Friday, February 18, 2011

How I Learned to Write (It Involved a Lot of Reading!)

Some of what I learned in my early childhood (when we were very relaxed homeschoolers), I remember clearly, involved at least some formal lessons or schoolbooks.  There was a reading program I started, though when I decided I had no interest in continuing it, no one minded (my mother was always of the opinion that children will learn to read, without being taught, when they're ready too).  Math definitely involved workbooks (until I hated it enough at 11 or so that I put a stop to it).  But one thing I can say with absolute certainty: I have never had anything even close to a formal lesson on how to write.  And I'm not talking handwriting here, but actual writing: the thing I'm doing right now to create this post.

I like this fact, because I get to tell it to people who've read some of my stuff but are skeptical of unschooling, and watch the look of surprise and disbelief on their face.  I feel like it's a good and simple way to prove my point (my point being that children can learn without being forced to, or even taught how).

So, how did I learn to write?  Well, actually, I suppose I was writing to some small extent before I could even read.

Our house has always been full of books.  There's at least one bookcase in every single room of our house, except for the bathroom (which has only a small pile of books instead of a whole bookcase!).  The small library my family owns was collected over many years and from many different sources (book catalogs, stores, garage sales, library sales...).  My parents are big into readers!  Because of that, from the time I was in the womb, I was read to.  And having always heard stories, as a young child I think it was fairly natural that I'd want to create some of my own stories as well.  So I'd simply dictate them to my mother, who would very kindly write them down for me.

Our living room bookshelves...

Later, when I started reading myself, I jumped headlong into the world of fiction.  I read countless novels: sometimes as much as three books in one day (people are sometimes skeptical when I tell them I've read thousands of books, but I always assure them that really, I have)!  Historical fiction, teen contemporary fiction, mysteries, the supernatural...  And of course, always fantasy.  Where my interest in other genres has waxed and waned over time, fantasy has remained a constant (if you ever want good recommendations, just ask me.  I'll happily geek out about fantasy novels anytime!).  I love fiction, and have loved it for many years.  The way whole stories, characters, places can become so very real in the pages of a book is just...incredible.  I love reading stories.

And when I try and think of how I actually did learn to write, that's really where I trace it all back to: all the reading I did (and do).  Even being an unschooler and believing that children will learn naturally, I find myself marveling at how much I absorbed about the structure and rules of language simply from reading.  It was never a struggle when I started writing more myself.  I knew where commas went, how long was too long when it came to writing sentences, how to structure a paragraph, and similar intricacies of the written language.  Obviously, I've improved a lot since then (and will continue to grow and improve), but from the time I really started writing in earnest I had a very strong grasp of how to write.  I just needed practice.  Even when it came to spelling, the closest to "formal" learning I ever did was play a game, for fun and by choice, with my sister, where my mother would say a word, and my sister and I would try and get the correct spelling first.  Yes, both of us have always been writing/language nerds!

I almost wish I could place an exact time and moment when I started really writing, the same way I can with reading (the whole Harry Potter spurring me to read on my own is an anecdote I've told many times), but really, I don't think there's any moment I can pinpoint.  I learned to write from stories told or read to me over many years, then from reading dozens, hundreds of books myself.

Sometimes the way I learned growing up seems surreal to me, when I compare it to how most others spent their childhood.  Like I lived in a different world, despite my physical proximity to everyone else.  Sometimes (often), I still feel that way!  It's such a radically different way of living than that of the mainstream that it's hard to reconcile the two.  And I find myself frequently just really, really not getting why anyone thinks the traditional way of teaching small children is a good thing!  Learning can be so simple, so flowing, and so much fun, if only parents and educators would relax, sit back, be ready to help if wanted, but mainly just let it happen.  Children are remarkably good at learning!  As the great John Holt said:

"We do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can (to them); give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Hidden Curriculum and the Truth About Schooling

"We don't need no education. We Don't need no thought control. Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone." Pink Floyd, in their iconic song Another Brick in the Wall 


Sometimes, I wonder if it would have made what I have to say about school more credible if I was a dropout (rise-out, opt-out...) myself, instead of a lifelong unschooler.

Because as such, it's assumed quite often that I must have no clue what I'm talking about.  School doesn't really teach obedience to authority, conformity, and all that jazz.  I just think it does, because I've never been to school to see how nice it is, and instead have been turned against this fine institution by my prejudiced parents.  Or so the idea goes, at least.

It's true that I can't ever know from personal experience what elementary or high school is like (besides kindergarten, of course), but I feel very confident making the statements I do about school.  Why?  Because all the research I've done shows not only that school really does teach obedience and conformity, but that the educators in the schooling system are well aware of that fact.

Open any mainstream/used in university classes sociology or education text, and I can almost guarantee that it mentions something called "the hidden curriculum."

I found this description of the hidden curriculum in a book called Sociology of Education: An Introductory View From Canada that we picked up a while ago secondhand (I posted briefly about it when I first discovered the passage): 
"The fundamental patterns in any society are held together by tacit ideological assumptions.  In schools, some rules are not overt, but they serve to organize and legitimate the activities of teachers and students.  Much of what the school teaches and the students learn does not appear in the formal curriculum.  Successful school performance requires that the student learn what are considered important and useful skills and knowledge.  But students must also have the skills to uncover the hidden rules and expectations that affect their dispositions, identities, and personalities.  For example, schools emphasize conformity, deferred gratification, achievement, competitiveness, and obedience to authority [emphasis is mine].  Students must understand the social and other dimensions of this hidden curriculum.  The hidden curriculum refers to the tacit teaching of norms, values, and dispositions that occurs through student's social experiences in routine school activities."
In another book, Society: The Basics (Canadian edition), it's noted that:
"...the school's so-called hidden curriculum, subtle presentations of political or cultural ideas, imparts important cultural values.  School activities such as spelling bees and sports encourage competition and showcase success.  Children also receive countless messages that their society's culture is both practically and morally good."
Taught to think our culture is both "practically and morally good," is it any wonder that things continue to be so bad?  If our culture is good, then there's obviously no need to change things in any real or radical way.  The same book also goes on to say that "schools further socialize young people into culturally approved gender roles," something that, as a person who often chooses to identify as a feminist, and has a good handful of queer friends, disturbs me on multiple levels.

I find it funny that so many people consider writers like John Taylor Gatto (who wrote, among many other things, this essay, which I think is great) to be so shocking, considering he's really just framing what the education profession knows to be true in a different light.

This is all just to say that not only do I consider myself justified in my dislike of the schooling institution, but also that the people who claim these things are untrue don't seem to have done much research themselves.  It seems they react in automatic defensiveness, and out of a desire for it simply not to be true, not because they've actually thought about or researched the possibility that, well, it is true!  Now if only more people could start seeing that truth, things would start changing faster...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Blame Unschooling!

There's something I've noticed a lot that can make things really difficult for us unschoolers, and that is this: unschoolers are always held to a higher standard than those with more traditional educational backgrounds.

Anything "bad" (note the quotation marks) is the fault of unschooling.  If you have trouble getting a job (regardless of the state of the economy, social privileges or a lack thereof, or any other important factors), it's because you unschooled.  If you're a naturally introverted person, it's because you unschooled.  If you miss a deadline, make a typo, make a small mistake when counting out change, hell, if you happen to be clumsy, it's probably because you're an unschooler.

On the other hand, anything "good" about your personality, anything impressive that you accomplish, is entirely because of you, and has absolutely nothing to do with unschooling: you're obviously just a motivated/intelligent/whatever person who would do well no matter what the circumstances.

In contrast, schooled individuals, when they "fail" (again, the quotation marks are important), it's because they're too unmotivated/stupid/whatever: it's NEVER the fault of schooling.  And when a schooled individual accomplishes something impressive, it's because of the wonderful education they received at school, never in spite of school, or because of their own inherent wonderfulness.

It's most definitely sad.  And very frustrating.

It also puts a lot of pressure on you.  Because whether you like it or not, the minute you admit to being an unschooler everything you do becomes a reflection on all unschoolers.  I've felt the zeroing in of attention the second I mention, and then usually explain, unschooling (though lately I've come across some people who are already at least vaguely familiar with the concept...  Yay publicity!).  The questions start coming, of course, but along with that, it often feels like you're being evaluated.  It's like they're examining a foreign specimen, wondering if you'll prove to be a "normal" human or not.  I'm a reasonably social and confident person, at least when it comes to the subject of alternative education and unschooling, so it doesn't usually bother me.  It's actually kind of fun: the challenge of being social and charming, and presenting my case in a calm and logical way.  By the reactions I tend to get, I think I might even be pretty good at it.  But when I think of how this would be for many other unschoolers out there, or even think of myself a couple of years ago, I most definitely understand why many people choose not to bring up unschooling at all, and I remember why I'd never get into the details myself until a couple of years ago.

When you do something outside of the mainstream definition of normal, people think they have a right to demand an explanation.  Or if they're interested in possibly doing it themselves, they simply really really hope you'll explain it to them.  Yet even with the nicest, most well-meaning and interested people, it can sometimes feel like a pop quiz (or at least, I imagine it can... Having never faced a real pop quiz of which people speak, my metaphor could be off).  Like I said, to me, it's fun.  It's energizing.  It's a new challenge each time, to decide how to present things, which quotes or anecdotes to bring up (at this point you may be starting to see why I enjoy public speaking so much...).

Toronto Unschooling Conference 2010

But whether you like it or not, there's always that pressure: by being open about being an unschooler, you become, to the individual or group of individuals you're talking to, the unschooler.  The one who speaks for and represents all unschoolers.  That's a lot of pressure, and, obviously, inaccurate.

I think that to the great majority of people out there, unschooling is thought of as a method of education.  And I think I've referred to it as such myself, at times.  But that description doesn't sound quite right to me: it makes me think of all the different curriculums and school reforms, where new methods are implemented, then the results are studied.  That's what people often see unschoolers as: results of a specific method of education.

And to me, that's not what unschooling is.  As Tara Wagner said in her recent interview on this blog:
"I don't think "unschooling" created me or gave me an ability. I think it simply gave me the freedom to create myself and supported my innate abilities. Whereas schooling or limited mentalities got in my way, unschooling stays out of my way."
As unschoolers, we're not results: we're individual people with individual experiences, personalities, passions, and goals.  I definitely feel unschooling has impacted who I am as a person, but I feel the same way Tara does, in that I feel that by unschooling, I had the time and space to become my own person.  Unschooling gave me freedom.  The rest I did myself.  Or, myself, with the help of the world, my community, and life in general...  Unschooling didn't create the aspects of myself that I'm proud of, and neither did it create my less than stellar qualities.  My achievements and mistakes are thanks to me and the circumstances I've found myself in.

It's harmful for people to look at someone who unschools, and see only the product of a specific type of education.  Instead, people need to shift the focus away from whatever education someone did, or did not, have, and focus instead on the actual person.  Of course, that's easier said than done, but as more and more people are recognizing the failings of both so called higher education and the compulsory schooling system itself, I have high hopes that the focus will shift evermore towards a more organic and flexible view of  what it means to be "educated and successful."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Grown Unschooler Tara Wagner: "Amazing things happen inside of freedom."

This is the latest in an ongoing series of interviews with grown unschoolers.  Read more here!  Are you a grown unschooler yourself?  If so, I invite you to participate in this project.

And now, I'm very happy to introduce Tara, someone who's blog and photography I've long admired. 

Tara Wagner is a mother and a lover, a writer and an organic life coach, specializing in life learning, organic parenting and authentic living. She currently travels the US with her husband and son in a truck converted to run on veggie oil and a solar-powered RV. You can find her blogging at and

When did you become an unschooler?

I "officially" left school about half way through 9th grade, but mentally I had begun checking out a few years before.

How long have you unschooled/did you unschool? I was out of school for the rest of what would have been my high school years. Instead of college, I chose massage school and self-education for entrepreneurship from there.

How old are you now?

If your parents chose unschooling, do you know how/why they made that decision?
My mom didn't choose it but she supported my choice under the belief that "school is not for everyone" and with the ideal that I can create my own success.

If you chose to leave school, can you talk a bit about what led to that decision, and how the actual process of leaving went (how did your parents, friends, teachers, etc. react?  What were the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?).
I had enjoyed school and schoolwork until about 7th grade. But changing schools had confused the administration and they began putting me in classes I had already taken. I got incredibly bored and was no longer challenged or having fun. I was also not meshing with the dramatic high school "scene" and felt most comfortable around adults.

By 9th grade my favorite and best subject (English) became my least favorite. Instead of doing what I wanted to do - write and read - I was relearning capitalization and trying to convince the teacher I'd known the difference between a question mark and an exclamation mark since the 2nd grade.
(The teacher told me if that were true I wouldn't be in her class and the school admin told me it was up to the teacher to decide if I needed a different class.)

My transition out of school started with me skipping classes, and only attending the ones I enjoyed or was challenged by (this was where my interest in science and computers began). They tend to frown upon selective attendance, so they suspended me.

I think I asked my mom if I could be homeschooled, but there was never any thought of doing school at home. We had never heard of unschooling and didn't tap into any homeschooling communities. As such I think many people looked at me as a "dropout" although I never felt like one. I felt very strongly that I was opting out, and with my mom's support, I felt  empowered by that.

I think the biggest challenge I faced was in overcoming the mentality of my peers. Since we never got involved with other homeschoolers and had never heard of unschooling, I was still spending my time with the same friends and mentally still involved in the same high school drama. My views were limited by their views and didn't expand until years later when I started to seek out new information or ideas and ways to live.

Since I've come to see unschooling as a way in which we live, ultimately I think I was deschooling through high school. I made a lot of unhealthy choices in an effort to regain my autonomy and the experiences gave me a lot of contrast, showing me what I no longer wanted to have as part of my life.

What do you think the best thing about unschooling is?
Just one? I guess I'd say it comes down to the freedom: the freedom to create your own life, to heal, to grow unhindered, to explore without imposed limitations. Amazing things happen inside of freedom.

What do you think the worst (or most difficult) thing about unschooling is?
I think going against the norm and doing so without support can be especially challenging. If a person lives in an area without a local unschooling community they might be more susceptible to criticism or pressure to fall in line with the rest of society's ways of thinking. 

Did you decide not to go to college or university?  If so, could you talk a bit about that experience, and what (if anything) you decided to do differently instead of college?

I didn't have the need for college for the work I wanted to do at the time (massage therapy) so I chose massage school instead.

I later opened my own business without a business degree or any real training and quickly came to feel as though most of what I might spend tens of thousands of dollars on in college would be a waste of time when I could learn it myself. Especially in this day and age of open-source learning and the endless resources available to us, college is only one way of obtaining it.

That's not to say that I won't at some point decide to take courses. But I don't feel the need for a degree for the things I want to be doing in my life. I don't and have never seen the need for someone else to approve of what I know or can do and unless I someday decide to be a doctor, I don't see that changing.

Are you currently earning money in any way?

What jobs/ways of earning money do you, and have you, had?
As a teen I had several entry-level positions as a cashier or office assistant. I didn't last long because I didn't enjoy the job or the money I was making and wanted something more for myself. Once I knew I didn't need high school like I was told I did, I soon came to realize I don't need anything else that doesn't work for me, either.

Now I'm an entrepreneur: I'm a writer and blogger, photographer, unschooling coach, massage therapist, and freelancer. I do the things that bring me passion and don't feel as though I need to or should choose one field. The world is too big and there is too much to do to pick just one passion.

Have you found work that's fulfilling and enjoyable?
Most definitely. I love what I do and I'm sure it will change and evolve as I do.

Have you found that unschooling has had an impact on how hard or easy it is to get jobs or earn money?
Not really, not the way I view unschooling. I don't think "unschooling" created me or gave me an ability. I think it simply gave me the freedom to create myself and supported my innate abilities. Whereas schooling or limited mentalities got in my way, unschooling stays out of my way.

Do you feel that unschooling has had an impact on what methods of earning money or jobs you're drawn to?
Yes. I don't feel as though I "have to" be tied down to something I don't enjoy. I don't feel as though I should settle or "be grateful" just because. And I desire a lot of creative freedom. I haven't worked for someone else in about ten years and I would have a very difficult time doing it again without that creative freedom and autonomy.

What impact do you feel unschooling has had on your life?
A huge one. It's impacted every facet of my life, from my relationship with my spouse, to my parenting, and life's work, to my outlook on politics and health and social issues.

I base everything off of freedom, support of the whole person and living without conditions or fears.

If you could go back in time, is there anything about your learning/educational journey that you'd change?
Ultimately, I don't think I would, although I do wonder what would have been different had I left school earlier or connected with the broader world outside of school after I left. But I do think that my experiences shaped me and that the contrast helped me grow.

If you have children, do you unschool them?
Yes, although we came to it late.

Zeb (now 11) was in a private school for a couple years, which was not a healthy experience for him.
Although I had left school as a teen, I still had limited views around *when* a person could leave the system (as in, "Sure, school is not for everyone, but you have to learn the basics first.") I still had a lot of deschooling to do. :)

But my foundation helped me to embrace it quickly. Soon after we withdrew him, I began to trust not only my intuition around learning (free schools have always appealed to me) but also my child's natural instincts and passions.

What advice would you give to teens looking to leave high school?
Trust your instincts. Try new things. Get connected with new people. Put yourself out there. Take your time. Hurry up.

Life is full of so many opportunities, most of them hidden and requiring your passionate pursuit of them.

What advice would you give to someone looking to skip, or to drop out of, college or university?
The same advice I'd give to anyone making any decision. College is one route. It doesn't negate or guarantee any other route. Trust your instinct. Go after what you want. And don't fall into the trap of listening to other people's fears. Or your own, for that matter.

What advice would you give to unschooling parents (or parents looking into unschooling)?
Slow down, and spend a lot more time on building connection and trust than anything else.

Then start building upon interests, inviting new things and people into your lives, and creating a rich environment in which the whole family will thrive. Don't get wrapped up in the fears of others and don't project your own fears or beliefs or desires on your kids.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about or add?
Don't let a label define you. The unschooling label can be freeing...or it can be binding. Instead of embracing a label, embrace the way you and others want to feel - joyful, connected, adventurous? Focus on those things and let freedom, trust and compassion be your cornerstones.