Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best Young Adult Fantasy Novels of 2016

I know, I know, this isn’t exactly a post about unschooling. And on an unschooling blog no less! How could I? But as the year comes to a close, and I look at my list of books I’ve read in 2016 on Goodreads, I wanted to share some of my young adult fantasy favorites. Why this genre, in particular? Because fantasy (aimed at both teens and adults) makes up at least 90% of what I read, and because I thought some of you might appreciate some good recent books about young people doing extraordinary things. Each of the novels that made it onto my list is the latest in a series, so essentially I’m reviewing each series rather than each book, and I’ve listed the books which came previously--and which were not published in 2016--in brackets. I hope, if you choose to check out any of these books from your local library, that you’ll enjoy them as much as I did!

Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives) by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott has long been a favorite of mine thanks to her Spiritwalker series, so when she made her first foray into the world of YA fiction with Court of Fives last year, I eagerly snatched it up! And neither that novel, or this year’s follow-up, dissapoint. Our protagonist, Jessamy, wants nothing more than to compete in the dangerous and prestigious Court of Fives, a competitive obstacle course popular with all levels of society. An athlete through and through, she doesn’t want to have to worry about politics. But having been born to--and, shockingly, acknowledged by--a high ranking Patron soldier, member of the ruling class and race, and a Commoner mother, a colonized and oppressed racial group in this Roman-esque empire, for Jess her very existence is political, a fact she just can’t escape. Because change is brewing. Rebellion is simmering amongst a people desperate to hold onto and reclaim their culture; deadly political maneuvering is taking place in the highest tiers of power; and war is approaching with neighboring countries. Jess must carefully make her way in this fraught landscape, striving to protect her family and make the right choices when there are no good choices. More tightly plotted and faster paced than Kate Elliott’s adult novels, I look forward to the next installment.

Reader discretion: Some rather disturbing/gory violence; reference to and threat of sexual abuse/violence; the murder of children.

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes) by Sabaa Tahir

Whereas the above series takes place in a carefully drawn world with distinct cultures, Sabaa Tahir’s world, though similar in some ways to that of the Court of Fives series, feels like the world is simply sketched in. A staged setting where, while a couple of elements might stand out, the majority fades into the background. While that might not be something I’d usually excuse, I can overlook it in this series because the story itself feels meticulously built: Tahir isn’t flying by the seat of her pants, she knows where this story is going. And let me tell you, where it’s going is some pretty dark and brutal places! The viewpoint characters, Laia and Elias (in the second book a third viewpoint is introduced) could not come from more different backgrounds. Laia is born to the Scholars, a conquered people now brutally oppressed by the Empire, and Elias, taken as a child to be trained as a member of the elite soldiers/interrogators/assassins known as Masks, is a bitter and deeply reluctant tool of the Empire itself. When Laia’s family is torn apart, she makes the desperate decision to become a slave and spy, and as her and Elias’ paths cross and their lives become tangled together, they both have to find their own kind of strengths, and figure out just what sacrifices they’re willing to make--and what horrors they’re willing to commit--in order to survive, save those they love, and try their best to do right. This is one of these extremely grim, dark stories with truly horrible things happening pretty much constantly, but which still manages to have hopeful threads throughout. The characters and plot both are extremely compelling, and these books have stuck in my head long after I finished reading them... I really hope the bright spots are built on in the final novel(s?) so that the darkness doesn’t feel completely overwhelming.

Reader discretion: Torture (of both adults and children, including viewpoint characters); murder (again, of both adults and children); slavery; genocide (yes, really); attempted rape.

Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows) by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows sets itself utterly apart by being something I almost never see in fantasy fiction: a heist novel, complete with a mastermind criminal who’s always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else; a sharpshooter with a gambling problem; the best spy (and thief, and occasional assassin) in the city; an incredibly dangerous magic user; an explosives expert with a secret; and an ex-soldier and (mostly ex) zealot who’s roped into all of this very much against his will. Members of an up-and-coming street gang in the bustling mercantile city of Ketterdam, all of them are hand picked by the aforementioned mastermind to travel across the sea in order to steal something of immense value and dangerous political ramifications… Following their theft and all that comes after it, this series is fast-paced, quite dark, often funny, and all around delightful. Watching the bonds develop and deepen between these characters is a real pleasure, and I hope to see more of them in future novels.

Reader discretion: Gore, torture, murder, reference to past sexual abuse/rape, all involving children and teens.

A Gathering of Shadows (A Darker Shade of Magic) by V. E. Schwab

Take multiple Londons (grey London, with no magic; red London, steeped in magic; white London, vicious and starving; and black London, shut off from the others lest it consume them all); a rare traveler able to move between worlds; and a ruthlessly ambitious cross-dressing thief with dreams of becoming a pirate, and you end up with this series. Forming a slightly uneasy truce, world-traveler Kell and thief Lilah must work together to stop a creepy body stealing being, defeat a desperate sorcerer, discover the true nature and limits of their respective magic, and find their own place in the worlds. Though the first book started off a bit slow in my opinion, once I got into it, I was hooked. I positively adore mean and prickly Lilah, and I’m pretty darn fond of brooding Kell and his beloved and rather dramatic brother Rhy (who gains a whole lot of greatly appreciated complexity as the series progresses). In many ways this is classic fantasy: dark sorcerers and evil worlds and the like, but there’s so much about it that feels fresh and original, and I very much appreciate V. E. Schwab’s distinctive voice.

Reader discretion: Attempted rape, murder, torture, creepy body stealing being, mind control.

The Raven King (The Raven Boys; The Dream Thieves; Blue Lily, Lily Blue) by Maggie Stiefvater

If I had to pick just one favorite YA novel of 2016, it would be this one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more misleading cover jacket description of a first book, which I believe goes something like “romance blah blah first love doomed to die blah.” In actuality, this is a book about relationships: romantic ones sometimes, yes, but every bit as important are friendships and familial relationships, in all their incredible complexity, fierceness, devotion, tenderness, jealousy… Maggie Stiefvater is a truly marvelous writer, moving from laugh-out-loud funny to lyrically moving between one sentence and the next, dragging the reader deep into a world where the rural Virginian countryside and it’s stark class divides are overlaid by a hidden world of sleeping Welsh kings and mystical forests and dark beings. Following a year in the life of five friends--the decidedly un-psychic daughter of psychics; a ferocious dreamer; a scholarship student desperate to forge his own identity; a quiet, insightful boy prone to disappearing; and a driven, charismatic boy who is going to die. You just can’t look away from their relationships, the beauty of the world they discover, and the creeping horror that is every bit as much a part of these hidden worlds. This series also includes one of the most nuanced and real feeling “coming out” arcs I’ve ever seen, as well as deeply moving and sensitive explorations of the trauma of abuse, of loss, and of growing up. Those themes are every bit as magical as the more fantastic elements. Though there are a couple of things I wish were different about the final installment, it really does do an excellent job of closing one of the best series I’ve read in recent years.

Reader discretion: Child abuse; strong horror elements; murder; suicide (attempted and successful); drug abuse.

What were your favorite novels this past year? Share them in the comments below!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Ideological Nonsense" or Revolutionary Education? 5 Outrageous Things I've Learned as a Practitioner of Unschooling

Negative mainstream media articles about unschooling--like the tides, the changing seasons, and election years--are a perennial phenomena, as familiar in the autumn as falling leaves for those of us who keep an eye out for such things. Sometimes, though, it’s not even an article about unschooling, and instead the snide remarks--or in some cases even outright calls for governmental bans--are tucked into a wider-ranging piece. That’s the case in the recent article from The Guardian titled Is the state sometimes wiser than parents? Starting out with a defense of the state sanctioned body shaming of children in the UK (based on the extremely unscientific BMI), it quickly moves on to the topic of home education, broadly, with special mention of the horror that is unschooling:
Some may be getting an adequate education – we just don’t know. But it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
Frustrating? Yes. Funny? That too! I had to crack up at the “outrageous state of affairs” bit in regards to children--gasp!--learning from living. I could get into the author’s wider point about what role the state versus parents should play. As a (collectivist, anti-capitalist) anarchist my own views on the matter should be clear: I’m for children’s rights above parental OR state control, and am in favour of anything that contributes to children’s rights to bodily autonomy, freedom of thought, self-determination, and safety, and against anything that hampers those things. But instead, I’m going to keep things focused on life learning, and how very effective and delightful (another thing education apparently shouldn’t be!) it is.

5 Outrageous Things I’ve learned as a Practitioner of Delight-Driven, Inquiry-Based, Self-Directed Life Learning (a phrase I even put on a T-shirt, by the way)

Fun is as important as education, and the two tend to go hand in hand. In “progressive” education circles the term “play-based learning” has become very popular, and while play needs to be recognized for the incredible importance it has in learning, too often what is meant by that phrase is nothing like true (self-directed, collaborative, spontaneous) play. Instead it’s adult-directed activities designed to “educate” young minds, which usually isn’t that much fun at all, and even when it does manage to be fun, still doesn’t have the same benefits as children’s play. Unschoolers get LOTS of time to play, to have fun, to do things simply for the joy of them. Every single activity doesn’t have to be justified by it’s supposed educational value, and instead children--and adults, too!--can do their best to live an enjoyable life, confident in the knowledge that learning is ever present.

A curriculum has no place in real learning. When adults in power decide what every single child at a given age needs to know (and what they don’t), where the lines between subjects will be drawn (and that there should be lines between them), and how those subjects should be fed to children (regardless of the differences in how each child learns), children are robbed of the sense of excitement, discovery, and freedom found in self-directed life learning. Children have the right to make their own decisions and their own mistakes, to think their own thoughts and choose where, how, and with whom they want to spend their time, in an age appropriate way, and within reasonable constraints of family, community, and finances. What stands out to me about my own unschooling upbringing is how flexible and collaborative it was, something I never would have been able to experience within the constraints of a curriculum.

Solitude is as important as socializing. Arguments that unschoolers (and more broadly all home educated children) are lacking in socialization is predicated on the idea that there is one ideal level of socializing time that is right for every single child… Which is pretty absurd, when you think about it! Unschoolers can figure out, with help and support from the adults in their life, what type of and how much “socialization” is right for them and their unique personality and needs. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all curriculum, there’s no one-size-fits-all model of socializing, either.

Boredom and downtime are essential parts of learning and living. When every moment of a child’s life is planned, organized, and monitored, they lose out on the time needed to process experiences, daydream, and find creative ways to fill their own time. No emotion should be vilified in the way that boredom frequently is, and when it’s instead embraced as simply part of the experience of being human for many of us, it becomes easy to see all the benefits it brings.

Children and adults can work together as equal partners in the adventure that is unschooling. In schools there is a very clear hierarchy, with teachers making up the ruling class and children the very clearly ruled. When you learn outside of school, you have the opportunity to re-imagine what child-adult, teacher-student relationships can look like and be. Children have different needs than adults, are smaller and less experienced, and are at a different developmental stage than older people. But different needs don’t mean lesser ones, and respectful relationships between caregivers and children make up the backbone of unschooling. It’s through cultivating trusting relationships, open communication and good time spent together that a learning partnership is formed, where all parties can work together to pick activities, learn exciting new things, and reach chosen goals. Life learning isn’t neglect; it’s about living and learning together.

It can be easy to let negative media exposure get you down, but instead I choose to just re-iterate, again and again, what unschooling actually is, how it works, and the role this philosophy can play in transforming the way we, as a culture, look at education. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and sadly there will always be people whose reaction to not understanding a lifestyle is that it should be banned. But while change will always seem threatening to some, the reality is that unschoolers--along with other self-directed learners--are doing something truly revolutionary, and pointing the way towards a future of greater respect for children, and greater understanding of the way humans best learn and grow. Which I’d say is outrageously delightful.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

So You've Started Unschooling... Now What? Tips On Not Stressing Out As You Start Your First Unschool Year

For the majority of people, a new school year has just begun. But for a small yet growing portion of the population, there’s none of this “back to school” thing happening. Instead, they’re celebrating a new year of school-free life learning, and for some of you, this will be your first ever NOT back-to-school year, as you embark on a new unschooling adventure.

I’m a grown unschooler, so I’ve never experienced this through the lens of a parent, but as someone who has been writing and speaking about unschooling for over eight years, I’ve become very familiar with the types of concerns and worries new-to-unschooling parents have. With those in mind, I wanted to put together a post on how not to worry (too much) in these early days.

So if you’re new to unschooling, take a deep breath and read on!

You’re doing this for a reason

Your friends keep looking at you with reproach, your extended family thinks you’re ruining your children’s lives, and everyone around you keeps talking about the importance of schooling. The panic might just be starting to set in. But the thing is, you didn’t make this decision on a whim. You chose to start unschooling for a reason. Maybe your kids were struggling in school, or maybe they were bored. Maybe you feel as if your family has become disconnected, and you want the time to build stronger relationships. Maybe the lack of freedom in schools seems stifling, and you want your children to learn to trust their own judgement and make their own decisions. Maybe it’s all of the above. But whatever led to your choice, they were darn good reasons. Focus on that. Remember why you’re doing this.

This is YOUR choice. Set boundaries when dealing with friends, family members, and assorted concerned citizens

Think about how much you want to share or explain when talking to family, to friends, and to strangers. Talk to your kids about ways they can respond both to concerned friends and nosy neighbors. If you know what you’re comfortable saying (or not saying) ahead of time, have some answers prepared, and are ready to politely but firmly shut down the conversation when it gets too intrusive or judgmental, then dealing with the inevitable reactions to your unconventional choices will quickly become less stressful.

See also: How to Talk About Homeschooling (So That People Will Listen)

You probably won’t find your groove right away

When you decided to unschool, you probably had an idealized image in your head: children driven to learning by excitement and delight, the whole family reading together, exploring local museums, jumping head first into volunteering, whatever. And maybe things aren’t looking quite the way you thought they would. Your kids just want to watch TV and play quietly by themselves, and no one even seems to want to leave the house! Well, here there are a few things to consider:
  1. What's happening, in part at least, is deschooling. Pam Laricchia, one of my favourite unschooling authors and bloggers, explores just what this is and how to deal with it on her website, which I highly recommend. The (very) short version? If your children were previously in school, they need time to recover, to relax, and to know that they really, truly can decide to do what they want to do with their time now, whether that’s TV or otherwise.
  2. Your children are not you, and they’re not necessarily going to make the choices that you would make, or do the things that you think they should be doing. One of the most defining aspects of unschooling is trust, and now is the time to start practicing that by trusting that they’re making the choices they need to, for themselves, at this time. Suggest and offer, by all means, but respect that you’re now creating a partnership, not acting as a teacher, and your children get to learn how they want to learn.
  3. Learning happens all the time and everywhere. Just because it doesn’t look the way you expect learning to look doesn’t mean it isn’t happening!
See also: Fun Is More Important Than “Education” and The Role of Boredom and Dabbling in Pursuit of Passionate Learning

The goal is creating a great unschooling experience for your family, not re-creating a different family’s experience

Some of your expectations of what unschooling would look like probably came from other unschoolers--a family you know in your town, a blogger who inspires you, etc. Gaining inspiration from others is great, and looking to more experienced unschooling parents can be so helpful! But ultimately, you’re not re-creating someone else’s unschooling experience. You’re creating your own. Each family and each individual is different, and so every single unschooling family--every unschooling lifestyle--will also be different. This is good. This is great! Genuinely individualized living and learning is something few people are lucky enough to experience. So embrace it, and work on creating an unschooling lifestyle that is a perfect fit for YOUR family.

Find mentors and supporters

That said, it is important to have support! You need people who understand your choices, and people who have more experience with unschooling can be really helpful. See if there’s a homeschooling or unschooling group in your area that suits your family, join Facebook unschooling groups in which experienced unschooling parents are ready and willing to give suggestions and advice, go to an unschooling conference. Wherever and however you find it, make sure you get that support.

Experiment, and prepare to be flexible

Congratulations, you now have the ability to tailor your lifestyle to your own family! But what exactly is ideal for your family? Now’s the time to experiment, and I use that word not in the “try it and drop it if it doesn’t work out at first” way, but in the “try lots of different things and see what works and what doesn’t” sense. How much time at home or out is ideal for your family? What do each of you enjoy doing, and how do you most enjoy doing it? What are the different needs of each family member, how do they compliment or clash with each other, and how can you best handle things so that everyone feels heard and respected? I think that one of the things I’ve always loved the most about this lifestyle is the ability to be flexible, to change things up when they’re not working, and to allow your daily routine to evolve and change as you and your children grow and change. It’s likely going to take a lot of trial and error, but it is most definitely worth it.

See also: Authentic, Personalized, Flexible Learning: Why Curriculum Will Never Be Good Enough

Focus on the here and now, not the future

It’s so easy to get caught up in the “what ifs:” What if your kids want to go back to school? What if your kids want to go to college? What if you’re not preparing them well enough for the future? Schooling is very focused on building future adults, not nurturing the little (or not so little) people who are actually there, and the idea that education is only or primarily a preparation for the future is so pervasive in our culture, that it’s easy to let that attitude slip into our personal lives. But, is that really what you want learning--and life--to be for children? A race to the finish line that is adulthood? Instead, you can focus on the here and now, the person who exists right in front of you. Build strong relationships. Learn. Do your thing. And handle the “what ifs” as they become relevant, instead of panicking about the future long before it’s arrived. After all, children can always do the necessary academic work to “catch up” if and when it's needed if they choose to go to school; teenagers can always study for the tests they need to take to get into college or university if they decide that’s a goal of theirs. Outside of school, without the busywork and classroom management, and with genuine desire and motivation behind their choices, children and teens can usually gain the academic knowledge and skills they need in a much shorter amount of time, and with a great deal less stress.

Enjoy each other

As Pam Laricchia has said: "There is a foundation of living and relationships and connecting and trust that lies in the foundation beneath the learning. So instead of focusing on the learning, when we focus on creating that strong foundation, learning naturally and beautifully bubbles up." So let that be your focus. Step by step, work on building relationships, connecting with each other, creating partnerships. No one is leading or following. Instead you’re just doing your best to create a rich life, one with joy, one in which you share conversations and closeness through both the good and bad that gets thrown your way.

It won’t always go perfectly. But with commitment--and yes, excitement, joy, focus, all those good things--it will probably be pretty darn great.

Like what you see? Consider supporting Idzie on Patreon!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Support Your Friendly Neighborhood Unschooling Blogger

The work I do, writing this blog for over eight years, and maintaining an active accompanying Facebook page with 14,000+ followers, means so much to me. It's challenging, and enjoyable, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding. It's also WORK. Struggling to write a post that truly conveys what I'm trying to get across; finding good things to share on the unschooling Facebook page on a daily basis, and moderating the sometimes contentious discussions that spring from what I share. Even in the more fallow times, I'm still spending a lot of time thinking about what I want to write and share, making sure the Facebook page never gets too quiet, and trying to get better emotionally so I can get back to writing, because my emotional wellness has a very direct impact on how much I'm writing.

And all of this? It hasn't felt really sustainable for a long time now. I love what I do, and no matter what, I plan to continue for as long as I can, as much as a can. But trying to support myself financially through writing, while also struggling with mental illness, has not been easy.

So after thinking long and hard about it, hemming and hawing and going back and forth on whether it would be a good idea, I decided to open a Patreon account. What is Patreon, and why have I decided to use it, you ask? Here's an excerpt from my very own Patreon page:
Patreon allows people like you--readers and supporters--to become "patrons" by pledging a recurring monthly donation in the amount of your choice, whether that's $1, or $20 (or something in between). Your generosity can help ease my stress around finances, thus allowing more energy and time to be spent on doing the work I love; it can help me seek out much needed healthcare that isn't covered under the public insurance I have; and it can help me to find greater independence and security in my everyday life.
And I wouldn't want to ask for something for nothing, so I'm not.
I've committed myself to writing two posts a month for I'm Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write., and along with that, by becoming a patron you gain access to a bunch of perks like early access to those regular posts, as well as access to a patron exclusive monthly post on a topic voted on by you; exclusive interviews (audio, video, and written) with my family, unschooled friends, and contacts with interesting things to share about self-directed learning; live Q & A's with me; behind the scenes peeks at what's happening with my work; exclusive access to the text of any speech I write; and my endless gratitude! I believe strongly that ALL supporters, no matter how much or how little they choose to contribute, are important and greatly deserving of my gratitude, so all perks will be available to all patrons, whether their pledge is $1 or $20.
Or you can also watch my welcome video, where I explain in brief who I am and how this all works:

Do you like what I'm doing, and feel like you might want to support me in this way?

Become a patron. Help me to continue doing what I do.

And know that whether you choose to become my patron or not, I am so incredibly grateful for your comments, shares, and all the other ways you show your support. I wouldn't be here without you all!

This weeks schedule of special events:
  • TODAY, September 5th, my Patreon page launches! The page will go live at 11 am EST, and I'll be around all day to answer questions: just message me on Facebook, or post on my Facebook wall
  • WEDNESDAY, September 7th, I'll be doing a LIVE Q&A on Facebook. Ask me about what it was like growing up unschooled, or being an unschooled adult; about my writing; about Patreon; about anything you want! Just head over to the page at 1 pm EST on the 7th and join in. Q&A will run until 2 pm, unless there are still lots of questions, in which case I'll stick around for a while longer.
  • FRIDAY, September 9th, I'll be sharing my first Patron exclusive article, something I wrote a while back but that's never been published before... It's about quitting, and why it can be a good thing. So if you choose to support my work through Patreon, at any pledge amount, you'll be able to read it (don't worry if you choose not to become a patron. I plan to be posting twice monthly on this blog, so there should be plenty to read here!)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Importance of Solitude: When Socializing Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

One of the greatest sources of so called “concern” when it comes to school-free learning is “socialization.” It often seems that at least 50% of the questions we get asked as home-learners boils down to “but what if they don’t have any friends?”

There’s plenty of rebuttals out there--I wrote a long one a while back myself--but I find myself wanting to explore a different counter-argument, and that’s whether or not we really need as much of this socializing thing as many folks seem to think…

Firstly, I’d like to be clear about what I am--and am not--talking about.

The word “socialization” carries some heavy baggage, and though the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition is--for the most part--pretty innocent, in regards to homeschoolers specifically the word has come to signify something more like “assimilation” or “obedience to authority,” with “what about socialization?” being quickly followed by “how will they learn respect for authority?” and ”how will they learn to stand in line??” Not really what most unschoolers, at least, are going for.

So instead I’m speaking of socializing, “to talk to and do things with other people in a friendly way,” according, once again, to the good old Merriam-Webster.

That’s what we want, I should think! But, then comes the big question: how much of this do children really want, or need?

Distraction and focus

I can’t read in the Doctor’s office. And I have to say, I love to read. I read very quickly. I have been reading lots very quickly for over 15 years. And yet, surrounded by rustling bodies and quiet conversations, buzzing cell phones and names being called, I can read the same paragraph a dozen times over and still be entirely clueless as to what, actually, I just read.

In the simplest, most “education”-oriented way, being surrounded by lots of other people makes it quite difficult to focus for a large percentage of people. Whether I’m reading a novel, or learning about the chemistry of lacto-fermentation, or figuring out how many cans of paint I need to fully cover my bedroom walls, I need a calm, quiet environment to truly focus on what I’m doing. That’s been the case all my life, and while I’ve enjoyed learning some skills with others (choirs and dance classes and the like), French class and history class (taken by choice through a local homeschool co-op) were far from successful.

Some people have no trouble focusing when it group settings. For others, though? It’s nearly impossible.

Energy in, energy out

We’re all familiar by now with the “introverts” and “extroverts” model, and while I’m definitely part of the crowd that questions the accuracy achieved when making two broad categories and attempting to fit the whole, complicated mass of humanity into one or the other, it at least provides a good starting point. Because some people do mostly find they gain energy (or recharge) when by themselves, while others generally feel they gain energy by being with others. Still other people recharge best with a select few people for company; ambivert socializers might find how and when they recharge to be entirely dependent on context...

Which is really just a long way of saying that there are a whole lot of people who find spending eight hours a day, every day, surrounded by people to not be the best match for them.

As an example? Me. I love spending time with people! But not for too long (I start to feel drained); and not in noisy and bright and busy environments (a side effect of a mental illness I’ve struggled with since early childhood is the experience of “sensory overload,” which can cause me to basically shut down, lose all focus, and find even the simplest of decisions very difficult).

I might be a more extreme case, but the fact remains that for many people, spending a very large portion of their childhoods surrounded by whole classrooms worth of other children is not their ideal situation.

Isolation and loneliness

When people fuss about school-free learners and our supposed lack of socialization, what they’re often really saying is that they fear children will be isolated. And it’s true, that’s bad! And to their credit, I have met home learners--often from either very rural (aka isolated) areas, or those whose families believe that their children should only interact with people of the same religion as theirs--who ARE isolated. However, those are generally the outliers, and furthermore, school doesn’t really provide a successful solution.

It’s not the solution because, as I think all of us have experienced at least a couple of times in our lives, it’s quite possible to feel completely alone when surrounded by dozens of people. Along with isolated home learners, I’ve met people who felt profoundly out-of-place in schools, who lacked friendship and support and a feeling of belonging every bit as much as those isolated homeschoolers. And in my experience, there exist a lot more lonely children in school than isolated ones outside of school.

To me this problem goes beyond education, and seems likely a result of a culture which does its best to shut children away from the real world--effectively isolating them--leaving even school-free learners sometimes struggling to break into the communities around them. 

Choice in learning means choice in socializing

Not only do we all have different needs when it comes to how much time we spend with others, but also what type of socializing we like to do. Some people love big groups and parties, others prefer smaller groups or one-on-one interactions. Some people want to do things with friends: attend a pottery class or have a Risk night. Others just want to quietly play together as children, and just hang out and talk as adults. Many people want all of these things, in varying proportions.

Unschoolers are learning the ways in which they function best in the world--with the help of supportive adults--which means they’re learning how and what they want to learn, and they’re also learning how to build a healthy social life for themselves, which first means figuring out what IS a healthy social life for them!
It’s not often thought of in those terms, but a one-size-fits-all education system also encourages a one-size-fits-all social model, that leaves many children feeling lonely, or drained, or pressured to be who they’re not and do what they don’t want to do.

Being alone can feel really, really nice

Being alone feels like having time. Time to think, to process, to daydream, to plan… In a culture where both children and adults spend the bulk of their time in school or at work, arriving home exhausted and drained, too many people of all ages are missing out on the true benefits of being alone.

Instead of fearing unschoolers aren’t receiving the necessary amount of socializing, perhaps we should be worried that the majority of people aren’t getting enough time by themselves.

Loneliness versus solitude

Yes, we are social creatures. But we are also complex creatures, infinitely variable in both our inner and outer lives, with vastly different needs and desires. We all need both solitude, and time with people, but the balance tips in different places for each of us. As Paul Tillich said:

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”

And if we can let go of the fear of our children being alone (or being alone ourselves), and work to embrace the glory of solitude, we could probably all do a better job of creating social lives that actually meet our needs.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Everything Doesn't Have to Be a "Passion:" Why Half-Assing Things is Fine, Too

Passion. We hear the word constantly. Parents and teachers want children to “find their passion,” adults are encouraged to find theirs (as if everyone has just one in the first place), and every new interest found is met with excitement: maybe they’ll be good at it people think. They can monetize it, start a blog about it, get good enough to compete, even! Each interest or skill, then, is thought of as a means to an end. They might go somewhere with this one, an adult thinks with pleasure, as they look fondly on their child’s new coding hobby. “You could start a business!” someone exclaims with excitement to their friend upon trying their cupcakes for the first time.

But, maybe that’s not what everyone wants. At least not some of the time. Probably not most of the time. Maybe not ever.

Because I’m here to share an important piece of knowledge I’ve learned, and it is a very simple one: it’s okay to half-ass things. It’s fine to not be good at something. And even more importantly, it’s fine to not want to be “good” at something!

Sometimes we can, without striving for anything greater than that.

Here’s the thing:

We don’t have the time to be good at everything, which means we’re going to prioritize some things over others.

Those world class musicians, Olympic athletes, and top notch actors? That’s all they do. For years. Every day is spent practicing, honing their craft, striving for greatness. For most of us, that’s just not what we want. We’re more generalist than that. And even when it comes to the things we do want to invest a lot of our time and energy into, we only have so much of that time and energy, so we have to prioritize what we love and want the most. As my sister recently said, “writing and Ninjutsu are part of who I am, but playing ukulele is just something I do.” Or as I believe she put it, “you can’t full-ass everything!”

Things can still be fun, enjoyable, and exciting even if they’re just hobbies, and not something we want to get serious about.

My sister loves being able to play ukulele well enough to strum along while she sings. It’s something she gets joy out of. She just doesn't happen to want to get better for the sake of being better. She’s fine with the place the ukulele holds in her life right now. This is true for all of us, and isn’t something to be ashamed of. Why do we think we need to be serious about everything? Why can’t we do something just because it’s fun?

People’s misplaced expectations cause pressure, and pressure frequently makes things not fun.

Say you’re a young adult who just picked up a gardening hobby. Really you’re just dabbling so far, dipping your toes in, seeing if you like it. But every time someone asks you what you’re up to, and you mention gardening, suddenly it becomes Something Big. Your mother wants you to sign up for a permaculture course. “You can start a landscaping business!” Your neighbor suggests with enthusiasm. “Do you know the city has a best garden award? I bet you could win it if you worked hard!” your uncle says with a smile. Everyone has big ideas for your gardening greatness, but really, you’re new at this, and you’re already starting to think that you’ll be happy if the extent of your gardening is just growing half a dozen tomato plants. Or maybe not even that, because you’re getting so tired of people turning what was a fun hobby into something you just don’t want it to be.

Outside pressure that has not been agreed to frequently makes people feel uncomfortable, and is far more likely to lessen motivation and interest than to increase it.

Yes, sometimes hobbies or interests will turn into great passions, or paid work, or great renown.

But it’s not our job to decide what will or won’t become a big part of someone else’s life. Not if they’re a child, a teenager, or an adult.

And yes, sometimes people need encouragement.

If something’s hard, someone might give up due to lack of confidence: a belief that, even though they really want to pursue something seriously, they’re just not good enough. I don’t mean to say that people--and children especially--don’t sometimes need encouragement, offers of classes or special interest groups, and suggestions of ways they can take their interests in new directions, or to a higher level. Consider this merely as a reminder to tread carefully, and make sure we’re helping others--be they children or friends--achieve their own goals, not superimposing our goals or expectations onto them.

In conclusion? Having a real passion for something is great. But so is just having fun!

And what’s even better? Being the ones who get to decide where are own interests are going to take us...or not.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Unschooling Subjects?

People just discovering unschooling often have a lot of questions. How do unschoolers learn what they need to? Do schools really have the right idea in dividing everything into separate subjects? And can unschooling really work for every individual? My short answers would generally be lots of different ways; no; and every child can unschool, but not every parent or situation is compatible with unschooling. However, I really think I need to go a bit more in-depth with those answers…


When you really start immersing yourself in unschooling, you start to see that, barring any learning disabilities, it's easy to absorb all the basics from everyday life. Sometimes it can be helpful to observe just how seamlessly those subjects are being learned, even though eventually, you probably won’t think of learning as being broken into subjects at all!

  • Reading is learned from being read to, dictating stories to a helpful adult or older sibling, playing word games, picking out books at the library, deciphering a video game manual or board game instructions, using computers…
  • Writing is learned from reading, creating stories, communicating with friends online, blogging...
  • Math is learned through playing card and board games, helping with shopping, managing their own money, helping with budgeting, cooking and baking…
  • History is learned through conversations with friends and family, books and movies and tv shows (both fiction and non-fiction), looking things up on the internet...
  • Geography is learned from traveling and making friends online with people all around the world, keeping track of current events (online, through news on TV, and newspapers)...

When an unschooler wants to gain higher proficiency in any of these things, they can dive into researching something they’re interested in, find mentors or teachers (with parental help, depending on age and what the learner wants and needs), and take online classes or in person ones (at a homeschool co-op, college, or offered to the wider community). After all, unschooling simply means self directed (adult facilitated) learning. It doesn’t mean you have to eschew all structure, it just means that the learner should be calling the shots (in partnership with supportive adults in their lives).

...Maybe not

As you gain greater comfort with the unschooling lifestyle, you start to find that breaking everything down into distinct subjects--and trying to find or create learning in every moment--is extremely limiting. Reading is writing is history is art is geography. Learning is in large part the process of making connections, following the threads and seeing where they lead, what they intersect with, and how they affect each other. When we try to set firm boundaries between various subjects, all we do is impede those connections, restraining and interrupting the natural curiosity and desire to build an ever more complete picture of the world and our place in it. If we’re going to call anything “education,” perhaps it shouldn’t be about schooling at all, but instead about our continuous process of building and re-building that picture, looking at it from different angles, adding and subtracting from it as we learn and grow and change.

Learning is such an endlessly complex process, that to try and break it up into firm subjects seems almost absurd.

Everyone is born a self-directed learner

A lot of time I hear those who have limited familiarity with unschooling say that this type of learning helps children “learn how to learn,” and my reaction to that is always that everyone knows how to learn! Children need supportive people in their lives, circumstances that allow those people to invest the time those children need, and access to resources, but if you have those important elements, everyone is capable of unschooling. Obviously, those circumstances can be hard to find in our capitalistic culture, where many people just don’t have the financial ability for a parent or trusted adult to stay with children. My point isn’t to minimize that, just to point out that humans are built to learn, that we all have the innate abilities needed to do so, and that while external factors might get in the way, if the circumstances are right then we’re ALL unschoolers.

ALL children, you say? What about children with learning disabilities, or neuro-atypical children, or other children with special needs? It’s the job of an unschooling parent or guardian to help their children gain the skills and find the resources they need to achieve their goals, which can absolutely include specialized tutoring, therapy, support groups, or other services. Remember: unschooling is all about self-directed learning, cultivating learning partnerships between children and their parents/guardians/mentors/teachers, and using a variety of resources as wanted and needed. The nature of unschooling means that each learner’s “education” will be completely different, and can bend and adapt to the unique needs of everyone involved.

So there won’t really be a collection of subjects that every unschooler studies. There won’t be one standardized body of learning that every child has. But when it really comes down to it, the world is a very big place, and each person can only ever hope to learn a fraction of what’s out there to be learned. It seems to me that the best we can do is accept that fact, and work to support each individual in living a life and creating an “education” that feels meaningful to them, and equips them with whatever skills they need and want.

We can look at how various subjects are learned in different unschoolers lives, we can use examples to explain how it works to prospective unschoolers and naysayers alike, and we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we (or our children) are learning some of the same everyday skills that children in school are (supposed to be) learning. But in the end, it would probably do everyone a whole lot of good if we stepped away from the idea that everything can and should be broken into subjects, and that every individual needs to learn the same things in each of those subjects.

Learning is too big for that, and it makes a whole lot more sense to just take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Being A Good Parent--And A Good Person--Means Being Pro-LGBTQ

In the early hours of this morning, a man with an assault rifle walked into a gay night club and opened fire. After a several hour standoff with police, it ended in his death, as well as the deaths of at least 49 LGBTQ people who were partying in a place where they thought they were safe. Over 50 people were rushed to hospital, meaning the total death toll is likely to rise.

Over the coming hours and days, news outlets will be rife with speculation, as the investigation continues and new facts emerge. Already there’s lots of talk about it being an act of “Islamic terrorism,” with none of the news outlets seemingly capable of focusing on anything else. I know that, regardless of what the shooter’s religion was, I won’t be blaming Muslims, or people of any other religion, as the impetus behind this horrific massacre. The shooting occurred at a gay night club, during Pride Month, in the early hours of the US celebration of Pride Day. This was a hate crime, targeting a minority that, despite the progress made in the last decades, continues to face incredibly high rates of violence, especially the most vulnerable among the LGBTQ community (queer people of colour, trans women and especially trans women of colour). It’s not surprising to me that the largest mass shooting in the US since 1890 targeted LGBTQ people.


The blame might not lie with any religion, and I fear greatly for the repercussions Muslims, including LGBTQ Muslims, will face in the coming weeks, as once again a huge population is blamed for the actions of a single person. But the blame does lie with more than just the single shooter: it lies with a culture of homophobia and transphobia, and with every single non-LGBTQ person who with their words and actions contributes to a culture of violence against myself, and everyone else in my community of LGBTQ people.

I live in a country (Canada) and a province (Quebec) where it’s better for LGBTQ people than plenty of other parts of North America. Better, but not good. Trans people have to run a bureaucratic gamut to change their legal markers, and face a tremendous amount of transphobia from a frequently ignorant or even hostile medical establishment. All LGBTQ people still face homophobia from society at large, in popular media, in schools, in homeschooling groups, in almost every group not specifically designed for LGBTQ people (and sometimes even in those groups) that you can find. In times when I presented in a more gender-bending way, I had people on the street yell at me about my sexual orientation. LGBTQ friends have all been harassed in greater or lesser ways.

Violence always exists on a spectrum. At the extreme, it manifests as the largest mass shooting in the last 100 years of American history. But leading up to that exists a wide range of acts that nurtured that shooter. I blame everyone who’s ever sneered the words “faggot” or “dyke” or “tranny.” I blame every person who ever talked primly of “those people” with their “unnatural lifestyles.” I blame every parent who ever told their children that gays were “sinners.”

Because it all starts with parents. The choices you make, the attitudes you model, the words you say, they shape the future. Your words can be the difference between a child who knows they are loved unconditionally, and a child who hates an essential part of who they are with such horror and disgust that they kill themselves. Your attitudes can be the difference between raising a child who embraces their friend when they come out, and raising one who buys a semi-automatic weapon and opens fire in a crowded room filled with strangers they genuinely believe deserve to die.

Or maybe it won’t be that extreme. Maybe they’ll simply be the kid who sends me a message online telling me I’m going to hell. The one who calls my friend and his boyfriend faggots.

Parents don’t have all the power. Our culture is homophobic, our culture is transphobic. We will be affected by this, every single one of us. A young queer person with the most loving and supportive of parents can still feel that there’s something wrong with them because of their sexual orientation. The straight teenager raised by parents who always spoke positively about LGBTQ people can still learn it’s okay to use the word “gay” as an insult.

You don’t have all the power. But you do have such an important role to play in helping create a more just and loving world.

When I read the news earlier today, I sat and cried. Those people who were murdered early this morning, almost 1,500 miles away, were a distant part of my adopted family. I haven’t been able to get this imaginary image out of my head all day, an image of a dark bar, dozens of bodies scattered across the floor, screaming and crying and a bone deep terror I pray I never get to feel. I’m heartbroken.

And I’m begging you, please, no matter what religion you follow, to stop contributing to this violence. You might think your words are so far removed from this horrific act as to be entirely disconnected, but you would be wrong. Your words build on the words of others, your actions pool with those of your neighbors, your family, your friends. Isolated ideas gather strength as they join with others, building momentum until they are laws allowing health care practitioners to turn away a gay man having a heart attack so he can die on the streets; they become pastors preaching damnation; they become a transgender girl shunned by every age mate she knows for the way she dresses and the name she asks to be called; and they lead to the death of at least 50 innocent LGBTQ people who just wanted to celebrate Pride.

Please, be a voice not just for tolerance, but acceptance, and support. Speak up, stand up, raise up powerful LGBTQ voices, and work to end every tragedy, big and small, perpetrated every day against our community.

I want everyone to do better. Because I never want something like what happened in Orlando, Florida, to ever happen again.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Fun is More Important Than "Education"

I read a new post on how “fun for the fun of it” is good enough by Wendy Priesnitz, and it got me thinking.

I like to talk about how we’re constantly learning--how we can’t help but do so--and how unschooling is really just embracing that fact.

But just as important is realizing that we don’t always have be learning.

Bear with me for a second.

As adults, you probably enjoy doing a whole range of activities for pleasure: watching movies, listening to music, reading novels. Adults aren’t expected to justify these activities, it’s just accepted that they’re enjoyable, and that’s considered enough of a reason to do them.

Yet somehow when it comes to children, all that changes. “Education” must somehow be crammed into everything, from games to children’s TV shows. Even something as fundamental to childhood as play has to be defended by experts attempting to prove that it increases concentration, test scores, or the ability to work well in a group. Apparently if there was nothing pointing towards a correlation between play and success in school, play would be deemed useless altogether.

It seems that, in some ways at least, adults are actually given more leeway to have fun. Children are kept so busy by parents and teachers, determined to mold them into productive members of society, that some of the truly important things in life get pushed aside. Because when it really comes down to it, what are we trying to cultivate in our lives and that of our children? Is it perfectionism, competition, and academic achievement, or is it joy, creativity, and meaningful relationships? I know which goals sound better to me.

Me, my sister, and my mother.

Yes, talking about TV shows--about the plots and character motivation and how it compares to real life--might be “educational,” but at least as important is that watching a favourite show is fun. Reading novels might improve vocabulary, but the real reason we do so, no matter our ages, it because of the delight fiction brings us.

Play for play’s sake, fun for the sake of nothing more than fun, is valuable. Really valuable. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing with my sister, and some of my best adult memories are of laughing uproariously with those I love. Doing both fun and meaningful things is what makes us feel satisfied with our lives.

Unlike some homeschoolers have suggested, unschooling isn’t about sneakily teaching children what the parents want them to know: it’s about centering life, not education. It’s evaluating your priorities and realizing that learning runs parallel to a richly lived life, and doesn’t need to be artificially engineered in children’s lives.

When you realize that, you can let go and enjoy life, and allow your children to enjoy theirs. Play games, splash in the mud, watch TV, read comic books, do whatever it is that brings you and your children joy.

Have fun, and the learning will take care of itself.