Friday, April 28, 2006

What If Everything We Thought Kids Needed To Know Was Wrong?

Peak Oil...Oh, I know that the general public doesn't believe it yet - although this month's mainstream magazine articles might be bringing it to a nearer spot on their dim horizons. As America in particular and the world in general marches resolutely toward the edge of a cliff, maybe we collectively think if we just pretend that the edge isn't there we won't fall off of it. Or maybe there's some magic ledge, just a couple feet below that we can land on - solar power, maybe, or the wonders of hydrogen. In the meantime, we should certainly make sure our children know what the capital of Venezuela is and what year the Louisiana Purchase was made and how to spell pseudonym, because this stuff will certainly be important in the future, somewhere on that ledge, right?

What if everything we believed about the future is wrong? What if a small piece of land with sunshine and rain that can grow a family's worth of food will be worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox? What if knowing how to defeat a cabbage maggot or potato beetle will be more important than having an MBA from Harvard or a Law degree from Yale? What if the ability to repair a windmill will be more crucial than being able to do 100 math facts in under 10 minutes? What if the ability to cooperate will surpass our cultural need to compete for everything from grades to football scores?

Self-sufficiency, old-fashioned know-how, cooperative endeavors, the ability to make do, food preservation, bartering, self-powered transport, communication, conflict resolution - these skills may trump anything children are learning in school today. And yet we, as a culture, send our children to school as if tomorrow will be exactly the same as today. As if they need to know the same things that we did at their age. As if what they're learning today will help them in a future that is fast approaching, one we can hardly predict.

As we head toward what James Howard Kunstler calls "The Long Emergency", I'm grateful for our unschooling life. A life in which my kids can spend their days in the garden, baking bread, cycling to the library, walking to the farmer's market, researching how to build our own windmill, learning how to repair bicycles, as well as learning all of the accoutrements of the new millenium (computers and whatnot) which may, or may not exist in the tomorrows to come.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


This week, almost simultaneously, two very disparate things were posted on two lists/boards that I am a member of, and the contrast could not have been more startling if they had been planted there on purpose.

On a very open-ended "alternative" parenting board, a mom posted about how no matter how kids are raised (Christian, not Christian, public school, private, homeschooled), they all do "the same shit" and their parents have to "deal with the same crap" (essentially, kids sneaking around, going out with their parents' knowledge, drinking, smoking, getting into trouble).

Meanwhile, on a list of unschooling parents, there has been a very inspiring thread about how wonderful their teens are. How they respect themselves, their parents, their friends, their siblings. How close they are to their parents, how responsible, content, thankful, and joyful they are. How the parents feel that their teenagers are their "bestest friends".

There's a great big ol' myth out there in our culture, and it is this: no matter how you raise your kids, as teens they will raise hell. Unschooling puts lie to this myth. Why? Because whether kids are Christian or not Christian, schooled in public, private, or homeschooled, if their relationship with their parents is one of submission to an authority over their lives, rebellion is a likely outcome. On top of this, throw school into the mix - whether it's six hours a day of various teachers and classes telling you what and how to learn, or whether it's your mother at the kitchen table telling you how to learn - and you have a veritable recipe for disaster.

Teenagers' lives are full of transition, change, massive amounts of energy, overwhelming emotions - these things are true. Give them a cage to rattle and they will certainly pound those bars hard, trying to determine if there's a chink or a gap anywhere. When they're told what, how, where, how much, and why to do or not do things their whole lives, then when they get to the age where they're clever enough and independent enough to sneak around and get into some serious trouble, it's a good likelihood that they will do so. But what happens with teenagers who are raised with respect for their opinions since childhood? With kids whose ideas about themselves and their preferences and their direction in life are entirely determined by themselves? They still have the energy, emotions, and drive of every other teen, but it can be used to further whatever their life's passions happen to be. I think about the incredible amounts of energy I wasted on anger as a teen - rattling that cage and rattling it hard - what could I have accomplished with that energy and drive if it was my own to use as I wished?

Today and every day, I am building the relationship with my kids that will sustain us through the teenage years and beyond. I will listen to their hopes and dreams, and try to help make them happen. If those dreams include video games I don't care for, hobbies I'm not interested in, a hairdo that makes me cringe, or music I'd rather not listen to, I will enter into their worlds until I see these things as they do: see how cool and enveloping it is to play that video game, how fun that hobby is, how freeing that hairdo, how that music has layers and textures and a message I didn't hear on the first listening. My kids will spend their energy, their drive, and their emotion on things that are meaningful to them, today and every day.

And so I can honestly say as I look to the future, to the teen years: I'm looking forward to them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The View from 40

I am blessed. Really, totally blessed. I love my DH, my kids, our life together I am blessed with wonderful friends and family in my life. I am so lucky to live in a beautiful home, a beautiful city, a beautiful state. The sun is shining outside. I'm going to be able to go on a bike ride today. My DH has said I can pick out a digital SLR camera for my birthday (and anyone who knows my extreme shutterbug-ism knows how over-the-top happy I am about this!) This weekend my friends and family are going to gather with me to celebrate. No day could be better than today.

It's my birthday, I'm 40 years old. Wow!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Don't Mess With Mother Nature

I think I might've jinxed myself with that Cat in the Hat post. It has now rained for 10 straight days. The same days that my husband has been out of town, leaving introverted, need-my-quiet-time me to fend for myself with both energetic kids and no outdoor run-around time. Wow. So far, though, we've managed to keep busy and have fun (laughed our heads off at Hoodwinked yesterday, went to the gym the day before, friends' house the day before that, etc.), but the weather is getting a bit wearing. We just put in our garden, too, but haven't been able to do much outside except in between rain showers.

So today, the dreaded "B" word finally surfaced: "I'm bored!". Mind you, I don't think boredom is necessarily a bad thing. It's a time to dig deep and get inventive and we can almost always find something fun to do.

But today, even I am standing open-jawed in amazement. My kids have decided to clean each other's rooms. Just for the fun of it. They're happily shouting up and down the stairs to each other "Come look at it now! See how I've organized all your beads!", "Hey, check out where I put your card collection!". I'm either the total freaking Mother of the Year or the axe is about to fall, or both. Only time will tell...

Friday, April 14, 2006

No One Advertises Unschooling

This is a direct quote from a magazine ad for the Cayman Islands in a travel mag:

"I brought a little boy and went home with a lifelong buddy

When I took my 8-year-old son to the Cayman Islands, I thought he'd probably just play in the sand while I kicked back and caught up on some reading. Then we went kayaking. Then we went snorkeling. Then we went hiking. Then we went fishing. By trip's end, we'd done more together in five days than we had in the past five years." (italics mine)

Wow, how sad is that? It doesn't take a fancy vacation to connect with your kids. If you've only spent five days worth of time together in five years, it's time for a reality check. But how indicative of American life is this ad? Sadly, I'd bet it is all too true for too many parents and children. When lives go from before-school care to school to after-school care or sports or structured activities, there's very little time for just kicking back and getting to know one another.

No one takes out glossy full-color magazine ads for unschooling. Maybe if they did, it would read this way:

"I brought home a little boy and within weeks I had a lifelong buddy

When I took my 8-year-old son out of school, I thought he'd probably just do some workbooks while I kicked back and caught up on some reading. Then we went out in yard and kicked some piles of leaves. Then we went snail-watching. Then we went hiking. Then we played a game together. By week's end, we'd done more together in five days than we had in the past five years."

There's no corpporation to profit from such an ad, no tourist councils, no resorts. But that doesn't change the truth of it. Letting go of schoolish expectations is a vacation of the mind. Bon Voyage!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Fun With Standardized Testing

I learned a long time ago not to be surprised by the things my kids find interesting (that time on that car trip to Yorkshire where they begged me to write out times tables for them to fill in springs to mind), but this week takes the cake. I never thought I'd hear "These test things are fun. Can we get some more of them to do?" My own memories of the SAT testing I went through in school was a mixture of terror, boredom, and agony. But my kids think the SATs are fun.

I should back up and explain. It's not like I got these crazy SAT practice books because I wanted to. But the state I live in mandates that all kids get tested in their 3rd grade year, and we don't have an option for portfolios, observation, or any of the other possibilities that other states offer. So, my oldest will have to be tested next month, no way around it. I wanted him to have the option to try some practice tests first, so he'd at least know how to fill in little bubbles with No. 2 pencils (you know, another one of those valuable life skills that you use so much once you're done with school). He said he'd like to see a practice test or two, to become familiar with the format, so I bought some. And the kids love them.

It's funny. When you take something, even something as dreadful as testing, and you remove the expectations, the grading, the pressure, the concern, the caring about how you score, and all of the attendant angst that goes along with those things, they are, apparently, fun. Last night, my kids begged to do more and more pages, long after I had grown weary of checking the answer sheets. My "kindergarten-aged child" (put in quotes because really, these distinctions are so meaningless to all but the state beauracracy) even did the 3rd grade test, with her brother looking over her shoulder and coaching her on which answers the test-makers put in to trick her. They had some good laughs together over the alternative answers and spent some time thinking up their own for several of the questions.

So now my few concerns about my kids and test taking have been laid to rest (these concerns consisted of them being able to just follow the format of a test, not having a lifetime of test-taking to practice with, and tracking the bubbles correctly so as not to fill out an entire row of accidentally wrong answers), but more than anything I've learned another lesson along the unschooling path. As I released all of the anxiety that came churning up from my distant schooling past when I looked at those bubble sheets and No. 2 pencils, I could see these tests for what they are to my kids: a bit of a fun brain teaser, an opportunity to learn some new things (what a long division symbol looks like, what does the word antonym mean), and a fun diversion on a rainy day. Nothing more and nothing less. All else is the world of expectations that are normally tied to those little bubbles. Without that, they're just one more fun thing in a vast sea of living and learning. On to tomorrow's adventures.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Only True Law

Speaking of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, here's one of my favorite quotes from the book:

He spoke of very simple things--that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form."
"Set aside," came a voice from the multitude, "even if it be the Law of the Flock?"
"The only true law is that which leads to freedom," Jonoathan said. "There is no other."

Replace gulls with people, and flying with learning, the Flock with society, and you have unschooling in a nutshell. It is our very nature to learn in freedom, and to allow our children to do that, we have to be prepared to put all our former schoolish notions and the superstitions of society aside. The only true law is that which leads to freedom.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On Our Bookshelf

Books we've really enjoyed recently:

Kids: Toad Rage by Morris Gleitzman - This is one of the best kids' chapter books I've heard in years. I happened on to it at the library one day, as a book on CD (read by the author) and we took it on a recent 2.5 hour road trip. It was perfect. We laughed our heads off. It's a perfect mix of humor, story, adventure, pathos. An incredibly enjoyable book for kids and adults. I can't wait to check out the other books this author has written.

Jonathan Livinston Seagull - this is our nighttime read-aloud book for the last few nights. It's a short read and a bit "deep", it has enough story for the kids and enough philosophy for me to be content.

The Amazing Miss A (age 6): Books by Ellen Stoll Walsh, like Mouse Paint and Hamsters to the Rescue. The illustrations in this book are adorable, with simple-enough text that she can read them herself.

Magnificent Mr. M (age 9): The Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence. A set of older-kid level chapter books set in Roman times. Current favorite is The Pirates of Pompeii.

Me: Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America
by Mark Perry. A fascinating bio of two of America's more interesting people, and the story of their unusual friendship. Very good so far.

DH: ChiRunning A book about a totally new and different running style based on the principles of Tai Chi

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Spring Break for an Unschooler

Spring Break is kind of an oxymoron when you're unschooling. "Hey, let's take a break from doing all the cool things we love doing!" and do what instead?

Well, we did take a bit of a break since most of the class-type things the kids have been doing were cancelled this week (horseback lessons, etc.) and went back to my hometown to visit with my mom and dad. Of course, we still had a load of fun adventures - my uncle sent up a boxload of lemons from his trees and my mom has all these antique citrus squeezers so we made homemade lemonade. My dad had a big oak tree fall on his property and it had an enormous honeybee nest inside (like on Winnie the Pooh and the Hunny Tree) that the bees abandoned when it fell, so we could clearly see all the honeycombs they had built inside. Very cool! We rode horses, went to the science museum (remind me never to do that on spring break again, I forget how crowded those places get), DD played her violin at a nursing home where a 91 year old former violin maker resides who loves to hear her play. We also got to eat some great BBQ from a stand that my dad and step-bro started up (if you're ever in Medford, OR, be sure to visit the Smoke-n-man!. )

Come to think of it, that's one of the things I value most about my own parents - they've never stopped learning, living, following their passions. My dad has always loved to cook (his dad owned a restaurant, so maybe it's in the blood), and in his 70's decided to have a BBQ wagon made and took it around to fairs and festivals all last summer. My mom owns her own business selling hearing aids, following her own interests, and also loves to hike, kayak, and camp. That's one of the things I love best about DH's and my lives too, we've always followed our passions and our living (financial) came from that. I hope the same for my kids, that they never have to "settle" for a dull drudging job that they hate.

So many times, I've heard that used as a justification for school: that we need to prepare kids for the boring years of work ahead of them by making sure they know how to endure endless hours of things that they don't like doing now. Personally, I've never understood that argument. In the first case, if their working lives truly are going to be filled with boring drudgery, it would make more sense to let them enjoy a wonderful childhood now, when they don't have to work. Secondly, why should we aspire to lives of boring drudgery? What would the world look like if we all worked at things we loved? Whether that's selling BBQ or hearing aids or programming robots or being a musician. Surely the world is a big enough place for us all to have joy-filled working lives.

When spring break doesn't have to mean a break from anything, you know that every day is filled with the things that matter most.