Sandra Dodd Pt 1 : Path To Unschooling

Video by Lee Stranahan
Transcript by Katherine Anderson

I'm Sandra Dodd. I'm talking about unschooling today. And I have a website called But if you get there you'll see the unschooling section. I've been unschooling three children of my own for a long time and I've been in contact with a lot of other unschoolers so a lot of the stories I have are not just necessarily my children.

Unschooling is very related to the open classroom from the 70s, from the school reformers who said it's not good that children should only learn from a curriculum and in one room, lock them up in a room, because the things that they're learning about are outside the school, the building, right outside. You can see a real tree instead of looking at a tree in a book. And so in the 70s especially at the University of New Mexico where I was going to college there were people who had come up with the idea of the open classroom and had a textbook on the open classroom, which was interesting. So I'm paying money to sit in chairs and learn about how people really shouldn't be sitting in chairs but that... it can't be helped.

So when I went out to teach, which I did in my own hometown of EspaƱola, where I grew up—I went to teach English—and armed with all these new ideas about unschooling—about not unschooling, I'm sorry, about the open classroom, and alternative methods, it turns out they don't really work unless everyone involved is interested in doing it, wants to do that. And the reason they worked in the lab schools is because lab schools are associated with universities and so the teachers and the students and the parents of the students are all into them being in that lab school, in a school where all the teachers are College of Education people or grad students, or whatever.

But when you get into a regular public school, where some of the parents can't even stand school, where the kids don't want to be there, where some of the teachers don't even want to be there, nothing like that will work. Creativity and things that take enthusiasm and joy kind of shrivel on the vine. So I did what I could, I mean I did alternative things but kind of halfway between the kids not wanting to do it [coughs] ..excuse me.. and the frustration I started to feel about seeing that that wasn't going to work, it kind of took the wind out of my sails.

But after I was older and had my own children I thought this is... this is a totally doable thing. And I was in La Leche League and had three friends, four friends who were homeschooling. Two were, one family I didn't know very well and one family was military, and they were doing school at home where they bought a curriculum andt hey sat down at the table and they did their lessons. And two of the families were unschooling families. And we were in a babysitting co-op, so I saw these kids in all different of contexts, out in public, at their houses, at my house, at my house without their parents and with their parents. And of all those families, the kids who liked their parents the best, who were the most fun to be with, who were the brightest and most curious and interested were those unschooled kids.

And I didn't think it mattered to me. I wasn't shopping for something to do with my kids but when Kirby, who's my oldest .. he's 22 now, but when he was four, I discovered that he was not really swift in groups yet. And so I thought well the way the law in New Mexico is, I could wait a year.

And the things that I had learned in college helped. The things I had learned observing in my life had helped. I had been involved in the Society for Creative Anachronisms for a long time at that point. I had been president for a few years and there had been a lawsuit about us not being educational, and I had made some easy winning arguments about that. About well boy scouts don't take women across the street against their will, you know. We're not out to go door to door to teach people about the Middle Ages. We're providing opportunities for people to come and do it the way they want to and we'll help them. It's like a medieval studies co-op and so I saw tons of learning in that.

So by the time I did have children I was primed. And so meeting these other unschooling families and homeschooling families, so I had the contrast, when we decided we might try a year or two of homeschooling, there was no question that that's what I was going to do. I had no interest in doing school at home. If those methods worked, they'd be working at school with professionals. They don't.

So what we did was we played. We just continued doing what we had been doing when Kirby was littler, lots of music, lots of singing songs that had to do with history or the alphabet or whatever, you know. At first, we kind of checklisted a little bit like that. And when he didn't know his address we made up a little song about our address. And so I always knew what he was knowing and what he might need to know, and if I thought we hadn't done anything for a few weeks that could have been justified as history, in case—I used to think somebody might come and check. That's the fear of people is that somebody could come to the door and say "Prove what you're doing." And so I would keep a vague reckoning of what we had done. And if it seemed like there had been no history lately we'd go to a museum or we would go visit somebody with an old house or just whatever, you know, that seemed like history to me, enough that if somebody had come to the door, I could say we did this and this.

And as time passed our whole life just became a really rich mesh of that. Everything was connected to everything. And I totally quit paying attention. By the time Marty was old enough.. we also thought Marty would go to school. He's 20 now, but when he was four and five, we said well, but Marty will want to go to school because he likes sports and he wants to be with other kids but when the time came we said "Do you want to go to school or do you want to stay at home?" he said "No I want to stay with you guys." By that time, I wasn't checklisting at all. I never even thought will Marty learn this or will Marty learn that. I wasn't worried. There was no concern at all. And by the time, Holly came along, I wasn't worried.

So what I was doing all along in there was being in contact with other unschoolers. And the first way that anyone had to do that was John Holt's magazine Growing without Schooling, which started off as a newsletter with people's addresses. One feature of that magazine even into like 1990 was a list of addresses of families who were willing to host other families. So people would send— it wasn't really articles or interviews so much as it was just people writing letters, and saying this is what's going on with us, here's what I've discovered or I have this problem can anybody help. And so it was an exchange of letters through a bimonthly, I think, or semimonthly or whatever it was—it was bimonthly, every two months, magazine. And that was pretty phenomenal at the time. It was the best they could do.

About the time Kirby had been unschooling a couple years, though, there became opportunities online, and at first it was just a users group, like the dustiest little email looking thing on a Bulletin Board, but that's where people went to learn about it and that's where I've been pretty much since I was on *Prodigy, and there was a message board with about 80 families and probably two thirds of them were Christian/conservative families and there were just a very few unschooling families. And as that spread, as the internet grew, and the opportunities for things like Yahoo groups—there was nothing like that at first. If you wanted to mail something to everybody you just had to pile up email addresses up to fifty and you could mail fifty and you'd have to mail the same thing to the next fifty people, because I used to do a newsletter and that's how we did it...

As that evolved, I also learned more about unschooling from other families who were doing it, and they learned from what we were doing, and so we just pooled everything we knew. And from that, it became a huge resource, and now if someone wants to learn about unschooling they can go online and read more in 15 minutes than I could have read in the whole earth when I started. So it was pretty nice.

When I saw that people wanted to know how to do it, we tried and several of us who were active writing in those days, we tried to figure out what the basics were, what you needed to tell people. And none of us wanted to make a curriculum. It wasn't like "We'll teach you how to not use a curriculum. Buy this curriculum." That wouldn't make sense. That sends people in the wrong direction for a while before you bring them back. So let's just find them right where they are. So we said what it takes is for a parent to change. The parent has to learn to see the learning in things, and that's hard. School trains that out of people. School tells you that you need teachers and you need books, you need somebody to tell you what you need to know. Then you need to have proof that you know it by taking a test. And I think anybody who's ever been to school and taken tests can remember very little of the actual facts. And a lot of facts changed anyway. They've changed their minds about this or that scientifically. Borders have changed, and Tanganyika and the Soviet Union are not to be worried about anymore. Not that we were worried about Tanganyika but I learned to spell it. So I just never separated what I knew and was doing from what my kids were doing, and that helped. So it was fairly seamless for me. My whole life had been about learning and about education. That's what I always wanted to do from the time I was six— to be a teacher. My other backup plans were to be a missionary or a journalist. Pretty much I cover those three every day.

Sandra Dodd Pt 2: Unschooling & Real Learning

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