Sandra & Kirby Dodd—Extended Interview from Class Dismissed
August 2010, at the HSC Conference in California
This interview was conducted by Jeremy Stuart and another of the filmmakers. The website of the finished documentary is Class Dismissed Movie
My transcript is a correction of the auto-generated English subtitles (which I've saved at the bottom, for finding things by numbers, or for future translation/subtitling use by others). I've added the text of the questions, and some links and notes. Sometimes I made a paragraph for ease of reading, even though I didn't pause in the speaking.
When did you start homeschooling and why did you start?
I had been a teacher and I thought school was fine. I assumed that when my child was five he would go to school, but he was a little bit of a weird kid. He took two classes when he was four—one was an art class and was a dance class and he didn't do "right" in either one of them, and in different ways. In one he hung back and was very unhappy and cried and in the other one he would jump up and grab the materials and talk to the teacher and do things that she hadn't said "go" about yet. And in neither case could we persuade him why it might help for him to act in a different way. He was happy, you know, at the happy point and really unhappy at the unhappy point.
And I looked at that and I thought if he were to go to school today it would be a disaster for him and he would be really distracting the rest of the class. And in New Mexico because of his late birthday we could wait a year. It was a free year for us, because we could just say he's not ready we'll send him next year, so it was a big luxury.
I knew four homeschooling families in a playgroup and a babysitting co-op we were in through La Leche League. Two of the families did school-at-home and two did unschooling. I don't I've never met anyone who had such a great lab and such a great intro. We weren't even going to plan to homeschool but these kids were all in our house to play and to, you know, for us to babysit them and our kids had been to their homes. The kids were at our house with and without the parent, my kids were at their house with and without us, so we really knew these families. The school-at-home families were not very happy. They didn't get along. When we would go to the park sometimes a mother would say, "Well she can't play because she didn't finish her math so she has to sit in the car," and in the unschooling families, the kids would just spontaneously come and sit in the parents' laps. It was so cool! I hadn't seen that.
And so as Kirby got older growing up with those kids there were just lots of advantages to those families. Their houses were peaceful and it was fun to play there. It wasn't scary, they weren't likely to get in trouble.
So when we did think, "Okay we we're gonna do this one year of homeschooling," I didn't even consider getting a curriculum. I didn't want that relationship with him. And I thought it was Kindergarten. He can play and we can find interesting things to do, and that was easy to do.
And so the year was not high pressure. It wasn't like taking a kid out in seventh grade or something where
everybody's panicky. It was like, "Well at the end of this year we either register him for first grade or kindergarten at school, or we don't, you know, or we keep him home."
NOTE to NON-U.S. READERS:|
Seventh graders are 12, turning 13. With kindergarten and preschool, they've already been in school for seven years or more.
But within just a couple of months we knew. It was fun, it was great, and in that time we had read more and talked more to people more explicitly about homeschooling. And I knew that it was gonna be good for him and his personality.
But still I thought Marty his brother who's three years younger, I thought, "Well Marty will want to go to school because he's more physical, social, wants to play sports. He'll go to school." And Marty used to say he was gonna go to school, too. And then one day when Marty was four we were at the grocery store and some woman came up to Kirby, as people do in grocery stores, and go "Why aren't you at school?" or, you know, "What grade are you in"? So she came up and said something to Kirby about this "Is this is not a school day?" or something and Marty, who was sitting in the cart, went "We homeschool!"
Very excited about it.
I thought "Marty?! Marty's homeschooled." So I said, "So Marty," (you know when the woman wasn't there,) "so you think you're gonna stay home?" and he said, "Yeah I mean I'm not gonna go to school next year."
But we always for the first several years kept it like— every year it was like "Do you want to go to school, do you want to try school, or do you want to stay home?" So it was always the kids' choice, and I thought that was really important because one of the worst things about school is that the children don't have a choice. And the parents will further compound that lack of choice by saying, "We have no choice—you have to go. If you don't go to school we'll be in trouble with the government." My parents told me that. "They'll put us in jail if you don't go to school," so not only I didn't have a choice but my parents assured me they didn't have a choice, so you're two layers down and helplessness.
And so I didn't want that to happen with my kids there are many things about school that should be a do-not-try this-at-home situation for homeschoolers. So I thought they needed to have a choice.
And my daughter, I thought, "Well she might want to go to school. She'll want to show off her clothes. She's that kind of kid—
—still. And when the time came she said, "No I want to stay home too." So for me that was a position of mmm —self-righteous strength. No, that's not a good I'm sure there's a better term for 'self-righteous strength.' Confidence! Yes, that's it— that the kids had chosen it.
And it wasn't it wasn't in a tricky punitive way. It wasn't like "you made your bed..." you know it wasn't like "It was your idea." It was like "I'm willing to do this if you want to do it," and that made a huge difference. Because we were around some families the kids would have liked to have gone to school and the parents said no school is terrible and evil and you must stay home, so...
Question for Kirby: What was it like for you? Did you ever consider going to school?
Ah, periodically I'd have neighbor kids who'd try and convince me into it. They'd be like you know I meet all these cool kids and we learn all these neat things and I mean honestly, when I was seven, I was like I don't want to get up at 6:00 in the morning. That sounds awful. Why would you do that to yourself?
But I came to realize that I was already meeting these really cool people and learning all these really neat things—that really it would just be a different route.
Did you ever feel there were any opportunities you missed out on by not going to school?
No, not particularly. I mean even now in my current day and age people are generally shocked when they find out that I was homeschooled or unschooled, even. They tell me and that I ccould have easily fooled them. I blend in very, very well with normal normal people, normal society.
No, I don't feel like I missed out on anything at all.
Sandra, what do you think the difference is between school and education?
I used to do a regular workshop called that's not educational and it was a challenge and I had prizes. And I would have people in the audience name something that they thought was not educational, and then I would tell them what was educational about it. But years have passed and I don't like the term "educational" anymore. I don't like "education." I avoid that in favor of "learning." Because just as schooling has a curriculum and a course and "We want you to learn this and this," they create an object and everything else is field, or trivia, or "not on the test." So I think the same thing happens with "education." "This is part of your education. This is educational." And then there are things that are not "educational," so still you get the object and the field and that can be a problem for natural learning.
So sometimes I will say, "Well of course it's educational. Everything is educational," but even as I'm saying it, I don't like that I'm playing that game, that I'm talking about what is "educational".
Also, people talk about having an education as though there is one special one and now you have all of it.
Previously you had nothing.
Now you have an education. "You want to see mine? I'll show you mine," so I don't like the question.
But the difference between school-and-education and learning is that learning can become all the things that anyone expected of education. But learning doesn't separate educational from non-educational, and I think no matter what a person learns—no matter how trivial (not on the test) it seems at the beginning—it eventually can tie into something, or become useful, or make that person interesting, give them their own unique perspective and I think any ideas of "that's not scholarly, that's not schoolish that's not educational" separate a person from the world.
Sandra, do you think the term "unschooling" is confusing to someone who knows nothing about it? How do you navigate that terminology?
I navigate terminology all the time and I help other people do that, because when people write —I mostly deal with people in writing—message boards and live text chats, and that sort of thing—when people write something and then they want to take it back that's hugely illuminating. So sometimes the words that people use is not confusing, it's clarifying. And so someone will say, "Well I would do that, but my child's lazy."
And the response might be something like, "Well maybe the relationship between you and your son isn't as good as it could be. Maybe it'd be better if you didn't think he was lazy."
And she's "Well I don't think he's lazy."
And thanks to the marvels of cut-and-paste, we can say "Look. You just chose this word, typed it, decided to send it to a thousand strangers—somewhere it seems inside you, you think your child is lazy."
And then she goes, "Whoa I didn't even know. I didn't even know I wrote that."
And that's even in writing. What people say verbally when they're tired or hungry or, you know, not really thinking carefully, can be hugely revealing of the problems they have—the disconnect they have— between the kind of person they want to be and the kind they are, or what will or will not help their child to develop in a peaceful way.
My husband says that his goal was to have our children grow up undamaged. I thought that was pretty decent because it covers all sorts of fields.
School and traditional parenting can do just casual, casual and unrelenting damage that people don't even think about. They don't want to think about it because they like the comfort of thinking they "have to" do this. "I have no choice; we had to do this," and it buries sins in many layers of damage. So the idea that we'd make choices that cause them not to be damaged was easy. It's just, you know, you walk along, you have a choice—which one's more damaging?
That was his measure. Mine was which helps them learn more? From which experience will they learn? Which is not to say we always chose the unfamiliar one, because sometimes familiar is nice, but sometimes if you've done the same thing five times, it's nice to do the other thing. And I didn't force them to do things, I chose to be persuasive. I did a lot of singing-and-dancing about "This will be really fun let's do this!" and I was pretty good at luring them toward other things.
[At the same time: ]
Interviewer to Kirby:
You'd agree with that?
I always thought it was important because she would always encourage our interests and our likes, but then she would always make a point to also introduce new ideas or new opportunities, which I think is really key to a lot of it because people can tend ... it's human nature to continue down this familiar path and people can get into a rut where maybe they're not expanding their horizons necessarily, and so it's beneficial to have someone introduce these new ideas to spark new interests.
So the first question I left something out. You had asked about resources and I talked about the families we knew which was an awesome resource, but I did want to say something about that. Can I do that?
In the [I started to say 90's, but said...] mid 1980s there was a lot of homeschooling talk, and a lot of it was school at home and Christian-curriculum based homeschooling but the unschoolers, the less structured schooling...
I should leave those up [my glasses] there, huh
there's that bug.
sorry ignore all of that. I can't be having my glasses on and off, on and off that would be distracting.
Bad for editing.
Yeah, okay so mmm there was a lot written and a lot done for Christian home schoolers. The secular, informal people who were doing basically the open-classroom kind of homeschooling, the only resource was Growing Without Schooling Magazine. It came out every two months and it had letters from home schoolers as a large part of what they had, and a few articles, and when we were first Kirby:
homeschooling there were still writings by John Holt in there but he died before too many years. But still it was the only thing we had, so I would wait two months, read it cover-to-cover including the little want-ads about who wanted other families to visit them, and including the publication notes and then I would wait two months for another one.
John Holt died in 1985. Growing Without Schooling had back issues easily available, and most unschoolers depended on that in those days, and on his book Teach Your Own.
And time passed. A few years later there were message boards—bulletin boards, not even message boards—like the original leave-a-note-for-other-people-on-the-internet
deals. And the discussion that I first got into on *Prodigy had 80 families or so, and most of them were Christian school-at-homers.
User groups on usenet. *Prodigy was an e-mail provider, available to people from dial-up connections at home. Same as the about-to-arrive AOL, people would order a disk sent through the mail, to install the software on their computer to use their service.
Before those, e-mail was mostly associated with universities and businesses, or small local providers.
I was only only unschooling person who wrote regularly. There were a few other people who were fairly unstructured, but I would get jumped on because I was willing to stand up. So I would... they would say, "Well you have to do this, or the kids will never learn." And I would quote John Holt or quote something from the school reform research of the 60s, "Well but they did this study and proved this," and they're like, "Shut up,you," you know.
"We don't like we don't like your kind."
So that was a little inspiring for me actually. It's like, "Oh, this is not going to be easy to make this point. I have to actually really think about it, and be really clear about it, and quick, because they're about to get me.
And so I also got to know their arguments and their justifications. from being in those discussions.
So for a couple of years that's all there was. And then AOL came up with a forum. It used to cost three dollars an hour to be online, measured in seconds. So people would get their email—there was a program for you to grab all your email and download it—and at three dollars an hour there
would be discussions online—real-time discussions. I used to run one. So that was the way AOL was making their money, partly, was to get people in there and stay online.
I ran some discussion for "Homefront Hall," AOL directly, and some for Home Education Magazine, which had its own little area. Sometimes I edited the discussion to make it more readable, and those could be downloaded in just a few seconds. There was a set I called "The Unschooling Barrage," of six to nine (increasing over time) files people could request and we'd mail links to them, I think.
I still have some.
Detox (Detoxifying from School), 1995 or 1996
Genius Class To Go (lower left)
Gems from John Holt
But there were message boards and those were nice. Those were really nice, because we could divide it into topics. And at first all of the homeschoolers were in there together, and the unschoolers were oddly pushed away. And then it was like they would they would push us out of 'the society of homeschoolers' and then they would come in secret and ask us questions. And that pattern continues to this week, because on the list I'm on someone said, "Well you guys have really good ideas so she's basically built up a bad situation with her teenager. Years of not taking our advice, now it's this problem and she wants us to help her untangle it.
So there was always that idea that the unschoolers knew stuff, and were creative thinkers and could help other people with resources. So the people who said, We don't want to hear what you're saying because we're telling our kids what to do and when to do it, and you're disturbing the peace"—as soon as they had a problem or needed something that they couldn't find, they'd go where the unschoolers were and say, "Could you guys help me?"
So that's one thing the unschoolers always kind of took pride in.
It is. It is. It's like "Well, you guys are the smart ones so help me untangle this."
Sandra, can the approach of unschooling benefit traditional schools in any way?
I don't think that what unschoolers do will affect schools very quickly. For one thing, what we do came out of schools—came out of school research in school reformers in the late 60s and early 70s. And at the time there were a lot of lab schools connected with universities, where they were testing these ideas about natural learning, about optimized learning, about individualized learning. And they set up all these really cool experiments, which worked really well in the lab schools. And then they went out and wrote books about the open classroom.
Albuquerque was kind of a hotbed of that. The professors who wrote the book that was called The Open Classroom were at the University of New Mexico. And the Albuquerque Public Schools built buildings—they got floor plans and built entire facilities based on the ideas of the open classroom. Other places did too.
The idea was have have a place where kids can read in the way they want to—recessed lighting, soft places to sit, privacy—where they can sit how they want to, let them take the books outside and read, don't make them sit at a hard desk and hold it like this.
Have a science center with real animals, and plants growing, and rocks to touch. And that that kind of became hands-on museums later on. But at the time, instead of everything in a glass box, you know, have things that kids can pick up. But they wanted a room like that in every school, in every elementary school.
In the history room have pictures, photos, objects—not just books. And deal with the history of the local group, the history of the town, the history of the kids in the room. And fix it so that the kids can go from activity to activity on their own time, somewhat
And the teachers—the way it worked is the teachers had a checklist of what the children needed know in nine months, and then if a kid hadn't done any math, and it's March, the teachers would find some way to engage him in math board games or something so that they could checklist their deal. But that's how that was set up to work and they proved that it worked really well. I mean, all of their stats were good.
Then they took that into public schools and it failed horribly. just possess the teachers didn't like it the parents didn't know what was going on the kids went crazy and tore up the materials and it was abandoned
wherever it was tried it was abandoned within a couple of years.
There were a few private schools that continued, or formed up later, using that methodology. It worked when all involved knew in advance and were interested and enthusiastic about "open classroom."
Why do you think that is?
Because the children didn't have any choice.
The kids in the lab schools were either self-selected, or their parents were education professors or professors at the university, or people who wanted their kids in that school, or grad students' kids—the children of grad students. And so they knew they were in a cool school—they were in a special school, they were in a fun school. And all of the people who were teaching there wanted to do that. They self-selected themselves to be doing alternative education. No one was drafted. No one was there against their will. No one was there just for the paycheck, looking at the clock.
And the whole situation was so enriched and so elevated because of the excitement of the people who designed it, and because they wanted to see what the results were. So they were totally totally paying attention to every child. It was a special situation, a self-selected situation, where the parents liked the fact that their children were in this program and and the kids thought it was cool. and they were getting to go to work with their parents, you know, they were at the same facility where their parents pretty much worked.
So they take that to the public school. Some of the parents never liked school themselves. They thought school was stupid. They're only doing this because they have to. The kids don't really want to be there.
So the teachers who went to work for a paycheck and would like to do as little as possible to get this paycheck are now told, "We're changing everything. From now on. that easy thing you used to do—read the chapter and answer the questions—that's gone. From now on you have to be creative and interesting. You have to keep track of each child separately. It'll be fun!
And they said, "I don't think it'll be fun. I don't even get it. I don't even know what you're talking about. They didn't hire me to run a science lab with real animals."
And the parents at home went, What? He doesn't have homework? What? I don't know what you're talking about. Just teach him. Just give him homework and stop making me come down there and make cookies and feed the frog."
So there was just wild resentment and confusion. Then they put it on kids who hated school. They didn't want to go to school. They wanted to do as little as possible. Now they said, "Look! Live frogs!" and you know, uh... and things got torn up. And they said, "You can read wherever you want to!" so the kids crawled into the cubby holes and fell asleep. Or you know it just was pandemonium.
And so that was abandoned, because it wasn't working. And it didn't work because people didn't have choices.
Which is a good point for unschooling because if you try to force someone to learn on his own and have fun—"Do it now because I said so"— it doesn't work.
Maybe they want that structure.
You have to draw them into the little happy-land enjoyment of it, which is fairly easy to do if you want to do it. So if the government said, "All right, we're running an experiment. Half of people who are homeschooling must use a curriculum, and the other half must be unschoolers and we're gonna track you for 12 years and then we're gonna tell you which one works best," none of it would work anymore.
Sandra, do you think curriculum has a place in homeschooling? Did you ever try any?
No, no. Partly because I could design a better one than I could buy. They're expensive now! There used
to be some you could buy for $300 a year, you know—meaning one child, one year, school-in-a-box. School-in-a-box came from Calvert curriculum, which I think was designed for missionary kids. Like if your family lived in some other country totally, you could buy third grade, and they sent you even the pencils. The pencils and papers are there, assuming you're in the Congo or somewhere, you know, the Amazon, and you're gonna get this box that's all you're gonna get.
I think the original question was UNschooling.
Sure, it has a crucial, central place in school-at-home homeschooling.
So they used to advertise in the back of National Geographic, and I used to read those ads (when I was a kid, and read every word of every book). I was reading in the back of National Geographic and it would say " Calvert Homeschool" and it had a little shield and it was all like very dignified.
And I used to think this must be for kids who are are so misshapen or, you know, something so horribly wrong with them that their parents can't take them out in the sunshine, and they live in the room of some big house and they teach them at home because they can't go outside. And I just imagined some poor kid, you know, some Elephant Man kid, who had to
learn at school and at home. But I thought that was interesting.
But then Christians came along—Christian home schoolers. here was a huge fad in the 80s [and 90s, too, I should have said]and they started making competing sets of materials. And it started getting expensive and some of those, I think you paid $1200 for one year of an elementary school deal. And when the parents have spent that much money, they want to finish it. They want to do it. They've just paid money on the assumption that someone knows more about it than they do, and so they try to force their child to do that. It ruins the relationship between the parents and child. It ruins a child's ability to believe that he could learn anything on his own. Not that that was the parent's goal. It keeps the parent from knowing or caring what the kid is doing, really. As long as the kid finishes the assignment, the parent doesn't often doesn't necessarily need to sit and do that with them, although some parents do. But a lot of parents won't really help the child because they're not seeing it as a learning opportunity, they're seeing it as a requirement. "Finish this so I can stamp it so we never have to look at it again as long as we live."
So the parent relives their own schooling in another negative way. They don't like it. They're resentful. They're complaining. I think it's twice through school for the parents and never through school for the kids I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Kirby, was there ever any discussion among your friends who were in school about the fact that you never had any homework?
um, No. Most the time when the kids in the neighborhood would have a bunch of homework they would just talk about how much, how much they hated it, for the most part, and they would they would be envious of my lack of homework. And sometimes they wouldm they would ask for my help with their homework just to see if I knew what I was talking about which, granted, a lot of time I didn't. I was like, "No that language of math is frightening and foreign. What what are you talking about?"
Granted, when when I needed to pick up that language it wasn't that hard. I just got to the point where I needed to know it, then I learned it.
No, It didn't come up all that much, outside of like, "Once I get this finished, then we can go play baseball."
It was more a time factor, time was taken up by it.
It was an obstacle, yeah.
But I can remember I think all of my kids—Holly, definitely, and you once—where kids would come over go, "I have to do this homework first before we can play."
So, "Well I'll help you." They would figure it out. It was like, "What's this mean, what's this mean?" They would talk them through it and then get it done and then go play.
Yeah, if they could explain how it was supposed to be done, we'd be like, "Oh, okay. Well that makes sense. Then you just do this. Cool."
Sandra, didn't your daughter, Holly, want to ride on a school bus once to see what it was like?
Oh, there was a school bus to the zoo or something. There was like a company picnic. Park-and-ride, with real yellow school buses, I meant to say.
But with Holly, we used to drive down, part at the middle school when school was gonna start. So we'd sit in the car, watch the kids arrive and go into the classrooms, and the bell would ring, tardy bell would ring, and then we'd go home. It wasn't riding the bus there, but I would take it there and then we would go in the afternoon, be sitting there so we can see the door, hear the bell ring, see the kids come out. And one day she sat on the bench right by the door and it reminded me of the movie "Unbreakable" when he
stands in Grand Central Station with his hands out. And she just sat on that bench where the kids flowed around her, and so she would hear the conversations, to see them up close, and that was really fun for her—just to be that close to them in their natural state. But it was the getting-out-of-school state which was the best state.
Thirtieth Street Station, Philadelphia.
Description of the action: "David looks down and gently turns the palms of his hands out as they at his side. His finger tops graze the jackets and clothes of the passengers walking by."
And she knew some kids there so they go, "Hey, Holly," you know there were four or five kids there she knew. And we went several times, and once Cameron Lovejoy, another older unschooled kid, was visiting us and we drove her down there, and then I we need to pick something up, or I needed the bathroom or something, so we said, "Holly can you stay here? We'll go and come back."
She said, "Sure!" So that was exciting for her to be there by herself. But she talked about maybe going to school, but she talked to friends and she would be like, "Ah, I want to, I don't want to," and she ended up not going. But that was part of her decision-making process was what do I want, you know, what do you want to do about this?
She had gone to school in England two and a half
days in uniform and everything visiting a friend, and that was fun for her, but it's so, you know, when you're a visitor you get more attention and you don't really have to do anything. She had a lot of stories about that, and she took nickels to give them for souvenirs, you know, big American money. And she she just had so many stories. But she was learning about school in the way an anthropologist learns about a different culture. She wasn't really *in* the school. But it was fun for her, and she went to school one day in Albuquerque, too, for an all-day, you know, all day go-to-lunch. So she was always an observer of school, and very interested in school.
Sandra, do you think anyone who chooses can homeschool?
Sometimes people ask me if I think the schools should be destroyed, if I think everyone should have to homeschool. I'm like, No, I don't think everyone should have to. I don't think everyone wants to, and if you don't want to you will botch it. I don't... I think schools are fine. I had a great time at school because it was better than my home, and I think schools should be there. I think schools should probably loosen up and not think they're God's gift to everyone's intellect, because they're not.
I think people who want to homeschool—really want to—can probably figure out a way to do it. There are obstacles. Divorce is a big obstacle. Poverty is probably the biggest obstacle. Negativity can kill it.
I'm talking about unschooling. I think negativity is inherent, I believe, in school at home. I don't think you can march-step your child through thirteen years of lessons and not have a lot of negativity flowing between you, and against school, and against people who aren't making their kids do that work. Because we we get that. We get people who... People whose kids are in schools sometimes are critical of homeschoolers, but all the rest of the homeschoolers are critical of the unschoolers, because we're not... we're making them look bad. So like my parents said "You have to go to school or I'll be in trouble"? I believed that. I didn't know they could have ordered Calvert curriculum for me. So I accepted that as a sad fact of life .
When homeschoolers take their kids out, the neighbors (kids) are like "well they don't have to go to school." now the parents "I don't have any choice" falls. But they say, "Well, but they're doing schoolwork too, and they're taking tests too," and they're "Don't you like school? Because you don't have to sit at home with your mom all the time, and you get to meet kids" so there's still that kind of balance.
But then the people who are doing school at home are telling their kids, "Well, you have to do these lessons; there's no choice. You have to take this test; there's no choice." And the neighbors down in the next house are playing video games, and so they say, "You people are lazy. Your kids aren't learning anything. We can't believe you're doing that. You're making us look bad."
So their claim and their belief—the basis of their reasoning—is belied by the fact that someone else is not doing that.
And then we're another step further. I am unwilling to sacrifice my children's happiness to appease some stranger other-parents. But the going practice... it's common for people to do that—to be carried along on the stream of parental habit, and to do what the neighbors are doing, and do what other friends of theirs say they should be doing. And it's a shame, because the same parents will say, "Well if your friend jumped off a cliff would you?" to kids, their friends are jumping off cliffs and they're jumping off the same cliff, because they care more about what these neighbors and friends and co-workers and relatives think than with their child thinks.
Sandra, what about unschooling. Do you think anyone can do that?
I don't think everyone who wants to unschool will be successful at it. Some people can't relax. Some people are not creative. Some people are not imaginative. Some people are so controlling that if something happens that they didn't plan and execute, they're not having fun anymore.
When kids do that, they're considered to be bad sports and, you know, spoiled kids who need to be nice and consider other people's feelings. When adults do that, they justify it and say, "I was just being a good parent." But unless they can share the stage, unless they can share the decision-making and the planning, with a child who might just want to stay home all day, they won't get it. It won't happen.
And I deal with unschoolers every day, every day, who say, "Well I tried it for a while, but it didn't work," meaning 'I didn't really try it and I'm not going to.' Because they just can't stop. They're looking at their children, they're looking at the world and their children, through school-colored glasses. And they're willing to do other things as long as the result looks like school.
And they need to turn their back on that and look at the world a whole new way but that's so much work. It's such a change in the parents, that some people are unwilling to do it. They don't want to change. They don't want to be inconvenienced they don't want it to take any longer than it would have taken to drive their kid to school and wait to come back and pick them up. No more than that. And they don't want the hours outside of that to change a bit.
It's like, "Okay, well then you can't. So if that's the question, whether everyone can unschool, hardly anyone can unschool because they have to be willing to change their beliefs, and their lifestyle.
It's a whole lifestyle.
It is. It is. They have to change the way they see children, and some people don't want to do that
One time I think—I'm pretty sure it was in a text chat—but Pam Sorooshian and I were in the same place and someone asked—there must have been a chat—because we both answered at the same time. Someone said, "How many hours a week does this take?" and one of us wrote "all of them" and one of us wrote "none of them" or it was like zero or 24 or something.
It was a perfect answer.
It was awesome, because it takes all of your life.
"How many hours you have to do school? Yeah, what? You don't have to do school. And so of course we get called lazy.
I have a thing that I made up as a goof a couple of years ago Holly had made a really nice piece of art
Just Learn Nothing Day. And I put it on my birthday, just because I figured I have partial ownership of that day. And I knew there wasn't much else going on, except in Utah they have Pioneer Day. They have parades to celebrate the people who walked over from Illinois or wherever they came from. And so I know in Utah everybody's learning, because they all dress up and go talk about Pioneer Day. But everybody else was doing nothing on my birthday and so I figured that would be a good day to say "Take this day off."
And it was a goof but some other people have written some really good things about their attempts to do that, or their discussions about doing that. Up to that point, people used to say, "Well, we can't learn all the time every day," and I would say, "We only have to do it 180 days. The other 185 days are days off, so don't worry if there's a day you didn't do anything special. Don't worry about it."
But I think it's more effective to say, "Okay. Just on Learn Nothing Day, don't learn anything, and on the other days, learn something." Because the cool thing is when they try to learn nothing, they see that that's not possible.
Yeah, they start pointing out all the things like, "Oh I'd learned this, this and this today. Oh man, I screwed up."
And without that joke, without that cover for it, they wouldn't have seen the day so clearly.
But every year somebody or five, without any sense of humor and with very little knowledge of natural learning, will write me insulting notes, sometimes in public sometimes in private. And they'll say, "Well why would you do this?" or "Unschoolers never learn anything anyway," or "Well why do you need a special day to do what you do every day?" It's like
"Thank you very much!" And so that's amusing, too, to see to see the perception of unschoolers, that they're doing nothing, just goofing around.
Kirby, if there was anything you could change about your educational experience, what would it be?
Not specifically. No. I feel like I'm pretty well prepared for anything that comes along my way. Sometimes—I mean there will be times where like I maybe don't understand one subject particularly well, but I know I have the resources. I know that everybody has the resources to get it, particularly with the Internet these days. Like you can, you can get anything you need. And I have a good pool of people that I can go to to get their opinions and their ideas on anything that I don't know that much about.Sandra:
No, I wouldn't change anything, which sounds kind of hokey but I feel well prepared I'm not concerned at all. I'm confident in my ability I mean in particular with unschooling it's more like you've been submerged into the real world from the get-go. I mean granted I started I started my first job when I was 14 years old so I guess I was kind of thrown into the real world...
We lived a mile from a gaming shop where Kirby hung around lots. When he was 13, he started helping them run Pokémon tournaments. They wanted to put him in charge of the Saturday morning Pokémon League, but discovered that the company required that only store employees could handle reporting participation and wins, and the distribution of the badges. He was about to turn 14, which was the minimum age to hire, and there it was.
He worked there with increasing hours and responsibilities until he was 18.
You were invited politely and offered money!
and I was invited politely.
Yeah, it was great. They're like, "We want you to do this job."
"Oh, now we have to pay for this job."
"Oh, it's even better! Yes!"
So you know, I mean, I guess I kind of started a little earlier than than some kids do, but so long as they go out, they can... They're already in the real world. They just have to realize it.
It seems like more and more parents are wanting to take the leap into homeschooling. What advice would you give them?
I would tell them to read about it. Anytime if anyone has come and asked me about it I refer them to a number of web sites of course I refer them to my mother's website, Joyce Fetteroll's website, and I just tell them to to research it so they can determine, they can make an educated decision on it.
Most of the time, the reason why they're hesitant about is because they just don't know, or they fear the unknown, and so they they fear this big change that they're considering. And the more that they understand it the easier it'll be for them.
I understand their fear. Sometimes when someone is afraid— I mean I have some little tricks to shake them into not being as stuck as they are. Sometimes when someone is thinking about taking their child out of school and they're like "Yeah but, yeah but, yeah but, yeah but," this is not like moving to Mars. You'll still be in the same house. You'll still be talking on the same phone you called me on. It's just they won't be in school.
When I had friends who were teachers—I had a lot of teacher friends 'cause I'd been a teacher—and sometimes they would ask me, "Well what are you gonna do if blah, what are you gonna do if this?" and I would say, "Well as long as it's working we're gonna keep doing this," but I said,
"But if it quits working, I'll put him in school and the special ed teachers will get him right caught up," you know caught up right away.
And I want say that again because I messed it up.
"If this stops working we can put him in school and the special ed teachers will get him caught right up."
And every single time I said that, there were three different friends of mine went [big eyes, intake of breath] they just blanched, you know. It's like oh my god.
special ed, Ah...
... like they think for a second I'm serious. And one of them was an award-winning special ed teacher. And they know that that's not what special ed does, and so the point is made that there are kids in school who get sidetracked into a place where they are not gonna recover. And that my kids will be fine. And it's like, "Oh yeah, okay. You're right."
So they just sort of asked the question. There are dialogues that people have, and phrases that people have, that they just say. It's like somebody wound them up and pushed their button and they say things like, "Well what are you gonna do about high school?" and the questions that the homeschoolers have heard a thousand times. It's not like they have 500 different questions. Same-same few questions.
People will just ask those questions the same way that people will see a little kid and they'll say
hi what's your name?
And then they're out. They don't know anything else to ask them.
where do you go to school?
do you like your teacher?
what's your favorite subject?
But it happens with kids, too. We moved to a new neighborhood when Kirby was 11 and Holly was 5... mmm that doesn't make sense. How old were you?
Ten and she was six.
She turned 6 right after we moved. And there was a neighbour family just right across across the cul-de-sac. They had boys about our boys' ages, and that was very hopeful. I thought that could be fun. But the kids didn't hit it off. And partly from the very beginning it wasInterviewer:
Where do you go to school?
And so the kids kind of froze up because they didn't know how to treat these other kids. They didn't know how to act.
Once when I was teaching seventh grade there was a Halloween sock-hop dance in the gym and I requested dance duty, because I was young and could stand rock and roll better than basketball. So I would always say "I'll do dances," and the older teachers would say, "Good!"
What grade are you in?
I don't know. I uh, I think I would be in...
And so for this one, I hung back and I put on a costume, and I was dressed in such a way that none of me showed. And I was dressed as an alien and so it didn't show gender, and I was thin and young then and not too bumpy. And so I based it with, you know, something tight, and then put this loose stuff over it and I went down to the gym and I thought this would be fun.
It turned out not to be fun, for anyone. And it was... that day I learned a lot that has helped me since. The principal didn't know how to act to me. The teachers didn't know how to act. And the kids didn't know how to act. And I was trying to pull people out to dance. No one would dance with me. And it was interesting, because I knew these people very well. And so for me to look through—I had a big helmet with heavy plastic eyes they couldn't see me and I could see them, and every one of them, I could see it going through their eyes, "Do I outrank this person? Or does this person outrank me? Is this a male or a female?" And they didn't know how to act.
Then one kid recognized my wristwatch, so then they were fine, and they all relaxed, like, "Okay, I know her. She's goofy. She dresses like an alien. We're fine now."
And so I saw that with those kids, with our neighbor kids that day. It's "If they would just state, you know, their rank, I would know how to act."
So Kirby, how was that for you, though, to experience that as a ten-year-old?
It didn't really faze me. I just knew those kids were not particularly social in my eyes. Because they weren't interested in talking to me.
And they weren't interested in videogame. So the boys invited them over, "Come over to look at our stuff! We're gonna play video games!" and not really. And so then they're like, Come over, look at our stuff! Swimming pool! Basketball!" And they're like, "Okay that was fun for a minute."And so they just weren't compatible with hobbies and interests, really.
Oh, and another question that they asked was "Who's your team?"
They were big football fans.
And they didn't know the answer. Didn't even know what sport they were talking about.
So these kids thought my kids were a little retarded because they didn't couldn't answer who's your team, and it just didn't work out. So I was always sad, then, because theyre those boys were, right there, but they didn't like my boys, and my boys didn't want to invite them back over much. There were a few forays and attempts, but within months, it was, "Hi!" as far as we got.
Some families wouldn't be willing to live with that sort of sacrifice or limitation—that their kids couldn't play with the neighbor kids. They would sacrifice the kids in a different way and say, "We'll subject you to all this schooling because then you will be part of the great expansive herd, and then you'll have friends," you know what they call having friends. But I was more concerned with them being undamaged and learning, than that they followed the crowd. The crowd wasn't going to a very good place.
Sandra, do you feel that kids can become who they are meant to be faster by homeschooling?
I think I think children are only there in the moment. You can't guarantee or even aim toward a future result.
There was a famous story among unschoolers—among homeschoolers—years ago about a family that had a chart in the child's room—the child was young, 6 or 8, and it led toward getting into Harvard—like in detail—what you have to do this year, this year, this year. And without regard to whether the kid wanted to. But when the result is so specific, if the child had gotten into Yale it would be a failure.
If the parents are aiming for the child to get a gold medal in the Olympics and it's like, "I'm sorry, you can't go out and play because the Olympic chart says you need to practice three hours today," what if they get a silver medal? What if they just change sports or what if they get a Nobel prize instead? Failure!
So to set up the world in such a way that there's one pinpoint success and infinite failures is damning your child to a life of unhappiness. Even if they get the gold medal, even if they go to Harvard and do exactly what you wanted them to do, they lost because you won. And I think that's a terrible thing to do to a child—to say, "I've lived my life and didn't like the way it went, so now I've reproduced and you will live the life I wanted."
Sandra, what changes have you witnessed in the homeschooling movement in the last 20 years?
When I first started I didn't have any adults to see. There were no examples of grown unschoolers or homeschoolers, really, that I had seen. And the Growing Without Schooling families mostly involved either young families that had that had...—their children were still young, or families that took the child out [of school]. So my three children are one of the only sets I know of who didn't go to school and are now grown. So I'm glad to share them with people who would like to see that, you know, will they be okay? Well they grow up healthy and communicative, and what about socialization? and that...
So it is it is nice now that people have the opportunity, not just my kids—this whole conference is filled with kids who have been unschooled always, or homeschooled always—it helps to have examples around. But parents can't live by those examples always. When they first start you may have some families that you actually know and trust, as I did. I knew these families and I knew these kids weren't faking that affection for their parents, those unschooling families.
But once your own child starts to grow and change, then the confidence isn't external. It's not "I believe this will happen because I've seen it happen elsewhere," it's "I believe it's happening because it's happening. You can't deny that I know my child learned this without school." And so the confidence that those families then have oozes out to other families. And this is an advantage of those many years passing, is there's a lot of experience, a lot of examples, to see.
It's kind of scary being one of those examples, actually. In the the TV-and-video-game panel yesterday, after we were finished I had to rush out afterwards, but I was thinking about all of the negative sides. I was like "oh, I should have said this" or "I shouldn't have said that" and "oh I bet they took this this way, and it's all terrible," and "oh man I sure hope I didn't screw that up." And then just today, people were telling me, they're like "Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to hear. That was good."
So it's it's relieving to hear that, because they're like I'm the example and oh my god I could really turn this around poorly for everybody.
Oh, and see I'm feeling like that, too. I have three pieces of paper here. What if I don't say everything? [laughter]
Sandra, how important is structure in children's lives?
I don't like arbitrary structure. I don't think structure for the sake of structure is worth having, or doing. People say things like people say. People say, "If you don't make your kids get up, they'll never be able to have a job. How would they have a job?"
Marty, my middle kid, from the time he was 16 all through his 17th year worked at a grocery store. Many long stories, but as far as time goes his hours were 6:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. He was late once by about one minute. We were walking distance from the place he would get up an hour early. He had his little routine. When I woke, up I could tell what time it was if Marty already has his food or if he's watching the news and the weather. He's that kind of guy.
He's very structured [gesturing...] ...in place.
On his own, he had a serious structure. I had nothing to do with it.
We bought our kids alarm clocks. and if they needed to get up they'd set their alarms, and that's how it was. But Kirby—if Marty hmm Marty was able to do a 6:30 in the morning job. If Kirby had prepared himself for 6:30 in the morning job he's never had one.
[indicating humorously that it wouldn't happen]
Five years later, Kirby had a 5:00 a.m. start-time shift for a while.
No, on purpose.
Well gaming stores and pizza joints don't open that early. So what's your schedule now?
5:00 p.m. to 2:00 in the morning
So yes—he has prepared himself for that schedule his whole life.
That might actually change pretty soon. I might be doing 7:00 a.m. and I'm dreading every second of it.
The first job he had was 8:00 in the morning till noon running the Pokémon League at the gaming store on Saturdays.
And how often was I late?
I drove you so you were never late.
Yeah, but how often were you kicking my butt out the door?
That didn't count. [Laughter]
Just different personality types.
Another thing Kirby did for a while was he woke up at 6 or 6:30 to record Ninja Turtles. We were at the new house, so you must have been 12 or 13. So he set his alarm, got up, set the tape, sometimes he stayed up to take the commercials out, and sometimes he went back to bed. But then he would mark the tape. I still have those tapes. They're all marked, in there, you know, in his little-kid writing of all the Ninja Turtle cartoons.
I wouldn't stay up for it. I would get up, do the job, go back to bed. I actually remember I had to set my alarm clock on the other side of the room so I wouldn't just hit snooze. I had to get up, get across the room, look back, be like, "Oh the bed's so far. I hate this."
So it was structure, but it wasn't parentally imposed structure.
So I think it goes back to all of the unschooling. They don't need to practice to learn. They figure out how to wake up by putting the alarm clock across the room, to wake up to do something they want to do. And when it's their idea...
You know what's wrong with self-regulation? it's regulation.
It's another terminology thing (← I think he said that)
It's terminology that exposes what you think. That what you didn't think you were thinking. People talk about "self control" and "self-regulation?" It's like I don't think anyone needs to control or regulate them— not even themselves.
It's choices. So if he chose—if any... any day he could have chosen not to set that alarm and not to record that show. So every day was a new choice. Every day he could have chosen to hit the alarm and get back in the bed and not record it. So it was a series of choices, not the regulation. He didn't make rules for himself, and he didn't control himself, he just made choices.
It was cause and effect every time. I needed this to happen.
Well yes, you preferred to choose to record it.
I'm willing to quit. I'm willing to keep on going.
Thank you. No, I think we're good. I know you could probably keep going, right?
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