‘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!

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.


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.



Spock, Kirk, and the adolescent brain

A friend sent me an NPR piece about the adolescent brain’s constant struggle between the impulsiveness of the limbic system (think Captain Kirk), and the reason of the prefrontal cortex (that’s Mr. Spock). We all know about the wild side of teenagers, but apparently, it’s worse than we thought. It all starts around age 12, and can last for a decade.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Researchers at Temple University uncovered a twist. When adolescents are with other adolescents, they’re significantly more likely to engage in risky behavior. As the article puts it, an adolescent’s weakness is actually other adolescents.

Duh, you may be thinking. It’s called peer pressure, right? Wrong. The experiment’s findings indicate that simply being with other adolescents makes adolescents more impulsive.

I’ve observed the phenomenon the researchers are talking about in my own kids and in young people I’ve known over the years. When adolescents get together, they behave differently than when they’re alone, or with adults, or in an inter-generational group.

As a homeschooling parent, my opportunity to witness these dynamics was perhaps greater than parents whose kids go to school. I could see, in action, kids behaving more or less impulsively or maturely depending on the setting, and here’s my conclusion. I think providing adolescents with chances to interact with peers and adults in various numbers and combinations is a really good way for them to practice using and modulating the Kirk and Spock parts of their brains.

The NPR piece says that 12-year-olds get a high from being with each other, and that “They’re wired to seek each other out and develop the skills they’ll need to leave their parents, feed and protect themselves, and raise children.”

Are they really wired to seek each other out, or are they just herded together in age-segregated schools? In my experience with homeschoolers, they’re drawn as much to adults they admire and want to learn from as they are to their age-mates.

While youths have always been more prone to risk-taking, not all cultures segregate youth to the extent that we do, and that seems wise. It makes sense that being with mixed ages can provide a safety cushion to temper risky behavior. Kids can get the “high” of being with each other, while also getting the benefit of the wisdom of their elders (which is, after all, where they’re getting their primary information about how to be adults).

With more and more science revealing key aspects of adolescent brain development, it’s looking more and more like some of the key components of school are misguided. We know now for certain that teenagers need more sleep than adults, so keeping them up late with reams of homework and getting them up at the crack of dawn for another school day doesn’t seem like such a good plan. Now It also looks like excessive peer contact isn’t the greatest idea, either.

Homeschooling offers another model, one that has been proven to work. More time to sleep, small classes, finding mentors, volunteerism and work opportunities, and interaction in the community are advantages homeschoolers have enjoyed for years. If schools reformers choose to look our way for ideas, they’ll find them.

Getting on our groove

It’s Monday morning and we’re all busy. My husband is doing paperwork before heading out to teach for the afternoon, I’m writing this article, my 18-year-old is making smoothies for breakfast, and my 16-year-old is awaiting the arrival of a bunch of teenagers for a rehearsal of a Shakespeare play. This afternoon, she’ll get on the bus and head to a theater in the next town for another rehearsal. This evening, I’ll go sing with my chorus while another crop of teens arrives at my house for a meeting of my 18-year-old’s Model United Nations Club.

Sometimes I joke that our house is like Grand Central Station. There’s always a steady stream of people coming and going for work, for play, for fun, for the business of life. This alive, dynamic lifestyle is, for our family, one of the best parts of homeschooling. Having two employed parents with flexible schedules may contribute to the winding nature of our days. But even in families with a more traditional set-up, homeschooling offers the opportunity to develop an organic rhythm, a groove that allows everyone to learn and thrive.

For me, simply making the decision to homeschool opened up doors of opportunity. Once I realized I didn’t have to send my kids to school, other outside-the-box options I never would have considered before seemed possible. As time went by, my homeschooling lifestyle taught me that what I once would have considered absurd wasn’t only real, it was desirable. I watched my kids learn to read with no formal instruction. I observed them taking an interest in numbers and figuring out how to add and subtract without prodding. I spent time with other homeschooling families and developed close relationships that exist to this day. Most of all, I learned that the more I stayed out of my kids’ way, the more they blossomed.

Finding the rhythm that worked for our family involved a few key components. The first was play. From the time our kids were born they spent most of their time playing. Sometimes it would be at the park during a support group gathering, other times at friends’ houses, and often outdoors. The curiosity and freedom of expression they enjoyed made play spill over into everyday life. Baking cookies, for example, became a game, one that continued once the task was done at splendid tea parties where they could practice being grown-up, not just in behavior but in conversational topics, which included politics, child care, and whatever else they heard adults around them discussing.

Which brings me to another important component of our homeschooling: our kids hung around with adults a lot, working and playing alongside them. They sang in an intergenerational chorus and performed in intergenerational plays, they attended grown-up concerts and talks, and they regularly tagged along to meetings for my volunteer work, or rehearsals of my husband’s band. They always carried books or art supplies or games to play, but don’t think for a minute that they weren’t paying attention to the adults, too.

How did this integrated, play-oriented lifestyle benefit our family? It allowed our kids to develop self-sufficiency, for one thing. They learned at a young age how to occupy themselves, which renders obsolete one question commonly directed at homeschooling parents: How do you find time for yourself? Last summer, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder reported that children spending more time in unstructured activities were better able to set goals and meet them without prodding from adults.  In the small sample size of our family, that’s certainly been the case. By being in charge of their play and their learning, our kids learned to trust themselves, they became confident, and they discovered passions they pursue with gusto.

Guiding our kids to find those passions was one of the most important goals of homeschooling, and engaging in a rich, bustling life which exposed them to lots of people and experiences was a big help. With the benefit of hindsight, I see clues to the passions they’d later embrace peppered throughout my kids’ lives, but watching the process unfold was full of surprises. My 18-year-old loved singing from the time she was a baby, for instance, and was always very social, but we had no idea she’d embrace jazz and psychology so fiercely. My 16-year-old watched her older siblings in plays and attended theater productions with us enthusiastically, but who’d have thought that when she was 13 she’d start her own theater company?

These discoveries are some of the gifts we receive as we watch our kids learn, grow, and become. When people say homeschooling is a lifestyle, that’s what they mean. It’s about flow, trying new things, connecting with each other and what we love, and in the words of John Holt, learning all the time.

What? You’re a TEENAGER??

Recently my teenage daughter and I listened to someone give a dry run of a speech about education. The speaker talked about his experiences teaching at a public high school. When he finished, my daughter, as one of the teens in the audience, was asked for her feedback.

She explained that since she doesn’t go to high school, she had no direct experience with the specific details in the speech. “I do take classes at community colleges, though,” she continued, “They don’t know how old I am, so they just treat me like the rest of the adult students, and I like that.”

I wondered whether the assembled adults would absorb the profundity of that statement. Homeschooled teens have the opportunity to enroll in advanced classes, get jobs, volunteer, or otherwise function as adults out in the world. Time and again, I’ve seen my own kids and others rise to the challenge with flying colors.

When the kids are outed as kids, the adults are inevitably surprised and impressed. But here’s the thing. In the kids’ minds, they’re not rising to any sort of challenge, they’re just pursuing something they care about, without the impediment of any pre-conceived notions about what they’re capable of because of their age.

So often when I hear people talk about education, whether it’s school professionals or homeschooling parents, the emphasis is on how to make students do or learn particular things. What materials will bring out the best in them? What methods will get them to learn what we think they need to learn?

What if all these methods and materials are actually obstacles in our kids’ way? What if we cleared the path and let them lead? What if we believed in them enough to send them out into the world to pursue what they care about?

Believing in the competence of teens to learn, work, and make meaningful contributions can be a challenge in our culture, which tends to portray teens as lazy, immature, and sometimes even scary, but the rewards, for all of us, are immeasurable.