Today… something extra special…
For everyone whose kids aren’t heading back to school today, in appreciation of the path you’ve chosen to walk. Never a dull moment, is there?
And, for everyone whose kids are heading back to school today, who, 10 years later, are still asking me, “But how do you do it? And what is it, exactly, that you do all day?”
I’ve finally decided to tell you. 😉
In gratitude to Inspired Calgary for the opportunity to get on the soapbox, and to sponsors Pandia Press, Bravewriter, Patterson Springs Farm, Wild Child Alternative Education, Bean & Bear Media, and Mountain Reach Educators for making the event possible.
And an extra-special thank you for Sean Lindsay to capturing the event on video so that those of you who weren’t there can see me call Yo-Yo Ma a violin player.
(I was very nervous.)
The transcript of the speech I was supposed to give follows the video. Obviously, I departed from the script just a little…
All right. Unschooling. Let’s have a quick poll. Who here is familiar with the concept, philosophy, whatever you wanna call it? Who thinks it’s the best idea ever and that’s what they’re going to do with their kids? Awesome. I love preaching to the choir… Who thinks it’s totally kooky and only crazy people would do it? Who equates it with unlearning and unparenting?
Don’t be shy to tell me so—when I first heard of unschooling, I was kind of appalled. And, here I am, 10 years later, its fourth biggest advocate.
Its first, second and third biggest advocates are my three children.
Unschooling, as most of you know, was the term coined by homeschool advocate John Holt—and I’m sure you’re all reading all of his books and Growing Without Schooling articles—they’re all archived on the web—if you’re not devouring them, do, they are absolutely inspirational.
John Holt used the term unschooling to refer to homeschooling in general. Holt thought that the best and most important thing about homeschooling was that it not duplicate school in the home environment.
Since then, the idea of unschooling, and the term itself, has acquired all sorts of definitions and sister terms, including delight-driven learning, free range learning, child-led learning, interest-led learning. There are as many ways, today, of defining unschooling as there are families who call themselves unschoolers.
The thing most people think we have in common is that we are curriculum-free—or at least curriculum-light. The actual, much more important thing that I believe all unschoolers have in common is that we love learning and we believe our kids love learning and we believe our kids will learn whatever they need to learn as they need to learn it.
This is both unbelievably easy and unbelievably hard.
It also starts, not with believing in your child, but with believing in yourself. To be an effective unschooling parent, you need to love, crave, delight in learning new things. All the time. And be confident that… you can do it. That when you need to learn Japanese—you will sit down, grit your teeth, do the work, and learn Japanese.
If you don’t have that trust and confidence in yourself, you will not have it in your children.
So I actually have an assignment for all of you who are thinking about unschooling. I want you to think about something you’ve always wanted to know how to do—and, starting tomorrow, I want you to start working on it. Japanese? Knitting? Car maintenance? Worm composting? It doesn’t matter what. Something.
It’s possible that you’re a little out of practice at chasing your passions and your interests. Before you start helping your children on their unschooling journey, launch yourself. Be passionate about your life, your interests, your learning.
I think that’s a critical prerequisite for being an unschooling family. The parents have to be committed life learners too.
My second assignment for you, if you are thinking about unschooling, is to commit a month to—are you ready for this?—doing nothing to actively shape your children’s education. Just… watch them. When you’re not setting the agenda—what do they do? When left to their own devices, when they are not interrupted, when they are not shuttled from activity to activity, playdate to playdate, what do they do?
Pay attention. Do it alongside them—or at least watch them. What do they love to do?
Then offer them a little more of it. But not too much. Make it findable, reachable, available—but don’t shove it down their throats.
So this is the point in the conversation when someone usually starts to hyperventilate a little and say,
“But if they want to be a world class violin player and I don’t get them in early child hood music education by three and practicing an hour a day by five, they’ll never get there!”
Or “But if they’re not reading by six they’ll be behind.”
Or “But suppose all they want to do is play video games?”
Here’s the thing: a child raised to love learning will never be behind. A child brought up in a family that values learning and who learns how to learn continuously, constantly—not to pass a test, not to get a certificate but to acquire a skill or knowledge they need and want to have—that child has an incredible leg up on kids who are forced to learn things they don’t care about.
How many of you had to take French as a second language in school? I did, through to grade 12. Languages are incredibly easy for me. I spoke five or six before I was 10. I learned Japanese and Korean in university. Spanish when I decided I wanted to travel in Latin America. I’m learning Farsi now. French? After being made to learn it when I didn’t care about it?
I think I can say Please and thank you in a horrible Western Canadian accent, and that’s about it.
Here’s another thing, though—if you can’t make yourself believe this—if you think your children will never want to learn to read unless you make them—if you think your children will never want to learn math unless you make them—unschooling is not for you. I’m not sure homeschooling is for you, either, but that’s a highly controversial statement and if you like, we can argue about that on Twitter sometime, but not here.
(I’m @NothingBTBook. Come fight–er, talk–with me.)
If all your kids want to do is play video games—awesome. There are so many studies coming out now about the advantages of video game playing on learners, that Sweden has made Minecraft mandatory in its schools. What you, as a parent, need to do in that case is—hang out beside your children while they’re playing their games. What are they doing, really? There’s more happening than just swiping at the screen in most of the games children gravitate to.
Talk to them about what they enjoy. And why. If you think the game they’re playing is idiotic—it’s okay to think that—try not to say it. Watch. Angry Birds is all about geometry. Minecraft is fabulous. Fruit Ninja, I’m not so sure about, but, you know, the lame games, kids burn out on—they binge for a while, and then move on to something more stimulating. Hate the game they’re playing? Do some research and offer a more interesting one.
(You might want to check out these posts too: How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games + space-that-is-me-my-heart-made-made-into-place, which is about the dangers of telling people you love that the things they love are stupid)
As for that world class violin player who’ll never fulfill her dreams unless you get her in lessons by age three…
One in a million three year olds has the kind of talent that will turn her into a violinist like Itzhak Perlman or a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma.
(Also, yes, I’m totally making up this statistic. I’m not actually a 100 per cent sure what instrument Yo-Yo Ma plays. Call me on it.)
And if she has that talent, there is very little you can do to extinguish it. Fail to sign her up for violin lessons—she will find a ukulele in a neighbour’s house and start strumming it. She will demand lessons. She will practice without you telling her to.
I feel a cynic in the audience, who says no child will practice violin—guitar—piano—unless you make her. Not even a talented child. Again, I say—if you unschool, you have to have that faith.
I agree with you that plenty of children can be turned into competent musicians if you force them to practice.
(Not everyone’s an artist. And that’s ok.)
What I’m saying is that the children who truly love music—art—science—math—for whom it is the interest and the passion—they will discover it and chase it and master it without you forcing them to sit down for an hour of practice every afternoon.
If you don’t believe me, you shouldn’t unschool. You will be miserable, and you will make your children miserable with your inconsistency and lack of confidence in themselves.
OK. Enough philosophy. What you all want to know is, what does unschooling look like on a daily basis? And I’ll give you a few examples from my family, but before I do I want to talk about scheduling, routines and rhythms.
For me, unschooling does not equal unscheduling. It does not mean not knowing what the hell we’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month in all aspects of our lives. It does not mean waking up Monday morning, rolling out of bed at 11 a.m.—that’s only in my fantasies, sigh—and saying, “Gee, I wonder what we’re going to do today?”
I work, my kids’ daddy works, our work demands introduce a fair bit of deadline-driven chaos into our lives, and all of my children do better in the context of some sort of predictable schedule. One of the things that worries me most when people first discover unschooling is that they turn it into this Religion of Freedom in which nothing is planned, all is chaos… and everyone is miserable. Some people do great when everything in their lives is unplanned and unpredictable.
I am not one of them, and neither are any of my children.
And so—no unscheduling in my life. Our life, and our unschooling practice, has a definite rhythm. It’s a responsive rhythm rather than a rigid one, but there’s a definite routine.
The main anchors of our daily routine are, frankly, about me, and not the kids. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is write for 30 minutes. This is my meditation, my religious practice, my work, my everything—no matter what else happens in my day, this is what I must do. Then, I check in with the kids to make sure they’ve eaten—keep in mind my kids are 14, 11 and almost 7 now—and I make sure they’re settled into doing something—it’s summer still in our world so that something generally involves being outside with their friends—and then I go back and try to wring at least another hour of time, sometimes two for my work.
Then I turn my attention back to the kids. Feed them second breakfast or first lunch—anyone else’s kids just never stop eating—and be available to them if they need me for something. This would be the time that I do math with 11 year old, or she’ll show me her latest modeling clay project or something, or my seven year old will want to show me his Lego project. Or we might read. Or we’ve made plans, or make plans to go somewhere interesting in the city, alone or with friends.
I have a teenager now, and he sleeps until late, and when he wakes up, I try to be present and not distracted to just hang with him for a bit. He and I are trying to get into the habit of doing math each afternoon for 15-30 minutes—he’s very math/science/engineering focused, and he’ll probably want to do some on-line math courses soon, so we’re working on establishing those habits. How does this fit into an unschooling philosophy? See, this is something he wants to do—this awareness and desire came at an age at which it made sense to him that certain building blocks had to be in place first—and so, we’re doing it.
By the way, after not doing any math, at all, until my eldest was 11 or 12, we breezed through grade 2, 3 and 4 level math in 17 days—I kept track—and then grade 5 took a little longer, 21 days. And then we took a break for almost year, reviewed everything in a week, and he keeps on plugging away at it. And he’s the one who reminds me we’ve skipped too many days.
When he’s not doing that, by the way, all he does is play video games. And run. And listen to audiobooks. And watch Youtube vloggers. And run. And play video games. And Skype with friends. And make cookies from scratch. And run to the Y to go for a swim. And look up tutorials on how to set up servers, hack mods or optimize his computer to better play video games.
All he does is play video games… and I think he’s doing ok.
(But did you notice that… he doesn’t just play video games? I know this—because I watch and pay attention…)
The 11 year old is an artist, and she spends big chunks of her day drawing or making jewelery. Also writing stories about unicorns. Yesterday, she came to me and said she wanted to ramp up her math. So that might happen.
The not quite 7 year old mostly plays in dirt and with Lego.
So my afternoons focus on what the kids need and want, and might include going swimming, going to a thing—there are so many things happening in Calgary all the time! It’s awesome! An unschooler’s tip: I put all the things in my calendar as I hear about them. So, Beakerhead is coming up—if you don’t know what Beakerhead is, google it, and I’ve just taken care of all your science planning for the year, you’re welcome—as soon as the program guide came into my hands, I ran through it, marked all the stuff that looked cool, put it in my calendar, and so, when on that Wednesday in September, I’m not on deadline and we want to go do a thing—look! There’s a cool thing happening! Let’s go!
When we get back from a thing—or when I finish a bout of doing something with them at home—by late afternoon, we all take a break from each other. The kids either go to hang with friends—we live in a great neighbourhood for that—or chill with audiobooks or the little guy builds Lego—and I go to my writing space or to the balcony to be alone. I might work or inflict myself on social media… or I might just stare off into space for a while.
As an aside—self-care and taking time for yourself and to be alone is so critical as a homeschooling parent. Teachers have regular breaks. So do day care workers. Make sure you give them to yourself.
Then, supper. After supper, the kids can go on screens—so when I said my eldest plays video games all the time, I just meant all night. Except on binge days—that’s another part of our routine—I need two days a week when I can really hyper-focus on my work, and on those days, they have unlimited screen time.
Ironically, those days don’t look that much different for them than the other days, except that I’m not really available to them in any meaningful way.
A couple of nights a week, my daughter has martial arts class—the boys don’t do classes of any sort, it’s against their religion, my eldest informed me once—and a couple of nights a week, I take to myself and head out of the house almost as soon as my partner comes home.
Once or twice a month, I get us out of the city for most of the day—into the mountains, or to Drumheller or to a place like that.
And that’s sort of what unschooling looks like.
It looks like… life.
I’m going to give worldschooling just a few minutes before I close, because worldschooling is not complicated. You travel, you learn. You experience, you learn. That’s really not much else to it. And you will worldschool just the way you homeschool. So, as an unschooler talking about worldschooling, the perspective I offer is for goodness’ sake do not turn every museum-temple-whatever visit into a forced educational experience with pre-experience reading and post-experience worksheets! But, you know, if that kind of thing is a critical part of your personality, you will bring that to homeschooling and to worldschooling. And that’s okay. We have to be the people we are.
I think almost all of us dream about the possibility of worldschooling, right? Travel, exotic locales—it’s exciting. I’ve just spent three months with my kids witnessing a Cuba in a transition as intensive as the Communist revolution of 1959 and it was exhilarating.
I’ve taken my kids to Poland, France, London. To all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and to fishing villages in Mexico too.
This is a fabulous experience, and if you can afford to travel the world with your children, do it. It will be exhausting, and at times you will wonder why you ever bothered to leave—but in the end it will be worth it.
If you can’t afford to—and I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind as you go along on your homeschooling journey—everything is possible in theory, right, but practical considerations trump our dreams. Travel is expensive, even when you do it cheaply—especially if you are a family of five, six or eight, right? Your job, your partner’s job—and input into you taking your children off to Asia for six months, come on honey, you won’t miss us that much—your own level of comfort—these are all important considerations.
If they keep you close to home—worldschool in your city and your community.
There are two ways of doing this. The first is to look at your city and your province the way a tourist would. If I were a stranger here, where would I go? What would I see? Make a list of all of this area’s museums and tourist attractions—even the crappy ones. And explore them, even the crappy ones. The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is a one of a kind experience, and it’s only an hour away.
Walk the streets of your city—or the one that’s an hour’s drive away—with no agenda other than to experience it—learn it. Obviously—take your children along.
The second—we live in a multicultural city, and we live in the time of the Internet! Take advantage of both. Go to the city’s various cultural festivals. Go to ethnic markets. Take your kids out for some out-of-your-comfort-zone food—or get a cook book out of the library and prepare an Indonesian or Moroccan or whatever feast at home.
One of our favourite things to do is to go to the Asian supermarket and look at all the foods we don’t eat. And, sometimes, buy them and eat them. Often they’re delicious. Occasionally, they’re gross. Both experiences are fabulous.
I don’t have to tell you how the Internet brings the world to you—I’m just going to remind you not to forget it. A vicarious experience of the world is right there, at your fingertips. One of my kids favorite things that they’ve found on the Internet on their own and brought home to me is Universal Yums. Every month, a box of candies and snacks from a different country arrives in our mailbox, complete with a little booklet of facts and trivia about the region of the month, sometimes with links to music or movies—what a spring board for further exploration!
UniversalYums.com, and yes, they ship to Canada.
The world is your classroom.
Your city is your classroom.
Your life is your classroom.
If you want to learn more about unschooling, I do have a legacy blog, Undogmatic Unschoolers, you are welcome to mine for information. I only update it twice a year now, with the children’s learning plans in September, and their progress reports in June–you may find these helpful as you consider your own un/home/learning journey. It also has all sorts of unschooling-in-calgary resources.
POSTCARDS FROM CUBA return with a teaser tomorrow. Are you ready?
If I’ve changed your life–I aim high ;)–consider buying me a cup of coffee ($5), a bottle of cheap wine ($20), or, you know, a week’s worth of groceries ($350).*
(Seriously. Those damn kids WILL. NOT. STOP. EATING.)
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Thank you, thank you, thank you! For sharing your experience and knowledge so generously, and for uploading and sharing your talk, too, and even writing a transcript and sticking in gorgeous pictures of your children and adventures.
You’re a rock star in my world!
I felt a bit caught out at one point… I’ve certainly gotten confused about that whole “religion of freedom” thing when I discovered unschooling. That’s been much better since I started thinking about how I can ensure that all of us get our needs met, and unscheduling really isn’t an option for us, either. Especially not for me. It is lovely, validating, and enlightening to hear your perspective on this, as you’ve formulated (and obviously been living) insights that were partly only diffuse yet. I really don’t mind not doing the entire discovery process all by myself, either, quite the opposite. It’s hard enough figuring this all out, and if someone hands me a torch, so I can bump into fewer corners while I feel my way through the dark, I’ll say “thank you very much” as prettily as I can.
So, again, thank you very much. 🙂
(And yes, I know of your Paypal button and have used it, and shall do so again.)
*diffuse for me, not you.
Rebecca, I was totally having a “why do I keep on blogging and shouting out into the wilderness, maybe I should like, take up knitting and make useful mittens, or go volunteer at a women’s shelter and actually do real things ” day, and I read your comment—and… thank you.
I’m glad that my comment helped turn that day around.
I “made” my husband watch your talk, and he loved it, too! So please, keep writing. I’d be happs to help with knitting advice if needed. But your writing warms our hearts way better down here in New Zealand!
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