What is Unschooling?
The following was written at a time during which I felt I could still find a place within some branch of organized Christianity. I’m not at all certain now that I can, or that it’s even something I desire. Right now, my own spirituality is still in flux. I like it that way. It may very well be that way until the end of this life for me. I seem to be formatted with a spiritual, even a mystic, bent. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to explore many different religions and many varieties of spiritual expression, within Christianity and outside of it as well. Maybe it was inevitable that I spend some time immersed in fundamentalism...just so I could get the feel of it? I was ignorant of fundamentalism until I lived it. I thought that it was just one more expression of Christianity, benign if lived out in a compassionate mindset. I was wrong.
Fundamentalism is a devastating belief system that is particularly destructive to children. It fosters a damaged sense of self, defiles a child’s self-esteem, destroys healthy coping skills, and parents ought to take their children and run as far away from the fundamentalist church as they can get, as fast as they can go. I have much more to say about that, but this isn’t the place. I’ll post an article about that later.
This is not to say that I didn’t meet some fine people when I was a fundamentalist. Decent human beings may be found in any setting. I can look back on some of my experiences as a fundamentalist with warmth and appreciation of the lovely people that were a part of my life. Some of them eventually walked away as I did. Some of them stayed and shunned our family. For me, the rejection and the disdain don’t cut like they did in the first year or two. I feel sad that people I cared for have made themselves subject to a hive mind to such an extent that they would allow it to establish their definition of friendship. In the strictest fundamentalist mindset, one cannot be a friend with anyone outside of the hive.
However, life goes on.
Some have come here hoping for an explicitly Christian approach to unschooling and that’s not what these pages offer. If your family wants to incorporate your faith into the unschooling day, that particular great adventure is wide open for you and your children to explore. I have left my comments about unschooling the faith in place (scroll down, they are near the end of this page). Perhaps these will offer you some ideas. That particular adventure was rich and meaningful to me as a parent, during the time that I was a practicing Christian. I do hope that our unschooling experiences and ideas will spark some inspiration for you, no matter what creed or philosophy you adhere to…
What is Unschooling? Reprise :-)
We're homeschoolers, unschoolers actually. What on earth is unschooling? I would call it education that is customized to each child mainly by that child. Parental input is there when it's wanted. It's interest-driven learning and interest-directed learning. It's using the entire world, the entire universe, really, for someone's education. It's allowing the time, space and freedom to learn by doing the things that fascinate you, the things that you enjoy and love. It's a lifestyle, it's a lifelong process. That's my definition in a nutshell. We've been at this for over a dozen years and have found it a rich and wonderful way of life for our family.
Our ideas about education and how children learn best have changed and evolved over the years that we've been homeschooling and continue to evolve. When we began, we had two little boys and a baby girl. Now we are parents to eight children, one of them grown and on his own. We've acquired a wonderful daughter-in-law and a baby grandson. Some of our ideas are the same as when we began, many of them are different.
How Does It Work?
Here at home our approach to education would most likely be termed interest-initiated learning and interest-driven education. For instance if a child develops an interest in riding and maintaining dirt bikes, as one of ours has, that child is going to learn far more than dirt bike riding from spending time exploring his interest. Our dirt biker naturally read everything he could about dirt bikes, he wrote about them upon occasion, he learned some mechanics from others which involved mathematics and principles of the internal combustion engine. He had social gatherings revolving around bikes and he taught others how to ride, including his father. One year he built a dirt bike track complete with curves, jumps , and naturally occuring sand traps which involved quite a bit of mathematical thinking, some aesthetics, and a certain amount of physics in a practical form. It was hard physical work, too.
Another child has a love of reading and writing. This child has chosen an approach that might be seen as closer to the traditional school model. She enjoys structuring her time and often uses textbooks to study math and history. As a younger child (she's nearly 13 now) and an early reader she liked me to manufacture or find math worksheets for her and she enjoyed reading all sorts of historical fiction, as well as first-person accounts and journals of times past. She learned a tremendous amount about the history of the United States and other parts of the world this way. This continues to be a strong interest of hers. She has honed her writing skills using the computer in addition to learning how to produce various e-mail newsletters and how to set up appealing and artistic web pages on the Internet. She's a heck of a journalist at age 12 and she has time and space to really ponder the issues that concern her—so she's become a person with a highly developed ability to think critically and express herself concisely.
Using the interest-driven approach to learning has given every one of our children the freedom, space, and time to explore and develop their own proclivities, giftings, and joys. Each child is unique, each one chooses different paths of learning. Each year, each month, each week is different. And different for each child. With eight children this has provided a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunity to learn from one another.
So What Do the Parents Do?
I don't see myself as a teacher as much as a facilitator of my childrens' lifelong learning adventure. We use our home and the wider world beyond its 2.5 acres of high desert as a delectable and fascinating course of study. We are all lifelong learners. We learn with and from each other as well as sometimes stepping aside into isolation to pursue a personal interest. The childrens' dad and I are willing to act as a tutor to the kids in any subject that we might be able -- if a child wanted that. For instance I have worked with one daughter who wanted to learn to paint with watercolors, Mike has willingly taught all comers how to handle a guitar and how to read music. Every parent in the world has knowledge or abilities that might fascinate and benefit one (or more) of their children. One advantage of homeschooling is that a family has time to be together to discover and explore common interests. Learning together, going places together, any time together doesn't have to be fragmented by the huge block of time that school students spend away from home. Two of my kids are currently patiently teaching me how to construct a webpage. Classes from people in the community are an option for anyone who wants them. Some of us have begun to learn Spanish this way. Two of the children have expressed an interest in using the local community college to explore some subjects in the future.
Mike and I see one of our main "jobs" in the education of our children as resource people. Sometimes we show them how to find information. As each child is ready we help them navigate the world of words, we read to them virtually from birth, we read beautiful and classic books, we read just-for-fun books, we read silly books, we read poetry, we look at picture books, and picture books with words, we read any book that they bring to us, we read from magazines, we read cereal boxes if they want. We play with words, we help them write words. Eventually they learn to read. In their own time, in their own way. In their quest for information we'll show them how to use reference books, how to use the card catalog or computer at the library. Several years ago we ventured onto the Internet as a family, a very beneficial experience for every one of us.
The arts are important to us. Music, writing, graphic arts are all expressive outlets that we'd dry up and wilt without.
We have musical instruments. Electric guitars and some very nice (vintage, even) acoustic guitars, a piano, electronic keyboards, mandolins, a beautiful hand-crafted mountain dulcimer, a few recorders. Every kind of music can be heard here, homemade and brought-in. Dad is a musician, who can read music and play guitar as well as clarinet, who can sing and harmonize and who is ready and willing to pass on what he knows to the next generation. One son plays keyboard and piano, two play guitar, everyone sings. I'm learning to play mountain dulcimer. One project that we haven't tackled, but want to is the building of some instruments of our own.
Art supplies abound. Art-making is important, vital to some of us. We've worked in watercolors, oils and acrylics, charcoal and pastels, Prismacolor pencils, and plain old (fun) colored markers and pencil. And crayons. :-)
Some of us love poetry. Some of us write, some of illustrate what we've written or what someone else has written. One daughter has developed her own cartoons and hand illustrated the first two books of the Old Testament for her younger siblings to enjoy.
What About the Hard Stuff?
What's hard stuff would be different to every parent. For some it's algebra or differential equations. For others it's literature and poetry. So what do we do when a child wants to study something that's a turn off to us, or that we just don't think we can handle?
Here are some things that we've done or that friends of ours have done. Occasionally one parent will be familiar with a subject that the other detests or feels less than competant in. Here at our house, I love music and like to sing but don't do it very well. I can play chords on a guitar (when I'm in practice) but I can't read music. My husband can do all of those things well. Algebra and geometry are a source of frustration to Mike but I enjoy math. If someone wants help with it, I'll help. The kids can bounce back and forth between us for help and insight into different subjects. I've given geology hikes to my kids and others, Mike has taught basic guitar to other homeschooled kids. Several of us began learning Spanish at a homeschoolers co-op, one son has been mentored in dirt bike mechanics by a local person, community colleges in our area are very open to letting homeschoolers study there. The possiblities are endless.
The most valuable thing I've learned in 12 years of homeschooling about the "hard stuff" is that to a child who is interested it's not going to be "the hard stuff," it's going to be the fun stuff, the intriguing stuff, the challenging stuff. Their passion for it will rub off on their parents! There is always a source of help for someone who is stuck and needs to talk with a more knowledgeable person. The trick is to think creatively and find that source of help. It might be the person next door, it might be a friend or relative, it might be in a class somewhere, or on the Internet.
Nature As a Teacher
Outside our door is another world to explore. One step outside and we are in the vast and fascinating Mojave Desert. We have spent many hours observing the wildlife. Our children have a respect and love for the natural world because they have been fortunate enough to be able to spend many hours living in it, camping out in it, with no worry about school bells interrupting their study. We've studied its native plants, we've observed and collected the rocks that wash down the hillsides from the San Gabriel Mountains, we've climbed in the mountains, we've watched the birds, the small animals, the reptiles. We've trekked around ancient sites of volcanic activity. We've seen coyotes loping across our yard in the evening. We've watched in awe as a Bald Eagle has swooped low across our chicken pen and flown off. We've raised many kinds of animals: chickens, ducks, geese, goats, rabbits, cats. Inside we've raised iguanas, fish, and turtles. We've watched many of these raise their own offspring. What a joy for a young (or older!) child to venture out in the new morning and discover that the hen who'd been sitting on eggs is leading forth a parade of 15 darling baby chicks. Or the mother duck, her little fluffy, waddling ducklings. Our kids know how to find where the sparrows or the cactus wrens build their nests and have watched daily in amazement as the parents raise the tiny fledglings.
Climate and weather are subjects that thrust themselves upon desert dwellers. Our children are fascinated with these subjects—perhaps because they cannot be ignored in the desert. Winds, rolling thunderstorms, hail, flash floods, lightening, summertime electrical storms,heat, dust devils, winter freezes, snows, ice, it's all there and more. Sometimes it's all there in a day's time. Our children love to learn about weather.
The History of the Place We're In
Some of the children have begun studying the history of our region. They've wanted to learn about the Native Americans who lived here before any European settlers arrived. We've gone to museums and we've read about our local history. We've brought books home to add to our home library. We've visited places that have some local historical significance. We've talked to Native American people who know some interesting things about this desert. Friends of ours know where there are small artifacts of the previous civilization to be found.
It's easy to stand in the quiet vastness of the high desert or in the coolness of the Mojave River bed with its seasonal waters and know that "this" that's here and now isn't all there ever was. There's a sadness to it that causes me to want to learn more about those who were here before and to work on preserving any of the knowledge that remains.
Homeschoolers and Religion
I want to address the issue of religion as well. It's hard to be a homeschooler for any length of time and not have that come up, sometimes in a positive or benign way and sometimes, sadly, with much negative impact. May it not always be that way...
We are Christians. Many of our homeschooling friends are not, though some are. We delight in the diversity. As far as religion goes, homeschoolers run the gamut from A to Z. A for Atheist or Agnostic, B for Baptist or Baha'i or Buddhist, C for Catholic, D for Druid, E for Episcopalian...G for Greek Orthodox...J for Jewish...L for Lutheran (that's me!) or LDS, M for Muslim...P for Pagan...T for Taoist...U for United Methodist and Unitarian Universalist...W for Wesleyan or Wiccan...Z for Zoroastrian. Now, truly, this is a list just off the top of my head, of families that I know, with a little more thought I could complete it —A to Z. E-mail me suggestions or if I've forgotten you!
Within the subgroup of homeschoolers who are Christians, there is a quite vocal group of exclusionary individuals who have sometimes dismayed us. It's a phenomenon that we know exists across the country. We've talked to enough homeschoolers in all parts of the country over the past dozen years to know that this situation is not just a local situation. There are rigidly exclusionary groups who require statements of faith (espousing an ultra-conservative evangelical or rigid fundamentalist point of view) to be signed prior to being allowed to join their support groups. There are groups with dress codes, hair style codes, "Christian" (once again of their own point of view) conduct codes for the kids, there are groups that ask for pastoral letters of approval before extending membership, there are groups that ask for a signed statement ennumerating how many days a week a family goes to church. This is all well and good for the people who have these deeply held convictions and I would not stand in their way of having them or of choosing to assemble together, still it can be disconcerting and discouraging for the new homeschooling family which doesn't share such a belief system. Lest anyone think that "this is what homeschooling is," I would like to say that it's not. Homeschoolers across the U.S. are of every and no creed, they are of every conceivable lifestyle—hey are you and me. There are many support groups with parents and kids who are inclusive of one another, no matter what religion, race, economic status, personal convictions, lifestyle, etc. If you check my homeschooling/unschooling links you'll get a good start on where you can find some of these people. If you live in the Mojave, e-mail us and we'll help you find some of them!
How We Address Our Faith in an Unschooling Context
At the start of our homeschooling Mike and I thought it necessary to tutor our children in the faith that we shared, now we feel more that we want to walk our own paths and study many paths together. This is an area that is in flux for us right now. We have moved out of a fundamentalist framework, out of any traditional Christian expression. I know that this is bound to continue to change. Our family has gone through a crisis of faith and we are surviving. We are finding our footing still.
We had found ourselves inside of a situation that was becoming ever more cultic and it was beginning to seep into our family life; we needed to free ourselves from it. This has been a good thing, though challenging. Our past Christianity does still often flavor our family interactions but we parents do not see our position as the administrators of a Christian-school-in-the-home as many Christian homeschool parents do. We are fellow travelers with our children. We discuss ideas and hard issues together, we ask forgiveness when we blow it, we investigate and strive to grow alongside each other. Sometimes we just give them some space, remembering what it was like to be their ages. We work at being an encouraging influence on our kids, and often they encourage us. In our large family it's okay to favor one spiritual tradition or viewpoint over another. It's okay to have questions and doubts. We all do. My hope is that we be able to give each other the freedom and grace to grow, always—freedom that was being leached away in the environment we'd been in for several years.
So far it's working.
So there you have it—this is how it goes with us right now. Space, time, and freedom to learn are the keywords for this part of our homeschooling journey.
What is Unschooling? Reprise.
Children and Media Violence A wonderful article by comic book author Gerard Jones
Unschooling With ADD/ADHD (Originally appeared in Gentle Spirit Magazine, Vol.6, No.10)
But catastrophes only encouraged experiment.Visit Kathy's Loren Eiseley Tribute Page (link lost; sorry)
"Meanderings"—notes on the other writings, and on the family; photos unavailable, sorry.
I'm grateful to Joyce Fetteroll for finding a lost link and links to
three articles that were not on this page before 2014.
I'm very grateful to Kathy for her many years of thoughtful observation and writing.