What was the catalyst that lead you to choose unschooling for your family’s learning and educational needs?
My son, like me, loses interest in what he’s doing when it’s directed, coerced or managed by somebody else. I hated school and grew up believing I was worthless until I got angry enough with the system to excel out of spite in grade 11 and 12! When I realized he was similar to me, I registered him in an alternative DL school, where he had huge frustrations with the same issues. By the end of his Kindergarten year (2008) I had learned the term unschooling, and that it was possible for us to go it alone, so we pulled him from school, and did.
I had already been teaching art in a self-directed way to both kids and adults, pulling from what I felt was right to provide opportunities for exploration, so once I started looking into unschooling, that in itself became my own exploration, and I began pushing my own teaching further into self-directed territory, which was a huge success. Every day I “teach” this way I see kids and adults make discoveries about themselves and make progress that might have been more difficult to come to (or more difficult to recognize) if the activities had been directed. Also both of my children thrived this way.
Prior to your venture into unschooling, did you have any preconceived ideas, beliefs, or notions about what unschooling entailed (positive or negative)? If so, have any of those beliefs or ideas shifted?
What have been some of your favorite strategies, tools, or resources that you’ve employed to make unschooling a successful fit for your family?
Adventure! As I mentioned earlier, unschooling in a small community is isolating, so it was VERY important for us to get out of the house every day. Most of the time we just explored the woods, which I believe has led to my kids’ deep understanding of sciences, but we also adventured to the city at least ever couple of weeks to check out exhibits, urban areas, and pretty much anything interesting we could find there. We can’t afford a lot of travel, but we intentionally made at least one camping trip every year, and one hotel (or B&B) overnight in the city every year, to give us some broader experiences. We made two giant trips over the past twelve years, also. One was a month-long road-trip from BC to San Diego, along which we had an amazing assortment of adventures and visited some family. The other was our only plane trip, when we flew to Switzerland, and rented a car, driving all the way up along the Rhein river and into the Netherlands, visiting our family all along the way. These were really massive trips and took years of planning and saving, but were so worth it!!
We registered for many years with a DL school as full-time-homelearners. Despite feeling a bit like a “cheat” this worked well for us, because we found a wonderful school that not only accepted our unschooling methodology, but also had very minimal reporting (3x/year), and provided us with a small amount of money for “supplies”. With this money we bought a few useful things like a telescope, a great dissecting microscope (for exploration!!), lots of art supplies, and various travel expenses. Also, I actually found the reporting reassuring, since three times a year I had to look at everything we’d done for the past few months and see how many “learning outcomes” the kids had achieved, so that I could send in the list to the school. Despite feeling like these things are detrimental when used as goals, I used to do with with the kids, and we were always delighted to discover that without doing anything other than exploring where our hearts led us, they had always achieved similar things to their school-going friends.
Another thing we do is take photos, which I compile into a book every year, with commentary from all of us. This gives us something to look back at and remember things, which not only cements the memories/learning, but also gives us opportunities for new perspectives, later on. We’ve made a huge book for each of our big trips, as well.
Lastly, I keep a blog. It’s nice for the kids to go back and read stories of things we’ve done, but it’s also been the way that I work out my own unschooling exploration and think things through, solve problems, gain perspective, etc.
How has your family’s experience with unschooling been so far? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges? What milestones and successes have stood out to you?
We have loved it, and on the whole I’m hugely glad we chose this route. However, our biggest struggle has been isolation. Because of the lack of social interaction available to our children after all of their friends became too busy with school and other pursuits to hang out, my kids became very lonely, and we tried out a couple of local schools. As far as schools go, they’re among the best. One was an independent school with wonderful activities like kayak trips and very small classes, and the added bonus that my brother is a teacher there. There really is everything to love about this school. But after just a few months in what is, despite efforts to be otherwise, a very competitive situation, my son was feeling worthless and uninspired. He was lonelier than when he was unschooling. It took three years of unschooling to repair the damage to his self esteem and get him back to exploring and interacting with others confidently. My daughter tried out the 3-day classroom program at our local DL school, which suited her well and she was happy. However, she is happier to have returned to unschooling.
We have now found a fabulous unschooling community in – of all places! – the public school system! My kids have been attending Windsor House School in Vancouver for three years now, which is the only democratic school in our province. Democracy means respect, and the school operates on the basic principle that teachers, parents, and students of all ages are equal, their choices being respected and valued, even when those choices don’t include school. Children from 5 to 18 are encouraged to self-direct all the way through school, which means that some kids play video games together while others are having social/political discussions, and some others are busy with teachers or friends completing school-like activities for school credits – because they chose too. Many children rarely come to school and that’s OK too. Grades are not talked about or shared (although unfortunately the school is still required to submit them to the ministry), and nobody is trying to outdo others. Many kids participate in classroom activities with no intention of getting credit, and simply because they enjoy the activities. There is a large percentage of kids who have been ostracized or bullied in the regular schools and come to Windsor House for safety, only to find themselves fully accepted and joyfully unschooling – at school. It’s pretty amazing, and has given my kids the community they’ve always longed for. My son will be graduating with his grade 12 diploma this year, which is both amazing and a little strange. He has managed to do this by cobbling together course offerings from WIndsor House with a couple of added sciences from a distance ed school, and some of his own explorative pursuits which Windsor House teachers helped him work into credit-worthy outcomes.
The very sad news is that after nearly 50 years of operation, this school will be closing this spring because of district financial concerns. It was and is the greatest example of democratic education in our province, at a time when the Ministry of Education is pushing the province into a new curriculum with many democratic, self-directed aspects. Windsor House could have been the bright light leading the way, however due to the slow nature of sweeping changes like these in the public perception, it’s vanishing just before it could have gone mainstream.
Of course there’s a dedicated group of at least 80 families who will continue to unschool together, and we’re working out logistics for meeting regularly and meeting every child’s needs, next year. So for my family next year looks like this: Our recently-graduated 17-year-old plans to take a couple more science classes at a local college (partly to make social connections), and mostly work on some of his own physics and engineering explorations. Our 14-year-old plans to meet with her Windsor House friends in the city and slowly get into some grade ten credit courses, while spending most of her time pursuing musical theatre and choir, which are her passions.
Came back to this question to add (because I blissfully forgot, before!!):
FEAR!!! I have been SO scared at so many times, especially because the world, media, and other parents tell me constantly that my kids will fail and that they need school to make it in the world. Because of this fear, I have often pushed my kids to do things they didn’t want to do, or tried to push their happy explorations into some kind of socially-recognised “success”. And it ALWAYS fails them. My fear-based pushing always gets in the way of their explorative learning and joy, putting a negative slant on something they originally loved, stressing them out, and putting a wedge between us, emotionally. This has been the hardest challenge for me personally to overcome, and despite unschooling for twelve years, now, I’m still working on it.
What questions do you receive most often about unschooling your family and how do you address those questions?
Most questions/comments I receive are difficult to answer without offending the person asking, so I generally try to keep my answers brief. There seems to be a huge issue with other parents feeling defensive about their own educational or parenting choices, and I always want to answer in a way that empowers instead of provokes them. The following are the most common questions/comments I get, and how I generally handle them, though it doesn’t always go as well as I hope!
Our own family was extremely worried about unschooling, and that was one of the reasons I initially started blogging about it – to set their mind at ease. It worked! (Thank goodness!)
Q: Don’t your kids get sick of spending time with you?
A: They’ll let me know when they do, and they’ll go somewhere else.
Q: How are your kids going to make it on their own when they’re adults?
A: I feel that unschooling has prepared them better than school to know and trust themselves, and to find themselves in the world. What more could we hope for?
Q: Aren’t you worried about social skills?
A: Social skills – no. My kids have plenty of those. They know who they are and are confident in themselves. Finding enough social interaction has been difficult at times, but that’s just another opportunity to build more skills and community.
Q: I think you’re amazing. I could never manage/afford/dare to do what you’re doing.
A: I’m not amazing – just finding my way like we all do. Unschooling is not for everyone, and I acknowledge that it takes a great deal of privilege for me to have worked so little and stayed home with my children for many years. That choice has been financially difficult, be we’ve found many ways to live frugally and that has been a part of our family’s learning exploration. I feel like we’ve gained far more in personal growth and rewarding experiences than we have lost in money.
What have been some of the most rewarding moments of your unschooling journey?
What advice would you give to someone considering unschooling or just beginning their unschooling adventure?
What key skills and traits do you feel unschooling has instilled in your child/children/family?
What has been one of the most powerful insights you’ve gained from unschooling?
That it IS possible to succeed outside the system, and in many ways it’s easier!! Also, that the system doesn’t give you your worth; it’s just an obstacle and or spectacled lens to seeing it.
What do you feel is one of the biggest myths about unschooling?
That unschooling kids are weird. I can see why they look this way, because they’re busy being themselves instead of fitting in. But their world is not about fitting in, it’s about being. I love to imagine a world where we’re all concerned with our own being; our own giving and committing to the world, instead of trying to fit into it. Unschooled kids don’t see each other as weird. They see each other as interesting and worthy.