‘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.

unschoolers-front

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!

‘Unschoolers’ coming in March

I’ve been a homeschooler with an unschooling philosophy for 26 years. I’ve read a lot of great books on the subject, but it’s rare to encounter homeschoolers and unschoolers in fictiounschoolers-frontn. It’s even more rare to see our lives portrayed as anything other than extreme in one form or another. So, I, along with my longtime friend and colleague Sophia Sayigh, have thrown my hat into the ring. Together, we’ve written “Unschoolers,” a fictionalized portrayal of the lives of a group of homeschooling families. Release date is in March, mailing list open now at unschoolersbook.com. I look forward to comments and feedback!

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

Homeschooling and pushouts

Last week I read about Anthony Ruelas, a middle schooler in Texas who was suspended after he lifted a girl in the throes of a horrible asthma attack and carried her to the nurse’s office.

Apparently the teacher had already e-mailed the nurse and was awaiting a response when Ruelas took matters into his own hands to help his suffering classmate. For his actions, Ruelas received a suspension, and guess what? His mom says he’s now going to be homeschooled.

Just the other day I read another story about pre-kindergarten and kindergarten suspensions in my home state of Massachusetts. Last year there were 603. Children six years old or younger apparently behaved so heinously that 603 times in a single year, they received what I remember from my own years in public school as the most serious form of punishment short of being expelled.

I field calls from new homeschoolers on a regular basis, and I’ve heard too many stories like this. I’ve heard from parents of chronically ill kids who’ve had the Department of Children and Families called on them for keeping their kid home from school too many days. I’ve heard from parents with anxious seven-year-olds that had the police called on their children for behavior the teachers deemed too threatening to deal with themselves. I’ve talked to parents whose special needs kids, rather than getting the help they needed, were targeted by school officials in one way or another.

These parents call me because they’re considering exiting a system lacking in common sense or compassion, never mind education. Homeschooling is something they never thought they’d consider, but they come to it out of desperation.

In some cases, it turns out great, and the family winds up grateful for having been “pushed out.” In others, it doesn’t work out so well, which isn’t surprising given that these families often feel forced into homeschooling.

What’s also troubling is the underbelly that too often drives these punitive approaches. The article on kindergarten suspensions in Massachusetts, for instance, points out that black kids are suspended almost four times as often as their white classmates. Institutionalized racism in schools is, in fact, driving more African-Americans to choose homeschooling.

I’m very glad that the option to homeschool exists for kids that are being bullied, oppressed, or otherwise mistreated in schools, whether it be at the hands of fellow students, or teachers and administrators, but we should all be concerned about the lack of sanity such situations exhibit, and the fact that they are clearly not anomalies.

Homeschooling is a valuable option for those who choose it, but no one should feel “pushed out” or otherwise forced into it.