‘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.

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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!

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.

Not back to school time, again

The nights are getting cooler, our first butternut squashes from the garden have been picked, apples are showing up at my local farmers’ market. Fall is coming, the season of mists and yellow fruitfulness, to quote John Keats.

It’s the season of the bittersweet, harvests of plenty, and the last gasps of beauty and fullness before the frost of winter. In our society, the season has been forever changed by the onset of school. Whatever we feel about school, the end of August is inextricably linked to it. As Dar Williams put it in song, The summer ends and we wonder who we are.

Who we are , is homeschoolers. For us, fall is not back to school time, as it has been for so many years.

Wait. Have I got that exactly right? My 19-year-old is going back to school, after all–to her sophomore year at college. My 17-year-old just went to the first of her three self-chosen community college classes last night, and will probably enroll in college next year, which makes this homeschooling year particularly bittersweet for me.

I’ve been involved in homeschooling for a quarter century. It was the way I chose to educate my own four children, but along the way I organized field trips, hosted potlucks, published newsletters (pre-internet), moderated my support group’s Yahoo list, helped found a statewide non-profit advocacy organization (Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts), and led writing workshops.

I still volunteer for AHEM, and I still lead writing workshops. I love working with kids in an environment with no curriculum frameworks, no grades, and no pressure to perform on standardized or other tests. Watching kids learn and grow in this way is a privilege and a blessing for which I’m ever grateful.

Homeschooling has changed radically since I first dipped my toes into the waters, in ways that make me wonder how my own homeschooling would play out if I were starting today. I hope that families are still discovering the value of that organic process of learning, and the rewards of kicking back and enjoying a slow homeschooling lifestyle.

I know I am.

Spreading love with the HEDA Project

This was supposed to be a celebratory post. It’s been on my list to write about the Boston Area Homeschoolers’ Queer Straight Alliance (BAHS QSA), and the HEDA Project, the new venture they’ve just launched.

The group is close to my heart for many reasons, including the fact that my own kids were among its founding members in 2011. Back then, they were excited to form what we believe was the first QSA for homeschoolers in the country. They hoped to create a safe space for queer homeschoolers and their allies, raise community awareness about LGBTQA issues, do some social justice work, and have fun.

Their successes include presenting workshops at two Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network conferences, advocating for gender neutral bathrooms at local venues, sponsoring an LGBTQA Youth Summit to connect local GSAs with each other, and hosting three proms.

They’ve been lucky enough to have the phenomenal Anna Watson as their advisor, and though they’ve faced challenges, they’ve felt a lot of love and had a lot of fun. Despite that, they are all too aware of the bullying and negativity that many LGBTQA individuals have faced and continue to face.

And then last weekend, we were all reminded that the LGBTQA community is also vulnerable to horrific violence.

So here I sit, still in shock, still grieving, writing this post that’s been on my list for more than a week, and that was supposed to be full of joy.

Then my mind comes ’round again to the kids and their overflowing ideas, their hope for the future, their fire to set things right, to make the world a kinder, more tolerant place.

With the HEDA Project, the young people in the BAHS QSA offer us one way–perhaps the most important way–to live in the face of unspeakable tragedy and hate. By sharing hopeful, positive, uplifting stories of LGBTQA youth, they choose love.

HEDA stands for Happy Endings: Deserved by All. As they put it, “We want to provide a safe, happy place for LGBT youth where our stories can be heard and told without any fear.”

The love and light they are spreading is needed now more than ever.

Visit the BAHS QSA here, and the HEDA Project here.

What are you doing this summer?

We all have them, right? Summer memories of lazy days, popsicles, swimming, pick-up games of tag or kickball, and oodles of fun.

Well, maybe we don’t all have them, especially since summer has become just another season for scheduling stuff. These days, when people ask What are your kids doing this summer? the answers generally include multiple kinds of classes, day camps, sleepaway camps, or other programs designed to help keep kids from getting bored, driving their parents crazy, or-heaven forbid-having nothing to do.

campingyay 051Lately, I’m even reading about camps designed to appeal to people like me, people who unschool their kids. Yes, there are camps now that advertise themselves as places for self-directed learners. You can sign up to send your kid to a camp where they get to choose what they do all day, experience community, and learn to be themselves.

The reality, of course, is that no special program is needed for such an experience. Unschooling offers it every day, regardless of the season.

I remember looking forward to summers when my kids were small.

We gathered with other families at the beach, where the kids spent hours building sandcastles, frolicking in the water, hunting for shells, and finding tiny hermit crabs.

We took regular hikes at our local nature reservation, observing the plants, searching out wild edibles, and picking wild blueberries that we enjoyed in pancakes, jam, and pies.

We biked to the lake near our house, where we swam, hung out with friends, and picked black raspberries for snacking.

For vacation, we visited family in Northern Virginia, checking out Monticello and Mount Vernon, exploring Luray Caverns, hiking at local state parks, and playing with cousins. Or we went camping, exploring nature trails, beating the heat at the pond, biking to the ice cream shop, walking on the sandy ocean bottom at low tide.

When my kids got older, they sometimes signed up for summer programs connected to their special interests, but until they became teenagers those were a small part of the fabric of summer life.

While articles about and links to learning centers, camps, and other structured programs directed at homeschoolers, unschoolers, and “self-directed learners” continue to pop up in my news feeds and inbox, I was relieved to see an antidote that appeared recently on Huffington Post. It’s by Pam Lobley, and it’s titled How I Slowed My Family Down. Like, to the Last Century.

“When the kids are little,” she says, “simply being together and enjoying the passage of time can be the best way to enjoy the hottest months.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

Homeschooling without polarization

This morning I came across a new book written by Michael Kenmore, a homeschooled adult. It purports to be a neutral analysis of homeschooling by someone with firsthand knowledge of growing up outside of school.

I really want to read the book. I think homeschooled adults can have valuable perspectives we should all look at. I remember how much I appreciated hearing the young adults in Peter Kowalke’s film Grown Without Schooling talk about their lives.

Kenmore’s book is called Homeschooling Without Harm. That doesn’t sound so neutral, but I forged ahead, anyway, and read this in the book’s intro: “In most cases, homeschooling just benefits parents—individuals who can indulge in their overprotective tendencies while convincing themselves that their children are better off because of it. In reality, these parents are probably setting their kids on a path to hate them and themselves.”

So much for neutrality. I still plan to finish Kenmore’s book, because I still think it’s important to listen to all voices, but I was dismayed when I read the blanket value judgment he made in his introduction.

About an hour later, I was talking with a homeschooling mom who said she’s afraid to send her two kids, ages 9 and 12, to the library, two blocks away from her suburban home, by themselves. She’s not afraid of attackers, predators, abductors, or other dire consequences. She’s afraid because too many people she’s heard about and known have had authorities called on them for letting their kids do things like walk to the library or the park or the grocery store.

She wants to let her kids walk to the library alone, but she knows that if she does, facing legal repercussions is a real possibility. I don’t blame her. I also have known too many families who’ve been investigated by social services for having a family bed, letting their kids play outside with no coats, and other ridiculous reasons. Most of us read about the horror show a Maryland family experienced last year because of letting their kids walk to the park. Fortunately, it all worked out fine in the end, but who wants to go through that?

How do these ideas coexist? How do we, on the one hand, argue that most homeschooling parents are overprotective for not sending their children to school (because Kenmore isn’t the only voice I’ve heard that unsubstantiated claim from), and at the same time argue that the state needs to patrol children so intensively that if they are left on their own for any brief period, their parents need to be investigated for potential neglect? When I read the website of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, I think we may be getting to the point where some people believe homeschooling parents should be investigated for neglect simply for choosing to homeschool.

My kids are mostly grown now, and I feel fortunate that I was able to exercise my right to homeschool without undue fear of investigation. The way I chose to do that might qualify as educational neglect to some, because we unschooled and didn’t pursue traditional lessons in much of anything until my kids were well beyond elementary school age. That didn’t mean, of course, that they weren’t being educated, but under strict regulations designed in accordance with the methods and approaches of traditional schooling, at any given point they may have been found lacking.

By the time they were tweens, my kids were getting themselves places on their own, either by walking or taking public transportation. The descriptor “overprotective” was actually leveled at me more than once as a pejorative, for extended nursing, family bed, and other parenting choices. Nevertheless, independence and self-reliance were always at the top of the list of my parenting and homeschooling goals.

Maybe I just convinced myself that I was achieving those goals, but I don’t think so. Rose colored glasses have never been my specialty. More to the point, I think, is the fact that there is no one single way to raise educated, independent, happy people. We can’t say that any one form of parenting or education–homeschool, public school, private school, charter school, or whatever else comes down the pike–is right for all, any more than we can say one approach to homeschooling is right for everyone.

To Kenmore’s credit, he acknowledges that homeschooling can be a good choice for some families, but he did give his book a provocative title that implies negativity, probably because he says outright that, not unlike legions of adult Americans who attended school, he hated the way in which he was educated. He also says his book is about the “right and wrong reasons to homeschool.” I’m not a fan of distilling things into “right” and “wrong,” but maybe in the age of click bait, sound bites, and viral internet memes a provocative title and introduction are necessary to sell books, and there’ll be more nuance in the pages as I go along. I hope so, because we badly need dialogue that avoids polarization.

 

 

 

 

 

Why to homeschool a 4-year-old

Today I read one of the best articles about homeschooling I’ve encountered in a long time. In How to homeschool a 4-year-old, Amy Wright Glenn discusses why and how she and her spouse homeschool.

Reading it was like taking a short walk down memory lane. When Wright Glenn talked about her son’s engagement in physical activity and creative play, I remembered the long hours my own kids spent in similar pursuits. Just last night, at a family dinner with all four of my children, my now 31-year-old daughter and 28-year-old son were reminiscing about the awesomeness of the basketball hoop that was in our driveway, and the significant amount of time they spent using it. We lived across the street from a school, and my son recalled how a couple of the neighborhood kids, seeing him intently dribbling and shooting, would sneak away during recess to join him.

Wright Glenn also talks about networking with another family in order to free up her own time for creative and professional endeavors. Similarly, our family and many others I’ve known over the years have built solid, mutually beneficial relationships that provide both practical help and meaningful connection.

Her descriptions of volunteering at the local senior center with her kids reminded me of our venturing to Food Not Bombs with our young daughters, taking them to Mystic River clean-ups, and eliciting their help in working at various events in their community. As they grew older, they naturally extended these building blocks of civic involvement, and on their own volunteered for organizations as varied as local museums, wildlife centers, theater companies, hospitals, and political campaigns.

As a proponent of slow homeschooling, I appreciated that Wright Glenn makes a point of prioritizing play, and ensuring that her family has plenty of free time to fill as they choose. Although I realize that many homeschooling families consider screens to be an important part of their lives, Wright Glenn offers convincing reasons for limiting them, something we achieved by simply not owning a television.

Despite research that points to the benefits of free play and less structure, our society is pushing universal preschool, testing, and standards-based education for young children. Homeschooling can offer another way. Says Wright Glenn: “As parents, it behooves us to rethink commonly held assumptions regarding schooling, custodial care of children and work life.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

Pledging allegiance to civics

The other day my teenage daughter and I attended the inauguration of our city’s school committee, city council, and new mayor Stephanie Muccini Burke. It was a festive occasion, and an exciting one for many reasons, including the presence of our attorney general, Maura Healey, and the surprise appearance of our senator, Elizabeth Warren.

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At the beginning of the event, we all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I looked at my daughter, who smiled at me as she stood in silence, and I realized that after all these years, I’d failed to teach her the pledge, or expose her to it regularly enough that she’d memorized it in its entirety.

It’s not as though this is a problem. A young woman who has entire Shakespeare plays etched into her brain wrinkles can learn the Pledge of Allegiance in about thirty seconds. This minor educational omission did get me thinking about patriotism and civics, though.

Simply defined, patriotism is love of country, something we can embrace without knowing the Pledge of Allegiance by heart. For those of us that learned it as children and said it every day in school, did we ever think about the meaning of the words (providing we learned them accurately, which many didn’t). I certainly didn’t know, for instance, that Francis Bellamy, the author of the pledge, was a socialist.

As homeschooling parents, we didn’t implement the daily ritual of standing before the flag and reciting the pledge. We focused on civics, the duties of being a citizen, rather than patriotism. We volunteered at soup kitchens, attended community meetings, researched issues and candidates, voted, and contributed where we could.

Our kids’ lives may not have been steeped in American flags and the Pledge of Allegiance, but they did learn the value of being involved in their community and participating in their democracy.

So, while it’s true that my daughter couldn’t recite the Pledge along with most of the rest of the room, she was present as someone who has volunteered at the local library, for LGBTQ support organizations, and arts groups. She was present as someone who volunteered for the campaign of the new mayor, the first woman ever elected to the office in our city. She was present as someone who attended debates, meetings, and other campaign events, and someone who looks forward with excitement to being able to finally vote.

This kind of civic involvement is, I think, close enough to the spirit of the pledge and its calls for liberty and justice for all, so I’ll let myself off the hook for omitting its memorization from our curriculum.

 

 

What do homeschoolers do?

Homeschoolers number in the millions now, so why is it still so hard for people to understand what we actually do?

I know, of course, that there are so many ways of “doing” homeschooling. The ultimate individualized education, I like to call it, which means it’s different for every family. Still, you’d think that stereotypical misconceptions, at least, would go away. I and my one child left at home (who’s 17) regularly encounter them. We attend a lecture, and on the way out my daughter is asked if she’ll be writing a paper on it the following day. We go to a social event, and someone inquires whether my daughter’s schoolwork for the day is finished. She’s reading a book, and the nice lady on the bus wants to know whether she’ll be taking a test on it. Almost every week, I meet people who assume that I’m teaching my daughter everything, from biology to algebra to English.

Everyone is well meaning, and of course, why would someone understand something they haven’t experienced? One problem is the word “homeschooling.” For better or worse, it’s the commonly used term for parents educating their children outside of schools, but it doesn’t accurately describe what we do. Most of us are not recreating school in the home. Quite the contrary, much of the time we’re out in the world doing things that don’t remotely look like school. Parent-directed education is a better term.

When people make assumptions about how homeschooling happens they’re often relying on stereotypes about education in general, i.e. traditional schooling, with the learner being spoon-fed information by a teacher then tested and evaluated. That’s only one model of education. People who choose not to send their children to school are choosing an alternate model, one that often looks completely different from a traditional classroom. My kids, for instance, did not do structured schoolwork. They drew pictures, read books, made music, rode unicycles, created comics, played chess, wrote stories. They went to the park, the library, historical houses, museums, book groups, the beach, the woods, the theater. When my husband or I attended meetings, volunteered at soup kitchens, went to the supermarket, or voted, they tagged along. As they matured and entered their teenage years, they started enrolling in formal classes at community colleges, volunteering in the community, and pursuing the interests they’d spent their childhoods developing.

By that time, it was easier to answer questions about homeschooling. It was easier to simply talk about the community college classes, the volunteer jobs at the science museum and hospital, the performances in plays and concerts, or whatever. When they were younger and spending the majority of their time playing, dealing with well-intentioned folks assuming they spent hours a day being instructed by me was a bit more challenging.

That antiquated outlook on education doesn’t make sense. While the world has changed dramatically over the last century, the school model hasn’t. Materials and techniques perhaps have shifted, but the hierarchical structure, and the philosophy that children must be compelled to learn, remains the same. Technology, it seems, is shaking up that system at its very core, offering options that have never before been available and encouraging novel approaches to learning. At the same time, the drive for standards-based education entrenches the status quo even more deeply, making it more rigid and inflexible, tying the hands of teachers and shunning innovation. How this plays out remains to be seen, but I for one would love to see what we now consider as alternatives (like homeschooling) become nothing more than choices on a spectrum of normal. When we get to that point, the education revolution will have really happened.

Is homeschooling hard?

Oh, I could never do that.

Most homeschooling parents have heard this after mentioning the way they educate their children. It has always seemed to me a strange response. For one thing, I’m never suggesting the other person do it. For another, homeschooling isn’t all that hard.

Societal messages abound that lead people to believe that it is difficult, and these days, there are plenty of people and establishments willing to exploit that and offer parents a place to leave their kids that looks a lot like school. For learning centers, alternative schools, educational day care centers, and places like them, encouraging the idea that homeschooling is hard is good for business. But is it true?

Nothing is without its difficulties, of course, but homeschooling can make life easier in many ways. No more fights over getting out of bed in the morning. No more rushing to get to school on time. No more tearing your hair out trying to make sure your kids do their homework. Problems like bullying, anxiety, depression, and lack of interest in learning can also disappear.

So what are some of the myths that make people think homeschooling is hard?

Educating kids requires trained experts  Let’s face it, education is big business. Schools employ scores of people, and while teachers may not be getting rich, thanks to standards based education, corporations are.  For the entrenched school system to continue to survive, and for newer initiatives like Common Core and mandatory testing to take hold, the overarching belief must be that children need trained experts to teach them. When schools fail, the general response is to insist that kids need even more time with trained experts. Longer school days and mandatory preschool have become a rallying cry for many who insist that children need school, and lots of it, to get a decent education. Homeschoolers reject these notions, operating under a different paradigm, one that values children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn.

Spending time with kids is no fun  Our culture is steeped in the idea that parents can’t wait to get rid of kids. The media is filled with images of moms and dads filled with relief at back to school time. We’re just not supposed to want to spend too much time with our kids. If we do, we’re accused of helicopter parenting, overprotectiveness, or trying to live through our children. It is true that to homeschool, you have to want to spend time with your kids, but doing so isn’t a burden. It offers us the opportunity to know our children well, develop strong relationships with them, and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle centered around living and learning together.

Kids won’t learn unless you make them  This myth goes alongside the idea that kids are lazy. It’s simply not true. Human beings are innately curious, which means they have an innate capacity for learning. Trying to make kids learn things they don’t want to learn, aren’t ready to learn, or don’t see any reason to learn–yes, those things are hard. Exposing them to a wide range of subjects, honoring their natural curiosity, providing resources, supporting their passions, and tapping into community opportunities make life, learning, and even hard work seem more like a piece of cake.

Kids have to be with other kids  The idea that homeschoolers don’t have opportunities for socialization is a common myth. Support groups, community organizations, lessons, sports teams, volunteering, internships, jobs, you name it–the opportunities for homeschoolers to be out in the world with other people are boundless. And yet, the age segregation of schools has led many to the belief that in order to develop socially kids have to be with children of the same or similar ages on a regular basis. As a result, new homeschooling families sometimes bend over backwards to try and connect their kids to their age-mates. Eventually, most get over that and discover that it’s easier to enjoy the benefits of age-mixing.

College is a requirement  Most parents stress about whether and where their kids are going to get into college. We want them to be able to go to any school they choose, but we also assume that choosing one is a must (I disagree). Despite the fact that homeschoolers get into college all the time, the belief that they’ll be disadvantaged is still common and contributes to the idea that homeschooling is hard. The fact is, homeschoolers who want to go to college do, but for many, the experience of having been alternatively educated opens their minds to choices that don’t include conventional four-year college.

While homeschooling requires commitment and work, it doesn’t have to feel hard. For me and so many others I know, it feels more like a rewarding, worthwhile effort that can be done without the aid of learning centers and other entrepreneurial start-ups that target homeschoolers. Still, all the suggestions and reassurance in the world won’t help you if you can’t find a way to trust that you are doing what’s right for your family, and that your child is competent and capable of learning. If homeschooling is important enough to you and your family, you’ll stick with it. If not, hopefully you’ll find what’s right for you, no guilt or shame necessary.