Saturday, March 25, 2006

Aspiring To Be The Cat in the Hat

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was, of course, The Cat in the Hat. The rhyming, the wonderful illustrations, and especially the mischievous Cat who helps the kids of the story have so much fun when their mother is out. All of that was very appealing to me as a child.

So of course we have the book on one of our bookshelves, and I've read it to the kids a dozen or so times. One day, when my oldest was about five or six, he said "Mom, you're more like the Cat in the Hat than the mother in the story. Our house is always fun!"

Now I'll make it clear that I can't juggle live fish and I don't think we've ever tried to fly a kite in the house (though I wouldn't put it past anyone), my children aren't quite like Thing1 and Thing2, and I most unfortunately don't have a three-handled, moss-covered family credenza that can clean up the entire house in three minutes flat (anyone who has a line on where to buy one can please email me immediately). But I do know about having fun, and our house has always been a place where we don't have to sit around just because it is cold and rainy outside. There's always something to do. We've ridden basket lids down our stairs on days that we would really love to go sledding but there's no snow, made an incredibly messy and only partially successful attempt at baking and frosting our own petit fours when my son loved the ones at the bakery so much that he wanted to make some himself, created obstacle courses in the house, camped out in a tent in the living room, learned to juggle (with balls, not fish, mind you), created a space station out of boxes, bounced from trampoline to bed and back again. And of course all the usual stuff: movies, games, puzzles, books, puppets, toys, etc.

Anne Ohman, an unschooling mom whom I really admire has made up bumper stickers with her quote: "How can I connect with my children today, expand their worlds, bring joy into their lives, nurture and encourage what they love to do?" That is such a wonderful and world-expanding idea that I printed it out to carry with me, along with one of her other mantras: "Choose Joy".

Yes, choose joy, and a life so wonderful that your kids don't really understand why the kids in The Cat in the Hat could possibly not have anything to do if they were at home - the greatest place on earth.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What Did We Do Today?

At the end of each day, after I've read to the kids from our chapter book, when we're all nice and snuggled up together, we have a special ritual. I ask "What did we do today?" and we start with waking up and talk through our entire day. Each person puts in parts that they remember, or talks about their most favorite things. It never ceases to amaze me. Even on days when I might think "We hardly did anything at all today", this wealth of living pours out: the joyful interwoven fabric of our lives together.

The connections made through living often seem small and insignifigant in the moment, but when viewed from above they weave a tapestry that ties all life and learning together. Yesterday, we sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" in Latin. Today, we're watching a movie in which someone falls to their knees in a church and crosses themselves. The kids ask me what they are doing and I tell them it is called "genuflecting" and explain a bit about the Catholic tradition. My daughter pipes up that "genuflect" probably comes from the Latin "genu" for "knee", which we learned in the song from yesterday. That's a connection I have never made before, it's a small but exciting discovery - a tying together of knowledge, the history of our language. That morphed into a discussion of how the Catholic church kept Latin alive long after people stopped speaking it conversationally.

Another connection: the side of a Gatorade bottle lists ingredients using their elemental names: K, Na, H2O, CHO. The kids are curious and so we print out a periodic table of the elements and put it on the wall. We look up the elements in Gatorade and also try to find all the elements that we recognize. The kids are especially amused that Krypton is real, they thought it was invented in the Superman comics.

How yeast works, what makes sourdough sour, baking our own bread, looking at formulas for generating electricity from a wind turbine, what does E=Mc2 mean, how do you spell "pirate" and why isn't it pronounced to rhyme with "irate", playing music together, reading, watching the movie Zorro, discussing Santa Anna and how California became a state, tying him in to the other stories we know about him like the Alamo, and how Texas became a state, looking up the order in which the states joined the Union... these are some of the many things we did today, a day in which it could be said "we just hung out at home together, nothing much happened."

Out of such days, such moments, the threads of learning are woven through our lives together. A connection here, a connection there - a book, a movie, a puzzle, a game, a comment, a song. Knowledge of the world that comes through joyous interaction with life itself.

What will we do today?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Never Underestimate a Determined Chicken
The Pull of Freedom

The past year could be subtitled "Adventures With Chickens". Our chickens even graced our Christmas letter this year, festively adorned with Santa hats. A year ago in March, we went to our local Feed-n-Seed store for some guinea pig supplies and ended up coming home with six fluffy and adorable peeping chicks. They lived in our garage for awhile, then in a mobile "chicken tractor" in the backyard, and eventually my DH built them "The Poultry Palace", a lovely shed on our back property with perches and nesting boxes and a big fenced yard - all a chicken could want or need. One would think.

The chickens think otherwise. They'd like to come into our backyard, scratch through all of our bark mulch, scatter it over 90% of our lawn (killing the grass in the process), tear up the black weed barrier underneath and scatter shreds of that everywhere, basically turning a landscaped back yard into a scene of utter destruction. Then they'd love to move on to the front yard, our neighbor's gardens, vegetable plots, and beyond. They're amazingly adept at outsmarting me, squeezing through the tiniest chink in the fence, or lately they've taken to scratching at the ground underneath the fence until they've made a hollow big enough to crawl through. I've piled up our brush clippings into these hollows as a stop-gap measure, but they'll patiently peck at them until they've hauled all the branches out and gotten through. It's impressive, really. A creature with a brain the size of a pea, a creature completely capable of living almost the same existence with no head as they lived with one (see Mike the Headless Chicken if you don't believe me). That such a creature keeps outsmarting me... well, it's a bit embarassing.

But of course, they will never give up. Even though they've got a big fenced area with everything they'd ever need inside it, it's still a cage and freedom waits beyond it. The drive for freedom is huge. So many of the world's big events have turned on it. From Masada to Captain Jack's Modoc holdout, the American Revolution, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, people throughout history have fought dearly for their freedom.

So when people talk of school reform - of how better computers or higher teacher pay or newer buildings or different curriculums will solve the current problems of our "educational" system, I think that they're missing the essential lesson that all peoples who have tried to hold others in subjugation have learned. Without freedom, even the most lush and beautiful reservation would be a prison. Without freedom, even if East Berlin was the most wonderful city on earth, it would've been a prison. A person (or even a chicken!) who is imprisoned bends their thoughts toward freedom, and that bending precludes most of what could be taught or learned if that freedom was theirs. When children learn in freedom, their lives and their learning belongs to them and they cherish and nurture that learning. Nothing gets in the way.

Our chickens will spend all day plucking away at the brush that plugs the holes separating them from the rest of the world outside their fence. Even if that means they spend less time doing the more important tasks of finding bugs and worms to eat. The freedom is too tantalizing, too distracting to ignore.

I wish I could give our chickens the freedom to explore the whole world (without sacrificing our neighbors' gardens). Thankfully, that's a gift we can give our children.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Unschooling: The Gift of Mindful Living

People in our western culture are searching. Yoga mats are on sale at Target, Thich Nhat Hanh sells out books and lecture halls, magazines with names like "Simple Living" and "Organic Style" fly off the racks. As a culture, we are seeking mindfulness, the ability to live in the moment, to fully embrace life.

Yet, this is the very thing we steal from our children.

Our children are born mindful. They know with every fibre of their being how to live in the moment. They know how to feel deeply, express their true emotions. They are in touch with their inner child. They still are their inner child. How is it then, that we turn them into us? Into people who need rubber mats and breathing instruction, insightful monks, and magazine articles to figure out what our children already know?

Yes, we take our children, living mindfully in the moment, and we force them to turn outwards, away from what they know is true and right. We put their minds to chopped-up subjects like "math" and "history", divorced from the real world, we prepare them for future "tests", and we place them in environments so mentally confining that they begin to distinguish among themselves on minutae - what brand of jeans someone is wearing, what kind of car their parent drives.

Some of us do this intentionally. Without a constant stream of willing consumers coming out of our system, our economic house of cards might just collapse. Some of us prey on this system, selling everything from designer purses to tooth whiteners to people who have lost the ability to focus here, in this moment, on what is truly important.

But most of us do this unintentionally. It was done to us, we perpetuate it on our kids. Even as we seek to regain our own internal compass, we are removing our childrens' compasses from them.

Unschooling is a gift. It's a gift of wholeness, of mindfulness, of a child's birthright to continue to live according to their own internal compass, to not be forced off course to waters so far and strange that they may never find their way back. Unschooling lets them retain what is rightfully theirs, an ability so spectacular that most of us only glimpse it in small, brilliant bursts throughout our lives. The ability to live, right here and right now. The ability to believe that what is in one's heart is true and right. The ability to focus on what is meaningful and important. The ability to follow one's heart. Unschooling is a gift, and I am grateful.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Imagine a Day Like This One...

Imagine waking up snuggled between your kids. They always come up to jump under the covers in the morning and talk about the day. Then one gets up to play with his pirate cards, the other goes to the kitchen to get pens and paper and brings up a heart she has drawn for you, colored in red and blue.

Imagine making homemade pizza for breakfast and pancakes for dinner, because your kids want to have "Upside-down day" with dinner first, and breakfast last. Your daughter helps you measure the ingredients because that's her favorite part.


...Going for a run outside in the sunshine while your daughter tap dances with her friends at the studio and your son plays Animal Crossing on his DS with a friend who brought her DS along too.

...Watching your son make Lego animated movies on the computer

...Coming home for lunch. The kids play with the guinea pigs, feed the chickens, then you beat a new level with your son on the Gamecube Lord of the Rings game (but only after laughing your heads off together when he accidentally lowers a drawbridge and squashes your character), you and your daughter do a jigsaw puzzle.

...Going to your daughter's violin lesson. On the way, she decides to change her name to Ella, like Ella Enchanted. She makes sure to let her teacher know to call her Ella now. She always loves to surprise her teacher with something new, this time it's the fact that she can tune her own violin, and also an old fiddle song she's decided to play and is learning by ear.

...Your husband comes and picks up your daughter. They go home to wrestle, pillow-fight, sing silly songs, and make dinner. You and your son go to his robotics class where he puts the finishing touches on the term project, a robot that has to go through four challenges and a battle to the death with its competitors.

...After dinner, you all decide to have a family game night. You just bought Cranium Whoonu (an excellent game, by the way, we give it four thumbs up!) and play for an hour or two. After that, the kids want to try on some new underwear you bought them. They decide to have an "underwear parade" and present each pair in a sort of silly fashion show.

...While you're tidying up before bedtime, your kids play an "imaginary game" they've invented together - a fantasy world that changes each time they play.

... writing this as your son sorts his YuGiOh cards, and your daughter sings "The Twelve Dogs of Christmas" in a pile of pillows. After this, you'll read a bedtime story together and then talk about your day with everyone telling what things they liked best.

Imagine solving any problems or arguments that come up together, finding creative ways to meet everyone's needs.

Imagine that every day is different. Some are soft and lazy and slow, some are busy and exciting. Every day is filled with love and laughter and people following what brings them joy. Imagine that all learning flows from this joyful living.

Imagine an unschooled life

Monday, March 13, 2006

Let Your Bending in the Archer's Hand be for Gladness

I think for most of us, at the moment we are given our children, we are aware of their holiness, their other-wordlyness, the fact that they are a gift, lent to us for an indeterminate time. We cry, we stare into their soul-deep eyes, we can't tear our eyes away from them. Even as a doula at births of other people's children, I have always been aware, have never ceased to be moved to tears, by the sheer incredible power of this truth: They are a gift, we are the recipients. They are here to teach us if we will become quiet and listen to their lessons.

Before I became a mother, I was another person entirely. This other person is still a part of me as the bud is part of the flower. I have sprung outward, filling up the space around my previously tiny soul, nurtured from the lessons I've learned from my children. I used to be incredibly selfish. Well, truth be told, I can still be incredibly selfish, but my children have taught me to think of others first. When I give the last two popsicles in the freezer to them and don't even think of feeling slighted, I know just one fragment of my growth.

Unschooling is a continuation of this gift. Instead of shifting to a mindset that says "Now I must teach my children, or send them off to be taught", I can continue, every day, to learn from them, with them, beside them. I can share my own knowledge, my hard-gained wisdom, when they're open to learning from it. And they are surprisingly open to doing so, knowing that I have no agenda but love. Our interactions flow between us, not in a parent-who-knows-everything controlling the child, but in a hey-here's-what-I-know-that-might-help fashion. The knowledge flows in both directions, too, that's the most wonderful part.

I recently overheard a conversation at the video game console between my son and daughter. My son was telling her sotto voce "While mom is cooking, I'm going to level up her character for her. She's pretty good at this stuff, but she keeps getting killed and I want to make it easier on her." We've been playing through the Lord of the Rings Gamecube game together and he's right, on most campaigns it is my untimely demise that brings us down before we conquer a level. It's so sweet that he would think to help me out in this way, even sweeter still that he would strive to keep this quiet in his childlike way (sotto voce in a 9 year old is often not very sotto) so as to spare my feelings. But my feelings are not hurt. Later, I told him I was thankful for his help. I know that he is so much more able to figure things out in these games for me. Growing up in the impoverished video world of the '70's (remember Pong??), I don't have the reflexes or multi-tasking ability to concentrate on all the things I need to in order to succeed. He, on the other hand, seems able to whack steadily away at the orcs, remember to fire at the approaching mini-boss, keep an eye out for the Mumakil we need to stop before they get to Merry and Eowyn, and understand the layout and the geography of the game to know where we need to be running to. Me, I would just run around in circles without him.

I could type an endless list of the things I've learned from my kids: the true meaning of generosity, how to love Celtic fiddle music, how unlimited imagination can be, the fact that our children come from some other place, a place where they've chosen us (I might have to write more on that one some other time), how to love with all your heart. There's probably not enough room on the Blog servers for everything I've learned from my kids. Mostly, I am grateful to unschooling, for allowing the gift of my children to be present in my life every day; for keeping my brain open to the idea that they are not vessels to be filled with knowledge, but fully realized beings here to both teach and learn; and for the greater worlds they have connected me to.

When I was pregnant with my first, I saved this often-quoted gem in my email folders. It rings more true with every day I get to spend with my children:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you, for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;

--from The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Happy Latin Fleas in My Bathtub

My 6 y.o. daughter and I were taking a bath together this morning, when out of the blue she said "If you were a flea, your Latin name would be Flea (prounounced Flee-uh), and since I'm your baby, I would be Larva. But since it's in Latin, it would be pronounced "Larwa". And daddy would be Fleaus, and M. would be Larvus (Lar-wus). And if daddy was happy, I would say Fleaus laetus est, but if you were happy, I'd say "Flea laeta est" because you're a girl flea."

Wow, 6:45 in the morning and I haven't had my first cup of mate' yet and her brain is spinning a million miles an hour. But when I said that this came "out of the blue", I'm mistaken. Unschooling is learning made up of a thousand points of interest, and all the connections between them. This didn't come out of the blue, it was born from all of those wonderful connections.

Why fleas? Because DH and I were talking about giving our pets their Advantage flea medicine this morning.

Why larva? Because my son M.(9) just ordered some Pikmin figurines (made from the video game Pikmin,), and his came with a Bulborb, which is a creature that goes through a larval stage, so yesterday we had been talking about insects and larval stages and caterpillars, butterflies, all of that.

Why Latin? Well, that's a bit more complex. Two years ago, M's friend got a computer game called Age of Mythology, and M. fell in love with it. So we bought it for him and he played it extensively. That led to a love of all things Greek (in the game, you get to be the God of one of several ancient civilizations, and all of the Greek mythic heroes and creatures are represented) and eventually he also got Age of Empires and fell in love with all things Roman as well. This led in many different avenues, including reading The Iliad and The Odyssey as bedtime chapter books last year, and structuring much of a family vacation around visiting Roman sites, like the Roman baths in Bath, England, and the still-functioning Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. This year, he anguished between trying to learn ancient Greek and learning Latin. We checked out materials from the library, but nothing seemed to click well. As luck would have it, our local homeschool resource center offered a Latin class aimed at younger kids and we decided to take it. The curriculum used is Minimus, which is interesting and exciting for kids, and our teacher is beyond excellent. So the bottom line is that both of my kids have been learning Latin, something that seemed beyond boring in my dim recollection of my school days, but now has become fun and exciting.

Pets, figurines, video games, classes - all a part of our unschooling lives together. All connections being made, every day. All of these add up to a bathtub conversation about happy fleas, in Latin.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Ministry of Silly Questions: But What If They Never Want to Learn Anything?

Excuse me while I laugh myself silly. Okay. I see this question surprisingly frequently when the topic of unschooling comes up. I only say surprisingly because if you've been around young kids at all, you know that they are learning dynamos. Four and five year olds are famous for their never-ending "How?" and "Why?" questions. Why do we, as a collective culture, assume that such questing for knowledge automatically comes to a screeching halt at around the age of six? Could it be because that is the age at which such inquiries typically slow to a trickle? Why should that be?

I remember learning that asking too many questions was just not cool. And I remember where I learned it. Not from my parents, who were happy to tell me why birds hatch out of eggs but I hatched out of mommy's tummy, and why certain wavelengths of light make the sky appear blue, and to even tell me they didn't know the answer to why nickels are bigger than dimes although dimes are worth more. No, sadly I learned that questions=uncool in school. I learned it when an exasperated teacher didn't want to see my hand raised yet one more time. And I learned it from the sidelong glances of my classmates. Geek, those glances said. Teacher's pet. Brown-noser. Nerd. It's easy to see why we assume the the desire to learn dies a gradual death for most children, so that by the time they are well into "school aged", the biggest concern that people would have about unschooling is that the kids wouldn't want to learn anything.

My experiences with my own children have completely belied the notion that the desire to learn does anything except accelerate drastically as kids get older.

Just for kicks and grins, I wrote down some things my kids have wanted to learn today:
- What human blood looks like under a microscope
- Why some male birds have extravagant feather displays (as evidenced by the hugely colorful wild tom turkey in our yard this morning) but other males are plain
- Why so many of our English words derive from Latin, but some Latin words disappeared completely with no English derivatives
- What makes some trees grow tall, and others branch out wildly (tree trimming day at our house, today)
- How the Native Americans made their tipis stay together at the top (this after trying to construct a tipi with the aforementioned branch trimmings)
- Why ballerinas wear toe shoes
- Would it be possible to build a battle robot at home
- Why an Academy Award is named an Oscar
- Why Czechoslovakia is not on our wall map but is on an old globe
- How we can tell with our ears that notes which are an octave apart are the same note
- Does the word octave come from the Latin octo
- Why no one really knows who Homer is, although he's one of the most famous authors of all time

If my kids wanted to learn any more, I might just collapse in exhaustion. As it is, I think Google is my middle name. So the short answer to the question "What If They Never Want to Learn Anything?" is that this will never happen unless we, as adults, do something to compromise our children's very nature: their innate drive and compulsion as intelligent sentient beings to learn and grow every day. For those of us who find our own ability and desire to learn new things has been severely stunted in the past, I recommend just sitting down and thinking about all the things you're curious about - what would you delve into if you had the time and could give yourself permission to do so? I think the answers will amaze you. You are still that child. As unschooling parents, our first job is to deschool ourselves, to open ourselves back up to that childlike wonder and curiousity about our world. Raising unschooled children is the greatest gift to a parent, because it brings us back into touch with our birthright: curiousity and a never-ending drive to learn.

Friday, March 03, 2006

How to Teach Your Child to Read in Zero Easy Lessons
(but hundreds of real life interactions)

My son (9) was reading an Asterix and Obelix book at the breakfast table today and remarked that when he first read these books, he only looked at the pictures. Then he sometimes read the big actions words like "whoosh". Then eventually he read many of the words. He realized that at some point, he could read all of the words. And this week he discovered that he can read all of the words and understand most of the Latin phrases too. He said this with a kind of wonderment in his voice, much like a toddler might if they were given to self-evaluation and could realize that just a few months before, they could barely say a few words and now they were speaking in full sentences.

How does reading "just happen" without the ubiquitous 100 Easy Lessons, phonics pathways, reading aloud, or hours of daily instruction in schools or homeschools? It happens in dozens of daily interactions that are no bigger or smaller than any other interaction we might have: "Mom, what letters make the "sh" sound?", and "Mom, where did you put the peanut butter?" would both be a part of some moment at some point in our time together.

Reading doesn't happen in a vacuum though - just as children raised without speech do not learn to talk, children raised without books and reading find it much harder or impossible to read. But reading is such a wonderful part of life - from bedtime chapter books, favorite special holiday books, the Sunday funnies, National Geographic magazines, video games, subtitling on movies, computer software - it's part of everyday life in our house and understanding how to do it is something that kids in such an environment are highly motivated to do.

It's very cool to get to observe the unfolding of reading. Like the year they were adding new words to their spoken vocabulary every day, it's an exciting thing. For each of my kids it has happened differently. M (9) has learned to sound things out, very gradually over time, but then at a certain point he just started picking words up by sight. He never wanted to read out loud until just recently. A (6) has always seemed to see a word once and memorize it whole. Once she's learned a word, she has it locked away for good. She loves to sit and read to me. At first, it was her favorite story books, memorized. Now it's books she hasn't read before. For each of them, it happened very naturally, in their own time and way. The things that motivated them at any given moment weren't always the conventional items that a school might use. The summer my son was six, all his older friends played Pokemon cards, and that created a burst in reading and math (all those points, names, attacks, and so forth.) Getting Animal Crossing for the Gamecube triggered another burst, especially in writing because we all sent letters to each other. At another point, they checked out every Garfield comic book in our library and poured over them until they exhausted the supply. At no point did they feel they were officially "learning to read", they were just doing what they loved and I was there to help them with anything they didn't know yet. The same way I deciphered "Mama want shooshy" to mean "Mom, I would like some juice" when they were younger.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


How to tire out even a very fit mom: Take her to a raquetball court and invent a game with a ball and complicated rules about where it must bounce and above all, make sure all players have to keep running around for the whole game. This gave me a whole new appreciation for pro basketball players. 10 minutes and I was whupped! The kids, of course, still had boundless energy.

Yesterday, the sun came out and we played "cul-de-sac baseball" which is the code word for baseball-with-no-rules, or more accurately, baseball with weird, fun, made-up rules. Like one of the kids playing broke his sandal and couldn't run the bases, so everytime he hit the ball, we all had to break into slow-motion (complete with slow-mo sound effects). And the person at the bottom of the cul-de-sac is the "drainer" and keeps the ball from going down the drain. Sometimes kids don't like to use mitts and use cardboard boxes to catch the ball. We call them the "boxers".

Boxers, drainers, slow-mo. Baseball, the way it's meant to be when you're a kid, like the sandlots that hardly exist anymore. With rules that change and no one really keeping score, everyone gets to play as much as they want, and no parents going ballistic in the stands. Baseball that gets played until it gets chilly out and the last bit of light eeks out of the sky and mom calls you in to dinner (except in our case, mom is on the pitcher's mound, because she's the only person guaranteed to not bean a batter with a fastball, and besides, she's not all that great at cooking dinner anyways)