The power of self-identification

She wants everyone to know that she is also a farmer, mountain climber, artist, and cook.

That’s the last sentence of a program biography written (well, dictated actually) many years ago by my daughter. She was four at the time, and the music director of our family’s intergenerational chorus had asked her to be a page in a college production of As You Like It. She said yes. I was concerned that she might not fully understand the commitment, and told the music director I wouldn’t force her to continue if she withdrew consent at any point. He accepted the terms, but as it turned out, my daughter felt completely at home on stage, backstage, and everywhere in between.

Now, at 19, she’s turned the corner into adulthood and is a sophomore in college. The other day a visiting friend reminded me of that program bio of old and its innocent, youthful swagger. The contents made an impression on him.

What gave my daughter the confidence to self-identify in so many roles? At the time, she was my husband’s right-hand helper in the garden. They were digging their green thumbs into the soil, growing tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. Therefore, a farmer. We took her hiking as often as possible, and scaled plenty of large hills which she apparently interpreted as mountains. She and her siblings spent many hours using the paints, brushes, pastels, and other art supplies strewn around the house, so artist was a no brainer. When she wanted to make her own breakfast, my husband and I didn’t keep her away from the stove. She’d crack the eggs, whisk them, and stand on a chair to preside over the scrambled eggs. So yeah, she was a cook, too.

Fortunately, she hasn’t lost the perception of herself as a competent human being. She’s always been encouraged to try things out, experiment, and explore her interests. No one told her a cook or an artist had to have credentials other than the simple act of engagement. So many of us are afraid to call ourselves what we want to be for fear that we’re not adequately qualified. I wonder, sometimes, how much that holds us back.

In my role as a facilitator of creative writing groups for homeschoolers, one of my most important goals is that the kids think of themselves as writers. And why not? They come to our weekly gatherings, they participate in writing exercises, and they share their own pieces as they choose. It’s not about trying to get to a point where they’re good enough to have an outside authority bestow on them the title of writer. Their own self-identification as writers, and their investment in that self-identification, is what makes them strive to improve.

I’ve seen it again and again over the years. When kids have the freedom to self-identify and self-evaluate, they become confident, interested, engaged, and daring. They create, they invent, they learn. They don’t have to wait until they grow up to become. They already are.

Bathrooms and trust

Bathroom business. It’s pretty basic stuff, a part of every human being’s daily life. When my eldest daughter, after years of homeschooling, enrolled in public high school, she had to deal with the restrictions placed on all students about their bathroom use.

By the time she was an upperclassman, I guess she was a little tired of it. For her video production class, her project was all about the bathroom. In it, she portrayed a student frantically raising her hand while “holding it,” being ignored by the teacher, then told by the teacher to wait, until finally being granted a hall pass. Change scene to student madly roaming the hallways in search of an unlocked bathroom, with the score from “Mission Impossible” playing tauntingly in the background. Finally, she finds an unlocked boys room, enters, and with great relief, does her business. Upon exit, she’s found out and chastised by the always-on-duty police officer, a touch my daughter particularly liked, since it was unplanned and authentic.

This piece of work didn’t make the teachers and administration rethink how young people might be feeling about they way they were controlling and regulating a basic, private human function. Instead, when the subject of her project became known, she was told not to go forward with it. She ignored that, and received a failing grade.

That story is in stark contrast with the philosophy of Shanna Peeples, a National Teacher of the Year award winner who says her most radical teaching practice had zilch to do with reading, math, history, science, or anything else resembling academics. It was all about the bathroom.

She describes it like this: “I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.”

For extending this basic respect to students, Peeples says her professional judgment, classroom management skills, and even her intelligence were questioned. Kudos to Peeples for disregarding those criticisms and going with her instinct to treat kids with compassion and respect.

Peeples also understands something fundamental about relationships. They’re built on trust. Extending respect and kindness builds trust, and trusting relationships between students and teachers can only benefit learning.

Teachers don’t need to stop at simply trusting kids with their bathroom business. Trusting their intelligence and competence would be nice, too.

It doesn’t surprise me that Peeples, as an award-winning teacher, respects her students. Other award-winning teachers I’ve read about or read writings by have the same attitude. John Taylor Gatto, Jaime Escalante, and Erin Gruwell come to mind. These teachers couldn’t be more different in their approaches, yet they have one major similarity. They all trusted, respected, and believed in their students.

Models of teachers respecting kids, paying attention to who they are, prioritizing relationship, and trusting their students are out there. The more all teachers learn from them, the better off their students will be.

‘Unschoolers’ launch day

Dear Readers,

My co-author Sophia Sayigh and I have been working on Unschoolers for a while and I’m delighted to announce that it’s available now.


Visit our website for various ways you can purchase the book in e-book and paperback formats. I hope you’ll consider spreading the word among your friends in conversation, on e-lists, or via social media.  Perhaps you’ll even feel moved to rate the book or write a review.

I welcome direct communication, too. Drop me a line and let me know what you think! Thanks, as always!

Arlington, Medford authors to celebrate book launch

Arlington resident Sophia Sayigh and Medford resident Milva McDonald will celebrate the publication of their new book “Unschoolers” at a Book Launch Party at 7-8:15 p.m. March 30 at the Robbins Library, 700 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington.Admission is free. For registration and information: In the United States, millions of people home-school their children and numbers are growing around the world, yet home-schooling remains a hotly debated and little..

To read the rest of the article go to the Source: Arlington, Medford authors to celebrate book launch

‘Good Housekeeping’ on unschooling

I grew up with Good Housekeeping. It was the one magazine my mother subscribed to, and since there wasn’t a lot of reading material around my house and I liked to read, I read it.

Perhaps my familiarity with the magazine’s style contributed to my lack of surprise about the article it just published about unschooling. The piece by Caroline Picard combines the tendency of the press to misunderstand and pass judgment on unschooling with the magazine’s smiley, Disney-like, and slightly sensational tone.

The latter is in play with the headline: My Kids Don’t “Do” School and I’m Okay With It.  The subhed is worse: Unschooling is an extreme form of homeschooling you never heard about. And yes, it’s totally legal.

Most readers of media (hopefully) know that in our digital world headlines are little more than click bait and thus are to be ignored, but “extreme”? Really?

Once we get into the text the reporter tries to educate readers about what unschooling is. “Back in 1977, educator John Holt coined the phrase to describe students who direct their own learning, whether it’s through hobbies, chores, work, travel and, yes, even TV and video games.”

Yes, gasp! Even TV and video games! Before we started homeschooling, my eldest spent a year at a public school kindergarten in a “good” school district and watched more Disney movies there than at home, where we got rid of our TV, but I digress with that irony. What strikes me about Picard’s definition is what’s missing from her list. Books were one of my children’s major learning tools, as they are for most unschoolers I know. The learning tools Picard does list are widely used by all people, not just unschoolers, but her failure to include books or anything else that society deems “educational” indicates that she, like so many others, believes that unschoolers make little use of materials that fall into that category, because the assumption, which couldn’t be further from the truth, is that kids would never choose those things.

Later in the article Picard cites a 2011 study which found that unschoolers between the ages of 5 and 10 scored below other students on academic achievement tests. I have no idea how my kids would have done on standardized tests when they were that small, nor do I care. The priorities of unschoolers are so far removed from whether they can excel on a standardized test at all, never mind when they are five to ten years old. Even the researchers acknowledge that little can be gleaned from their sample size of 12 unschoolers, and acknowledge that there is no way to know whether these kids would eventually catch up or surpass their peers in time.

Picard also trots out the old, tired beef about socialization. Schools don’t just teach “subjects,” she says. Developing social skills is important, too. Well, duh. Picard did, I assume, meet the kids she profiled in the article. She also talked to unschooled adult Nadia Sladkey, who is a nurse in a hospital, for goodness sake. She also interviewed Pat Farenga and learned that his three adult daughters all have full time jobs and earned varying levels of degrees. One would think any open-minded, inquisitive person might wonder, gee, these unschooled adults are all functioning in society, maybe socialization is something people get in lots of different ways, not just by going to school as a kid.

But, perhaps I complain too much. Picard does cite a 2014 survey revealing that 83% of unschoolers pursue higher education, and as Picard writes, “…yes, they did eventually get jobs.” Wow, what a relief. Even without a “common metric” to “judge objectively” how much they were learning, they did okay. I mean, that common metric guarantees that every kid who goes to school learns EVERYTHING they need to know to get into college, get good jobs, become contributing citizens, and be happy people, right?

Sarcasm aside, parents who choose to homeschool or unschool are just like other parents trying to do the best for their kids. The unschooling mom’s quote pulled out in big, bold letters (“I worry constantly that I’m ruining their lives”) seems damning in the article’s context, but I wager that any parent worth their salt has had the exact same thought at least once.

Which brings me to the theme of the article about unschooling I want to see, the one that, rather than harping on all the things that can go wrong because we’re so darn weird and “extreme,” finally sees us as regular people, more similar to our fellow parents who send their kids to public school, private school, charter school, or wherever than it might first appear. That’s a vantage point from which minds can open and begin to understand that differences aren’t threatening or bad, they’re just different. In a world where polarization and suspicion of the other are rampant, that would be welcome, indeed.


Another look at ‘Captain Fantastic’

Warning: Captain Fantastic spoilers follow!

Last summer, I went to see the movie Captain Fantastic. There was much I enjoyed about it, but I also took issue with its portrayal of homeschooling. I wrote about my thoughts in a review.

Several commenters disagreed with my interpretation of the ending, so I took another look. After re-watching several times, my initial perception has not changed. I don’t see that the film’s conclusion is open ended or ambiguous. Ben Cash’s kids go to school.

Some argue that the ending is sarcastic. One piece of evidence for this reading is the way the older daughter looks at her father when he tells the kids the school bus will arrive in fifteen minutes. It’s flimsy evidence, at best. The look could mean any number of things.

The evidence that they are going to school is more substantial and easily overrules the mysterious teenager look. Dad tells them to get ready to board the school bus, and he’s packed individual lunches for them in brown paper bags with each of their names written in black marker.

Another reader reasoned that the kids are going to rebel and not get on the school bus. It is true that we don’t see the bus arrive, and we don’t see the kids get on it. Given that, one could argue that it’s an open-ended finale that lets the viewer decide.

Even if I thought that were so, do we really think the vast majority of viewers is going to think anything other than the dad finally came to his senses and sent the kids to school? Homeschoolers who bring an entirely different viewing perspective to the movie may come to different conclusions, but to the vast majority of moviegoers, the ending is a nice, tidy compromise. The family moves to a nice little farm, they still get their exposure to nature, and they join the ranks of society by going to school.

I wanted the end to be different, too. When I saw the kids running happily around the farm, collecting eggs, I thought that was the compromise, and that they would continue homeschooling, just not in isolation. The school thing was a big disappointment, but that’s what happened. I can’t pretend otherwise.

In an interview about the movie, Mortensen says of Ben Cash, “What he finally does is, encouraged by the kids who say, ‘No dad, don’t give it all up,’ he finds a new balance. Which doesn’t mean that he’s compromising himself totally. It just means, OK, what does work, and how can we readjust so the kids can have a chance to interact with society, with other people?”

There’s no mention directly of the kids going to school, but Mortensen alludes to giving the kids a chance to interact with society and other people. In our culture, kids interacting with society means one thing: school. One major stereotype of homeschoolers is that they are socially isolated, a stereotype that this movie did nothing to dispel. We homeschoolers know that homeschooling could absolutely have been part of the “new balance” Ben Cash struck, but that’s not what the filmmaker chose to portray.


‘Unschoolers’ coming in March

I’ve been a homeschooler with an unschooling philosophy for 26 years. I’ve read a lot of great books on the subject, but it’s rare to encounter homeschoolers and unschoolers in fictiounschoolers-frontn. It’s even more rare to see our lives portrayed as anything other than extreme in one form or another. So, I, along with my longtime friend and colleague Sophia Sayigh, have thrown my hat into the ring. Together, we’ve written “Unschoolers,” a fictionalized portrayal of the lives of a group of homeschooling families. Release date is in March, mailing list open now at I look forward to comments and feedback!

Unschooling: they still don’t get it

Today I came across an article about homeschooling by  that lifted a quote of mine from last year’s Boston Magazine article. In talking about my kids I said:

“I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at…”

My interview with the reporter was, like any good conversation, more complicated than an article could represent. I think she did a good job with the story, but conveying the complexity of homeschooling and especially unschooling is beyond the scope of a mere few pages.

I stand by my quote. It is still true, although my reasons for homeschooling, my experiences with it over almost three decades, and its meaning in the context of my life and the life of my family is ever evolving.

Yawar Baig seems to think that people, children included, can not make good choices without understanding the consequences of their actions. Consequences are a funny thing. How can one understand them when they’re only fully clear in hindsight? When I made the choice to homeschool my children, many around me warned of the dire consequences that could ensue. I alone couldn’t possibly provide my kids with a sufficient education, they might not get into college, they might become total weirdos.

The upside of fielding the concerns of others is that it can help one avoid problems that one hadn’t thought of oneself. I can’t say that was the case for me with homeschooling. Did my friends, family, and acquaintances really believe I didn’t think of these things? Conveying concerns through questions and then actually listening to the answers would have been nice, but it was rare. Mostly, it was judgments and assumptions and thinly veiled warnings along the lines of “you’re making a big mistake.”

Were there consequences to my choice to homeschool? Of course. Any action has consequences, and they’re often unforeseen, and they’re usually mixed. I, like most other parents I know, made a carefully thought-out choice about the education of my children. I continued to monitor that choice, modifying it when necessary.

But are kids capable of responsible choice? When Yawar Baig says choice can’t be left simply to subjective likes and dislikes, is there an implication that kids aren’t mature enough to make good choices about what they learn?

Unschooling, the form of homeschooling that I chose, says children can direct their own education. For unschoolers, the world is the “classroom.” Parents and other adults are guides. When they’re needed and wanted, there are teachers, because, as I wrote in another blog post, teachers are most effective when they’re chosen by the learner.

My quote from that Boston Magazine article meant that I wanted my kids to discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and desires for themselves, rather than internalizing the idea that they were good or bad at something because a teacher said so. It meant that I wanted their sense of self worth to come more from within than without, from their own thoughts and pursuits and imagination and observations, not from the praise or grades dispensed by a standardized system.

Of course I know there are wonderful school teachers who enhance the lives of children every day. I had a few myself, but I wanted to do something different with my own family. I discovered that based on my oldest child’s experience in public kindergarten.

Like many parents, I came to homeschooling because of a dissatisfaction with school. My child wasn’t failing there; she was succeeding, and that is one of the very things that disturbed me. She was one of the smart ones, the good ones. She was without a doubt the teacher’s pet. She was proud of herself, but it was also clear that she wanted that status very badly and would do whatever it took to reach and retain it. She became, as Alfie Kohn might say, extrinsically motivated. Worse, she began adopting an attitude of superiority and looked down on other children in much the same way the teacher did, something I observed when I volunteered in the classroom.

There was the troublemaker who drove the teacher crazy, a five-year-old boy with an ADD diagnosis whose consistent punishment for being too loud and rowdy in the classroom was denial of recess. He would sit at the window, looking longingly at the other children playing, his inability to contain his disappointment often leading to more punishments that would be dispensed later.

There was the little boy who fell smack in the middle of the teacher’s intelligence rankings. Maybe that was why the teacher tried to tell him that the special object he brought in to share on show-and-tell day wasn’t what he imagined it was.

There was the little Middle Eastern girl who the teacher complained to me about for various reasons, including a bathroom accident the girl had. One day, after a gym class that parents were invited to observe, the kids were asked to line up at the drinking fountain. Being overanxious for a drink, the Middle Eastern girl ran ahead. So did my daughter. I reflexively thought to speak to my child about getting back in line, but before I could take a step, I watched as the teacher knelt down, wrapped her hands around the other girl’s shoulders, and exclaimed sternly, “You don’t do that!”, completely ignoring the fact that my daughter had also run ahead to the drinking fountain.

There was the sweet, shy, thumb-sucking girl. One day my daughter came home and said that the teacher had told that girl if she didn’t stop she would tie her hands behind her back. I approached the teacher the next day and said that although I assured my daughter her teacher would never do such a thing, my daughter had believed her. The teacher brushed it off and said she was only kidding. After I told the thumb-sucking girl’s mother about the incident, she told me she asked the teacher to refrain from mentioning her child’s thumb-sucking, but the teacher said she couldn’t do that because the thumb-sucking was disgusting. Weeks later, that same mother shrugged and said to me on the playground, “Public school. You give up so much control.”

No, I thought. I could not again leave my child every day with a person who played favorites, dispensed punishments on a regular basis, squashed a kid’s imagination, and thought a five-year-old in her care was disgusting. I would not give up that control.

Initially I thought I would move for a better public school, or somehow pay for a private school, but in the process of researching what to do, I learned about homeschooling. I read an article called “The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto, and I knew that homeschooling would be my path. Although I came to it because of a dissatisfaction with my child’s school, I chose it because it made sense to me, and I wanted it for my family. In other words, it was a positive, not a negative, choice.

The unschooling part, the part that is integral to the issue of letting kids choose what they learn, that came later, although not too much later, after observing that the activities my daughter chose for herself were more fruitful and meaningful than any schoolwork I could assign.

Yawar Baig’s article isn’t the first time I’ve encountered skepticism after expressing my thoughts that children can learn and develop just fine by choosing and pursuing their own interests. Gracy Olmsted in the American Conservative referred to “my teaching philosophy (or lack thereof)” and said my comments in a Pacific Standard interview raised questions about whether children would “sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them…” She and I have radically different views of children, as I don’t believe they have predispositions toward laziness or ignorance, but her assumptions that older adults would be absent as coaches, sources of inspiration, or influencers of other kinds are just wrong.

My response to her was a post I called Unschooling: they just don’t get it. Yawar Baig’s article, although addressing homeschooling in general, gives me the same feeling. In fairness, unschooling is a pretty difficult concept to get without actually doing it, but it’s important that we keep talking so that one day, people look at homeschooling and unschooling as just another educational option.



On depriving kids of screens

“Deprive” is such a loaded word.

It came up this week in an online thread about technology, a long and winding discussion in response to a mom expressing concern about allowing her child unlimited screen time.

Many unschoolers feel that limiting screen time does not mesh with unschooling philosophy, and said so. I shared my own story, about limiting screens via lifestyle choices my husband and I made.

We don’t have a television. We made the decision to get rid of it when my son was nearly ten and my younger daughters weren’t born yet. We did have computers but back then they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and my daughters didn’t gravitate to them.

They spent most of their time with books, music, art supplies, dress up, and the great outdoors. We read to them often, cooked together, went to the park, walked in the woods, biked around town. We took them to plays, concerts, outdoor festivals. They tagged along to our adult activities such as community meetings, my husband’s band rehearsals, and even my job.

Yesterday, under my comment describing our choice to limit screens in our lives, someone used the word “deprive.” Technology is the tool of our kids’ generation, and she wouldn’t want to deprive her child of that tool.

Did I bristle? Yes, indeed. When we are told we are depriving our children, it touches something deep in the parental psyche. Fortunately, this time it was a brief twinge. My kids are grown, and I’m past the point of caring all that much.

Despite not having been brought up with television, smart phones, or regular computer use as young children, my kids are quite comfortable with technology. By the time they were teens they acquired their own computers and smart phones, and had little trouble figuring out how to get what they wanted from them, which included, in my son’s case, building websites for his various pursuits.

When my kids were younger, it wasn’t uncommon to deal with judgment about our choice not to have television. My mother used the word “deprive.” Some unschoolers did, too. As homeschoolers, we were used to being judged. We felt good about our choices, but in a culture that scrutinizes parents and holds them responsible for how their kids “turn out,” insecurity is difficult to escape.

Which is one reason “deprive” is such a loaded word. It reeks of judgment, and goes right to vulnerabilities many parents feel, particularly those who are making unconventional choices. Homeschoolers and unschoolers tend to have strong opinions. I don’t exclude myself from that characterization, but sometimes I think the vociferous way those opinions can be expressed is, ironically, part of the defense mechanism we develop against being judged ourselves. We are, after all, “depriving” our children of one of the cornerstones of our society–school.

The result can be that homeschoolers and unschoolers spend as much time judging each other as society spends judging their choices, and that’s too bad, because what we need from each other is support.

Support is what helps empower people to create the lives they want. For us, that life was one without a plethora of screens, but our kids got other things. It wasn’t a matter of depriving–rather, to us, it was about giving. I’m sure that’s also what it’s about for the mom who wants to provide her kids with technology, and that’s just fine with me.

Unschooling is about trusting our kids’ innate ability to learn, but as anyone who’s done it knows, it’s also about finding what works for your family. The more we can support each other in that process, the better.



Unschooling: All you need is love

This week I attended a screening of Clara Bellar’s film Being and Becoming.

The movie portrays the filmmaker’s process of learning about unschooling in order to determine whether to choose it for her own family. It’s a personal journey that takes us to the United States, France, England, and Germany. One of the movie’s strengths is that it sticks to unschooling, inviting viewers to stretch their viewpoints about children and learning and entertain the possibilities unlocked by an unschooling lifestyle. Rather than turning to experts or talking heads, Bellar wisely focuses on unschoolers themselves, letting their voices, images, and stories speak. The exception is a brief but welcome appearance by John Taylor Gatto, whose passion and life force are as inspiring as ever.

We see children learning through play, engaging with the world, enmeshed in the lives of their families and communities. Among the voices is an adult unschooler talking about his childhood, his experiences as an unschooler, and his views about being in the world, which include the necessity of meaningful work. Not surprisingly, he’s fashioned an unconventional work life that allows him to pursue professional instrument making along with his other interests.

It was fun to encounter the group of British theater kids, a parallel experience with my own unschooling community, which also has a thriving Shakespeare troupe. The footage from an annual gathering of unschoolers in Europe reminded me of the camaraderie, learning, and connection that happened during our annual camping trips.

Most especially, I appreciated the film’s focus on relationships and human connection. It’s radical, indeed, to propose that children’s most vital needs beyond a roof and food are security and love within their families, and that those basic ingredients are not merely enough, but can be keys to a life in which learning is inevitable, joyful, and unstoppable.

It can also be radical to see unschooling as a feminist act, but we hear from women in the film that feel it’s so, strong women who’ve made the choice to unschool because they’ve prioritized well-being and joy. They unashamedly embrace that being with their children is a fulfilling choice. It’s also meaningful work that can exist alongside other pursuits. As we see in the movie, the unschooling lifestyle is a holistic one–families consist of individuals that live and learn together but also support each other’s individual interests. Hence, unschooled children can observe firsthand the work of their parents, much the way Bellar’s small son must have observed his mother engaging in the work of making “Being and Becoming.”

Freedom is a big buzzword when people talk about unschooling. It’s certainly mentioned often in this film, but the freedom it talks about is really a byproduct of the love shining through the whole movie–an unconditional love that acknowledges and celebrates each person’s individuality and genius, and that allows for “Being and Becoming” to happen every moment, for all of us.