Picture perfect

One of the great joys of being a longtime homeschooling parent is watching kids grow–not just one’s own kids, but so many others, too.

crabbyAstaeria is 14 now, but I’ve known her since she was a wee one. When she was seven, she used to come with us to park day every week, which was loads of fun. I know she’s whip smart, creative, and ready for anything. When she was eleven, she took on the part of Miranda in my youngest daughter’s production of The Tempest. She joined one of my creative writing groups and showed herself to be a committed, accomplished writer. Then she became an excellent soccer player. Her talents are many.

eyeSo I was super delighted, but not at all surprised, to see that she’s also become a wonderful photographer. If you’re anywhere near Medford, Massachusetts this September, I recommend you stop by Mystic Coffee Roaster to see her pictures for yourself. Support youth, support art, and viva homeschooling!

Astaeria’s work will be on view during September at Mystic Coffee Roaster, 30 Riverside Ave., Medford, MA. For info on the venue, visit www.mysticcoffeeroaster.com. For information on Astaeria’s work visit her website.  All photos  ©2016 Astaeria.

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.

Captain Fantastic, Homeschooling, and The Man

Warning: Captain Fantastic spoilers follow!

There aren’t many movies made about homeschoolers, so when one comes out, especially one as glowingly reviewed as Captain Fantastic, I try to see it.

I watched Captain Fantastic last night, and I can see why it’s being praised. Viggo Mortensen is great. The actors who play his six kids are great. It’s beautifully filmed, and there are some wonderful scenes of the family both in their isolated, off the grid home in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and once they hit the road to attend the funeral of the family’s mom, who’s just succumbed to a long battle with mental illness and committed suicide.

Although I enjoyed the movie, some of it didn’t sit right with me. In the first scene, the eldest son takes down a buck with his bare hands and kills it with a knife while his siblings and father, all of them painted in camouflage black, look on. In a pseudo-spiritual coming-of-age ritual that seems completely out of character with the portrayal of the atheist, science-minded father that follows, dad serves son a raw organ from the animal (I think it was the heart), and declares him to be no longer a boy, but a man. That declaration also smacks of irony when “Stick It to The Man” turns out to be a family slogan, and it’s just one of the incongruities that keep Captain Fantastic from being as excellent as it could have been.

Ben Cash, the dad, is extraordinarily stoic, uses a harsh, military-style approach to conduct his children’s schooling and physical “training,” and makes his radical views clear to his children. He’s also a fierce patriarch who takes his job as a dad seriously, and his kids, for the most part, love and respect him. He clearly loves them, too, and is absolutely devoted to them, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense when, after they re-enter mainstream America by crashing mom’s funeral and doing some other nutty and sometimes dangerous things, he gives in to the pressure of family members who say that for the sake of the children’s well-being, he needs to hand them over to their grandparents.

He says farewell and hops into their home on wheels (a re-purposed school bus named Steve) and drives sadly away. It’s not long before the kids hop out of their hiding places in the back of the bus to show their never ending love and loyalty to dear old dad. Surprise (not)! The whole clan then engages in more over the top antics including digging up their mother’s body, cremating it, and dumping the ashes down a toilet as per her wishes.

Once the dad turned his kids over to The Man, I pretty much let go of any hopes of real character and plot development, and shifted my viewing perspective to Hollywood mode. The ending, however, put me over the edge. Dad relocates the kids so they can be closer to society. They still love to run around in nature and do nature-y things like collecting eggs from their chickens, but now they go to school. The last frame depicts their smiling faces sitting around the kitchen table, eating breakfast and diligently writing in their notebooks or looking at their schoolbooks, while Dad, who’s just lovingly packed each of them a homegrown lunch in a brown paper bag, tells them to come on kids, the school bus will be here soon.

Really? The politically radical, Stick-It-To-The-Man, Power-To-The-People guy has now relinquished his kids to the industrial school complex? Kids who, by the way, have been so well educated they will be leagues ahead of their peers (and probably their teachers), and so bored by the inane curriculum and arbitrariness that school dispenses, that the uncomplicated smiles on their faces would be, simply, impossible.

But, hey, everybody loves a happy ending, and what would an extreme parent who realizes the error (or at least the long term impracticality) of his ways do, first thing, to remedy his children’s lives? Send them to school, but of course.

I think the film wanted to explore questions about the real trade-offs of lifestyle and parenting choices, and the complexity involved in being a parent (a father, actually), and making hard choices. To its credit, it does raise those questions, but it could have delved into them more deeply, at least in the arena of homeschooling. For example, the children’s remarkable knowledge of literature, history, and government, their ability to engage in critical discussion of complex material, and the eldest son’s admission to several Ivy League schools (he applied on the sly), speak to the academic benefits of homeschooling in much the same way that simplistic portrayals of know-it-all homeschoolers winning national spelling bees and math competitions do. Meanwhile, the kids’ complete lack of awareness of popular culture and the eldest son’s first experience with a girl perpetuate the stereotype of awkward, unsocialized homeschoolers. We see very little ambivalence from the children about their lives, save for one younger sibling who feels very much like the token angry child, and a brief confrontation between the dad and the eldest son in which the latter shows the former his college acceptance letters.

Although they could have been more fleshed out, I did appreciate the close family relationships portrayed in the film. Other positives were the unflinchingly honest way the father talked to his kids, and the independence he granted them when he wasn’t acting as drill sergeant. The family music jams were pretty great, and I also liked the daughter’s critical analysis of Lolita, although I could have done without the father prying it from her, and his empty praise of “well done” once she produced it. Still, that scene and others like it clearly show that kids, when given the resources and opportunity, are more than capable of critical thinking at a level we usually associate with much older people. I loved, too, the murkiness of the gender of the two youngest children, and how relaxed and real they were on camera. I read in an article that in one heartwarming scene, the littlest picking their nose was a spontaneous action in the moment. That openness and lack of self-consciousness shows in the film.

Extreme stories of charismatic, domineering fathers who run the roost seem to be a theme in movies about homeschooling families. Surfwise and The Wolfpack come to mind. Those were documentaries, and in my opinion, are both better films than Captain Fantastic. It doesn’t have to be the case that watching adults and young adults raised in unconventional circumstances speak candidly about their lives is more effective than watching fictionalized characters, but in these instances, at least for me, the documentaries presented richer stories. As much as I’ve liked these movies and as much as I admire Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben Cash, I’m a little sick of the controlling father shtick. For a less sensational, more nuanced choice, I recommend the film Off the Map. Although the family it portrays is also living off the grid, at least it has a mom with a real voice.

While it isn’t the job of any film to be representative of a subgroup of people, when all I see in the movies is portrayals of homeschoolers as people with extreme views and lifestyles, or occasional cameos of homeschoolers as religious zealots or unsocialized buffoons, it gets a little tiresome. Maybe someday, filmmakers will Stick It To the Man enough for us to get some different kinds of homeschooling stories.



Making our own kind of music

Every so often I hear people ask the question, how do you unschool music? How do you learn music without lessons or instruction?

First off, unschooling doesn’t mean you can’t have a teacher, use instructional materials, or undertake any other kind of traditional study. By the same token, those methods aren’t necessarily required to learn music. The trick is to foster appreciation for music, support whatever involvement in music your kids choose, and keep the joy and creativity in music making alive.

All four of my kids are musical in different ways. Kid one leaned toward the singer-songwriter world, number two embraces traditional folk, number three is a devoted jazz fan and vocalist, and number four likes classical best, although she also enjoys playing klezmer with her dad.

Below are some ideas for how to nurture musical intelligence in your kids.

Exposure First and foremost, expose your kids to many different kinds of music. There are plenty of excellent recordings made expressly for kids. By all means, enjoy them, but play other music, too. As young children my kids loved Bob Dylan, Beethoven, The Beatles, Queen, other more obscure bands, and many kinds of ethnic music. Don’t just listen to music around the house, go hear live music, too. I really can’t overestimate the importance of exposure to music. My daughter is a perfect example. Our kids regularly attended classical, folk, and world music concerts, but we didn’t go hear jazz very often, or listen to it much at home. That all changed when somehow, Ella Fitzgerald found her way onto the family mp3 player when my daughter was 11. She fell in immediate, absolute, obsessive love. Within months she had listened to and learned Ella’s entire canon, mostly by taking her CDs out of the library, and today is an accomplished, primarily self-taught jazz vocalist.

Modeling If you want your kids to learn about and love music, do it yourself. My husband is a musician, so our kids witnessed the joys of making music on a regular basis, as well as the necessity of practice. I’m an amateur singer and the kids listened to me practice choral music they later heard in performance. Even if you don’t want to pick up an instrument or sing, you can still model music appreciation through listening and enjoying music yourself.

Make music together Since learning to listen is one of the most important aspects of making music, this is pretty important. One of the things our family did when the kids were little was sing in an inter-generational chorus. We also performed in inter-generational theatrical productions. If those kinds of commitments are more than you can handle, try seeking out (or organizing) low-key events like sing-a-longs, or folk, blues, or jazz jams. If classical music appeals, there’s plenty of simple chamber music your kids can try with you or some friends. Ditto for rock and roll.

Find mentors No matter the undertaking, whenever my kids felt passionate about something, they found a mentor. With music, there’s no reason that person can’t be a teacher, especially if your child asks for lessons. All our kids took lessons on various instruments at one point or another, and were free to quit if their interest waned. Sometimes mentors are more like idols–masters your kids might never meet but nevertheless become huge influences, much like Ella Fitzgerald was for my daughter. My son found some of his musical heroes on YouTube, mandolin players like Chris Thiele and singers like Tony Cuffe.

A word about practice This is a controversial subject, especially for unschoolers who might feel that “making” their kids practice is anathema. Because our family takes financial commitments like music lessons seriously, and because my husband, as a musician and music teacher himself, understands the vital role of practice in playing music, we did require our kids to practice as long as we were paying for music lessons they wanted. This doesn’t have to be a rigid endeavor. Since the lessons were chosen by the kids, practicing mostly happened naturally, but if it didn’t, we discussed the issue and negotiated agreements that worked for all. How practice works is going to look different in every family, but the key thing is to not squash a love of music by forcing the issue.

Resources Make instruments readily accessible to the extent it’s possible. If you can get your hands on a piano, guitar, or any other instrument, have them in your home. Inexpensive wind instruments like recorders or penny whistles are great to have around, and easy to play. Don’t discount percussion–rhythm is a huge part of music, and real or makeshift drums can be loads of fun. Whatever instruments you collect, let your kids experiment with them freely. Make CDs, records, downloaded music, or whatever technology you use to listen to music accessible, and offer a wide variety of music. When you go to the library, check out music in addition to books. Be musically curious, open-minded, and experimental, and most likely, your kids will be, too.

Have ideas or stories about unschooling music? Please share them in the comments section!

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.



The boy with the boulder

Many years ago, when my eldest daughter was in public school kindergarten and I was helping out in the classroom, I witnessed the following exchange between the teacher and a boy who had brought in a special object for show-and-tell.

Boy (holding up his smooth round rock proudly): “This is my boulder.”

Teacher: “You mean, it’s your rock.”

Boy: “No, it’s my boulder.”

Teacher: “A boulder is much bigger. That’s a rock.”

As I observed the crushed look on the boy’s face, I inwardly cringed. Clearly, the kid knew the difference between a rock and a boulder. Clearly, something else was going on, something the teacher, perhaps due to her mandate to “educate,” completely missed.

I was reminded of this incident this morning upon reading a 2013 article in New Scientist, about the wisdom of beginning schooling before age seven. In a discussion of the importance of play in learning, the author states, “…much of children’s play involves pretending that one thing represents another, for example that a cardboard box is a space ship. This ability is thought to be unique to humans and underpins language, drawing and other ways in which we convey meaning.”

That poor kid in my daughter’s kindergarten class was just pretending; profoundly pretending; pretending in order to understand the world, imbue it with meaning, and to develop into an engaged, creative person with intellectual flexibility and a love of learning. Too bad the teacher squashed it.

Although I’d moved to a city with one of the top school districts in my state, the incident with the boy and his boulder was one of many that made me question what kind of education I wanted for my own children, a process that led me to homeschooling.

It’s not surprising that The New Scientist article, which showed up in my Facebook feed, resurfaced now. The push toward universal preschool is strong, despite the reams of research that play is of vital importance to developing minds. While some cite research that points to the benefits of preschool, there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret it, as discussed in this 2014 Atlantic article.

A new paper from the Brookings Institute examining models of public spending on early childhood points to another issue inextricably connected to the well-being of children and families. It states “…family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades.”

That makes sense to me. Social factors such as income inequality, lack of support for new parents, the gender pay gap, and others stand to have a much larger impact on quality of life for everyone, including children. Should we make sure all children who need it have access to excellent child care and schooling? Of course, but pushing universal preschool and ignoring the bigger picture, which might include paid leave for new parents, economic security, and health care for all, is short-sighted.

Also of utmost importance is paying attention to the research on play and how children learn, and respecting their vital, creative young minds, something that becomes very difficult for teachers in an environment that measures achievement through standardized test scores.

Which brings me full circle to my original story. As the adult in the room who didn’t have to check off boxes for educational attainment, I was free to appreciate the boy with the boulder’s creative license and obvious love for his special object without having to worry about “teaching” him anything. Once I chose homeschooling, I took responsibility for my children’s education, but I could still prioritize trusting, respecting, and nurturing their innate ability and desire to learn.

That’s what I’d like for all children, regardless of how they’re educated. That boy from my daughter’s kindergarten class would be an adult now, thirty something years old. Wherever he may be, I hope he still has his boulder.




Is that cute enough for you?

This week I read about Hilde Kate Lysiak, the journalist behind the Orange Street News. She’s nine years old, reports on news in her Pennsylvania community, and is currently getting her fifteen minutes of fame due to her coverage of a neighborhood murder (a scoop, by the way).

Some folks think it’s inappropriate for a child of her age to be reporting on such serious material. Seems to me that Lysiak is up to the task. I loved watching her rebut her critics, signing off with the defiant rhetorical question, “Is that cute enough for you?”

I also love that her 12-year-old sister filmed the video, and that the two work together on the Orange Street News. This reminds me of my own daughters and their younger days of collaborating on their own serious work, from living room puppet shows to Shakespeare productions.

It was no surprise to me to find out that Lysiak is homeschooled. According to the New York Times article, Lysiak’s parents “gave their daughters the freedom to pursue their passions under the theory that when they are engaged, they learn.”

While the debate over whether she is a “real” journalist rages on, Lysiak continues to focus on doing what she loves best–chasing news stories. Of the media whirlwhind she said, “I feel I’m getting the attention for my age, not my work.” Clearly, she’s no fool. Her work is what’s important to her, which is why the criticism doesn’t faze her and the celebrity doesn’t distract her.

The story brought home to me why another article I read recently, “Picasso was wrong. Your child is not an artist.” by Sebastian Smee bothered me. I see Smee’s point, but I think what he’s talking about is the fawning and empty praise adults so often lavish on kids. That’s quite different from the satisfaction kids can derive from doing real work they care about, whether it be reporting, creating art, or some other chosen pursuit.

In order for kids to be able to become passionate about and pursue real work, we adults have to support and believe in them, and give them the space and freedom to do it.


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.






Where’d you learn that?

Yesterday my daughter and I were in the car, on our way to see her sibling in a play. She’s in college now, but still lives locally, so we can do things like that.

While my daughter sat beside me in the passenger seat, she worked on a paper. As she busily typed away on her laptop, I noticed something.

“Wow,” I said. “You’re a really fast typist.” She wasn’t using a two finger method, or any other self-created style. She was typing the way I was taught to type when I was in public high school, and they offered classes for such things. Curious, I asked, “Where’d you learn that?”

“From a program I found a while ago.”

“Oh,” I said. “I don’t remember that.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I wanted to learn to type so I found a typing program.”

“How old were you?” I asked.

My daughter shrugged. “12 or so.”

I tell this story at the risk of being accused of not paying attention, and there’s some truth in that. I wasn’t paying attention to how she learned to type. I did know that as a teen she was using keyboards to write papers for classes she chose to take. I didn’t stand over her while she did so, and didn’t concern myself with how she typed. It ain’t rocket science, after all.

Although a two-finger or other makeshift method is just as useful (I have other children whose  fingers move like lightning over the keyboard with their self-styled typing techniques), this kid apparently wanted something else. So she got it, on her own, and without my knowledge.

I know other homeschooling parents have experienced this. I’ve heard their stories, and I have others, too. For example, I have no idea how my son taught himself to make websites when he was a teenager. I have no idea how my youngest daughter learned to crochet.

Sometimes, I do know how my kids learned things, even though I had nothing to do with it. I know that my son learned about birds by going bird watching every weekend. I know that my daughter learned how to sing jazz by intensively listening to Ella Fitzgerald and other vocalists, as well as Miles Davis and other great horn players (I remember her telling me that Ella said that’s what she did, listened to the horns).

One question homeschooling and unschooling parents get a lot is, “How do you know they’re learning?” It’s a hard question to answer. Typical attempts include pointing out children’s curiosity, the human drive to learn, or trusting children.

Words inevitably fall short. When you’ve watched your children excitedly pursue knowledge and expertise, when you’ve seen them master skills on their own, when you’ve observed them find resources when necessary (and yes, sometimes that resource is you), the question “How do you know they’re learning” becomes patently absurd. You know they’re learning like you know they’re breathing.

Sometimes when people ask that question, I think what they’re really asking is, “How do you know what they’re learning?” Because isn’t that what school does? Tells kids what to to learn and keeps track of whether they learned it?

I plead guilty to not always keeping track of what my kids learned. I knew my kids were breathing, and I knew they were learning. Most importantly, I knew they were self-sufficient, resourceful, and empowered to learn. That’s the prize I kept my eyes on.