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.

Do you like what I have to say on the topics of unschooling and self-directed learning? Consider supporting me on Patreon.