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.

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.