Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unschooling is Forever Part 2: The Teenage Years

Here is part 2 of a talk called Unschooling is Forever that I gave at the Toronto Unschooling Conference.   

Part 1 can be found here.

How did my parents support me?

Unlike with traditional homeschooling (where a school-like environment is set up at home, and the main tenets of schooling are still adhered to, just on a smaller and more personal scale) unschooling parents do not become teachers.   Instead, they become facilitators, supporting and helping their children when needed, and getting out of their way when that seems to be the best course of action!  But what does that support actually look and feel like during different stages, and how does the parental role change as a little one grows up?

During what would have been my elementary school years, my mother, always a stay-at-home-mom, was very hands on, often suggesting projects, experiments, and crafts, doing them happily alongside us; answering, or helping us to find the answers, to any questions we came up with; making at least one trip a week to the library, where my sister and I would find a multitude of books, tottering out of the double doors toward the car with as many bags of books as our small shoulders could carry.  She was always available when needed or wanted, always happy to participate in whatever my sister and I wanted to do, be that a science experiment or setting up a Playmobil village across the entirety of my sister’s bedroom floor.

What strikes me most about my mother and the role she played, though, besides the fact she’s always been a terrific mom in general, was how very enthusiastic and genuine she’s always been.  She loves learning, loves finding new things, and nothing she ever suggested or did (besides those brief stints of attempting to teach math) was forced or duty driven: it was always done in honesty and honest interest, excitement, or passion.

Changing parental roles & relationships in the teen years

That parental role definitely shifts and changes once you reach teenage-hood.  As a teenager, obviously you’re far more capable of finding the answers to your questions, organizing social outings, and similar things.  So throughout my teenage years, my mother has really become much more of a friend, and someone who is a great sounding board to boot.  Bouncing ideas off of both her and my sister Emilie has been immensely helpful to me for many years now, and the discussions the three of us have are truly amazing and mind-expanding.  When asked how I learn, I like throwing out a bunch of verbs to try and get my point across that learning is everywhere.  But a type of learning that I really love is that of respectful discussion, and I treasure the terrific conversations I’ve had with wonderful people that have really had and continue to have a real impact on my life, how I choose to live it, and how I treat others.

Before my teen years we were definitely not whole-life unschoolers.  As I’ve said, we weren’t even quite at the unschooling stage yet, though we were certainly close!  But during my teen years, things have definitely looked a lot more like not only unschooling, but whole life unschooling.  I’ve marvelled at the amount of control I see, and especially used to see in my younger teens, among my schooled peers.  Constantly grounded for minor infractions of a long list of rules, strict and ridiculously (in my mind) early curfews, personal food choices entirely disrespected, etc. etc.  I’ve also always observed that the parents who wield the most control are also the parents most likely to have the worst relationships with their offspring: the parents whose teenagers are most likely to go against all of their rules, by simply going behind their backs and/or lying to get away with it.

In stark contrast, my own family, with no curfews and having never been grounded or had “privileges revoked” (note the quotations there), no fighting over homework or bad grades, my sister and I have a MUCH better, more honest, genuine, and joyful relationship with our parents.  And not only do we consider our parents to be allies instead of enemies, but so do our friends, who will speak openly in front of and too my mother about sexuality, drug use, and other normally taboo subjects with no worries of recriminations.  They trust, as my sister and I trust, my parents to behave more like friends than so-called authority figures.

And this is not to say that life has never been hard for me: my family, though we were practicing it, still didn’t necessarily fully trust in unschooling during my early teens, which was a really hard time for me in many was.  In my very early teens, being a naturally shy and introverted person, I was a bit of a hermit, refusing to participate in any activities and not really wanting to do much of anything, while at the same time feeling rather lonely.  At age 14, I agreed to try out the Air Cadets, and was part of that program for three years.  I went by choice and stayed by choice, and to this day don’t regret doing so, but it really was a horrible environment.  I feel like I got a small taste of what many people experience in school, as I was spending time three days a week in a highly competitive, hierarchical structure, where an individual’s needs and wants were rarely if ever considered important.  People were demeaned and bullied, and I never felt like I belonged, always felt like an outsider.  During my early to mid-teen years I struggled a lot.  I was often depressed, had feelings of low self-worth, thought I was uncool and un-likable for a while.  I wondered if unschooling was really a good idea, and if all the naysayers were right and I really would be better off in school.  Things didn’t look or feel very good.

Letting go of fear

However, the spring I turned 17 I was really starting to rethink a lot of things.  I left cadets, started reading the Teenage Liberation Handbook, and dove headfirst into any information I could get on both unschooling and radical political philosophy.  And I started to find myself.  I started thinking deeply about a lot of things, questioning things I’d never thought to question, re-evaluating the way I’d been living and thinking about my life.  That’s when I decided that not only had unschooling given me an amazing opportunity to really figure out the world as best I could; not only had it allowed me to truly get to know my self, understand my needs, and where I fit in the world; but I also started really believing that unschooling would be a powerful way of “getting an education” for everybody, as well as an important tool in social transformation.  I started realizing that the way I’d grown up, as well as the way all the other unschoolers out there had grown up, wasn’t just one option among many, but something truly special and important.  That we, as unschoolers, were proving wrong the widely held beliefs of what exactly education was and how you get it, simply by our existence.  Creating another model to live by just by living. 

So I started blogging, writing lots about unschooling and working out my own thoughts and beliefs on the matter through that process.  In the early stages of my new-found love of unschooling, I found it really helpful connecting with unschoolers online.  Here was proof that unschoolers older than me, grown unschoolers, were doing just fine, were doing even better than fine!  And when I started going to various unschooling gatherings (Not Back to School Camp, Unschoolers Winter Waterpark Gathering, The Northeast Unschooling Conference), any lingering doubts I had simply disappeared.  The best way to convince anyone of the efficacy of unschooling, in my opinion, is to expose them to a bunch of unschoolers.  When faced with that, how can anyone not be convinced?

What my embracing of unschooling also signalled was my acceptance of being different, and my realization that fitting in shouldn’t be my goal, and wasn’t a goal that would ever bring me happiness.  Since that time, even though it’s only been a couple of years, I’ve grown immeasurably, most noticeably in confidence and outgoingness.  Really taking control of your own life and your own education is incredibly empowering.

Read part 3 and part 4.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Misconceptions About Unschooling

This blog was linked on an MSN Lifestyle blog called Embrace The Chaos (in a post about unschooling, of course).  Since then, I've been getting a LOT of hits from there, and a couple of slightly aggressive comments to boot.  But that's not what I want to talk about right now.

Because my blog was linked in the article, I broke my no-reading-comments rule, and of course the comments are filled with the same type of anti-unschooling rhetoric you find in the comments section of any unschooling article directed at the general public (one gem was "how do people have the arrogance to say that parents know what is best for their children?").  There are so, so many misconceptions out there, and most of the time I just let it all slide, but today I felt inspired to address a few of them:

Structure  One of the biggest misconceptions about unschooling is that it's about a lack of structure. It isn't. What it *is* about is choice. The freedom for the learner, the unschooler, to choose more or less structure as
they desire.

Un-Educating  Unschooling is NOT "un-learning" or "un-educating".  It's simply a different way of "getting an education" than most people are familiar with.  School is synonymous with learning and education for most of the populace, but unschoolers totally reject that idea.  Many unschoolers see school as an oppressive institution that turns learning (which should be joyful) into an unpleasant act that is more about memorization to pass the test than true, deep learning.  The word unschooling is used in the same way you'd use unbinding or unchaining.  It's not about getting rid of learning, it's about freeing yourself from schooling.

Unschooling Is Not New  In many articles, and if not in the article itself then in the comments, people refer to unschooling as a "fad": a newfangled idea that is sure to fail when these unschooled kids grow up.  What the people making such statements fail to realize is that learning from life (unschooling) is how humans have learned for the vast majority of our existence as a species.  Schooling, on the other hand, is pretty new, and thus the real "experiment" in education, not unschooling.  And even looking only at the last century, unschooling still isn't a new phenomena.  It's been around in it's modern form (as has the word unschooling) since the 70's, and there are hundreds of grown unschoolers (myself included) who prove that unschooling works.

Educated Parents  Many people, if they agree that unschooling might, possibly, in some situations, work, say that you must have highly educated parents for unschooling to be successful.  Well, my mother has a high school diploma, and nearly finished a nursing program in college, which is the extent of her institutionalized education (of course, she loves to learn things without the aid of school, and is a true life learner herself.).  My father is a university dropout, who for years has worked in jobs that usually require a university degree, proving that skills trump pieces of paper.  So to much of the world, I don't think my parents would look "highly educated".  What they are is very good at learning what they need to know outside of a school building!

To Be a Successful Unschooler, You Have to Be Motivated  Now this one I've heard a LOT.  Like, an insanely large amount of times.  It's right up there for me with the socialization thing (though I think socialization still wins).  This is what I hear most often from people who see how happy, articulate, and socially capable my sister and I are, so are forced to realize that unschooling must work some of the time.  But, to preserve their own vision of the world--and to make the years they spent in school/the years they're forcing their children to spend in school, worthwhile--they have to believe that it would only work in special cases.  That it would only work for special people.  People who are especially intelligent and especially motivated.  Now, as much as this is flattering to me as an individual in a sense ("you're really smart so it worked for you!"), this idea drives me absolutely crazy.  Because here's the thing: unschooling does not work for motivated people.  Unschooling creates people who are motivated!  The act of placing the power over learning and life into the individual's hands is both empowering and motivating.  If learning is never made into something unpleasant, then it continues to be something joyful and fun throughout life.  That's what this "motivation" people see in unschoolers really is: it's a joy in learning that is seen far less often among the masses in school. 

Unschooling Could Never Produce Doctors  Well, I know two unschoolers who are pursuing just such a path.  Know how they're doing it?  By taking the tests they need to get into their chosen program, the same as anyone schooled would!  Just because you're an unschooler and was never required to take tests when growing up, doesn't mean that you're unwilling or unable to study for and take tests when that's what you desire.  Remember, it's all about free choice, not lack-of-structure.

An Unschooler Can't Learn Anything Their Parents Don't Know  Where on earth did anyone get the idea that an unschoolers only resource was their parents??  Unschoolers can get the information they need from: the internet; the library; homeschool co-op classes; college classes; people in their community/mentors; cultural and community centers that offer classes...  There are many, many ways to learn every single thing they teach in school plus a million other things, while outside of the compulsory school system.

Now, there are enough misconceptions about unschooling out there to write a dozen posts (at least!) dispelling them, but I think that's enough for now!  I hope this will be helpful to at least some of the people who are just starting to find out about unschooling, and have landed on my blog to do so...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Unschooling is Forever Part 1: Beginnings

It was a really great experience speaking at the Toronto Unschooling Conference (and it was a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable conference!).  I should know by now not to freak out over public speaking, because once I get over the pre-talking-in-front-of-a-bunch-of-people nerves (which fade about a minute in), I really and truly enjoy it!  I never thought I'd say this, but my experience in the last year has led me to believe that public speaking is lots of fun!  And the incredibly kind words of those in the audience make all the stress and worry that goes into doing it MORE than worth it. 

The audio recording of this talk will be for sale here sometime soon, unless I'm much mistaken (I believe the cost per talk is $5 Canadian), and I'll be posting the text of this talk in it's entirety here over the next few weeks.  Here's the first part!

I’d like to start with a quote by Wendy Priesnitz:

"I wonder why so many parents still want to keep their children hidden away in schools, when they could be learning in the wonderful, bright, ever-changing, always-stimulating real world."

How I became an unschooler

Before I was born, neither of my parents had ever even considered homeschooling, never mind unschooling. It just never entered their minds. But my mom was, and still is, a bit of a hippie, so she did plan to breastfeed. Because of that, she joined the La Leche League when I was born (or possibly before I was born... I’m not sure how those things work!). Now, my mom had plenty of gentle discipline, unconditional parenting, type books, I was never let to “cry it out”, lived in a sling for ages, and all those other attachment parenting type practices, though I don’t believe that term had yet been coined when I was born.  Point is, she was the type of parent who liked having her kids close by, and wanted to be very involved in their lives.

At the La Leche Lague, she was exposed to an idea she'd never really thought of before: homeschooling. And she liked it! Being the type of parent she was, she didn't like the thought of sending her little girl off to spend her days with strangers.  So she started reading and researching, and decided that she really did want to homeschool! My father, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic. He can be rather traditional minded, and he truly thought that school was the best place for a growing child to learn, so my mother agreed that they would at least try it out. So off I went to half-day kindergarten at age five! I didn't really mind it. Neither did I love it. I had fun sometimes, but I was always happy to head home afterwards, as well. However, partway through the year, we started getting strange phone calls. Obscene phone calls, actually, and when they were traced by police it was discovered that it was a kid in grade 2 making them. Sad, isn’t it? So that was enough to convince my father, and halfway through my first year of school, I was pulled out. That half year of kindergarten remains my only experience with institutionalized schooling.

We started out as homeschoolers, though pretty darn relaxed ones, and for years our "schooling" is a bit of a blur, I'm afraid. I was pretty young! I know that we had various school books and programs and similar stuff, to use if we wanted to. We did lots of fun science experiments, as well as watching Nova and Nature and similar shows avidly (I say we, because my sister reached school age with no one ever suggesting she go to school, so we just continued to learn together!). My mom always read aloud to us: poetry, stories, the newspaper, and I started actually reading myself at age 8 or 9 when my mother was reading Harry Potter too slowly for my taste!  I memorized poetry, and wrote both poetry and stories before I could even read (I'd narrate them to my mother). But what I remember most strongly from these years is how connected and good everything felt.  Playing for hours on end, hiking in the woods, making crafts and art, cuddling and spending time together.  Everything was tactile and immediate, a life free of lectures and homework and intermediaries between my young self and the learning that was all around me.  Throughout this time period, my mom would tell everyone that we were doing "child-led" homeschooling.

And in all that time, the only thing that was ever really treated in a non-unschooling way was math.   When I was about 11, when any existing control around that was let go, I’d say we became true unschoolers.

So, How do you learn?

Unschooling requires a paradigm shift, one in which you must stop looking at the world as a series of occurrences/resources/experiences etc. that can be learned from, and a series that can’t.  The world doesn’t divide neatly into different subjects, and you can’t tell right from the outset what a seemingly unimportant question, interest, or TV show obsession will lead to.  I learn from: wandering, wondering, listening, reading, watching, discussing, running, writing, daydreaming, searching, researching, meditating, hibernating, playing, creating, growing, doing, helping, and everything else that comprises the day to day happenings of my life.

Unschooling can seem like a complicated endeavour, growing up as we do in a society so thoroughly schooled.  A schooled outlook sees learning as something difficult and mysterious.  As Ivan Illich said:

“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.”

But in moving past that mindset, a more accurate question starts to become how can you not learn, and I truly think the answer to that question is that it’s impossible to live without learning.

Once you’ve realized that, unschooling starts to seem incredibly simple.  Because, well, it is!  Unschooling, at its heart, is nothing more complicated or simple than the realization that life and learning are not two separate things.  And when you realize that living and learning are inseparable, it all starts to truly make sense. 

Read part 2, part 3, and part 4.