‘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!

‘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.


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.

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.


If the quirky shoe fits, wear it

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the concept of normal. Yesterday I thought about normal again when I read about two brave individuals living the lifestyle of their choice. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband Gabriel embrace their love of the Victorian era with a rare level of commitment. They use an old-fashioned icebox, ride antique bicycles instead of driving cars, and their daily wardrobe is made up of what many people would call costumes, not clothing.

This isn’t some kind of lark for them. It’s a way of life that defines who they are and brings them great joy. As Sarah wrote, “Gabriel said watching me grow accustomed to Victorian clothes was like seeing me blossom into my true self.”

I wasn’t a bit surprised when I read that Gabriel was homeschooled. According to Sarah, that helped when they started experimenting with Victorian-era living, because Gabriel “never espoused the strict segregation that now seems to exist between life and learning.”

In Bridget Samburg’s recent Boston Magazine article about homeschooling, she asked “But are the kids happy and normal…?” I wonder what her answer would have been if she talked to Gabriel.

The important part of that question, I think, is the happy part. Gabriel’s way of life may be unusual, but he’s happy. I know many homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers who fit that description, and thank goodness they found their niches.

By taking kids out of the peer-dominated world of school, away from regular exposure to cliques, potential bullies, and the pressure to fit in, homeschooling may  help kids along the path of becoming who they truly are. This is what homeschooling parents are talking about when they cite socialization as an argument for homeschooling. It’s not a magic bullet, of course. Living in society and being human are complicated undertakings no matter how you slice it.

Still, I’ve seen again and again that homeschooled kids can feel empowered to experiment with different ways of being with less fear of retaliation. Even when they’re called out on their differences, they don’t necessarily succumb to conformity.
When my son was a kid, he joined the local basketball team. The kids started taunting him about his shorts, which fell only to mid-thigh and weren’t nearly baggy enough (epic fail on my part to not acquaint myself with shorts fashions of tween boys). When I offered to take him shopping for the right wardrobe, he declined. “I like my shorts,” he said.

I would have honored his decision either way, but I felt proud and relieved that he didn’t feel the need to change for the sake of someone else. What happened next floored and humbled me. Not only did my son keep his nerdy shorts of choice, he continued to like the boys who taunted him. I watched him give them high fives and enthusiastic expressions of support as they came off the court. When we left the building, he smiled widely at them, exclaiming “Great game!” as though they were his buddies, eliciting expressions of bewilderment and confusion on their faces. They stopped teasing him, and even started being nice to him.

This is more than I ever could have done for my own torturers as a child, but then again, I didn’t have the safety, support, and relief from daily contact with bullies that homeschooling can offer. That respite can be crucial for happiness and self-esteem, but it also, as I learned from watching my son, can nurture kindness. Safety and support build resilience and courage to be true to oneself, which in turn fosters compassion for others.

For some people, becoming who they truly want to be is difficult and scary. As Sarah wrote, “We live in a world that can be terribly hostile to difference of any sort.” She described how she and Gabriel deal with name calling and other abuse. How sad that they and so many others face hardship simply for being who they are, but how wonderful that they still do it. The greater sadness is that so many of us, for reasons of fear, threats of bodily harm, lack of support, or other factors, don’t. As Sarah wrote, “Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.”

The courage to become who they are may be the greatest gift homeschooling gave my kids. This is my wish for us all; let kindness reign, and dream crushing begone.

‘Normal’ is as normal does


Today was an emotional day. We moved my third child, Claire, into her dorm at Harvard, with lots of excitement, hugs, and (for me) bittersweet moments. Then there was the matter of the current issue of Boston Magazine, which hit newsstands today.

Claire is on the cover. She wasn’t interviewed for the lengthy article by Bridget Samburg (I was), but the editors apparently thought her face coupled with the line Homeschool got me into Harvard was just right. That, and a subhead with the line, Is this the new model for creating elite kids?

Well, anything to sell magazines, I get that. I was taken aback by the question, though. Am I proud of Claire for getting into Harvard? Quite proud, but that was never the goal of our homeschooling, and I’m just as proud of my other children, none of whom got into (or applied) to Harvard (see my thoughts on whether kids have to go to college here and some thoughts on homeschooling and Harvard here).

My eldest, Justine, spends her days as a behavior specialist, working to improve the lives of mentally challenged adults, people who are segregated from mainstream society but are no different than the rest of us in their need for love and human contact. Eric, my second child, quit college and is living his dream as a folk musician, not an easy path as any artist knows. Abigail, my youngest, is still in the process of figuring out whether or where she wants to go to college, but in the meantime, she has plenty to keep her busy, including the theater company she started.

Like all parents, I’m proud of my kids for their accomplishments, but the greatest portion of my pride doesn’t come from there. Its wellspring is much deeper, having to do with who my kids are as people, their values, their kindness, their curiosity, and their courage. Those are the things we wanted to nurture when we started homeschooling, the things any parent wants when they make choices about how to raise and educate their children.

But are they normal? Samburg asks that question in the article: “But are the kids happy and normal, or introverted and antisocial?” When she interviews the president of the Boston Teachers Union, he speaks of a “social cost” to homeschooling. Maybe he’s talking about the hit public schools take as a result of homeschooling, but more likely he’s focusing on the oh-so-common criticism of homeschooling centered around socialization.

I’ve been homeschooling for a very long time (the article even calls me a “pioneer”), but this concern about socialization has never changed. People worry that homeschoolers are going to be unsocialized weirdos, but what does that even mean? Why are we so obsessed with this idea of “normal,” anyway?

Sometimes, I think our insistence on “normal” amounts to nothing more than intolerance. I’ve known so many homeschooled kids who left school because in that environment they were put down and sometimes bullied, often because they were different. I have seen kids recover, blossom, and thrive when taken out of school. Are they socially awkward? Sometimes, but aren’t we all. Are they weird? Yeah, that too, sometimes.

Claire was considered weird for a good part of her adolescence because she loves jazz. She listened obsessively to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and other great jazz musicians. She didn’t listen to pop music and knew very little about it. Eric as a teenager was in love with animals, especially mustelids. He hung out with middle-aged folks and senior citizens on the weekends, birding. These were and are by no means their only interests, but you get the picture. By society’s standards of what a normal teenager is, they were weird, and people sometimes said so. Who cares? They were and are happy, caring, contributing citizens of the world, and isn’t that what parents want, anyway?

Not conforming to mainstream stereotypes is one way to be weird, but what about social awkwardness? Do homeschoolers stutter, twitch, talk too loud or too soft, wear unusual clothing? Can homeschoolers follow rules, behave at the dinner table, have conversations with other people? These are the kinds of questions that homeschoolers face all the time. It’s pretty tiresome, actually.

I get the concern, but let’s get over it. Let’s stop worrying about whether people are “normal” and start practicing tolerance of other people’s choices and uniqueness. After all, to quote the mom in one of my favorite internet memes when her daughter asks her what normal is: “It’s just a setting on the dryer, honey.”