Monday, January 4, 2016

Fun is More Important Than "Education"

I read a new post on how “fun for the fun of it” is good enough by Wendy Priesnitz, and it got me thinking.

I like to talk about how we’re constantly learning--how we can’t help but do so--and how unschooling is really just embracing that fact.

But just as important is realizing that we don’t always have be learning.

Bear with me for a second.

As adults, you probably enjoy doing a whole range of activities for pleasure: watching movies, listening to music, reading novels. Adults aren’t expected to justify these activities, it’s just accepted that they’re enjoyable, and that’s considered enough of a reason to do them.

Yet somehow when it comes to children, all that changes. “Education” must somehow be crammed into everything, from games to children’s TV shows. Even something as fundamental to childhood as play has to be defended by experts attempting to prove that it increases concentration, test scores, or the ability to work well in a group. Apparently if there was nothing pointing towards a correlation between play and success in school, play would be deemed useless altogether.

It seems that, in some ways at least, adults are actually given more leeway to have fun. Children are kept so busy by parents and teachers, determined to mold them into productive members of society, that some of the truly important things in life get pushed aside. Because when it really comes down to it, what are we trying to cultivate in our lives and that of our children? Is it perfectionism, competition, and academic achievement, or is it joy, creativity, and meaningful relationships? I know which goals sound better to me.

Me, my sister, and my mother.

Yes, talking about TV shows--about the plots and character motivation and how it compares to real life--might be “educational,” but at least as important is that watching a favourite show is fun. Reading novels might improve vocabulary, but the real reason we do so, no matter our ages, it because of the delight fiction brings us.

Play for play’s sake, fun for the sake of nothing more than fun, is valuable. Really valuable. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing with my sister, and some of my best adult memories are of laughing uproariously with those I love. Doing both fun and meaningful things is what makes us feel satisfied with our lives.

Unlike some homeschoolers have suggested, unschooling isn’t about sneakily teaching children what the parents want them to know: it’s about centering life, not education. It’s evaluating your priorities and realizing that learning runs parallel to a richly lived life, and doesn’t need to be artificially engineered in children’s lives.

When you realize that, you can let go and enjoy life, and allow your children to enjoy theirs. Play games, splash in the mud, watch TV, read comic books, do whatever it is that brings you and your children joy.

Have fun, and the learning will take care of itself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Classes, No Teachers, No Books? The Reality of Structure in Unschooling

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen article headlines proclaiming “Unschooling: No Classes, No Books!” I always shake my head in frustration.

I suppose when people hear that unschooling is not school, they jump to the conclusion that any and all even vaguely school-like trappings of classes and teachers--or even books, apparently--must be thrown out the window. Not school must mean nothing that looks like traditional learning, and nothing that looks like structure.

The reality, though, is quite a different story.

Unschooling might be against such school trappings as forced memorization and compulsory classes, but it’s not against individuals choosing to learn in whatever ways they feel work best for them. In fact, that’s kind of what unschooling is all about! It’s the ultimate in individualized and personalized learning, which means while the lives of some individuals will look very carefree and unconventional, the lives of others might look very traditionally “educational.”

Unschooling is characterized not by its lack of structure, but by its flexibility.

There are classes. As children me and my sister went to co-op classes and French classes and science classes. In recent times I’ve been to dance classes. My sister has been taking Ninjutsu for years, which at this point in time means two classes a week with an extra practice day thrown in. Unschooling is self-directed learning, which means you choose what classes you take (or don’t take). What it isn’t is learning only by yourself with no help. I’d hope that everyone can recognize that learning in group settings can be helpful and fun for some people some of the time. Would I like to only ever learn in class settings? Definitely not. But sometimes, it’s really great, and no one should ever believe that unschooling means shunning a specific type of learning just because it looks traditionally educational. It’s all about choosing what works best for you.

There are teachers. Not only present in classes of various sorts, but also in one-on-one situations. Sometimes the best way to learn something is by seeking help from someone skilled, which means a teacher or mentor of some sort. It may end up looking like a familiar school teacher-student relationship, or as is more often the case, it might hopefully be a more mutually respectful and reciprocal relationship. I have learned so much from other people: learning in isolation would be a sad and, well, isolating thing indeed. But by freeing ourselves from the need to be taught, I (perhaps ironically) feel that we can become much more open to all that is to be learned from those around us and those we seek out, both professional teachers, “experts,” and community members.

There are books. In some cases, lots of books. In my house, the house I grew up in, there are two over packed bookcases in the living room; a bookcase stuffed with cookbooks in the kitchen; two bookcases in my bedroom; one in my parents room; two bookcases plus towering, precarious stacks shoved everywhere they can possibly fit in my sister’s room; and I don’t even know how many more bookcases are scattered around the basement. Point being? Between us, my family owns a whole lot of books. The internet provides lots of useful information and access to a ton of terrific essays and stories, but there’s still a lot to be said for both novels and nonfiction books. It seems absurd that I should even have to say this, but generally unschoolers like books a lot. While some people are never going to really enjoy reading books for pleasure (or will be unable to due to learning disabilities), the vast majority will at the very least use books when appropriate to get the information they need.

We’ve established that some unschoolers will appear more “school like” in their pursuit of knowledge, or in the ways they choose to structure their learning. But while that may be one sort of “structure,” even for the most freeform unschoolers out there, the patterns of life will create a structure of sorts. Daily habits and rituals, visits and activities, will build a scaffolding for the unschooling life, a structure that evolves and changes over weeks and months to support the needs of each individual and the family as a whole.

Unschooling doesn’t mean doing away with any structure whatsoever: it means creating a structure based on the needs of actual people, instead of following a structure designed for the needs of an institution.

This means that sometimes unschoolers will go to classes, seek out teachers, and read books. And sometimes, they’ll learn quietly by themselves, they’ll teach themselves a new skill, and they’ll play a video game.

However much or little structure their lives end up including, life learners are trying to open themselves up to as much of the world as possible. To pick and choose what works for them, and discard what doesn’t, all with the knowledge that they can always make different choices in the future.

And those choices will quite likely include classes, teachers, and books!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

For The Love of Learning: Exploring Unschooling With Pat Farenga, Pam Sorooshian, and Idzie Desmarais

I was happy to be part of a recent conversation on the online TV show For the Love of Learning, along with Pat Farenga and Pam Sorooshian. We covered many interesting topics, and I was left feeling like there was so much left we didn't get to explore. While I don't agree with everything my co-guests had to say, I was still blown away by many of their insightful comments and stories, and was thrilled to be included in such good company. I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I enjoyed doing it!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: A Gateway to Learning

This is the third and final installment of Unexceptionally Exceptional, which is the text from the talk I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference at the end of August. You might want to read part one and part two first: The Meaning of Success, and Time for Struggle, Time for Joy.

Downtime of all sorts can be valuable, and one of the way that manifests is in boredom.

I decided that me and my sister should sing a duet for the talent show because I was bored. I’ve been bored a lot in the past year, mainly because when things aren’t going great, I’m less likely to have a good routine going with regular activities, and more likely to feel restlessness.

So, in some ways the boredom I’ve felt has been a sign of things not going as well as they could be. But in other ways, boredom has always been a force of creativity in my life. As I wrote in a post on the Home School Life Magazine blog back in February:
“Boredom acts as a gateway, as the beginning of something new or different, or the introduction (or reintroduction) to a new hobby or passion, something that will go on to be an important part of our days. 
Or not. As important as the productivity that boredom can lead to, equally important is simply the space of boredom itself. The time for us to get past the initial restlessness or discomfort of not being busy, not doing, and settle into reflection, observation, stillness. We need the time to process and digest our learning, our experiences, and sometimes boredom can be a part of that.”
To struggle, to be bored, is part of the process of learning, and of healing.

I’ve never sung a duet in public before. I sung in a church choir and a homeschool choir when I was young, but my voice, when others are listening to me perform, has always been part of a crowd: a hopefully harmonious small part of the whole. I’ve sung in small groups, casually, where everyone is messing up and messing around, playing instruments they’re less familiar with and maybe trying out a new harmony. It hasn’t felt like much pressure.

But what I was suggesting to my sister when I turned to her and said “we should do a duet at NEUC” was scary. Everyone would be listening to my voice. They’d hear if I messed up.

But, I was bored that evening, and I wanted to sing with my sister, and once the thought crossed my mind and the words left my mouth, I became determined to follow through with it.

We sung Safe and Sound by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars.

Sometimes, too, boredom is the impetus to actually work through emotional shit. Keeping busy, always talking and working and doing, can be a way to hide from difficult emotions, to avoid facing difficult experiences. Boredom, an absence of busy-ness, has forced me to process what’s been happening in my life, to reflect, accept, and work towards moving forward.

And as I move forward, I find myself asking again and again, what is success? It’s layered and multi-faceted, and my definition is constantly changing. I’m working on being at peace with my life, with where I am right now.

I’m learning to move forward. I may still be grieving the loss of two cats who meant the world to me, yet I have two different cats who have now come to mean an incredible amount to me as well. I’m still not living the dream life, there are still so many things I might want to change. Yet the garden still grows, and my family still loves me.

My darling Bea, of the no-tail and too-many-toes.

Success isn’t something you can attain in one grand swoop. I’m reminded of an Allie Brosh comic, where the author in scratchy comic form is shown gesturing sweepingly towards a purple ribbon wrapped trophy on the mantlepiece. “That right there is my ability to be responsible” she says. “I won it when I was 25.”

People my age, whether unschooled or not, have so many flawed and conflicting beliefs about what it means to be a successful adult, and how that can achieved. I guess we’re all floundering, at least some of the time, and just trying to figure out what we’re doing.

Unschooling, too, is a practice of learning and un-learning and re-learning, trying to find a path to respectful relationships, a peaceful home, and joyful learning.

Ah, the joy. Because the thing is, no matter how hard some times in our lives might be, no matter that our lives might not always look how we think they’re supposed to, there’s so much joy.

Pursuing an unschooling life is pursuing joy. It’s cultivating the excitement of discovery; the satisfaction of doing hard things on your own initiative; the companionship of strong relationships and time spent with people you not only love, but like.

Me and my mommy.

I spend as much time as I do talking and writing about unschooling because, despite none of this being new to me, it still fills me with so much excitement. My mind spirals into thoughts of what I’ve learned, with great pleasure, to do: bake pies and ferment kombucha and grow zucchinis. I think of all there is that I’m going to get to learn in the future. I think about how learning feels: the playful, relaxed, yet deeply focused intent of doing something I truly love, something that hits the perfect sweet spot of challenging yet attainable. It feels like freedom. And it’s one of the best feelings there is.

How can I not consider that joy, in and of itself, a form of success? I delight in learning, and in sharing, and in making the tenets of unschooling a continuing part of my adult life.

This past year may have tested me in a hundred different ways, but I’m proud that I managed, through everything, to find those joyful moments.

It takes a shift in focus to start seeing the success in your own life. It’s hard. Do I ever know how hard it is! I struggle every day to truly value my unique education, to recognize how much I’ve done and am doing in my life. To really feel my success.

But whenever I force myself to stop and really look, I can see it. I see the learning, and the growth, and the joy, and I know that I’ll be okay. I’ve got this. I’m busy building the life I want one messy, difficult, enthusiastic piece at a time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: Time for Struggle, Time for Joy

This is part two of my talk Unexceptionally Exceptionally, which I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference a couple of weeks ago. I'd suggest reading part one, The Meaning of Success, first! Look for part three on Monday.

As much as I might often be seen as “successful” by unschoolers, this past year has not been one which looked very good from the outside, and one that often didn’t feel very good on the inside. This past year in my life has been rough. When I was writing the outline for this talk, I put down “the year of hell” as the heading for this section. For any Star Trek Voyager fans in the audience, you’ll remember the episode of that title, where in an alternate timeline, everything just keeps going wrong: aliens keep attacking; equipment breaks; people keep dying.

My own year of hell has been a time of great difficulty for my whole family. In December, a beloved cat who had been with my family for almost 14 years passed away unexpectedly. In January, my great aunt died. In february, my grandmother’s basement flooded, and shortly afterwards, she fell down the stairs, hitting her head on rough cement uncovered by flood repair work and getting a concussion. In March our other elderly cat, who had been with us just as long and been just as loved, got sick and died shortly after. In April, my father had surgery.

When I see people criticizing unschooling for its supposed sheltering of children from hard things, I laugh. My response to that concern, whenever it’s expressed to me, is that the world provides plenty of difficulty all on its own: no need for parents to artificially engineer misery in the lives of their children.

There’s a quote I really like by Alfie Kohn, who says:
“People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. On the contrary, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the real world is to experience success and joy, to feel supported and respected, to receive loving guidance and unconditional care and the chance to have some say about what happens to them.”
I guess my parents did something right, because I seem to have ended up as an adult who can cope with adversity. This past year success has felt like being there for my mother when her aunt passed away. It’s meant rushing out of the house in record time to meet my grandmother at the hospital, and bringing my father in for his surgery along with my sister, hiding the terror we were both feeling so we could joke with him while he waited. Success meant bringing my cat’s body to the veterinarian's office to be cremated, even though I wanted to just curl up at home and grieve, because she was my cat and it was my responsibility.

Sometimes success means simply doing what you need to do.

And, through it all, learning keeps happening. Not even in a growing from adversity way, though that can’t help but be part of it, but just through everyday exploration. Books are still read, questions Googled, words written, Ninjutsu classes attended, skills honed and projects completed.

A large part of unschooling is seeking joy in learning: embracing learning as a playful, exciting process. But it seems that in all our discussion of that joy, some people seem to take to heart that that’s all unschooling should and can be. I see people concerned that their house isn’t constantly filled with light, or that life sometimes gets in the way of living in a way that looks how they think unschooling is supposed to look.

I think that cooperation and exploration and yes, joy, should always be the goal: of course we all want that. But there needs to be the recognition that circumstances will sometimes intervene in surprising and on occasion devastating ways, and what happens through that might not looks like the ideal of unschooling, but it will be real, and genuine, and the learning will still be happening, every step of the way.

My year of hell has included a whole lot of time spent not in crisis, but simply in living.

“When life is busy testing your endurance, it seems like the perfect time to bring a bit more magic into your days.”

I wrote that line back in January, and that thought, that idea has come to mean a lot to me in the past year. More than any other time in my life, I’ve been reminded over and over again of the importance of finding joy each day, in all it’s forms and in any way you can. Bringing little pieces of magic, of inspiration, into even the most difficult of days.

For one thing, I could spend hours picking berries. The only thing that generally drives me back indoors is when I’ve found every last ripe one in whatever patch of brambles I’m delicately working my way through. Sometimes I hum to myself. More often I’m silent, moving slowly, listening to the soft rustle of branches, hum of insects, and birdsong. Even the thorns on my favourite black raspberries seem more like a challenge than an inconvenience.

Black raspberries.

A lot of what bringing inspiration into my life has meant is self care rituals: picking berries; making myself and anyone else who’s around a fancy coffee; making a beautiful plate of food; cutting flowers from our yard and putting a bouquet on the table; baking a loaf of bread… Much of my self care involves food, because that’s what’s important to me, but everyone will have things that make them feel grounded and nourished.

And a lot of what “magic” has meant to me has been learning. I haven’t taken any classes since last fall: nothing has been formal, and little has been with other people. Even turned inwards, as I’ve been, towards family and healing, I’ve found myself still learning constantly, in countless simple ways.

Gardening has been a big thing for me and my sister this Spring and Summer. My sister Emilie has spearheaded things, at times dragging me along, short on motivation, behind her. Conversations on car rides have been about the ideal soil composition for beans versus tomatoes, and how best to treat powdery mildew on zucchinis. There have been sweaty days spent building a large trellis out of branches and reclaimed posts for our winter squash, building raised beds, and transplanting small growing things. In more recent days, time spent in the garden has waned, as more and more that’s left to do is simply harvest, take stock of what we did wrong and right, and discuss how we want to do things next year.

The tomatoes did especially well this year.

Besides the garden, bringing two new cats into our home, in a desperate attempt to fill the holes left by our recently deceased furry family members, has lead to plenty of breed research and new discoveries about cat behaviour, as each new animal always presents new challenges and new joys both. I canned some jelly semi-successfully for the first time this summer--the canning part was successful, though the “jelly” was more syrup than anything else. I’ve learned more about areas of history I previously knew little about; I’ve learned to cook new foods; I’ve learned that I can step up when needed even when I’m personally struggling.

A whole host of learning, from how to handle an overstimulated kitten and how to create an ingenious tomato watering system, to deep personal growth.

Remaining aware of all the learning that keeps happening, no matter what, can be encouraging and soothing. When it feels like you’re “doing nothing,” it might be a good idea to pay more attention to all the things that you, and your family, ARE doing.

We live in a culture obsessed with productivity. Whether you want to blame it on capitalism or on the puritanical work ethic, the fact remains that busy-ness, doing something, is generally considered good, and not doing anything “productive” is seen as laziness, as wasted time.

The idea that time can even be wasted, that every moment should somehow be accounted for seems like a deeply toxic idea. It’s definitely proved a harmful one in my own life. I’ve struggled with mental illness for years, and this year has been a particularly trying one with all that’s happened, and I struggle with the idea that I’ve “wasted” so much time in struggle.

In a culture that sees a lack of productivity as one of the seven deadly sins, people who are struggling are often seen as lazy. They just need to get over it, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The reality is that big life struggles are sometimes inevitable, and there isn’t an exact recipe for how people are “supposed” to deal with adversity. Sometimes you just need time and space to heal, and to get back on your feet.

Our two new black cats, Silver and Bea.

Both children and adults need time to struggle with those big life events, to make sense of them.

One of the core tenets of unschooling is recognizing that everyone has their own timeline when it comes to learning. The same is true of emotional difficulties and growth. When we take constant productiveness as a measure of success, we’re doing a great disservice to ourselves and the people around us. Time is a great gift: time to figure things out, to grow, to process, to hibernate. Periods of downtime are essential, especially when life has been extra hard.

Part of learning to be kind to myself is learning not to beat myself up over a lack of productivity, not to punish myself for struggling. Sometimes picking a full container of raspberries is success enough.
As a grown unschooler, I might feel the pressure to excel in obvious ways especially keenly, but recognizing that the only timeline I’m on is my own allows me that space to breath, and when I’m kinder to myself, I’m more able to do and learn and grow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: The Meaning of Success

This is the first of a three part series exploring what success is and means, unschooling when the going gets tough, and finding joy in the simple things. The text is from a talk I wrote for the Northeast Unschooling Conference, and I've broken it up here into more manageable post lengths. Look for parts two and three on Thursday and next Monday! 

As I was preparing for this talk, I found myself thinking a lot about what success means. What it means in this culture, what it means to unschoolers, and what it means to me, personally.

Culturally, the most common middle class narrative of success runs neatly from elementary school and high school, through college, and straight into a well-paying office job.

Unschoolers, obviously, have strayed from that path right near the beginning. And I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all questioned whether that’s really the best--or the only best--path to follow. After all, as soon as you start re-evaluating the place institutional education holds culturally and in each of our lives, it’s a pretty natural step to start wondering if that education is really seeking the right “results,” or if we want to be focusing on different goals.

But, I often wonder if we haven’t just replaced one set of expectations with another one, which, while less rigid, still falls far short of encompassing all the ways that humans can create their own versions of success in this world.


It’s a day a couple of weeks ago. I’m curled up in the corner of the couch, knees tucked underneath me, the television playing something I’m not watching in the background. I’ve spent most of the day caught in a negative thought spiral of failed attempts and disappointments. In other words, it hasn’t been a good day. “I’m a loser.” I say. The words slip out without my thinking them through beforehand, but in that moment, I believe it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want a degree: I’m supposed to have one, aren’t I? I don’t have a “real” job, and despite the fact I’m earning a small amount of money doing something I care deeply about, or that ongoing health problems have gotten in the way of outside work, it seems like something I should have. It doesn’t even matter that, at the core of all my beliefs about people and politics and everything else lies the belief in equality, and that there aren’t--or at least definitely shouldn’t be--any ranking of people based on how well they’re “winning” at capitalism or success or anything else.

But in that moment, I’m convinced that I’m a failure.

Those moments are just that: moments, and ones that pass. But I’m reminded of how strong cultural messages are by how easily I can get caught up in (and dragged down by) those narratives, especially in moments of emotional difficulty and uncertainty. Unschoolers or not, I think many of us can’t help but be affected.

In the unschooling community, ideas about success are different. I usually feel like people consider me pretty successful in unschooling spaces: popular blogger and speaker definitely falls under the range of well-thought-of unschooling endeavors, right alongside world travel and entrepreneurship.

Writing, writing, writing...

It’s nice to see other accomplishments beside the typical college to good career track being recognized for their validity. But, the things that are viewed as successful by some vague yet very much felt unschooling consensus are things that, well, look good. Things that are somewhat performative, public, and easily seen. It’s the public intellectuals, the travelling writers, the startup superstars whom it seems we’re most proud of.

I think it’s no coincidence that the word “performative” was the first one that came to mind for me. Unschooling is often faced with such harsh criticism from uninformed non-unschoolers, and even legal difficulties in some places. When people first learn about unschooling, they don’t usually get an image of the type of lifestyle many of us have lived and are living. Instead, they see one of chaos and ignorance and maybe even neglect, You mean you don’t teach the kids anything?? How will they ever become productive members of society??

With that type of outside reaction, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the lives of teenage and especially grown unschoolers can get turned into performances of success, most clearly seen in what and who we choose to talk about. Individuals become not just themselves: uniquely flawed and skilled people with their own lives to lead, but results. A product of a pedagogy, instead of simply people who’ve lead a different lifestyle. We broaden the definition of success, yes, to include more varied options. But we still want it to look damn good.

I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice, or a deliberate ranking of some pursuits as more important than others, yet regardless of intentions, it can sometimes feel, as a grown unschooler, that you’re caughts between a dance of sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary pressures to prove unschooling success in one way or another, whether that means more mainstream or counter-cultural narratives. And when none of those paths looks like one you want to take, it can feel really difficult.

My sister, Emilie is a musician, a martial artist, an amateur Arthurian scholar, and a writer of fantasy fiction. I think she’s pretty impressive, as does pretty much anyone who knows her. But unlike my own life and work, which I’ve chosen to share in a very public way, her pursuits are much quieter. She’s an excellent writer, but she only shares her writing with a select group of trusted friends. She’s very close to getting her black belt in Ninjutsu, and her teacher, who’s moving, wants Emilie to take over her class. Her accomplishments are real and important, but they’re not necessarily ones that receive much recognition outside of the specific groups in which she practices her skills.

She makes adorable plushies, too.

Many people, unschooled and not, lead quieter lives, with less outgoing passions. In holding up the unschoolers doing TED talks or getting into prestigious colleges as the pinnacle of unschooling success, I feel like we might just be missing an opportunity to discuss, and to truly embrace, a vision of truly unique life learning. If we mean it when we say that all interests are valid and important, then we must follow that belief through to it’s natural conclusion, which would be that all life paths, as long as they’re not harmful to others, are also equally valid, no matter how they might look to outsiders.

If we’re to do that, it seems that we need to be making a lot more space in discussions of success for people whose success doesn’t follow the most popular forms.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How Do We Value Ourselves?

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine.

In our culture, it’s very obvious that we value certain knowledge and skills more highly than others. Namely skills that are academic and intellectual, communication skills, and social skills (somewhat less tangibly, seeing as those are harder to test). It seems everything else comes a distant second.

Schools are all about teaching academic skills to the exclusion of all else (though how good a job they do at imparting those skills is very debatable).

When we take school out of the equation in our own lives and families, we have the option, the opportunity, to take a hard look at what skills are valued, and decide to broaden what we personally value and encourage.

But are we taking that opportunity? Too often, I don’t think we are.

My family didn’t, or at least didn’t to as much of an extent as we could have. This isn’t meant to place blame on my parents; we’re each of us constantly learning and growing, and unlearning ideas that have a negative impact on ourselves and others. My parents did the best they could in the places they were at, and I’m grateful for it. But looking back, it’s very obvious that the skills they were most concerned with me and my sister acquiring were those taught in school. It was subtle, because it was unintentional, but that preferencing of academic skills, at least to some extent, was very much present.

It’s easy to find ourselves trapped in an invisible framework built out of concerned queries from friends and families about how kids who don’t go to school will learn math, and PSA’s about the importance of graduating high school, and parental insecurities born of what they themselves were good and bad at in school.

I think it’s important to look beyond that framework, though, to recognize the variety of important and amazing skills and strengths people can have, including skills that are definitely not taught in school.

My sister is a caretaker. She washes dishes and dusts and tidies, she likes doing yard work, and has increasingly been taking on odd jobs around the house that my father used to do (cleaning out the gutters and sweeping the chimney, snowblowing and mowing the lawn). She likes organizing things, works as the quartermaster in her Highland band, making sure every member is properly outfitted with everything they need. Her dream is to build her own house, a hobbit hole as she refers to it. She likes to take care of spaces, organizing and making things work.

This type of domestic work, work related to home care, is not exactly highly valued. I don’t think it’s an accident that this type of work (besides a couple of ‘manly’ chores) is generally coded as feminine, either, though that’s a whole ‘nother story.

It’s work that’s deeply necessary, often difficult, and that lives at the core of each and every one of our lives. We all need to eat, need to have clean clothes to wear, need to stay healthy by living in a clean environment. Even when we move past what’s strictly necessary in our current modern way of living, domestic skills often provide real enrichment: fresh food from a garden in your own yard, or homemade soap with your favourite scents. As soon as you move past the strictly necessary aspects of domestic skills, you move into the “artisanal.” Which, to a growing extent, is in. It’s trendy and popular to knit and make pie, at least for women.

We like cooking together.

But while the general movement towards a back-to-the-land and back-to-our-grandmother’s-skills can’t be a bad thing, I don’t think the movement is nearly broad enough in scope, as the majority of domestic skills are still being learned by girls and women only, and the trendiness only goes so far. These skills are still just considered hobbies, things women can do in their spare time. When it comes to the more mundane skills, they remain simply invisible: if they’re noticed at all, it’s probably just in an outdated sense of approval that the time honoured housekeeping skills are alive and well with some women, at least.

I believe the undervaluing of domestic work is reflected in how much money is usually made in such work outside your own home, and in who’s doing it (almost entirely women, and the majority immigrant and otherwise marginalized women). You can also see that attitude in what’s conspicuously not thought important enough to include in a modern school curriculum.

While certain select domestic skills might be valued when practiced by certain select people, they’re certainly not valued overall.

It seems strange that in many ways the most basic and integral skills needed to provide shelter and food are those valued least. Domestic skills, as mentioned above, but also trades, construction, and farming (which, even with the increased desire for organic and specialty foods, can be difficult to succeed at financially no matter what type of farming you're doing)... Some of these jobs, like select trades, do earn a lot of money (I don’t find it surprising that trades are also male dominated fields(1) as opposed to female dominated low-paying domestic work), yet they still lack a lot of prestige.

Money isn’t the only sign of value, of course, but in a capitalist society that values money over pretty much everything else (like the wellbeing of the Earth and the majority of people), how much money any given skill or knowledge set can make says a lot about what things--and which people--are valued most.

My sister is a caretaker. She takes care of people. Friends ask her for relationship advice, and go to her when they just need someone to listen. She told me the other day how much she likes helping out the newer people at her Ninjutsu dojo, and I’ve seen the amount of patience she has whenever she’s in a position of helping people to learn something. There’s been numerous times she’s stayed up late into the night and early morning talking to a friend or acquaintance who’s suicidal. She cares about the people around her, and is quick to step in and stand up to someone when she believes they’re being hurtful or inconsiderate. One of the reasons she wants to have her own land and build that hobbit hole is so that she has a place where loved ones can go when they need a place to be, no matter their financial situation. She cares about people.

And as you can probably tell by now, I really admire the skills my sister has a great deal. I admire her a great deal.

But it’s hard, as she confided to me recently, that the skills and strengths she values and cultivates in herself are not ones that are generally valued. They don’t make money, or at least not easily, which is all most people seem concerned about, and she’s left feeling like those skills, as much as her contributions have meant to so many friends and acquaintances, just aren’t good enough.

"There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature." William Upski Wimsatt

This quote has always felt grounding to me, reminding me when I start to panic about my (lack of) math skills or feel that my knowledge of certain parts of history seem less than a schooled friend. A reminder that the most important skills are those that actually help us function in the world we find ourselves in. This can mean knowing how to make healthy and tasty food for yourself or for a crowd, handling friendships when they get difficult, doing taxes, raising money, supporting a depressed partner while not losing yourself, or how to get soap rings off of the sides of your tub.

All the things, big and small, that truly make up the day to day art of living.

As unschoolers, we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink what’s valued and what’s important. It’s hard to let go (or maybe more accurately throw off) deeply ingrained ideas about what learning looks like, what important learning looks like, and what should be most encouraged in children.

I think encouraging life skills can be as simple as de-emphasizing academic skills a little bit (messages everywhere are telling us that they’re important. Kids are going to get that idea no matter what!), and working to expand our personal definitions of what learning looks like and what skills it’s important for children to learn. If we actually believe that all those important real life skills are valuable, I think everyone around us, kids included, are going to see that belief reflected in the way we talk and the things we do. I also think it’s important to, in an age appropriate way, involve kids of all genders in every aspect of running and maintaining a household: cooking and cleaning and fixing and yard work and finances and pet care. Making things into “chores” is often unhelpful; instead, I believe it’s important to just live and work together as a family, including everyone in both day-to-day tasks and big decisions. Easier said than done, I’m sure (and I’ll likely be even more sure of that once I have kids myself), but striving for that cooperative state seems important, and when you can achieve it it really feels great. I know it’s what I’ll be striving for when I’m a parent.

It’s great if a kid finds manipulating numbers comes naturally, or starts reading at age three. But it’s just as wonderful if a child has a real sense of when things are out-of-place and likes organizing the house, or loves working with wood, or has a knack for growing things, or a seemingly innate sense of the right thing to say when someone is sad.

Emilie tending to the garden last summer. Our garden is much bigger this year!

These skills and strengths are every bit as important as academic skills, and if we can stop the knee-jerk reaction of thinking that intellectual work is somehow superior, if we valued the unique strengths of every individual around us, both children and adults, I can’t help but think it would be a better world.

Unschooling gives us an excellent opportunity to value those unique strengths, and encourage kids to develop all kinds of important, exciting, and nourishing life skills.

My sister is 20. I'm 23. We're both still figuring out a lot of things, still struggling sometimes. I'm deeply passionate about food and cooking, and though right now I'm just working hard to get my health to a place where I feel I'm able to work a "real" job, I remain excited about working in that field.

My sister Emilie was asked to be the manager and caretaker of a fledgling intentional community being dreamed up by her Ninjutsu teacher (as well as friend and sometimes employer) and others. Though the land isn't bought yet, her near-future "duties" would be to do a lot of the learning and skill-gaining related to sustainable building and gardening practices, something that a lot of the older working people involved with the community don't have the time to do. In the longer run, some of the things she'd do would be organize who was there when, bringing in and managing volunteers to help build it, and living on the land during the week when those who still worked in the city couldn't be there. Basically an opportunity that perfectly suits her desires and skills! I'm excited for her, and I'm hoping it all works out. Even if it doesn't, she's still striving towards her dream of homesteading and sustainable community living.

Which I guess just shows to me that there is a place for those skills, for people whose strengths and passions are less of the academic persuasion and more about the domestic, hands on, emotional, and "life skills" realms, even if they can be difficult to find sometimes.

There are many skills that help us function and succeed in this world, whatever success looks like to the individual. Some of them are academic and some are not. They're all valuable, helping us in different aspects of our lives, some of which will help with earning money and some not. Regardless, they're all important. They all contribute to making life better, making life richer, and helping us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

In valuing all skills, not just the school ones, we're helping kids do well in all different parts of their life, and opening up doors to a wider range of possibilities.

I think that's one of the most important, and personally exciting, things we can do as unschoolers!

(1) I say this based on the findings in Women in Non-Traditional Occupations and Fields of Study by Kathryn McMullen, Jason Gilmore and Christel Le Petit from statistics Canada, and Women and Education by Martin Turcotte, the latter of which commented that, out of six trade groups (building construction, electrical, electronic and related trades, food and services, industrial and related mechanical trades, metal fabricating, and motor vehicle and heavy equipment), the only one in which women are a majority was food and services.

Monday, July 6, 2015

So You Want to Leave College. Now What?

I want to leave college--or just not go to begin with--but how do I start? Is a question I get fairly frequently.

As a lifelong unschooler, my transition into life learning in the college years felt like a natural progression, which has definitely coloured my view of college free learning, and how I’ve approached it. In light of that, I wanted to share the things that have been most helpful in my own journey thus far, just tailored towards those who haven’t come from the same background I have.

So, you want to leave college. Where do you start?

Find Uncollege Inspiration
Read books and blogs about learning without school. Watch TED talks on the subject. Google away, learn about the experiences of other college free learners, what they found worked and what they found didn’t, and from all that you’re taking in, focus on what sounds best for you. My choices might not be your choices, and you should never feel the need to follow advice that sounds like it doesn’t meet your needs or reflect your situation. Get inspired, and go with what sounds like a great college-free experience for you.

Figure Out the Practicalities
If you’re not going to college, what will your life basically look like instead? Will you live with your parents, rent an apartment, travel the world? Do you need to work, and if so, how will that tie-in with or be balanced with your uncollege pursuits? What resources (universities, community groups, maker spaces, libraries, art studios, etc.) are available in your community (or in the community you plan to relocate to)? Know the confines you’re going to be working within, so you can figure out how you want to proceed with your life learning over the next little while.

Find YOUR Inspiration
So you’re not going to college. What do you want to do instead? You can focus as broadly or narrowly as you want, on as academic or as hands-on pursuits as can be imagined. This can be overwhelming, which is why I think a great place to start is just free form research into whatever you’re interested in--or think you might be interested in. Read books on paleontology or writing, watch videos about dog training or coding. Reading blogs by people doing something you might want to do can be one of the best ways to see if you want to pursue something similar, in my experience. You don’t have to immediately find your “passion,” you don’t ever have to settle on just one thing. Just come up with a few ideas that you like, then see what books are at your local library, what activities you can get involved with in your local community, or who you might want to approach for mentorship.

Build a Support Network
If you’re going to skip college, you’re going to need some support. How much or how little will depend on your personal needs, but whether it’s supportive parents or friends, online communities, mentors in a chosen field, or a great local group who share a common interest, finding people who want to cheer you on and help you out is invaluable. Otherwise it’s just too easy to get bogged down in disapproval from less positive corners who think you should really just get a degree instead.

Check Out Your Local College or University
Even if you’ve decided you don’t want to enroll in college or university, they can provide really great communities, and often have a lot of associated groups, clubs, and events open to the general community. Through two big universities in my city, I’ve gone to numerous education workshops, as well as canning workshops, dance classes, artisan fairs, and more. Colleges can provide a really accessible network of young people, and lots of readily available ways to learn about important and relevant goings on in your area. So if you’re lucky enough to live near one, see what it has to offer!

Push Yourself Outside Your Comfort Zone
We all have different things that will feel scarier or more intimidating, even if we want to do them. Maybe now is a good time to explore those things, and start taking steps--small ones, if you need to--outside of your current comfort zone. Personally, I can end up becoming way too much of a shut-in, focusing on writing, baking, and following my daily routines, and I need to make sure I go out and do cool things, take classes that scare me a little, try something new, take time to travel (a good growth experience if ever there was one), and keep my life more varied and rich than it would otherwise be. Working to expand our comfort zones is always a good idea!

Make Something
In lieu of grades (a measure of accomplishment that I think has major problems), creating things can be a really great way of seeing your own progress, keeping records of what you’re spending your time doing, and making something that other people can benefit from. And when I say “something,” I mean almost anything: a blog, book, or ebook; YouTube videos; a short documentary; songs; a website or basic videogame; a photography portfolio; a bookshelf or chicken coop or garden… Find something you want to try doing, do it, make some record of yourself doing it, and think about sharing either your process and experience or the finished project (depending on what it is) with others. Wash, rinse, repeat. Don’t treat your education as a performance for others, and don’t choose your activities based on how good they’d look online. But sharing what you do can be an incredibly rewarding and useful way of improving your work and providing something valuable for other people.

Keep a Personal Inspiration/Motivation/Self-Care Journal
I first got this idea from a fellow college-free learner, who simply kept a Google document filled with quotes, passages, and thoughts that kept them feeling inspired about their learning lifestyle. I have a “self care” tag on my Tumblr blog to help me stay positive when I start to panic, and I keep a paper inspiration/self care journal which, though I don’t write in it as often as I’d like, nevertheless makes me happy. It can be hard doing something unconventional, and outside disapproval can really weigh you down, so creating something to remind you of your worth and the worth of your choices is a great thing to have when you start to wonder if you’re really doing the right thing.

Remember You Can Always Change Your Mind
Choosing not to go to college can feel like a Really Big Thing, both to you and the people around you. But all it is is a decision to not go to college right now. If at any point you decide that maybe you do want to go--or go back--to college, you can, whether it’s a year from now, or 5 years, or 20. I feel that one of the biggest perspective shifts in embracing life learning is realizing that there are no timelines of when you “should” be learning or doing certain things. The only timeline is your own, based on what’s right for you at any given time. So try not to panic: just take things one step at a time, don’t decide things aren’t working just because life learning doesn’t look exactly the way you thought it would, but also don’t feel locked into your choices, and know that you can always shake things up and change your mind about the whole college thing.

Ultimately, I can’t really tell anyone else how to unschool the college years any more than I can tell anyone else what to do with their lives: the two are the same. All you’re doing is trying to live life richly and well, follow your curiosity and devote yourself to exciting projects.

Unschooling college is saying what do I want to be doing right now, and what are the skills and resources I need to do it? And repeating that process a dozen, a hundred times, whenever you find something new to explore.

It can be overwhelming, and scary, and hard. It can be easy to compare yourself to others, both in and out of college or university, and worry that you’re lacking. But if you keep the focus away from comparison, and away from trying to live up to outside standards of what you should be doing, you can make the space in your life to create an education--and a life--that you’re proud of.

Want more inspiration, or to find out more about my own college-free experiences? See Unschooling for Adults; I Don't Want to Build My Own Curriculum, I Just Want to Live My Own Life; and Valuing a Different Kind of Education.
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