ALL Unschooling Symposium 2011
Joyce Fetteroll

This should eventually have scans of some of the audience-participation parts.


What fascinates me about unschooling is the mechanics. How it works. And the mechanics of explaining unschooling, understanding what pictures my words are creating in someone else’s head since it’s never the same as in my head. Sometimes it’s very different. And how to choose better words to make clearer pictures.

Two years ago at Sandra’s last symposium in Santa Fe I talked about how our baggage from school, from conventional parenting gets in the way of building new ideas. Part of the baggage I thought were the sound bites people create from what they’re hearing. No bedtimes. Child-led learning. Always say yes.

One of my goals for that talk was to find better explanations to avoid the sound bites.
Then it struck me: Creating sound bites is part of our natural learning process. If we’re pulling our own understanding from someone else’s understanding, part of that process is summarizing, shrinking it down into ideas we can grasp easily. A core to expand on. In other words, sound bites.

I realized as I was writing, there are two very different sound bites.

1. Beginning point sound bite. — PAPER — “Child directed learning” —This is a first guess at summarizing someone’s meaning.

2. The Sound Bite of Experience (Sandra’s) BOOK: It’s a phrase that gathers up everything you know, everything you’ve experienced under one roof. This is a little piece of Sandra’s sound bite of experience.

Unfortunately the beginning point sound bite gets mistaken for the experience sound bite, as if you could get the whole book in just a few words.


Some people will grab a sound bite like “Always Say Yes” or “No bedtimes.” They’ll treat them like directions. They’ll run off to do exactly what they think the directions say.

SOUND BITE: No bedtimes.
TRANSLATES AS: Let them stay up. Three year olds staying up until 3AM.
BETTER: Ease the transition to sleep.

SOUND BITE: Don’t teach.
TRANSLATES AS: Step back and wait for them to learn.
BETTER: (Part of the talk :-)

SOUND BITE: Always say yes.
TRANSLATES AS: Twist yourself and reality into knots because you’re “not allowed” to say no.
BETTER: Say yes more.

SOUND BITE: Don’t judge.
TRANSLATES AS: Whatever kids do is okay.
BETTER: Support a child’s interests.

Some of that may be due to unschoolers saying, “Trust your kids.” I’m guilty of that.


Some people let what they want to be true influence the sound bite they come up with.
Pam Sorooshian brought up an interesting point the other day. She suggested for some people it’s not the meaning of the words that are important but the emotions those words evoke.

The emotional speakers won’t find Sandra’s list comfortable. But they’re out in the world spreading these emotion-laden, confusing unschooling sound bites. I pulled a couple from descriptions at the Radical Unschoolers Network:

Radical Unschooling is:
◦ Aggressively not schooling ← Can you feel a childhood of anger at school?

◦ Put children first no matter what. ← Big defensive mama bear.
What I found interesting is the pervasiveness of freedom used to define unschooling. In some of these I can feel what school and conventional parenting did to them or to their kids.

Radical unschooling is:
◦ Full freedom.

◦ Total freedom for your child to decide how to live their own lives.

◦ Free to pursue their own interests without me determining what is right and proper for them to learn. I don't kill their learning with restrictions and requirements.

◦ Giving my kids the freedom and respect that I would have liked as a kid.

◦ Freedom and the right to be true to yourself!

◦ The freedom to allow our kids to live life their way.
In some of these I can feel past powerlessness that’s the foundation of these emotionally laden words. This one I’ll read slowly. Picture yourself faced with a choice and figuring out whether it leads toward it or away.
Radical unschooling is:
◦ Free to learn your heart’s desire lifestyle. Child directed with gentle parental guidance. It means homeschooling my children the way I want to. And teach them things they actually need to know.
This too can be you if you don’t put your thoughts into clear words. ;-)


And then there are all the “learning” ones.

Radical unschooling is:
◦ Child-directed learning.

◦ Self-led learning.

◦ Delight driven learning.

◦ Child-led learning. (Someone said TOTALLY child led.)
Step back from what someone’s trying to make those mean. Look at the ideas those words can connect to. What pictures they can paint. Because the CAN is where the sound bites can lead people off in goofy directions.

For me, direct, lead, driven, those are all Moving in a Direction words, headed for a goal words. But unschooling usually looks like playing. It’s not moving in direction. And sound bites like that can freak some parents out when their kids aren’t seemingly headed anywhere.

Radical unschooling is:
◦ Allowing children to learn on their own.

◦ Letting children learn through life.

◦ Letting my children take responsibility for their education. What’s mom and dad’s role? This is where the idea that unschooling is sit back and wait. And those last kids, if they screw it up, it’s their fault, because it’s their responsibility.
Radical unschooling is:
◦ Letting kids dictate their curriculum.

◦ Follow your child’s lead
There’s the parent. Either being dictated to by the children. Or trailing along behind. With your kiddie bags and pooper scooper.
◦ One I use: Create a rich learning environment. (I realized I like atmosphere better.)
That gives the parents a role, but it doesn’t connect parents with children.
In many cases you can see what people intend the words to mean. But you can see how the actual meanings of the words can head them off in goofy directions.
◦ Then there’s "Natural learning."
I use that one a lot. In some ways it’s a good phrase because it’s new so people are more likely to slowly build an understanding from how its used. But it also sounds like natural living, and “not tampered with by human hands”. And it too suggests hands off.

Once you understand what natural learning is — that it’s how we’re naturally hardwired to learn by growing our own understanding from experience and thought — then it’s a good sound bite that captures a huge idea. (Like Sandra's book.)

The biggest hugest problem in explaining these unschooling ideas is they have no counterparts in everyday life. There isn’t anything to compare them to that don’t also connect to ideas that create confusion. Which is also why people get goofy ideas. There are no other relationships like the unschooling parent and unschooling child.

Sandra uses "partnership" and "team" a lot. And those are probably the closest we’ll be able to come.

Some good definitions from RUN:

Radical unschooling is:
◦ Living every day in partnership with my kids. Listening, Loving and Exploring the world by their sides.

◦ Extending unschooling to all areas of life. Parents as partners to their children, helping them to reach their goals.


One good example of confusing a beginning point sound bite with and experienced sound bite is ... Some may remember on the list a mom came to tell us the secret she’d discovered after 11 years. And she wanted to pass it on so others didn’t spend 11 years suffering confusion and wrong paths. For her those 3 words encapsulated perfectly 11 years of connections she’d made. Connections, learning, understanding, associations, ahas, epiphanies she’d gleaned from figuring out her goal, from recognizing and getting baggage out of her path, from experiencing paths that lead away, from figuring out how to get back on track.

The words were a good summary of what she’d learned. But passed onto someone else, the words don’t have the same meanings. If she’d gone back in time to tell her 11 year younger self to “Follow Your Heart”, the words would connect to her younger definition of heart.

Those 11 years had changed what connections were in her “heart” box.


Which leads into the idea of words not being words.
When I try to explain unschooling to someone, I’m trying to get my idea into their head.
We tend to think of a word and the idea as the same.

Idea in my head → Spoken word → Idea in someone else’s But what’s really happening is …
In our brains, a word is like the label on a box of associations, connections to other words. Some connections we each have are the same. Or we’d never be able to talk to each other! Those connections come from how we experience others using the word. That’s the denotation, the dictionary definition.

But we also each have a collection of connections that comes from a lifetime of experiences and emotions. That’s the connotation.

You’ll get to see some of what’s in my cat box. [Note: I'll make this an image.]


Domestic cat
Big cats



Cat (litter) box
Tom and Jerry
Throw up

Jello (blue and red)
Katie and Allie
Jin-Jin and Guppy


Clarence Cross-Eyed
Lion King
Big cats

JELLO (my cat)
(Lots of experiences)

KAT (daughter)

Kate and Allie (TV)

JELL-O (the food)
My cat
Fruit cocktail
(Lots more)

Katharine Hepburn
Kathryn Janeway

If I ‘m speaking to a cat hater and want to use "cat" to create a feeling of soft and warm I’m going to fail. Their cat box is very different from mine.

If I want to talk about how kids learn math from living a supported life in a rich environment, and my math box is full of fun and experience with Kathryn learning math by playing video games, it’s not going to make sense to someone whose math box is full of pain and humiliation and hours of math homework and FAILURE. So I need to be aware of what’s in the box of the person I’m trying to communicate with.

And this is true of parents trying to communicate with kids. With spouses trying to communicate with each other. The better grasp we have of what they’re picturing from the words we’re using, the more likely we’ll get across what we’re trying to say.a


For each of us, our experiences and emotions will make some connections bigger, stronger, more important. Some will dominate the box and skew it in one direction and we want to think in a different direction. [IMAGE.]

Like LEARN. (In a tilted box)

The biggest part of most people’s learn box is TEACH.

It’s big because we’ve experienced learning coming from teaching for most of our lives. It’s big because of emotions. We fear learning can’t happen without teaching. And that’s one of the harder parts of unschooling is getting those teach ideas out of the LEARN box and refilling our LEARN box with learn connections.


[This was interactive and I'll put up some of the images people came up with.]

I want you to create some of what’s in your idea box that’s labeled JAPAN. A bunch of emotions, experiences, ideas, things you know about that relate to JAPAN.


Here's the "important" connections that you're "supposed" to know if you don't know anything else. (Yeah. Right.)

The "school definition" (from Wikipedia):

Japan is an island nation in East Asia located in the Pacific Ocean. The name mean "sun-origin", which is why Japan is sometimes referred to as the "Land of the Rising Sun".
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 30 million residents.
It is a major economic power, with the world's third-largest economy. It is also the world's fourth-largest exporter and fourth-largest importer. Japan has the lowest homicide rate in the world. And the longest life expectancy of any country.


Land of the rising sun

Ruroni Kenshin
Hello Kitty
Seven Samurai
Visual kei

Pearl Harbor
Divine wind
Black Ships

Brush painting

Tea ceremony
Eraser shapes



When people were done, someone suggested people naming some items from their "brain maps" that they thought others might not have. Some were obscure trivia that many remembered having heard. Some were personal experiences unique to them. All were interesting.

None of those are "important" in the school sense. But those are hugely important in the learning sense! If we're not building up a collection of connections that interest us, then the dry facts are as dry as Albuquerque. But if we have interesting connections that make the subject interesting, then the dry facts are more interesting.

To be efficient, schools cut out the interesting stuff to pack in more facts. Which makes it seem like learning is hard and boring.

What’s in your GOOD box?

How many have mentioned to someone their baby is happy, sleeps well, or doesn’t cry much and had someone remark "what a Good Baby." How many have had a quiet child, polite child, or one who happily responds to your reasonable requests to have them remark what a Good Child. I think most people intend to mean something complimentary by those goods. But what they really mean is "Convenient."

Good person —

Quiet? Sleeps well? Obedient?
Just because of age, the definition of good has changed. I’m going to use good that doesn’t mean moral or convenient. I’d like you to put foremost in your “good” box and “bad” box when you hear me say good or bad is
Moves you toward your goal
Moves you away from your goal


Think up a pet. A wish fulfillment pet. Hold it in your head. Don’t tell anyone.
This will make more sense to those who read on Sandra’s list, but bear with me for a moment.

The Pet Forum

We’ll trade good ideas for taking care of our pets. What leads toward the goal of happiness and health for your pet. What works for you?
What should I feed my pet?

Fish food
Live rats
Peanut butter
[There were some more! And more questions.]

So we’ve got a forum full of “What works for me” ideas.

If you could pick and choose which ideas you like just from this list, would you be able to take good care of your pet?

If we’re all using the same label but have different contents, how can we possibly share good ideas? One person’s good idea may lead away for a different person.

And that happens all the time with unschooling. People will say, “Unschooling’s different for every person,” and then try to share ideas.

That gives you a little taste of why it’s important that the unschooling box on Sandra’s list be clearly one set of connections — denotations rather than connotations, principles in this case. Not to control what’s in your box, but so people can see how the ideas on the list all work together heading towards a clear goal.


“Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.” — So says Bradley Miller, activist (b. 1956)

I don’t know who Bradley Miller is. According to the internet, it’s the only notable thing he ever did.

I know he’s saying something good. I interpret it to mean compassion is good for someone to have. Take a moment. Think up ways you might go about teaching a child not to step on caterpillars.

What I’m going to do is rephrase it as unschoolers might as their understanding of unschooling evolves.

◦ Teach a child not to step on caterpillars.

◦ Tell them not to step on caterpillars. -- Could mean: Make it a rule. Make it a command.

◦ Allow a child to learn not to step on caterpillars. -- Could mean: Let go of the rules that prevent kids from learning this.

◦ Trust a child to learn not to step on caterpillars. -- Could mean: Don’t do anything?

◦ Help a child to learn not to step on caterpillars. -- Could mean: Easy to picture helping someone who is asking for help, but what if the child isn't asking? What if there are no caterpillars?

◦ Help a child be kind to caterpillars. -- Could mean: But what if they’re uninterested? What if caterpillars creep them out? Do you make them pet caterpillars?


The above are all about Change Child. Fix Child. Hope child will fix himself.

◦ Create an atmosphere where being kind is a good thing. -- Could mean: What does “create an atmosphere” mean? Catch someone being good. Give them a $1?
These are all about changing the child. Or hoping the child will change. Or vague. That’s why they don’t feel like they offer a clear guidepost to steer towards.


◦ Change yourself.

◦ Be kind. Be compassionate.

◦ Use your principles as tools as guide how you act towards your child, how you act towards the world, the ways you find for your child to meet his needs.

◦ Be the compassionate buffer between your child and the world and between the world and your child. Invite your child to do kind things for others with you.

◦ At this point you can say, “No .Don’t step on the caterpillar.” Then shift your focus to the child’s underlying need to help them find compassionate ways to meet it. Show them what they can do instead.

◦ See children’s choices not as deliberate acts of cruelty but attempts to meet a need with a limited set of tools. Lend them your tools.

◦ Be their compassion until they can be compassionate. Be patient!
Does that look at all like teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar?

The essence of the idea of growing compassion can be seen in the original words. It’s what he meant, I believe. But those particular words can also — and more commonly — connect to harsh ideas, meanings that would be stepping on the child to teach him not to step on caterpillars!

This BIG JUMP from changing the child to changing yourself applies not just not stepping on caterpillars. Or to compassion. But to thoughtfulness. To making thoughtful choices. Kindness. Truthfulness.

It can also to apply to rap music. Math. State capitals. Video games. Get interests and potential interests swirling through their lives.

But where joining in isn’t easy — like skydiving maybe — be ... Interested. Supportive. Enthusiastic. Curious.


I’ll finish up with my daughter Kathryn who unfortunately couldn’t be here. But in February she has the opportunity to be the merch person for a band on an insane 33 cities in 33 days tornado tour around the US and Canada that she has to take time off from work to do. And she didn’t think it would go well to ask for a chunk of December off too.

Because of her I know way more than any suburban mom is supposed to know about Thrash Metal and Symphonic Black Metal and Swedish Death Metal.

I guess looking back on it, two hopes I had for Kathryn were to be able to be out in the world without us when she wanted to and to value happiness.

She’s 20 now. And she’s living in Dearborn Heights Michigan with her friend in her friend’s mom’s house. She’s had 2 jobs since she moved out there last year, one as a sign shaker, the second one which she has now as a telemarketer.

That’s no one’s conventional definition of success. In fact it’s just a couple of steps above the bottom of conventional parenting standards of success of, “Well, at least she’s not in jail!”

But if you take off the conventional glasses and look at her and how well she’s steering towards her goals, look at how well she has been able to do what I hoped unschooling would help her do, it’s a very different picture.

Unlike those who fail at school who lack confidence that they can hold better jobs, she knows the world is wide open to her. She knows if college will suit her goals, she can go. (She’s taken 4 college math and writing classes starting at 14 and did just great.) She knows if a job is getting in the way of her goals, she can find one that works better. She knows if her goals change, she can change what she’s doing.

What I think is really cool is she doesn’t have that big security fear tying her down. She’s flexible. It’s all about what’s good for her — what keeps her moving towards her goals.

And because these are choices, because she knows she can quit whenever something longer suit her goals, she’s found ways to have fun with both the sign shaking job and the telemarketing job. Since I couldn’t bring her, I brought a handful of answers from a quiz she recently posted on deviantART.

Goals: I wanna be a guitarist in a band, I want to finish writing some books I'm proud of and write my series The Circus!! And several comic books including Keith Maximum! And go to as many concerts as I can and have a blast!!!

Get along with your parents?: YES! My mom's my f***ing best friend [That’s one of those emotional sound bites. Not the literal ones!] And my dad is my buddy, especially when it comes to sports!

Time for bed: That all depends on when I gotta get up.

Laughed so hard you cried: EVERY DAY.

One wish: To have even more fun!

More Joyce Fetteroll

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