‘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: https://unschoolersbook.com. 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..

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‘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.