and deschooling, and changes...
notes for a talk given in Toronto in May, 2006
Hello—welcome, and thanks for coming. I have been asked to speak to you for an hour today, but you know, as unschoolers we ask our kids “What does your heart need?” and so I have to say that what my heart needs is to NOT talk for an hour! I’ll do you all a favour and honour that need this afternoon.
But I am looking forward to talking to you—in particular, about the movement from schooling to unschooling. For my family, this has been a gradual and ongoing shift; two of our children came home to learn two years ago, and our youngest just left school last month. We are still, in many ways, deschooling; that is, unlearning our schooly ways and opening ourselves to unschooling. And I think for most of us here today, deschooling is something that’s an ongoing process.
When we first dipped our toes tentatively into the unschooling waters, I was absolutely terrified. It was only months after hearing the word “unschooling” for the very first time that I attended the Live and Learn Conference in Peabody (or Peebddy…) I wandered around that entire conference weekend wide-eyed and panic-stricken (I’m sure I probably frightened several small children, in fact). We had taken two of our children out of school, but we didn’t know what was next. And even though with each new thing I learned about unschooling I became more and more certain it was what they needed, that place between schooling and unschooling was really scary. I’m not sure if many of you are in that place—that transition zone—but if you are, and if you’re afraid – uh, first of all, try not to scare any of the kids here this weekend…and also, sit tight, you’re not alone. It doesn’t have to be terrifying; you just need to see the transition in a different light.
I’d like to share a story with you now – it was written by Danaan Parry, and it’s called "Fear of Transformation":
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars. I spend most of the time hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I'm in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I'm merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It's empty, and I know, in that place that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth; my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.
This place between schooling and unschooling, this place that we often refer to as deschooling, it really is a wonderful (place) to grow and learn. It’s the place where change occurs, where we unburden ourselves. It’s where we look at old definitions with new eyes and say, perhaps for the first time, “That definition just doesn’t work for me and my family.” Parry calls this “scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere” a place where we can experience “the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.”
For me, it was as I “hurtled through the void” between trapeze bars that I was privileged enough to watch my son, who is an artist, rediscover his passion. He had become seriously depressed at school and had completely stopped drawing, something he had previously done for hours at a time. As he grew more and more accustomed to the unfettered feeling of NOT being at school, NOT being told what should be important to him…as he began to heal, he started to draw again. His art had been gone from our lives for nearly a year, and I had no idea how badly I’d missed it, until it came back. So, in that place between schooling and unschooling, one of the many gifts I received was the return of my son’s imagination. We reconnected with the indescribable joy of sitting together on the couch, talking about his monsters and creatures and their extraordinary adventures. Within a week of picking up his pencil crayons again, my son had filled two large sketchbooks, and has filled many more since that time. (And this is just one example of the hundreds of expansive moments that dotted our deschooling landscape.) It’s hard for me to even say these words, but, What if? What if he’d stayed in school? What if his exquisite passion had never come back?
So, if you’re still deschooling (and, again, who isn’t?) enjoy the thrill of being in between trapeze bars. It’s true, that’s where most of your growth happens, when you’re not attached to either one or the other. If you are feeling afraid but you really want to let go of your schoolish notions, I’m sure there are many people in this room who can assure you that the next bar, the unschooling one, really is your aliveness coming to get you. So when you’re ready—when somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives—let go. Let go and trust that when you do reach towards that unschooling trapeze, you and your children will feel more free and alive than you ever have before.
There are a couple of other analogies that seem to lend themselves well to conversations about moving from schooling to unschooling. The first is one Sandra Dodd alludes to in her article “Deschooling for Parents”—it’s similar to the idea of letting go; it illustrates the importance of emptying one’s metaphorical cup in order to drink, or receive. It is the story of a learned university professor who went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked in a very informed manner about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."
As we deschool ourselves, we must empty our cups of all the preconceived ideas, concepts, expectations and methods that prevent us from embracing unschooling. This seems like a simple thing to do, but it can be quite difficult in practice. At first we think we have emptied our cups but as we drink, we often detect a residual, schooly taste. And sometimes, even a little residue can curdle the whole pot of tea. So, it’s important to have a "clean receptacle," as it were, in order to taste the true essence of unschooling life.
The other analogy is one used by Anne Ohman in her talk “The View from Unschooling.” Here, the movement from schooling to unschooling is compared to building a bridge, the idea being that we “cross over” from one to the other and that we need certain tools in order to do so. This was certainly an apt description of my family as we took our first nervous steps towards unschooling. After that conference in Massacusetts, I was determined to be the fearless leader—I saw the vast distance between traditional education and what my children needed and I got busy. If my boys needed a bridge, then gosh darn it, I’d build the strongest one in the world! Head down, eyes on the prize, I started building. I knew I needed tools, so I set about getting them. Read John Holt. Check. Read Summerhill. Check. Read everything else ever written about home schooling-deschooling-unschooling. Check. Review conference notes, join online discussion lists, subscribe to Life Learning Magazine, get the bumper sticker…check, check and…Check.. My tool box was really full! There wasn’t much room, but I added a few more things, juuuuust in case: um, a math textbook, because you know, it must be really hard to work that in, some flashcards (hey, flashcards can be fun…can’t they?), uh…a schedule, yeah, we might need a schedule to kind of, you know, keep us on track…Yessir, I was building me a BIG bridge – but I thought that was OK, because after all, it’s a BIG leap from schooling to unschooling.
So, I was very focused on the task at hand when my children left school. Getting tools, making plans, taking measurements… Like I said, I had my head down and my eyes on the prize. I was determined to help us cross over to unschooling in the best, most efficient way I could find. The problem was, with my head down, busy with my work, I didn’t see my kids much. Fortunately, though, I heard them and, if you’ll allow me to extend this metaphor for just a bit, imagine my surprise when, as I looked up, I realized that their happy shouts and laughter came from high overhead—while I was busy building a bridge, they were already flying over to unschooling!
I couldn’t figure out how they did it—there’s still so much about my children and what they do that’s a mystery to me—but there they were, unafraid, unencumbered by tools or plans or measurements, finding their own way across, completely without my help. As you can imagine, I had to lighten my load considerably before I could even try to join them. I had to unburden myself, by getting rid of a lot of the junk from my toolbox (I’ll let you decide which “tools” were the first to go!) And, because I wasn’t unschooled, and because I’m a mere adult, I have to take the long route to unschooling. I need my bridge. But, with my children’s help, I’m becoming a much more efficient builder—and I know, now, that their joy—our joy—is the real “prize.”
It is, however, so very liberating to do so. At least it has been for us. So, now I thought I might share with you some of the things my husband and I have managed to let go of, on our journey from schooling to unschooling:
We've let go of the notion that busy means programmed, and that active means competitive. All three of our children are what I would consider busy and active, but only one is involved in programmed, competitive sport. (We work hard to remind him that the grown-up notion of dividing the world into winners and losers is not, perhaps, the best way to proceed…) Some of the spontaneous, busy activities our children participate in are: bouncing, walking, biking, hiking, running, sliding, swimming, kayaking, tree-climbing, couch-climbing, Mummy-climbing…wrestling, running away from each other, running towards each other, running into each other. Even watching a movie is usually “active” in our house…one son jumps up and down during the exciting parts, one runs upstairs when the music becomes overly dramatic or suspenseful, and one is just in constant motion, climbing all over the couch and his father, bouncing on his mini-trampoline, and running from one of us to the next, asking questions and commenting on various aspects of the movie.In our movement towards unschooling, we have of course also had to embrace new concepts and beliefs. We have seen our aliveness coming to get us, and these are some of the things that characterize the new, unschooling trapeze bar we’re reaching for.
We’ve learned that:
The movement from schooling to unschooling has definitely brought me, and my family closer to what our hearts need. It’s still a journey; we’re still deschooling and likely always will be. But we have let go of so many definitions that limit us, methods that don’t work for us and expectations that just don’t fit. We have tried to empty our cups in order to make room for joy and meaningful living. Finally, let me say that it is still sometimes very frightening for us to be hurtling across the void of unknowing. We all have our moments! But I guess we’re just trying to enjoy the ride. Because it’s entirely possible that, as Parry suggests, this transition zone is the only real thing, and that the trapeze bars are just illusions we dream up to make ourselves feel we have something to hang on to. What a trip, though, wherever you are in your journey, to feel that aliveness coming to get you! Thank you so much for your attention…
(As a follow-up to this topic, I wondered if some of you might like to share either some of the notions you have “let go” of on the road to unschooling, or some of the ideas you have embraced that you’ve found particularly helpful…) (questions)