’s not the first in series or a standalone. Instead, it completes a series which began with Court of Fives, about young athlete Jes, though in this novel the athletics are in short supply. Civil war has broken out as various colonizing Patron factions vie for the throne, and revolution is brewing as the Commoners look to take advantage of the disarray to once more claim control of their own country. Jes’ growth through the previous two novels has been a pleasure to watch, but that pales in comparison to this final instalment, where we see her truly come into her own, and finally realize she has to start picking sides and taking stands. Seeing the surprising roles her whole family play in the rebellion was also one of my favorite parts of this book, and it felt very fitting, because such big themes throughout have been family, loyalty, and doing what’s right. All in all a very good conclusion to a very good series, and as always, I can’t wait to see what Kate Elliott comes out with next.

Honorable mentions, aka beloved series published previous years that I enjoyed re-reading this past year: The Fall of Ile-Rien series by Martha Wells, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.