Home Education Magazine http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine Just another Unschooling.com site Sun, 12 Oct 2014 14:52:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.4 Class Dismissed: A Film About Learning Outside the Classroom http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/class-dismissed-a-film-about-learning-outside-the-classroom/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/class-dismissed-a-film-about-learning-outside-the-classroom/#comments Sat, 06 Sep 2014 17:29:30 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=707 An HEM Interview between filmmaker Jeremy Stuart and HEM’s editor, Barb Lundgren, published in HEM’s September-October 2014 issue

From home study and kitchen table math, to perpetual recess and park days, Class Dismissed follows the story of an ordinary American family in their quest to educate their children outside the school system.

As they struggle to discover what path is best for them, the social ramifications of their choices come to light, family dynamics are revealed and they come to realize that homeschooling is not just an educational choice, but also a lifestyle choice that affects the very heart of their family.

Truth and consequence, myth and assumption all come together in this fresh look at what it means to be educated in the 21st century.

As an editor, Jeremy’s involvement in the television and film industry has spanned over 20 years. He has worked on hundreds of music videos, commercials, and corporate projects, as well as award winning documentaries and short films.

Some of his clients have included Lucasfilm, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Yamaha, Virgin America, Sony Playstation, Dave Matthews Band, Acura and the Smithsonian Channel.

He is also the proud father of an unschooled 9 year-old daughter.

What propelled you to make a film about home education?

As my own family began our foray into the world of home education it became clear to me from the response we got from friends and strangers alike, that most people, despite many of them being dissatisfied with the current educational model, felt like they had no choice about their children’s education. They weren’t aware that they had options and if they did, they had no idea how to begin. Also at that time, there were a couple of documentaries about education that were making the rounds, Waiting for Superman, and Race to Nowhere, both of which I’d seen and both of which I’d been disappointed in for their failure to present alternatives to conventional schooling. Why was nobody talking about alternatives? Why were people so willing to just go with convention despite it being so clearly broken?  I felt also that there was much misunderstanding in the general public about home education, so I decided to make a documentary about it to challenge their assumptions and to highlight the fact that children who learn outside the classroom can be successful.

What is Class Dismissed about? What happens in the film?

Class Dismissed is a film about learning outside of the traditional classroom. It highlights several approaches to homeschooling as well as unschooling, or self-directed learning. Because there is so much misunderstanding about what homeschooling or unschooling is about, I felt it would be necessary to show the process so we put out a casting call, looking for a family who were about to pull their kids from school to try educating them in other ways. We got close to a hundred responses from all over the country and after much consideration, narrowed it down to a family in Los Angeles who were about to pull their two girls (11 and 14 at the time) from one of the best public schools in the area. We then spent a year and a half following their journey as they struggled to find their footing in this new lifestyle. The film is very much their personal story, but it’s also a story that I’m sure many of us who are already homeschooling or unschooling can relate to. I think those who are on the fence about home education will find it helpful to watch the family’s journey unfold. Choosing to educate your kids outside of a conventional school is a process of trial and error and constant evolution. It’s a process that requires extraordinary trust and a willingness to undo much of our own conditioning about how children learn, and an understanding of how as parents we support or hinder that process. In addition to the main family, we’ve interviewed many long-time home educators, unschoolers, authors, experts and families and have woven their stories and insight into the film. We also spent some time filming at a home education resource center in Portland, Oregon called Village Home that on the surface looks like a school, but functions in an entirely different way.

What was your own schooling experience like?

Like most of us I went through traditional schooling. In my middle school years in England I was a good student in that I followed the rules, got good Stewart-class-dismissedgrades and generally enjoyed school. Then when it got time for high school everything changed when I was asked to select the subjects I wanted to study for the next four years. I was very interested in the arts, particularly music, but I wanted to take fine art as well. “Sorry, not allowed,” I was told. Music was already one of the arts, so I couldn’t do both. Then I wanted to take Biology, but was informed that I had to also take Physics or Chemistry. I wasn’t interested in either, but chose Physics and hated it. I felt like one door after another was being slammed shut in my face and I quickly realized that I actually had no voice and no say in what I wanted to learn.

My response was to rebel and sabotage my education. I was unwilling to play by their rules. I sat and filled in bubble sheets without even reading the questions and left high school the second I could legally get out the door. Since then, my education has been conducted entirely on my own terms. Everything I’ve learned as an adult I learned because I wanted to, but more importantly because I was passionate about it. But I’ve always felt that it should have been this way from the beginning.

Naturally, my parents were dismayed by this approach, at least initially. But I had set my heart on a career in music and soon I was touring the world as a professional drummer and making good money and they relaxed and realized I was probably going to be okay. When I was 21, I left England and moved to Los Angeles to continue pursuing my music career but instead became interested in the film industry, particularly editing. I talked my way into several jobs that gave me access to equipment and resources and set about teaching myself everything I needed to know about the art of editing film and within a couple of years I was editing big name music videos and commercials. The thought of going to film school never even entered my mind. I was having far too much fun, making mistakes, flying by the seat of my pants and learning on the job.

Are you homeschooling your daughter? Or unschooling? Give us a brief look at your own evolution with that and what your family life is like.

I didn’t know anything about homeschooling at all when my daughter was born. Even though my own experience with school had been so disappointing, I assumed that our daughter Kaia would go to school just like everybody else. Like most people, I didn’t realize there were other choices. We were attachment parenting and my wife took the lead in beginning discussions about how we were going to educate her. We read a couple of books by John Holt and when Kaia was two years old we attended the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) Conference in Sacramento, California to fact gather and find out what this whole homeschooling thing was all about. It was interesting to hear various speakers and long time homeschoolers share their experiences, but what completely sold me was the kids. I had never met kids who were so full of life and curiosity and so comfortable with themselves and those around them. If these kids, teens, and young adults were the result of homeschooling then I was ready to sign up. When it came time for Kaia to go to school, it became really clear that we should just continue what we were doing, essentially just living and learning together as a family. We’ve never followed any curriculum or prescribed method but prefer to follow what Kaia is interested in, assisting and supporting her in whatever way we can. For the past nine years, it’s been working well for us and we’ve never looked back.

What have you learned about homeschooling in the process of making the film?

One thing that stands out for me is how incredibly diverse the home education community is. I’ve talked to parents and families from every rung of the socio-economic ladder, families with multiple kids, single parents, people from religious or secular backgrounds, families who use structured curriculum to those who use none or prefer radical unschooling. Choosing to home educate is not something that can be pinned down and categorized so easily and that is so inspiring, because it shows that on the most basic level, home education is about freedom, family and the right to choose how we raise our children, and live our lives.  

Making the film has largely been a community experience and that’s the other aspect that has been so powerful. So many people have come forward in support of the project at every stage of the process. Some donated money, some offered advice or gave freely of their time and expertise, and without them I could never have made this film. I’m deeply grateful to the homeschooling and unschooling community for their unwavering support. This is as much their film as it is mine and I hope I’ve done the topic justice.

What are your goals for the film?

I want the film to stir up dialogue around the topic of home education, persuade people to re-think their notions of what homeschooling is about, and to consider other possibilities for learning outside the classroom. I envision Class Dismissed as a wake up call that education has been in crisis for a long time and it’s time to confront long-standing assumptions about what it means to be educated in the 21st Century.

I want the film to speak to ordinary people, regardless of political or religious affiliations, who may not be aware that they have options when it comes to educating their children, and to show that those options are within reach for most people.

After watching the film, I want the audience to feel moved to do something, to find out more about the information presented in the film, and to walk away with their hearts and minds opened to the prospect of new possibilities for themselves and their families.

When will the film be finished and where can we see it?

We’re in the final stretch of post-production and if all goes according to plan, the film will be finished later this year. We’ll begin with a series of independent theater screenings at venues across the country and we’ll be reaching out to the homeschooling community to help with organizing screenings and inviting people who would benefit from seeing the film. We’ll also submit the film to a few select film festivals, and of course at some point it will be available on DVD and as a digital download. In addition to the film, we’re going to make available a series of extended interviews that we did with advocates and experts for those who want to dig deeper into the subject.

We’re really looking forward to sharing the film with the community and the public at large. To get involved and to get all the latest news on the film, including screening dates, information about how to organize a screening in your area/community or order DVDs etc., people should visit the official website at www.ClassDismissedMovie.com


Follow us: https://www.facebook.com/ClassDismissedMovie

They can also contact me directly at jeremy@classdismissedmovie.com

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The Curriculum of Bootie’s Happiness, by John Taylor Gatto http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/curriculum-of-booties-happiness-john-taylor-gatto/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/curriculum-of-booties-happiness-john-taylor-gatto/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 21:34:56 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=691 John-Taylor-GattoI found a new way to measure the crisis in American society in a British newspaper recently. According to the London Economist, 70 percent of the world’s lawyers live in the United States. That figure depressed me horribly the instant I read it, because in the ancient tradition of common law there are only two categories of offense that warrant court action: 1) breaking a serious promise—which gives rise to contract law and, 2) encroaching on someone else’s rights—which gives rise to tort and criminal law. It is a clear signal how far America’s community has decayed––to a point we should all be frightened.

To support 70 percent of the world’s lawyers, Americans must break a boatload of promises to one another, and frequently damage each other by encroaching on rights. In healthy communities, most disputes are settled by face-to-face encounters between contending parties with community opinion deciding justice in details of the matters under discussion. We have apparently forgotten how to live together in communities civilly, in a way in which disputants in a nation like ours, blessed with material abundance (a nation that did without police forces for its first 200 years), should be ashamed of. How did the contentious present come about? It isn’t merely an academic question, because the next stage beyond this is revolution. Violent revolution.

My hunch is that we learned to be this way in the angry competitive hothouses of forced schooling where broken promises are innately part of the terrain, and encroachment on rights—even on the right to use the toilet––is built into daily classroom practice. After 12 years of rudeness and incivility, it’s small wonder school inmates reproduce such a climate in adulthood.

Before we had formal schooling by force, responsibility for teaching the young was absorbed by every element in the larger society, not by a professionalized workforce of pedagogues, and this economic factor introduced into the rearing of the young  may have led to some of the bitter dissatisfaction most adults, and most children, feel when regarding their schooling. Pedagogue is, after all, Latin for a class of slave labor. We hire slaves to make our children slavish.

A profound social thinker from Germany—George Simmel by name––published a remarkable book at the end of the 19th century that may cast some light on the general American unhappiness with school teaching and schools. Titled The Philosophy Of Money, Simmel’s book contends that the simple act of pricing important things robs them of quality and innate satisfactions, conferring  money identity cheapens things, he maintains. The 1971 National Book award in America was won by a  brilliant text, The Gift Relationship, proving that  blood supply in nations (like ours) that sell vital commodities like human blood is substantially inferior in quality to that in nations, like Britain, where blood is given away. Quality is lost and surely is less reliable.

Most everyone who studies the matter forcefully agrees that education in America had higher quality before it was professionalized, when it was accepted as a community responsibility, rather than when it became a government responsibility and required specialist government-granted licenses to do. And notice that we teach children reasons for learning in the form of economic promissory notes that achievement of high grades will lead to prosperity in their future, a shameless lie more often than a statement of fact. 

During a highly successful 41 year long school teaching career, I virtually abandoned legally mandated curriculum with my students, substituting a regimen based on producing real value for the neighborhood instead of test-driven exercises in abstraction, and my classes always deliberately aimed for improvements in moral character and acquisition of definite skills instead of memorization of alleged facts, and we enjoyed great success in doing this by raising student enthusiasm for learning, even for learning in the traditional subject areas. College didn’t teach me how to do this at all; the source of this new curriculum arose from intense contemplation of my mother’s life and curiosity about what made her happy most of the time.

In the hope that a glimpse at the three moral principles around which mother organized her life might help you as a teacher or parent, I will analyze Frances Virginia “Bootie” Zimmer’s curriculum aims as I witnessed them as her son. All were generated from a religious document which official schooling in America outlaws. What follows is my mother’s curriculum of  personal happiness:

Mother took in stray animals, mostly dogs and cats, but if a bird turned up with a hurt wing or foot, birds, too. When out driving, if a turtle was spotted crossing a highway too slowly, she would stop the car to transport the terrapin to safety. Bootie had no job or profession unless being kind to animals would qualify; she had no high-prestige husband, no car or house of her own, no fur coat, no jewelry of any special value, or any other trappings of what shallow folk call the American Dream, yet she was happy most of the time simply by assiduously following a 3000 year old curriculum set down by King Solomon of Israel, a curriculum surviving in the Biblical book of  Proverbs, the same curriculum I followed as a public school teacher in winning a basketful of awards, a curriculum you can witness in action by watching ”Classrooms of the Heart” on YouTube, a documentary of my classes in action. In feeding, sheltering and loving stray animals, Bootie was heeding the principle “happy are they who are generous to the poor,” heeding two other suggestions of Solomon’s well:

  1. speak for those who cannot speak for themselves
  2. happy are those who are generous to the poor

She did more. Every hobo in town knew that she was good for a handout and a sandwich, and every poor widow near our house got her grass cut for free by Bootie’s son, in deference to her pleading on their behalf.

Solomon also advised a third piece of wisdom Bootie followed:

3. there is joy for those who seek the common good


All during WWII, Bootie saved kitchen grease and odd bits of metal for the national war effort. Both commodities were collected at the local firehouse that I walked past on my way to school in the morning. She started a cub scout troop too, when no local men were willing to assume the job. And her sensational Christmas trees, that literally took a month to decorate, were a marvel the entire neighborhood visited for inspiration––a service to the common good in a community bereft of aesthetic inspirations. I mistakenly thought those trees were for our family alone until I was old enough to reflect. Even today, 40 years after her death, people talk about “Bootie’s trees”––they were her art form in a secluded life without abundant forms of expression. An important component in her joy.

Service to the common good was a deliberate theme embedded in her time on earth and through emulation in everything I taught, and it was a theme that resonated powerfully with my teenage ghetto kids who initiated successful lawsuits in small claims court to defend the rights of their age mates, started a children-teach-children literacy-tutoring project, established a wholesale fruit and vegetable co-op for tenement dwellers, and created Manhattan’s largest flea market in the school yard, a project that earned the school over 100,000 dollars a year in income(!), and is described on the internet under the name, GREEN FLEA. Their most sensational accomplishment was lobbying the Landmarks Commission to allow a memorial to the Beatles in Central Park, thus Strawberry Fields was born! Today it is a major landmark for global tourists to the city, and a credit to three 13 year old girls working without pay.

The antidote for a sick society like our own, choked with lawyers, is a school curriculum aimed at adding value to common citizens, one that understands that character development is far more important than high grades on memory tests, and that students trained to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and who are generous to the poor, and who seek the common good, will grow up to become good citizens who build good families and good communities. Goals that are far more valuable than high test scores. Nothing in our present curriculum aims to tap into the finer instincts in the human spirit, another sign of the deterioration in our national life.

A RADICAL transition was forced upon American schools just before and just after WWI, by the organized might of American corporations working through tax-exempt foundations, with the intention of bringing about a global government of which the League of Nations and the UN were preliminary probes. The story of this initiative is told in the record of a congressional investigation conducted by congressman Carroll Reece of Tennessee. Some signals of what was transpiring came from prominent Americans like Woodrow Wilson who told a group of New York businessmen in 1914: “We want one group (of students) to enjoy the privileges of liberal education; we want a much larger group to forgo those privileges.” How’s that for candor?! Who were the “we” who would benefit from this? What choice did those denied an education have? Or, do they have today?

Around the same time, John Dewey of Rockefeller-sponsored Columbia Teachers College was minimizing the value of reading skill by claiming that it introduced mistaken notions into the minds of the young, and another Columbia professor, Edward Thorndike—creator of the discipline of educational psychology––was declaring publicly that “academic subjects are of little value” while a third Columbia professor, William Kirkpatrick, was boasting that “the whole tradition of rearing the young” was being made over by university experts––he said that in 1919––and yet another professor, Arthur Calhoun, wrote in his book, The Social History of the Family, that authority over children “had passed from the family” to experts.

But the killer blow to quality education was delivered by the dean of teacher education at Stanford, Elwood P. Cubberly, who declared in the 1934 edition of his History of Education that “children should not engage in productive work,” a pronouncement with profound effects on school traditions of community productivity all over America. I’ll illustrate from my own elementary school experience. I went to first, second, and third grade at the McKelvy School in Swissvale, PA, an industrial borough of Pittsburgh. Consider the following: In our art classes, we drew pictures to decorate the hospital rooms of confined patients, and drew to specifications cheerful pictures to bring happiness into old age homes and bleak corridors of institutional schools; indeed, we were a kind of art factory open to receive requests from anyone who desired pictures in their environment. Around Christmas, we used class time to handcraft tree ornaments and decorations to be given to those who could not afford the commercial variety; our music classes rehearsed chorale music sing-outs to entertain on street corners and in bank windows and at various festivals which as I recall delighted the singers as well as the audiences; we sang for hospital wards, old age homes, and military installations, terminating our chorale adventures by an all evening sing along, wandering through town, pausing in front of homes to warble. What a grand exciting experience! Additionally, there were private concerts by request for individuals in extreme circumstances of illness and old age, which left the recipients wreathed in smiles to be so remembered.

The same regimens were observed at the Waverly School in Monongahela, PA, a mill town an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh where I went to fourth, fifth, and sixth grades and where the shop classes were assigned to do small repairs for the poor of the town, and where we were expected to serve as companions for the town’s lonely and family-less. Town-wide drives to collect books, winter clothing, eyeglasses, and food were common in Monongahela. And, when later I attended high school in the mountains around Uniontown, PA, students were expected to help with the constant problem of forest fires by helping in the collection of excess brush  that had fallen to the forest floor and fueled the fires. What a thrill and a privilege we considered being selected for fire patrol to be! What a relief to have something real to do to escape the parasitic role assigned to children in modern America.

What I want you to see is that school training can be productive, can produce real value for the community whose taxes pay the expenses of schooling; and that my schooling in three communities in Western Pennsylvania made good uses of this option. Until the prohibition announced by Cubberly stopped the practice: Children should not engage in productive work, as both organized labor and the national (corporate) economy are set against children learning to produce.

The danger anti-production was intended to avoid was a fatal disease corporate capitalism is prone to contract, a malady called “Overproduction” where too many producers overload the market with too many goods to be absorbed, forcing prices down, sometimes below costs of production. When that happens, customers cheer, but executives trying to attract investment to upgrade machinery, etc., despair, because it makes capital accumulation difficult.

Cubberly announced that the cure for this was to keep students childish, that corporations worked best when employees “know nothing” so they can neither argue with nor compete with their bosses. As you might expect, he resorted to euphemism to say it, calling it “lengthening the period of dependence.” Now you know an important part of the  school mystery and why you must rescue your children from it. Bad schooling is quite deliberate, an efficient way to preserve the “class” system—no pun intended.


After 30 years of teaching in NYC’s inner-city schools, John Taylor Gatto was named Teacher of the Year, three times. He quit from teaching, saying he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living.” He began worldwide public speaking and writing, receiving several awards, including the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Excellence in Advancement of Educational Freedom. John supports unschooling and open source education. He is the author of Dumbing Us Down and many other works.


This article was published in the September-October issue of HEM.


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SAHM as My Feminist Act, by Kate Fridkis http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/sahm-my-feminist-act-kate-fridkis/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/sahm-my-feminist-act-kate-fridkis/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 21:22:50 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=687 FRIDKISIn her piece in the Jan-Feb issue of HEM, Suki Wessling shared her homeschooling compatriots’ reactions to “the f-word” (feminism). I was inspired. The responses to Wessling’s informal survey and her conclusion that homeschooling is a feminist act helped clarify my thoughts on this subject. I want to add my own voice to the conversation, as a new mother, a twenty-something, and a grown unschooler.

“My mom always had a career, and I think that taught me to be a feminist,” said one of my friends, casually. We were sitting around the table, eating pizza, talking about life. Everyone nodded agreement. I nodded agreement, too.

“I have to keep up my career,” women say, “if only for my daughter’s sake.”

This idea is expressed again and again, casually or vehemently, in a litany of articles. In books and on TV. In blog posts and comment threads that trail down the screen forever. Women my age share with each other a popular narrative about success and responsibility. It involves a mother who worked outside the home full time, because this is the norm. It involves a commitment to do the same. To not “give up.” To keep “leaning in.”

Feminism with a capital F, the united front, is firmly planted behind the career woman, nudging her gently, incessantly forward. And because identifying apparent opposites seems to be a compulsive human pursuit, the flip side of this support system is too often a wholesale dismissal of women who choose not to work full time outside the home. Even though, of course, many of these women also earn money, plan to return to outside jobs later, or otherwise move fluidly between the supposed poles of work and home. Even though, of course, it would be more sensible to acknowledge that they are doing something valuable regardless of their earning potential.

If I call myself a feminist and a SAHM in the same piece of public writing, I am sure to receive a flurry of furious responses. Feminism as popularly represented can feel hostile to people like me, who skate along the lines that divide things up into conveniently simple categories. Feminism can sound like a brash, loud, totally certain approach to every subject, which often results in rejections of the women who don’t seem to fit the cause. And yet feminism is too important a cultural idea to ignore. As a woman, I am bound inextricably to the concept, I am indebted, and I am freed. I want to shrug and walk away, to not have to think about it, but I can’t. I am a part of the story of feminism, it’s just not always clear, to me, to everyone else, if I’m a villain or a hero.

I agree with my friend––her mother is probably a big part of why she’s a feminist. I also always thought my homeschooling mom was a big success.

After I became a mother, and when I cut back on the kind of work that results in a paycheck, women my age began to forget to ask me about my life. Even my friends sometimes forget. They talk about the drama unfolding at the office, and then we eat, and then we talk about something else. They are wonderful, they are loving, but they have learned somewhere along the way that the things that happen inside the home don’t count quite as much. It’s hard not to learn this lesson, it surrounds us.

“I’m still working part-time!” I clarify quickly, as though the rest of it is sheer laziness.

“At least I’m doing some real work,” I said off-handedly to my mom yesterday, talking about a brief corporate gig I was recently hired for.feminist-women

“I’m going to call you on that wording,” she said. “I have to call you on that.”

Of course, in real life (properly worded), nothing really fits into simple categories. Nothing. And yet I struggle sometimes against this heavy knowledge of how I should be, as a modern woman. I know, after all, what I am supposed to do.

I’m supposed to tuck my baby aside, to make enough room in my life to continue my career full steam, I’m supposed to make sure I don’t “waste” my multi-degreed education. I’m supposed to make sure I keep up my resume, in case I should need at any point to dive back in.

A therapist quoted recently in The New York Times explicitly instructs young women not to leave their jobs to raise their children. Why? Because later on, when they get divorced, as so many people do, they will suffer. They will have trouble getting a job.

It seems so basic: just don’t quit! Don’t take the risk!

And yet, in that risk, for me, is everything. The things that make life big and intimate and wild and exciting. The things that make me laugh until I snort. The things that make me feel like I’m in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

I took a risk when I fell in love. When I got married (“Why get married to begin with?” I want to ask the therapist in The New York Times, “If we are so worried about eventual divorce?”). I took a risk when I decided to be a professional writer. I took a risk when I got pregnant. We take risks all the time, we open ourselves up to love and simultaneously to disappointment and heartbreak. These things chase each other around in an eternal circle. We let ourselves be more vulnerable so that we can live more fully. My mother did that when she decided not to send me to school. And she did it every day of my childhood after that.

The conversations about work and childrearing that we are constantly having in this society are almost always implicitly about what women should and should not do. And when women are told that we “should” do something—when the word “should” appears after the word “women,” something turns over in me. I think it is feminism, squeezing my stomach, pressing me forward. Even when the group I find myself arguing with is one that defines itself as “Feminism.”

Being available to your child is a big, radical deal, especially in a time when people dismiss its importance. It requires huge bravery and enormous dedication and oceans of patience and a galloping sense of humor. I know this better than ever about my own mother, now that I am a mother too. I know without hesitation that this is feminism. That feminism looks like different things, and is learned in different ways. We don’t all come to it on the same road.

And I also know that it’s up to me, in the end, as it’s always up to each of us as individuals, to take charge of the conversation and educate my career-oriented friends about my choices and what they really look like. It’s up to me to be happy with being happy, even when the whole world doesn’t agree with the way I live my life. The whole world never will. It didn’t agree when women fought to work outside the home, either.

Wessling says of homeschooling mothers, “They have chosen the lives they live with great deliberation…” Yes. Even as a child, I thought that my mom was a strong-minded, independent, well-read, creative, empowered woman.

I was right.

And because I was right about my stay-at-home, homeschooling mother, instead of saying, “I have to keep up my career, if only for my daughter’s sake,” I’m experimenting with saying, “I have to be proud of my choices, if only for my daughter’s sake.” Because that is how you model feminism. That is how it works.


Kate Fridkis is a grown unschooler and brand new mother of daughter, Eden. Kate still refuses to answer spontaneous math questions to prove that she “learned something.” She writes the popular body image blog Eat the Damn Cake, as well as blogs for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Jezebel, and many more. She eats a lot of cake. You know, for research and authenticity.


This article was published in the September-October issue of HEM.

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Unschooling in the UK, by Anne Marie Brian http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/unschooling-uk-anne-marie-brian/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/unschooling-uk-anne-marie-brian/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 21:09:32 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=675 unschooling-in-the-UKWe were always in a rush to get to school on time, even though the small (80 pupils) Church of England primary school (for children aged five to ten) was only ten minutes walking distance away. Callum, who was then six, would be gulping back a bowl of cereal at the breakfast table while I scrambled underneath to put his shoes on.  Then I would hastily comb his hair with a wet comb (because his double crown made it stick up at the back), and we would be on our way. But today I could not find his shoes. Callum knew he only had one pair of school shoes, and he had hidden them, so that he would not have to go. Later that day, the school nurse visited us to find out why Callum had not been to school. She said to him, “You must go to school, because otherwise Mummy and Daddy will be in trouble. They will have to go before a judge and pay a big fine, and that will have to come out of your pocket money.” I think it may have been the first time Callum realized that grown-ups sometimes did not speak the truth!

I had known about home education since the 1980s, when my sister had moved to London and been very unimpressed with the tough inner city schools. Her eldest son, Peter, started to deliberately fail at lessons in order to fit in with his peers, who teased him and called him a “swot” otherwise. A “swot” is someone who studies too hard, is a bit of a “know- it-all,” and a teacher’s pet. My sister and her husband decided to take all three of their children out of school. They had five more children and home educated them all, in the meantime moving to a more rural location in Wales. I’d wanted Callum to try school out first, just in case he loved it. He didn’t. He did not like noisy places. When it rained, the children had to have playtimes in the church hall, which had a wooden floor. The noise of running feet, screaming, and shouting was deafening. He found it unbearable. So, if in the morning it looked like rain, and we have a lot of rain in the UK, he just did not want to go. He would have a “tummy ache” which would mysteriously get better as soon as I had phoned the school to say he would be staying at home that day.

Then the government decided that swimming should be included in the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum is supposed to be a way of ensuring that every child gets the same standard of education no matter whether they live in the prosperous areas of the UK or the more deprived ones. What it means in practice is that teachers can no longer use their imaginations or teach in the way they feel best suits them and their pupils. Instead, they have to work within close parameters, studying for SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) which are now deemed to be the all important measure of how successful the school is, and where it will come in the “league tables” which are now published every year. These “league tables” appear in the local and national newspapers after schools have been assessed by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education). The OFSTED inspectors visit schools and report on how the school is performing, and then the schools are listed in order with the best schools in an area at the top.

Compulsory swimming lessons for a small school like Callum’s meant the children had to get to school a half an hour earlier in the morning to travel by coach to the local leisure centre, get undressed and into the pool in five minutes, have half an hour in the water, and then be badgered to “Hurry up, you will miss the coach!” afterwards, such that Callum never had time to dry himself properly. He ended up with rashes in painful places. His experience of being in the pool with all the noise and so many children in the shallow end and no room to swim even if he had been able to was like torture.  Then one morning he had a complete meltdown at the school and he would not get onto the coach, even screaming and kicking as I held him and tried to get him up the steps. I decided that this just was not something I could put him through any more. I decided that after the Christmas holidays, we would home educate. It was 2002. Callum was seven.

We joined Education Otherwise, the UK charity that supports home educators. EO is a charity which is supported by membership fees and staffed by volunteers who are home educators. They produce a monthly magazine and a confidential list of members, so that you can find other home educators in your area. Sometimes they have official regular meet-ups, usually at village halls. On their website we found all the legal stuff, and wrote a “deregistration” letter to the school headmaster. A weekHome_Ed_in_UK_03 or so later we were visited by an Education Welfare Officer, and then we had a letter from her to say our planned provision for Callum’s education was “adequate.” (I’ve learned they never say anything particularly glowing because they are usually ex-teachers who don’t really approve of home education. They also can’t officially admit that your provision might be better than a school’s.) We had to explain how we would teach each subject and, fortunately, I had bought lots of workbooks and had made a list of educational websites we would use. But in the UK there is no testing of home educated children, so really we could do whatever we liked once we had had a visit.

I started off trying to be like a teacher. I spent a fortune on workbooks and I had a copy of the National Curriculum, which was impossible to understand. The BBC Learning websites were useful for making some sense of it all. But I was exhausted. I was trying to be a school teacher without the backing of a school. I could not force Callum to do anything, and I would get cross if he refused to, for example, keep a daily diary, which I thought would ensure Callum did some writing every day. Fortunately, I belonged to the Education Otherwise Yahoo email group, and gradually I began to learn about Autonomous Education and how it could work. All I had to do, they said, was to provide a “stimulating environment,” so that’s what I did. We had the Internet at our disposal and I really don’t think I could have managed without it. I would suggest and gently guide Callum, and we did projects about animals, lots of art, a bit of French (I went to an evening class to brush up on my school French), and we watched educational TV programmes. We found lots of educational science and maths games online. Callum actually taught himself to design websites. I did worry about Maths as it was not my best subject, but Callum’s Dad helped out with this. For History, I read a book aloud to Callum one chapter at a time, called “Our Island Story.” It is a bit old-fashioned and even racist in places, but we discussed this as we went along. He liked to design board games and I encouraged this. In fact, as long as he was busy and happy doing something, I did not worry, even if he was just looking at the Neopets website. We went to the library regularly where he chose various books. I remember him being frustrated that there were so few books for children about pre-history, because it was “not on the National Curriculum.” It seems wrong to me that the government thinks they can choose what knowledge is worth learning about and what isn’t. The Romans, the Ancient Greeks, and the Egyptians were important enough, but not the Iron Age or the Stone Age.

We went out a lot. Near where we live there is the Wolf Conservation Trust, and we went “Walking with Wolves” there, with the local EO group. We also visited a fire station, also with EO. We went to museums and Roman ruins. Callum went out on his bicycle almost every day with his Dad, and once a week we went ice skating. I taught Callum to swim, and he loved it. He also went horse riding with a group of other home educated children, at reduced rates, and he still goes to the same stables now, on most Sundays.

Finding friends was not easy, though. He kept in touch with one boy from school and they took turns having tea at each other’s house, but it was not frequent enough, maybe once a month. For a wonderful few months we found an EO group we really gelled with, and Callum made three really good friends there, three sisters. Unfortunately, that group folded and after that, although we kept in touch with the girls, we did not see them as often as we would have liked to, because they seemed so busy with their various activities and they lived some distance away. So it was not unusual for Callum to often go several weeks without seeing anyone of his own age. I know he was lonely but he hardly ever complained. We tried Cub Scouts but it was too noisy for him. He did attend a film making class but the other children did not live locally and seemed too tied up with other friends and school. There was a centre for home educated children called Camp Mohawk, but it was a long journey and so we only went once a week. All the other boys there seemed to be mad on Warhammer and Callum wasn’t. But he did take a really good English course there which he enjoyed enormously.

We went to every EO group within daily traveling distance, but Callum did not find a friend at any of the others. There was one EO group which met weekly in the grounds of an organic farm, and the organizers said we should bring a packed lunch, but they insisted that everything in it should be organic! There were others where we were ignored while everyone else chatted and laughed together, and we would wonder what we were doing there. Sometimes we would drive miles to a group only to find a particular person Callum liked was not there that week. It was not the same as seeing the same people day after day at school. It was the most difficult part of home educating an only child, finding company for him, especially as he happened to be shy. My sister’s large brood of eight made their own little school in a way, and they were never lonely. But, Callum had also been lonely at school. On a school trip he said he put his bag in the seat next to him with the seat belt around it. “My bag was my friend,” he said. It broke my heart. We did get a dog, which helped, I think, and Callum’s huge collection of cuddlies became like his friends; we invented characters for them and made up stories about “Cuddlham Radio.” One of Callum’s current best friends is someone who heard and liked the Cuddlham Radio episodes when we uploaded them to YouTube.

From the age of 11, it was even harder for Callum to find home educated friends of his own age, because many people put their children back into school at that age, so that they will be able to do GCSEs at 16. (GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education.) At 16, school pupils take these in up to ten subjects. You have to pass at least four to be able to go on to take GCSE ‘A’ levels. A levels are University entrance exams which are normally taken after two more years of study. You need a minimum of two A levels to be accepted by a University, but some ask for three or four. Since GCSEs were changed such that course work counts towards the final exams, it is impossible to find a school which will mark coursework if you are educated at home. Some people do “international” GCSEs which are marked on a final exam alone. But these have to be paid for. So, for parents who think GCSEs are important, it is easier to put the child back into school. We found that the EO groups did not cater to older children and Callum would get embarrassed when he was expected to make a collage or draw with wax crayons!

The first spring after we started home educating, we took advantage of being able to holiday in the cheaper off-season period, and we rented a cottage for two weeks on the Isle of Arran, which is off the West coast of Scotland. Our neighbours there happened to have a son, Hamish, who was just two days older than Callum. They had been thinking of home education for Hamish because he was so unhappy in school. I think meeting us may have given them more determination to go ahead with it. In Scotland the law relating to home education is a bit different ––you have to ask for permission to do it, and have annual visits. After that first trip to Arran, when the boys got along so well, we went there as often as we possibly could, so they could spend time together. They also phoned each other every week. They made some films together, and Hamish is now studying digital film making at a college in Glasgow. The continuity in some of their early films is so funny, with Callum’s hair being short and then long and then short again, all in the same scene, due to the gaps of several months that elapsed between our holidays and their opportunity for filming.

After our second annual visit from the Educational Welfare Officer, I stopped any further visits by writing a letter pointing out that she had no legal right to keep coming once it had been determined that an education was taking place. In England they are only allowed to make “informal enquiries,” and they have no right to come into your home. It was not that she was unkind or overbearing, but she did try to persuade us that Callum should try secondary school from the age of 11 on. I was pretty sure that if he could not cope at a small primary school, he would find the enormous state comprehensive school on our doorstep (where just the other day I saw a boy crying to his Mum via his mobile phone about the bullies) an even more difficult place to be. I found the visits very stressful even though I kept a daily diary of everything Callum did. When you home educate there is no need for reams of written work, they only insist on this in schools so that they can show the school inspectors that certain subjects have been covered. The EWO did not seem to understand this, or to grasp the concept of autonomous, child-led learning. Many home educators are happy to have visits, but I did not see the point in them.

The government here periodically tries to change the law regarding home education. They have suggested compulsory visits, annual testing, and a register of home educated children. They sometimes even have the cheek to argue that home educated children are more vulnerable to abuse, as they are not being seen by teachers. But the home educating community in the UK are a well-organized and intelligent bunch, and so far have managed to resist any changes. The relevant law only allowed wealthy children to be educated out of school so they could continue to employ and use a private governess. The law states that a child must be educated “At school––or otherwise” and it is these two words which make home education legal!

My sister’s children all benefited enormously from being outside the state school system. Their professions are now, as follows: consultant psychiatrist, transport manager, special needs teacher, gymnastics coach, web designer, falconer (raising and training birds of prey), full-time Mum, professional dancer and correographer. The most important thing is that they are all well-rounded, happy individuals, with not a single drug problem or a mental health issue between them. They are so unlike the young people I see hanging around outside the local school smoking marijuana and swearing!

Callum did not do any of the usual GCSE exams, but he got into further education (FE) college without any, just on the strength of an interview and a portfolio of art and videos. Now 18, he almost has enough qualifications to go to University if he wants to. He would need to do just one more year, but he found that two years at college was enough for him. FE college is an alternative to staying on at school after the age of 16. You can obtain qualifications there for going on to University, or you can take vocational courses, such as learning car mechanics or child care. At the moment Callum is working on a novel, as he would like to be a writer. His book is a fantasy adventure. I really think he has the talent to succeed at this, so I am giving him the space to try it out. I am not going to force him to go the University route and get into enormous debt if he does not really want to go. He has plenty of time to decide either way. He is also an amazing musician. He taught himself piano from the age of five, and had a year of lessons later to learn to read music. Like all teenagers he loves popular music, and he has a lovely circle of friends now, some from College and some from various clubs he belongs to. He is going to visit Hamish in Glasgow soon––they are still great friends, more like brothers really.

When Callum started college, he had to suddenly learn how to cope with all the different types of people, and it was difficult for him. He wanted to go so that he could meet people his own age and to get some paper qualifications, and he chose Media Studies because the coursework seemed to fit his interests. But, things which the other students had had to learn about human nature from a young age were new to him. He tended to be unable to see that some people would not have good or kind motives sometimes. It was especially hard for him if a teacher did not behave in a good way.  But I think now that he has had this “crash course” in human beings, he has caught up pretty quickly and is becoming a bit more thick-skinned and able to assert himself. I also think that he did well because it was all new to him––he had not become jaded after years of school with all the homework and tests. He has been able to concentrate on the subjects he is really good at, which is what University students do in the end anyway.

To anyone starting out on the home education journey, I would just say be relaxed about it, don’t worry too much, and let your children blossom into the beautiful grown-ups they will inevitably become. They will all find their way, find their niche, in the world. School really does not help people to be successful in any way. For most people it is just something they survive rather than enjoy. It teaches you to be on time for work, but that’s about it. So, for creative types who will most likely end up freelancing anyway, it is no use at all. I envison a future when schools will be optional centres of learning, where children can turn up and use the facilities if and when they want to.

I am glad I home educated my son, it made him grow up feeling valued, special, gifted, and more than just another cog in the wheel. 


Anne Marie Brian worked in various office jobs for many years before becoming a full time Mum. She is a published poet and author, writing mainly about her experience of having bipolar disorder. She lives with her partner Lain, who is a musician, and their son, Callum, who is now 19, and two Springer spaniels, in Newbury, Berkshire, UK. Anne Marie has a book of poems called Don’t Breathe a Word, available through Amazon.


This article was published in the September-October issue of HEM.

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Going Public, by Rebecca Pickens http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/going-public-by-rebecca-pickens/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/going-public-by-rebecca-pickens/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 21:03:49 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=682 Hike-at-Paul-Smith'sTo those unfamiliar with student led learning our days might look lacking in structure. To some it may appear as though every moment of our time is graced with spontaneity and void of distinctive shape and form. The reality is that from the moment we wake in the morning our natural environment calls to us reminding us of all there is to do. The coffee pot is turned on just as my husband and eldest son put on jackets to do barn chores. My middle son hurries to the wood stove seeking warmth and the time to wake slowly. His youngest brother grabs a storybook to put off the inevitable diaper change. The dog yawns and wags his big goofy tail because he knows it is time to go out. The cat grows defensively knowing the dog will try to snatch food from her bowl on his way out. It is these sorts of happenings that lay the foundation of our days and that give them their texture and color.

The obvious difference between this morning routine and so many others is that it allows our children the opportunity to adapt to rhythms that suit their individual needs rather than to an arbitrary schedule based on the comings and goings of a yellow bus.

A recent experience gave me the chance to reflect more thoroughly on the ways in which we organize our days. When the phone rang my hands were full, much like the morning I was enjoying with my sons. Fetched scissors, sewing needle and felt tip marker in hand, I sought out my five year old son who’d asked for them. I found him by following a winding path of colored felt scraps strewn across the living room floor. Absorbed with a Star Wars sewing project, Jo Jo shouted out polite requests for a long list of materials he needed for this project. “Felt, stuffing, glue, buttons…” I could barely hear the voice on the phone. Beside me, my toddler busied himself with dinosaur puzzles and was imagining he was a paleontologist in Mongolia—a place he’d heard his older brothers discuss. “Mom!” Jo Jo called out, “Instead of Star Wars, the guys I’m making will be in a show called Star Peace!” I sighed contentedly. A casual discussion about Martin Luther King’s methodology held over honey sandwiches the day before seemed to have struck a chord. Meanwhile my oldest son was quiet except for an occasional wild giggle. Upside down on a couch cushion, he was reading a Life of Fred math book, having the time of his life.

“Hello,” I shifted my focus to the person on the phone. The call was from a reporter who was writing an article about homeschooling. She hoped we would speak about our experiences as a homeschooling family and allow her to observe a day of learning at our farm.

An opportunity to talk with a reporter about how we spend our days seemed to me like a good exercise. With each passing birthday, my sons’ social circles grow larger and they are exposed to a growing number of people who live and learn in vastly different ways. As my boys grow older, it is my hope that they will be able to articulate for themselves the reasons that we, together as a family, have made the educational decisions we have. I believe that if they fully develop their own educational philosophy this will serve to keep them engaged as avid life learners.

As I pitched the idea to my three sons I heard my words. “A reporter is going to come over Thursday at 9 to watch us homeschool.” Suddenly the notion seemed absurd. I began to question my decision. What on earth would our morning look like to someone not only unfamiliar with student led learning but with homeschooling itself? Certain the reporter would arrive expecting to see desks in a perfect row and text books opened promptly at 9:00, I began mulling over how we could possibly present what we do in a way that a reporter could digest and turn into a comprehensible article for readers in our rural community.

I began to prepare by cleaning the house. For three days I cleaned corners of my home I’ve never seen before. In my experience, scotch tape remnants, bread rising in the window sill and novels with broken spines are the best indicators of a day well spent. However, I wondered if the newspaper photographer would be able to capture the spirit of our days or if dust bunnies would feature more prominently in his report. So I cleaned and I dusted and I removed scotch tape remnants.

When the reporter arrived we had coffee. She was a wonderful person who, although unfamiliar with the subject of homeschooling, came with an open Pickensmind and warm smile. I was impressed with the number of questions she asked the boys and with the sincerity with which she listened to their replies. Spotting the world map on our wall and the Japanese guidebooks strewn beneath it, she asked if someone was planning a trip. Josiah, thrilled to have a chance to discuss his newest passion explained, “I will become a ninja when I am older so I need to learn Japanese things.” She went on to ask Elias if he enjoyed homeschooling. He answered as he always does when asked this question. “I really like to learn things. But I want to learn things that are important. Like Science. So lately I am researching mushrooms. I wouldn’t have time for this if I had to go to town school every day. Homeschooling lets me do what I need to do to be a better scientist.”

As we began our morning, I watched our visitor wait for us to begin our morning!

Two year old Walden started his day as he always does, first with a bowl of yogurt and maple syrup from our farm’s sugar bush. Next an apple topped off with a glass of milk and lastly more fruit and some green beans from the freezer. This daily ritual takes much of the morning. It involves so much more than eating. First there is the sweet anticipation of a good snack. He so enjoys talking about what he intends to eat. Next he likes to choose a cloth napkin from the drawer he can barely reach. As I tie it around his neck he likes to tell me “too tight, too loose, perfect Mom.” He eats the food he has selected and then proceeds to discuss, at great length, how “yucky” it tastes (“too spicy, too salty, too sweet”) and then he asks for more. He likes to see my face change as his critiques grow sillier. Then he gets down from his chair to do a puzzle or painting. He returns for round two at the table about 15 minutes later and we run through the same routine all over again. Should we forget the napkin or some other intrinsic part of the routine, he insists we go back and correct our mistake.

Almost immediately after I tell the reporter we’ll begin school, Jo Jo (age five) disappears. He returns with his pens, paper, and a collection of Star Wars books which he lays down in front of the wood burning stove. The cat takes her position, as she does every morning, beside Josiah to watch him sketch Chewbacca. I smile as I notice it is a picture of Chewbacca viewing the very Aquarium we visited the week before. In a while I know he will get up for a bowl of apple sauce and go on to the computer to search for more Star Wars images he’d like to draw. He’ll type all the words himself and talk in a loud voice when his research leads to especially outstanding discoveries. “Mom, I just found out that Tatooine used to be covered in oceans! When Luke Skywalker lived there it was desert. We all know that. But some guys looked at fossil records and it seems like a long time ago there was a lot of water and other things on Tatooine too. I’m going to draw an ancient map to explain this to you.”

Lastly, Elias, age seven, sits on the couch with the reporter and me. He answers her questions about farm chores he does with his dad. They talk about his goats’ crazy antics and about his pet shrimp named Weaver. Elias seems to enjoy a chance to discuss his increasing responsibilities on the farm as well as his love of esoteric shrimp trivia. When there is a lull in the conversation we tell her about the pumpkin growing business Elias has started. A local businesswoman in our community has asked him to grow white pumpkins she can use in her shop displays. Elias tells her about the research he has had to do to find the right seeds. “They must grow to be 10 pounds,” he explains. “I want them to be organic and they must come from a sustainable business.” He tells her how he plans to lease a little land from my husband and me. He explains he won’t pay rent but rather he plans to offer us shares. “This is better for everyone” he tells her. A moment later he moves his seat beside mine and says in a quiet, rather anxious voice, “Mom, do you think I’m getting too into business? Is it kind of greedy of me to want to make money?” What follows is an interesting discussion about capitalism. We consider the pros and cons. Then we talk about the amazing work that can be done when innovative business leaders choose to share their resources to promote sustainability or other ethical business practices. It’s a satisfying conversation that seems to placate my son’s concern. A minute later he heads to the computer to email his business contact and tell her what he’s working on. I explain to the reporter that Elias and I often have a chat like this in the morning, usually based on something he discovered while reading independently before bed the night before.

“Well,” the reporter says smiling. “Shall we get started with school?”

By my count psychology, nutrition, art, reading, language arts, spelling, research skills, math, economics and ethics could be crossed of the list for the day and it was only 10:30.

I explained that normally we’d take a break and play but that we could be flexible and move things around a bit for her sake. I attempted to get the boys in a circle to read a story. Some of my favorite time together is spent on the giant red bean bag chairs, which are so perfect for our beloved story time. But the boys knew, as well as I did, that this is normally a mid afternoon ritual; the perfect way to punctuate the more active elements of our day.

Understanding that it was a different sort of day, the boys patiently acquiesced and we gathered for a story. But Walden’s mind was on the dog and Elias and Jo Jo had made plans to battle a vampire living in their room. Within a few minutes I let them go and I suggested we start taking the pictures she mentioned needing.

The photographer who had joined her proceeded to document our time together. He kindly paused to show the boys how his camera worked and talk with the boys about the places where he’d taken pictures. Together we looked at a map while Josiah showed us the countries he plans to one day visit.

As our day came to an end I enjoyed my temporarily dust bunny free home and thought about what had transpired. Prior to our visitors’ arrival, had someone asked what a typical homeschool day looked like in our home I likely would have answered there is no typical day. We pursue whatever it is that is of greatest interest that day. We eat when we are hungry, create when we feel creative and soak up the sun when we are called to do so. But as I thought about the day we’d spent with our visitor I realized that we are very much a family of rhythms and routines and they are deeply imbedded within us.
Despite the lack of traditional structure and rules found in a conventional learning setting, in many cases there is a very real sense of order that shapes and colors our unschooling day. And as I reflect on this I see that I believe strongly in the natural coalescence of structure in our time together. I believe it is the security and certainty provided by child-designed structure that allows children to develop the confidence required to find satisfaction and meaning in life. Without such certainty the days––and our children––sparkle less.

Ironically, without some structure, the very creativity and spontaneity we strive for will suffer. What we so often miss when considering such ideas is that children are the most qualified architects of this structure. And so they should be consulted and respected for their expertise. In turn we have the opportunity to walk beside our children to help carry their bountiful toolboxes and admire their wise designs.


Rebecca Pickens lives, laughs and learns with her husband and three sons on their farm in upstate New York. Rebecca is an herbalist and owner of Mind’s Eye Farm and Herbary.


This article was published in the September-October issue of HEM.

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I Am Open to Conflict, by Nadine LeBean http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/i-am-open-to-conflict-by-nadine-lebean/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/i-am-open-to-conflict-by-nadine-lebean/#comments Mon, 07 Jul 2014 17:07:58 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=608  

image-4Whenever I need to learn something really well, I teach it. That is what has brought me to you today. I need to remember and fully believe what has worked and what has not worked with helping my children to resolve conflict. Even among unschoolers it is not uncommon to hear that people are struggling with their children not getting along…


As I write this, winter seems to have us inside a lot. Lately, our house has been tense. I cringe at the sounds of children fighting in the next room. I squish up my face and wish it would just stop. Why can’t they just get along? Because they are children? Sure, but I have met adults who need to learn to resolve conflict, too. It seems almost to be an epidemic as people angrily project their emotions and expectations on to one another and my wonderful children have been no exception.


As unschoolers we are together a lot, a lot more than most families. Much of that time is spent without a directed activity or goal. Without the distractions we are forced to really learn how to live with each other without violence, aggression or control. That is my goal. Also, when we do want to do an activity, there is much to be decided. It seems when one spawns an idea, the other three immediately want to do what that person is doing. What an amazing opportunity to learn!


That is the first step: Be open to the learning of it. Whenever I start to think that they should not be fighting, we suffer. I begin to feel angry, frustrated, sad and desperate when I live in those beliefs. With my beliefs we suffer from an inability to learn how to peacefully bring it all together. So, that is what I think now when I hear the cries, the whining and the yelling: “Here is an opportunity to learn.” That thought alone has made all the difference in the world.


The second thing I do is go into it without my judgments or ideas of how it should be solved.


I ask questions. I listen. I have found that more can be resolved and brought forth in my silence than anything else. I know and trust that my children have everything inside them that they need to work things out. Often in my silence I can offer each child an opportunity to speak. Other times I say it. I reiterate and then ask if they have any ideas of their own on how it can be solved. From there, the problems are almost always resolved. But sometimes this ends up in more arguing, and so I tell them that they can think about it we can revisit it later. They know that I trust they will have the answers. Sometimes I will suggest a resolution. The important thing is not for me to be stressed about it or to pick sides. That seems obvious, but how can we really learn this to our core?


We let go and we live it. I forgive myself immediately when I fail. My oldest son, age 12, was very upset about how their shared laptop was image-3being used. The younger children had our bubbly, fermented beverages by it and he was afraid they would wreck the laptop. He was refusing to let anyone have a turn because of this. My younger son had an idea. He suggested in a soft tone that we say to the other children, “Could you please not eat or drink by the computer?” Simple. And beautiful. I was touched that he believed that such kindness was powerful enough to resolve this. However my older son was not convinced. We kept inquiring as to what would resolve this. It took a few days for us to figure out that if I sat with them while playing, I could monitor. And I was ok with that. It reminded me to slow down and be with them. It reminded me to take an interest in their interests even if they seem small and meaningless. From this I was able to explore a whole new world––the world of Minecraft, where children can build their dream houses and their perfect villages. I got to see their dream worlds. I then went around putting up little signs, saying “Love from Mom” and other warm and silly things. It brought me back to considering those huge possibilities that childhood holds and it was all sparked by a stressful moment. I would have missed out on all of this had I remained in the stress of “My children should not fight!” It unschooled me to my core and left me wanting to know them more. It made me want to know me more. What kind of world would I build?


Something I’ve been thinking about is how I see children’s interests being labeled as wasteful. Children and video games are seen as wasteful of time, resources and brain cells. But what is the alternative? Control them and have them hate us, not trust themselves or us, and have them wanting more and more of what we are denying them? I remember someone telling me of times when books were considered a waste of time and now they are highly regarded. Be with them and do it authentically, within their passions and yours. My experience has taught me that an overuse of electronics is merely a symptom of something lacking, like connection to other people. I have also seen excessive use of electronics fueled by intense passion. My oldest son used his Nintendo DS for a few days straight after he got it. I was beginning to worry and it took a lot of work to get me trusting again. He came to me and said that he was noticing that he wasn’t sleeping or eating well and that he needed to give himself rules with the DS and then he listed them off. They were things such as “No playing DS before bed,” and “Eat before playing DS in the morning.” What an amazing thing to learn on one’s own without the incessant nagging of a parent. I am continuously humbled and in awe of how children can live and learn naturally what is good for them. My son has also immersed himself in things like learning to play the piano. Now he can play numerous songs effortlessly and beautifully.


What can I learn from this? That everything is an opportunity. Especially the situations that are hard. I’ve learned to examine my worries and my fears and in doing so, that is where I will learn the most and find the greatest joy. I will learn that everything is unschooling. Will you embrace it?


Nadine LeBean is a mother of five living in the small town of Saskatchewan, Canada with her partner, Michael Neuman. They are currently living a life totally out of the norm for their area, focusing on freedom, passion and love as education instead of books, teachers and lessons. Her current passions are rainwater collection and storage, permaculture, wild food harvest and preservation, natural medicines, fermenting foods  and teaching workshops on it.

This article was published in Home Education Magazine’s July-August 2014 issue:

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You Don’t Have to Unschool to Benefit from Unschooling, by Carolyn Steninger http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/dont_have_to_unschool_benefit_from_unschooling_carolyn_steninger/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/dont_have_to_unschool_benefit_from_unschooling_carolyn_steninger/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 15:34:54 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=612  

Jonathan-on-BuckyJay has been riding with our therapeutic riding program for years, since he was quite little. Frequently it was a challenge to get this bright young autistic boy to agree to get up on the horse, but once he was on he was usually happy to be led around. We’d play games, tossing bean bags onto a barrel, dropping rings over poles, or play a little red-light/green-light with the other kids on horseback. His favorite thing was to be taken outside the arena for a “trail ride” around the grounds or down onto the cross-country jump course in the sagebrush field beyond. Unfortunately, trail riding wasn’t always an option; there were three other kids in Jay’s group, a limited number of volunteers, and sometimes it was just too hot out there.


Once mounted, Jay loved to direct the volunteers to either walk with him or go away, something he communicated with a barked single syllable command and a sweep of his hand. Usually his signals went unheeded; we had a riding class to get on with and we certainly couldn’t be taking directions from a pre-pubescent autistic boy. Or could we?


I discovered unschooling about five years ago and had been gradually changing the way I did things with my own daughters at home. I’d begun to question why, as a parent, I believed there was always only one right way and many wrong ways to do things, and that as the parent I knew better than my child which was which. Where had I learned those “answers” and what was the real purpose of training my girls to follow in the same paradigm I was raised in? The more I questioned, the more I was able to let go of things that had no real value and were unnecessarily restrictive. Some people would call it letting the kids run wild, but I was beginning to understand that it was letting the kids be kids, and that it was more than OK for kids to be kids; it was downright unfair to ask them to be anything else!


In our therapeutic riding program we have a wide variety of ages and disabilities present. Each client deals with his or her own set of challenges on a daily basis and each one has had to struggle to succeed in a world constructed around people with abilities sometimes vastly different than theirs. Most have been through a school system where they must have experienced a great deal of pressure to accommodate a system where conformity is the goal and for them it may have been a monumental task to try to measure up.


Somewhere along the way, I began to see that every time we pressured Jay to get on the horse, we were asking him to conform, to do things our way. We were using bribes, signing “pizza” to indicate his mom would take him for his favorite food if he would just get on and ride, and occasionally simply telling him he could go home if he wasn’t going to get on the horse. I also began to really look at Jay, to try to figure out what he was feeling. It was obvious that he loved coming to the program, but became visibly anxious once he got there. I could see his breathing change, he avoided eye contact and I noticed how he was always careful to know exactly where his mother was, frequently calling her name.


For a while, I continued to do whatever it took to get Jay on the horse, and then tried to pay more attention to what it was he wanted. I let him direct me and the other volunteers to walk with him or take him outside. I could see the little smile of victory he had when he realized that we were doing his bidding. I loved that smile! While Jay isn’t an unhappy child, he was often very serious during our sessions. He loved his new position of “power” and seemed more relaxed on the horse.


Then, one day when he was putting up a great deal of resistance to getting on, I asked the other volunteers, who were standing there watching our struggle and waiting to help, to go do something else. I could tell that it was enough that Jay was dealing with his own feelings, but the eyes of the crew, however well meaning, were an added source of anxiety for him. I also asked his parents if they really cared if Jay rode a horse that day and, to my relief, they said no. So we put the horse away and I stood with Jay for a minute, then asked him what he’d like to do. It took a couple of minutes, but he pointed to the trailer parked outside the door where we keep the saddles, props and things we’ve accumulated over the years to help with our therapy.


That day, Jay and I spent most of 30 minutes examining everything in that trailer. If he touched something and looked at me with a questionCarolyn-Portrait in his eyes, I would tell him it was ok to pick it up, and if he seemed interested, I would tell him what it was for. Jay is mostly nonverbal, but when I started listening, I realized he was communicating so much with his eyes, his voice, his hands and his inflection. Sometimes he would even copy me, mimicking my tone and inflection perfectly, missing only the articulation that we call language. When a tub of horse treats spilled over and I shrugged and said, “Oh well,” he copied my exclamation perfectly, minus only the words. I repeated my words and he repeated his sounds. We smiled together, knowing neither of us cared that the treats had spilled and feeling smug that we had understood each other.


After completing our survey of the tack trailer, Jay indicated that he wanted to explore my truck that was hooked to it. “Sure,” I said and in we climbed. My backpack was sitting on the front seat and he looked me in the eye and asked with his expression and hands whether it would be all right for him to look in it. I had to ask myself, was there really any reason not to let him look? In our society, would many of us feel comfortable allowing a 12 year old child to poke through our purse or personal belongings? With only a moment’s hesitation I said yes. He was so careful not to disturb anything in my bag and I could tell he felt pleased and perhaps grateful that I trusted him. He finished looking, zipped up the bag and looked at me like, now what? Heading over to the horse trailer, he discovered the manure fork and spent the rest of that session mucking out my trailer. I’d never seen Jay use a tool before, and it was obviously something he really enjoyed.


Jay’s demeanor that day was such a far cry from the reluctance and anxiety I had become used to seeing in him. It had never occurred to me that although this was a riding program, we might be able offer Jay something more valuable than horseback riding. That’s when it dawned on me that what Jay really wanted was the same thing every child, every person, wants––to be heard and respected. For some reason, Jay wanted to be a part of the program, but he had developed a fear of horses as he got older and was being forced to get on and ride despite his feelings. That day in the trailer was two years ago and Jay hasn’t been on a horse since. Instead, we’ve explored the huge indoor arena extensively, frequently finding ourselves watching the other clients from up in the announcer’s booth, or opening and closing the large overhead doors. Jay has even been bringing his own manure fork so we can clean out the back of my horse trailer together!


Following my success with Jay, I began to look for ways to say “Yes” to my other clients. Because we are working with horses, there is an element of risk and safety, which must be considered in everything we do. One of my bigger challenges became finding ways to say yes to Kolby, a 14 year old energetic boy with cerebral palsy. Kolby walks with a bit of a hitch in his git-along and has very limited use of one of his hands, but that doesn’t slow him down much. Kolby has tons of confidence in his own abilities. His exuberance has been something we’ve had to consider when selecting which horse he can ride; a sensitive horse will be bothered by too much flapping around, whereas a calmer horse will put up with quite a bit of shaking on the reins and movement of overactive legs on his side. We teach our clients to say “Walk on” and move their hand forward to get their horses to move on, and one year, on our first ride of the season, I asked Kolby if he remembered how to make the horse go. Without hesitation he shook the reins and said, “Trot!” So much enthusiasm in such a wonderful boy!


Looking for the need behind the behavior is another tenet of whole life unschooling I have learned to apply to our program. Almost every week, Kolby would sidle up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, cast his eye around the pen where the horses were tied, and say, “I think I could ride that horse over there.” Much as I wanted to say OK to him, I just couldn’t. Then one day, realizing that he wasn’t necessarily unhappy with the horse he rode, but was looking for a new challenge, I asked if he’d like to try riding in a different saddle. How about riding English instead of Western? Great! And off we went to let the volunteer know we’d be using different gear that day. Kolby’s need was for a new challenge, not a new horse. Since then he has taken to leading his horse around, showing us how he’s “training” him before getting on. Like Jay, Kolby loves to direct the people around him, though in Kolby’s case it’s very articulate and usually directed to the other kids in his group. When we can, we let him make up the games or lead the stretching exercises.


Working with horses and uniquely challenged individuals naturally poses an element of risk, which in the past had some people resorting to being very strict “for safety’s sake.” While we are still very conscientious of safety, we’ve learned that there are lots of opportunities to say “yes.” Everyone became happier when we stopped pushing our agenda and started finding out how we can work together towards meeting the needs and desires of our special clients. I encourage our volunteers to really listen when a client has a request, or indicates they’ve done enough for that day. One youngster showed up after school one day looking pretty wiped out. He was so relieved when I told him he didn’t have to ride unless he wanted to. I suggested he could just hang out with his mom while his brother rode, and about 20 minutes later he let me know he wanted to ride. In our society of “this is how we do it,” he might have been denied that option and been forced to stick with his original decision. But why? He got so much out of the time spent snuggling up with his mom and was able to tune in to his own feelings to decide when he was ready to move on.


In addition to all the positive changes in the program, applying unschooling principles had another, unexpected result:  last spring, Jay’s mom told me that they had talked it over and their whole family had decided to pull out of the school system and embrace unschooling! Jay and his brother and sister are now all enjoying the freedom and respect of a learner-led lifestyle. I have very strong feelings that for most of my school age clients, unschooling would be so much more beneficial than trying to mainstream them. The current system of education, which dictates not only curriculum, but also conformity, is even more irrelevant to kids with special needs than it is to neurotypical children. To allow a special needs child to explore and develop in ways that are meaningful to them would be a huge step towards improved communication (their way), developing passions (their own), developing life skills (when they’re ready), and the deep satisfaction of knowing they are loved and accepted for exactly who they are. While I have no formal education with regard to special education, and do not have a special needs child myself, I have found that operating from a place of love and acceptance has allowed me to make inroads with these children that others frequently do not.


Our program only operates from early June to late October, and we wrap it up with a pizza party where we present paper certificates of accomplishment and talk a little bit about each client and the progress they’ve made. It’s a wonderfully chaotic gathering and I make it a point to try to be fully present for each person there, especially the little ones who naturally have more energy and bounce around a bit. This year, the day after the party, I received a call from the mother of a young girl who only rode with us toward the end of the season. She wanted to thank me, and went on to explain that her daughter has frequently come home from school with reports of disruptive behavior, but interestingly, the day after every riding session, and even after the pizza party, she came home with glowing reports filled with stars. While it has never been my goal to promote docile conformity, I am happy that I’ve been able to help this child feel good about herself. I never consciously decided I was going to unschool the handicapped riding program, but as the tenets of freedom and respect became more second nature to me, it was a very natural thing to do. The results have been nothing short of wonderful!


Carolyn Brown Steninger grew up in Ithaca, New York. She made her way west in the early 80s but always thought she would return to Ithaca and its progressive community to settle down and raise a family. Instead, she married a fourth generation Nevada native and found herself at home on 65 acres near the Ruby Mountains, in northeastern Nevada. Steninger’s two daughters have never spent a single day in school and have been unschooled since discovering the Rethinking Everything Conference in 2009.


This article was published in Home Education Magazine’s July-August 2014 issue:

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My Faith Led me to Unschooling, by Julie Polanco http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/faith_led_to_unschooling_julie_polanco/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/faith_led_to_unschooling_julie_polanco/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 15:32:03 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=604 Sofias-Pictures-032Hawk is my oldest son and probably has been my greatest parenting challenge. It was while I was pregnant with him that I was baptized as a Christian believer and proclaimed my faith. His older sister, Catwoman, prepared me for how to deal with him as an infant, but nothing could prepare me for how to deal with him as a toddler and young child. I was used to a child who was very active and messy, and who responded to discipline. Not him. He was active and messy, too, but he would do exactly what you asked him not to do. We tried redirecting him and distracting him. No. We tried restraining him. No. We tried explaining. No. We resorted to parenting books and more punitive techniques.


While I had consulted many Christian parenting books about how to handle Hawk, we weren’t seeing the results that were promised. He wasn’t becoming more obedient and compliant. The “lessons” he was supposed to be learning weren’t sticking and he was being punished more than he was being loved. I was worried. I didn’t like what I was doing nor did I like how I felt. It seemed wrong somehow, but we did not know what else to do with him because no matter what we did, he still did the opposite of what we asked and then laughed about it. I am not proud of how we handled him. Something inside me felt that he was closing down and moving farther away from us. We were exhausted, frustrated, and at the end of our rope. 


Finally, we cried out to Jesus for him and heard Him say, “Is that how I treat you? Love him unconditionally and give him grace.”  We had made a big mistake in looking to other people, even well-meaning people, for advice on how to discipline our son. We had neglected to consult the person who created this boy and gave him to us. Three specific times Christ talks about children and they are all preceded by “do not”: do not offend, do not despise, and do not hinder them. We were guilty of all three. We eased up on our expectations of him, gave him grace, and loved on him. He gradually responded and now happily complies with our requests because, as he says, he loves us.


This boy would be used by God many times to teach me who was really in control and it was because of Hawk that we gradually became unschoolers. 


You might think that Catwoman would have had more influence on us making that shift. Afterall, she was school age first and it was because of her that we decided to homeschool in the first place. We could see that she was bright but wiggly and wouldn’t be happy sitting at a table doing worksheets. The idea of parting with her made me sad. An article I had read in Mothering magazine introduced me to the idea of homeschooling and it didn’t take much to convince us that we could at least try it for a while. I was so excited at the opportunity to play teacher! I read all about different teaching styles, how to plan unit studies, and other important stuff like what kinds of things kindergarteners are learning about (I hope you hear my sarcasm.) If I had just left well enough alone, things would have gone much better and Hawk would never have had the opportunity to teach me. Ah, but Catwoman was more subtle than he. She would roll her eyes, lay her head down on the table, get up as soon as I got up to use the washroom, scribble instead of color nicely. These things bothered me but not as much as when she didn’t want to play with me anymore and didn’t want to tell me all about her interests. Her eyes had lost some of their shine and her shoulders slumped just a little. A lot of the kids we knew were like that and it was a regular topic of conversation among the moms (“I can’t get _____ to do ______. Do you have any suggestions?”) Even though I was saddened by her displays and silence, I persisted because this seemed to be a common occurrence among homeschoolers. Hawk came to her rescue because he wasn’t subtle. He would just say, “I’m not doing this.” I would do all the things the other moms suggested (didn’t I make this mistake before?), and it didn’t matter to him. He had decided and no amount of bribing or punishing was going to change his mind.


It wasn’t that he didn’t want to learn. He just didn’t want to do it the way I was asking him to learn. He built things. He cooked. He watched educational videos. He loved art. It did not matter to him if I tried bribing him with candy and it did not matter to him if I made him sit there until the work was done. He would not allow himself to be manipulated. Again, I was exasperated with this child. Again, I should have gone to Jesus first instead of other people, but sometimes adults are just as forgetful as children. The Lord reminded me of the Proverb that says, “Teach a child in the way he should go,” which really means to teach him according to his bent (Proverbs 22:6, Amplified Bible). Jesus also reminded me how He taught the early disciples and how He teaches me. It is through relationship.


It is a lot easier to just give people lists of things to do rather than actually get to know them, their strengths and weaknesses, and talk with them about what they’d like to do. The latter takes considerable effort and time and it requires a genuine desire to know people. Jesus was telling me that, just as he didn’t want me to just follow a list of rules or check off religious duties on a list, I shouldn’t do that with my children, either. Just as He desired my heart, I should desire the hearts of my children, too. Just as he knows me and wants me to know him, and he knows me so well that he knows the desires of my heart, I should strive to know my children so well that I know the desires of their hearts as well.


It is not as though I didn’t have a relationship with my children. I did take them on field trips and to restaurants, I did buy them things that bow-and-arrowthey requested, I did read to them, and I played with them. But is that what a relationship really is? Is a relationship just going places and buying things? No, what Jesus was asking me to do was harder and easier than that. It was harder, because I had to change, and easier because I just had to BE.


In the middle of all of this, Butterfly and Mouse were born. Just being made it easier to deal with Butterfly and crawling Mouse. I spent more time watching and listening to Catwoman and Hawk as they played, planned, and created instead of being so controlling and directing. They invited me to their restaurant, their shows, their museums, and their amusement parks. Sometimes they included their sister, Butterfly.


Sometimes they seemed to run out of ideas and would start bickering a lot. I would often intervene because they would start engaging in repetitive, aimless activities that I felt were wasteful of resources and had no purposeful end. There were times when I would revert to my old habits of trying to make them do things that I felt they should be doing. It became this dance: periods of intense engagement in an activity or topic, followed by an extended period of aimless activity that would drive me crazy to the point of giving them schoolish things to do until both they and I craved the free, unschooled life again. I really did not know what to do with those long periods between intense interests and ideas. In some ways, I still struggle with this. I know that they will become interested in something else eventually, but it makes me uncomfortable to allow them to do aimless, seemingly mindless activities.


While God showed me through Hawk that I needed to teach through relationship and not through coercing, manipulating, punishing, bribing, or any other controlling factor, it was Butterfly who showed me how. I had been watching and listening to Hawk and Catwoman, I had been trying to allow them to pursue their interests and trying to facilitate not only their interests, but exposing them to new experiences.  But I would get confused about what my role was. Am I supposed to just leave them be all day unless they ask for my help or participation? Am I supposed to buy great books and interesting kits and leave them lying around the house for them to discover? What am I supposed to do? How do I escape from reverting to schoolish habits and fully embrace an unschooled life?


I wrestled with this question for a while. I kept reading about all these great adventures unschooled kids were having and interesting projects they were pursuing. All my kids were doing was making Lego movies and trying to form neighborhood clubs. I wanted my life with my kids to be exciting, to be like flying, and the reality was that they argued and fought, didn’t want to go anywhere, and had difficulty persevering toward their own goals. God answered my searching with Butterfly.


Butterfly has Asperger’s. God prepared my heart for her by leading me to unschool because she has little tolerance for being made to do things that she really doesn’t want to do. Her way of showing this is nothing like her older siblings. The more you press her, the more anxious she becomes and will have a meltdown of uncontrollable crying and shaking. Skills learned in artificial ways do not transfer well to real life. Butterfly showed me how to truly unschool and how to manage those dry spells. Her insatiable desire to learn and her need to have me near her showed me what it could be like. Through her, I learned how to apply the truths of my faith to my relationship with my children. It is not what you are doing or how you are doing it. It is the why that matters. If I am helping the poor and reading my Bible but I am doing it out of a sense of obligation or to look good to others, I am not really a Christian. It only matters if it is driven by a desire to know Christ and follow Him. The same is true of unschooling. If my child is learning about ancient Egypt and is using a particular set of books to do it, it is still unschooling if she chose to learn about it using those materials. If she is using them in an effort to please me or because I am making her do it, then it is not unschooling. 


Addressing a child’s unspoken needs is just like Jesus knowing the desires of my heart. It is the very essence of love. Butterfly has a need to know what to expect and so we talk about what we are going to do the next day before she goes to bed at night. In this way, I have also learned that structure helps her older siblings to accomplish their goals, with me acting as an accountability partner. This has helped them to have shorter periods of aimless activities and to dive deeper into their interests.


I am still learning and growing in my faith and this is true of my journey with my children as well. There are good days and bad days, periods of intense and joyous growth, and there are periods of dryness and searching. This is the normal rhythm of life and walking with my Savior and my family. I look forward to how God will continue to unfold lessons about Himself and my walk with Him through my children.



Julie Polanco lives near enough to Chicago to enjoy all its cultural benefits, but far enough away to have a large garden, treehouse, and sandbox in the yard. She and her husband have always homeschooled their four children and are so glad the Lord led them to a full and vibrant unschooled life. Julie shares about this journey in her book, Finding Joy: A Christian’s Journey to an Unschooled Life. Julie loves all things botanical, musical, and anything from the magical land of the jabberwocky. You can find her at her new blog, www.botanymomma.com


This article was published in Home Education Magazine’s July-August 2014 issue:

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The World Really is My Oyster, by Hannah Miller http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/world_my_oyster_hannah_miller/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/world_my_oyster_hannah_miller/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 12:41:49 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=618  

surfingWe’re driving today, this time through the snowcapped Rocky Mountains of Canada. It’s cold out, below freezing. Rivers and streams are coated in layers of blue ice, the trees weighed down by shimmering snow. It’s hard to believe that just a week ago I was exploring the beautiful tropical island Oahu with one of my best friends. Less than a month before that, we were driving through the Australian Outback, rolling through clouds of red dust and past kangaroos. And in a week or two, we’ll be in the States, visiting family and friends for the first time in two years.


I’m Hannah Miller, a 17 year old lover of life and learning, and I’m the oldest child in a family of six. I’m known for my fascination with musical instruments and literature, as well as my tendency to look a bit like a forest elf. I have a serious case of wanderlust, and it only seems to be growing stronger the longer I travel.


Five years ago, my parents, Jennifer and Tony Miller, whisked me and my three younger brothers off on an adventure that would change our lives. The plan: to cycle around Europe and Northern Africa for a year, living simply (we camped in tents the entire way) and learning about the various cultures we interacted with along the way. My parents believed (and still do) that it was important to our educations that we travel early on in life, in order to see the world for ourselves and be able to draw our own conclusions about the things we learned along the way. Afterwards, we would return to the States and go back to living a “normal” life. Ezra, my youngest brother, was five at the time. As you might imagine, making the transition to living on the road was not easy to begin with. I was a reluctant 11 year old who’d only read about  the European countries and wasn’t sure about leaving my friends behind. I was in love with the forests surrounding our lovely house in New England, and selling the place for an uncertain future was a drastic change.


But the week before we left, I found that all my anxiety vanished on its own accord. We were about to travel halfway around the world to see things I’d only read about! Sure, some aspects of that were frankly terrifying, but it was definitely worth a shot. I would be halfway around the world from everything I’d ever known. I wouldn’t see my friends for a year, which seemed like an eternity. Though I’d traveled multiple times down to Mexico, I still worried about how I’d communicate with the European kids who didn’t speak English. And what would it be like to live without all of the “extra” things I was used to, such as the many toys and stuffed animals and books I had at home? It was all going to be very, very different from anything I had previously experienced, and that worried me, initially. But by the time I boarded the plane to London I was full of excitement and anticipation, ready to start a new way of life. At long last, I was setting off on a “real” adventure, just like the ones I’d read about in my gigantic stack of classic adventure novels back home! What would I see? What unexpected plot twists would jump out from around the corner and whirl me off down an unforeseen path? Who would I meet along the way? Genies? Gentlemen? Leather-clad adventurers like Indiana Jones?


We’d been planning for the trip for two years, and yet it came on faster than I could ever have imagined. At 11, I wasn’t involved with many oftribal-women the logistics early on, but my parents were very open to suggestions. I wanted to see the Colosseum in Rome, and explore London (imagine my disappointment when I discovered that top hats and canes aren’t as common as I had thought in that prestigious city). Ezra was eager to climb the Eiffel Tower. Gabe wanted to ride camels in Tunisia. Elisha was interested in Venice. Mom and Dad took our suggestions into account and made sure we were all able to see some of the things we’d read or heard about. It was a whirlwind year, full of innumerable adventures. I did see the Colosseum in Rome, as well as a much, much better one in Al Jem, Tunisia. It wasn’t well known, and we had it all to ourselves when we stumbled across it on our way to the legendary Camel Festival of the Berbers. But as incredible as that colosseum was, the festival later on blew it away.


Of all the adventures we had on our trip, this festival is the one that stands out most clearly in my memory. The Berbers, a nomadic people of the desert, meet once a year in Douz to trade camels and hold contests of strength, agility, and horsemanship. It’s also traditionally a good time for buying and selling wives in that culture, though I think there’s probably less of that now. It’s very difficult to attend this festival if you’re just a traveler passing through, as it’s held at a different time each year and it’s not publicized very well. But if you can manage it, don’t miss it! What an adventure! We drove in the tiny car we’d rented for the occasion, past dunes and endless glittering plains of salt, past Bedouin herders and their dusty goats, past wandering camels and finally into Douz: a little oasis on the edge of the great Sahara desert. It was there, on the outskirts of town, that the Berber Camel Festival was held. Beautiful Arabian girls, clothed in red courting dress and covered with every piece of gold jewelry they owned, laughed and called to each other as they walked behind the jugglers in the initial procession. These men balanced a dozen or more pots on their heads at a time while tossing knives in the air and deftly catching them to the time of the buzzing tunes played on the musicians’ whistles. Costly white camels galloped by across the sands, urged on by small riders who balanced on their backs. Armed men on horses, swathed in loose silk tunics and turbans, leaped from horse to horse, performing incredible acrobatic acts while their animals raced past at top speed. These were just a few of the main attractions of the festival. I watched as race after race was conducted, saw the herders’ prize camels decked out in bells and colorful cloths. I smelled the hot breads being fried in large vats of oil, plucked out carefully by the bare hands of the herders’ wives. I heard the ululating cries of the women, and the lovely prayer songs from the nearby mosque. It was like living in the Arabian Nights with Ali Baba and Aladdin, and I had irrevocably fallen in love with travel.


The rest of the trip was just as fascinating. I saw things I’d only read of, learned about the world around me and a few of the many cultures therein, and made many new friends along the way. It’s interesting how easy it is to meet people everywhere you go. We’d start talking to someone on the train and end up being invited to stay in their backyard for the night. We made many friends through a site called Warm Showers, which lets bikers connect with people who’d like to host them. We met Marchello and Margarita Sini that way. They were a lovely couple living in downtown Rome who courteously took all six of us and our bikes in despite the fact that they lived in a very small apartment and didn’t have any kids of their own. We ended up hitting it off with them and they insisted that we spend almost two weeks with them when we were initially going to move to a nearby campground after the first few days. They took us all over Rome, letting us get to know parts of it we would never have otherwise seen. We joined their running group for a day and ran through the parks with a group of energetic and boisterous Italians. We went to one of the biggest rallies in Italian history, held against Berlusconi. Spending time in close contact with cultures around the world was the best possible way to get to know them. It’s very, very rare that we have a negative experience with the people we meet, and this was especially true in Europe. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and friendly.


with-elephantBut no trip goes perfectly, and there were hard days as well. It rained for two months straight in England, which was difficult to cope with when traveling by bicycle and living in a tent. Most of the time we just had to “tough it out” and cycle through the rain, our bags a good deal heavier because of the wet tents inside. Thanks to proper prior planning on Mom and Dad’s part, our gear held up to the constant wet and our sleeping bags and clothes stayed dry most of the time. But it was a cold, hard start to the trip (we began in London), and we all agree that while England itself was incredible, our time there was certainly some of the most difficult months of the trip. Some days it felt as if we’d never reach the tops of the massive hills ahead, or muscle through the miles to the nearest campground. But even the hardships only served to make me more adventurous and hardy. After all, it didn’t always go as planned for Mr. Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, either. Through the hard times, we managed to keep moral up while strengthening our endurance and our patience. These traits helped us a good deal during the rest of the trip.


The year slipped away in the blink of an eye. We returned to the States, only to find that settling back into a “normal” lifestyle was going to be far more difficult, emotionally, than we had thought it would. For us, it was rather hard to feel comfortable in one place for a period of more than about four or five months after having grown accustomed to moving daily. None of us wanted to give up that life. A love for the road had taken root in all of us, even Ezra, who had turned six on the trip. Also, we were experiencing severe culture shock for the first time. You get it on a regular basis while you’re on the road, to some degree. But if you travel long enough, you grow accustomed to the constant changes and the new experiences. What was once uncomfortable and difficult to cope with becomes an everyday experience, and you hardly notice it anymore. What I didn’t expect to have happen was to come home, back to my own nation, and experience culture shock. It was very difficult for me for about the first month or so. Everything was so big compared to European standards. Big cars, big buildings, big meals, big people with big hairdos and big schedules. Everything, from character traits to material items, seemed to be on a larger scale than it was in Europe. I remember the first time I went to a grocery store back in the States after the trip. I was blown away. There was an entire aisle just for noodles. Another for tomato products. After having grown used to grocery stores about a sixth of the size of your typical supermarket, I was absolutely stunned by the sheer range of products available. America was so different from the rest of the world, and yet no one seemed to realize that it was anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t, in fact. That’s just the way the US is. It’s perfectly normal there. It was just that my sudden exposure to American culture after having been away for so long was rather shocking and unexpected.


I wasn’t the only one in my family who felt that way. We were all stunned to feel culture shock to the extent that we did… at “home.” That, combined with the fact that we’d become more at home on the road than we were in a house, made it difficult to settle back into a “normal” lifestyle.


So, “Why stop?” my parents asked. Dad, a computer programmer, could work from anywhere in the world as long as he could connect to the Internet. Mom, a freelance travel writer and educational consultant and curriculum designer for the alternative education market, was in the same boat. There was no real reason for us to stop traveling. My parents shrugged their shoulders, pulled out their maps, and set a goal: we’d travel to every inhabited continent by the time I was 18.


Five years later, we’ve been to all but South America. We don’t move around as quickly as some travelers I know. I’ve met people who’ve been to more countries in a year and a half than we have throughout all of our traveling experience. We believe in going deep instead of wide: staying in a particular place long enough to become familiar with the culture, instead of seeing the main tourist attractions and moving on again in a week or less. This is partly due to preference, and partly to necessity. First of all, you can only travel nonstop like that for so long without needing a bit of a break. It can be exhausting to be constantly moving without ever spending more than a few days in a place at a time. Also, in my opinion, it is far easier to get to know the cultural vibe of a particular location if you spend at least two weeks, if not more, there. And for us, it’s all about getting to know the people of a place and how they live. That’s part of our education.

We have a tendency to stay for over four months in one country or location, which allows us to become familiar and comfortable with the people living there. We travel very slowly. One example of this is our time spent in Guatemala. We stayed for six months in the lovely town of San Marcos de Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala. San Marcos is a small town, not nearly as large as some of the other towns (San Pedro, Panajachel) on the lake. It’s a quiet place, with a community of Mayan coffee farmers and a few expats. We became friends with many of the people around us, both locals and expats. Marcario and Adong, two men of Mayan descent who had been hired by our landlord to care for the house and garden, became our good friends. I was enrolled in a local backpackers Spanish school, and used what stumbling words I had to befriend a boy named Nicolas who lived in town. I taught him to make fudge, and he taught me to pick coffee and climb to the top of the green sapote tree in the backyard to gather its fruit. I cried when we hugged goodbye the day I left. We made other friends as well, Europeans and Americans who were just passing by. Many of them I’m still in contact with, and a few have gone on to adventure with me elsewhere.


I grew very fond of the Lago. I would even say that I’ve felt more at home there than anywhere else in the world. Even when I was nine or ten I had trouble finding kids who I could relate to. I’ve always been able to find more to talk about with people a decade or two older than me. San Marcos was one of the first places I’ve ever felt completely at home in. I think if I had learned a bit more Spanish that would have been even more true. It was perfect. The culture was foreign and new, but very friendly and open. I discovered that hippy backpackers are quick to accept me as one of their own, and that we often share similar backgrounds and experiences. Staying more than a few weeks at the Lago allowed me to make these discoveries and friends, and to really get a feel for the underlying cultural aspect of the place.


Guatemala is one of the few places I’ve visited that I hadn’t read about first. I’ve always been an avid reader. I learned to read from a very early age, and my parents joke that if they’d put me in a cardboard box with a pile of books I would’ve practically educated myself. At nine and ten I was exploring the world through the words of Mark Twain, Dickens, and Hemingway. Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days was always a favorite. In a way, I was in love with travel long before I’d ever experienced it.


Five years later, my family and I are still traveling. I’ve even funded and taken some solo trips of my own. I work as a travel writer for a few different sites and magazines. I plan on getting my TESL certificate this spring, which will allow me to teach English all over the world. But my big dream, the thing I am most passionate about, is to work with schools in Guatemala in order to give kids of Mayan descent the chance to get a good education. For many of them, it’s a choice between school and food. Which would you choose? I think if an affordable and sustainable educational option was set up there, most Mayan families would jump at the chance to send their kids to school. I know those people. I’ve seen the way they live. I’ve worked with them and played with them, and I care about them greatly. I’m currently taking online classes with Oregon State University, and will soon transfer to Queens in order to major in Geography and minor in Spanish. That, the TESL certification, the writing career… it’s all bringing me closer to my dream of working to either organize a sustainable school system of my own in Guatemala or to work with one that’s already doing an excellent job.


Meanwhile, I’m just working towards it one step at a time, and working to transition from a young person to an adult as we travel, so that one day I will be fully capable of supporting myself on the road. I’m almost there. And every day I fall in love with travel all over again. Every day I see or learn something new, and am reminded once again of how amazing it is to be able to get up close and personal with the world around me. The true beauties and complexities of the world around us are so elaborate that no author could possibly capture them fully with words. I have learned so much about the world around me and the people that live in it during these past few years, outside of the pages of a book. It has set my imagination aflame, and encouraged a lively curiosity that influences everything I do. Traveling has given me a genuine desire to learn more about the world; to look beyond what I already know and explore new things. To dream big, and to work to make my dreams a reality. It has taught me more than I could have ever imagined, and has given me strengths that I couldn’t have learned from a textbook.


I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the opportunity to grow up this way. One of my biggest dreams is to find a way to share the joy of travel with kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience it. I’d like to be able to actually take them with me, and perhaps some day I’ll find a way to do that, but for now I’ve settled for writing about my experiences and sharing them with my friends around the world that way. Life on the road, the joy of experiencing new cultures, living my own adventure story, and learning something new and valuable every day… I will never be able to take those things for granted. Road-schooling is incredible, and it may very well be the best thing that could have ever happened to that scrawny little girl who was always a world away, lost in the pages of an adventure novel.


Hannah Miller is a 17 year old girl with a serious case of wanderlust. Over the past few years she’s traveled to over 24 countries, on five different continents, using bikes, buses, trains, planes, and of course, her own two feet. Wherever she goes, a video camera and three instruments follow. She’s trying to change the world, one step at a time. By the end of her life she wants to have visited every country in the world, and do it all through travel writing. She currently works as a freelance writer for a few different travel sites, and has her own blog at www.edventuregirl.com. In her opinion, there’s no better school than the big world around us, and no better way to learn about the planet we live on than to see it herself! Her greatest fear: to reach the end of her days only to be filled with regret for the adventures she never had.



This article was published in Home Education Magazine’s July-August 2014 issue:

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We Love You, Anthony How Our Adopted Kinesthetic Son Shook Up My Cerebral, Language-Intense Family, by Penny Tuggle http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/our_adopted_kinesthetic_son_shook_up_my_cerebral_language_intense_family_penny_tuggle/ http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/our_adopted_kinesthetic_son_shook_up_my_cerebral_language_intense_family_penny_tuggle/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 07:59:51 +0000 http://unschooling.com/homeeducationmagazine/?p=182 The following story from Penny Tuggle is from our May-June 2013 issue of Home Education Magazine:


tuggleWhen our little boy was five, he came into the kitchen and asked, “Mama, what are we having for dinner tonight unfortunately?” I blanched, paused, and then burst out laughing. The evolution of my reaction to this question over the last few years serves as a metaphor for the way Anthony’s presence has changed our family for the better.


In 2008 my husband and I were just starting to enjoy the freedom that comes with having moved past the little kid stage. Our children Asher, Abigail, and Emma were 10, 8, and 6. We felt like we had a good handle on the homeschooling life: our children were advanced academically and we had a peaceful, quiet home. Then during National Adoption month, we both became convinced that things were a bit too peaceful, a little too homogenous. We decided that we needed to seriously pursue foster care and perhaps adoption to shake things up a bit. What started out as a family “project” ended up pushing us farther along the homeschooling continuum towards unschooling.


We contacted an adoption agency, and after six months of training and waiting, we welcomed our first foster child. My husband was out of town at the time, and I was handed a little boy wearing grubby pajamas and bringing no more than a sippy cup. We were told that he would be staying about four days, which I thought would be a great trial run to see if I really could handle having a series of small children living with us. Four years later, Anthony is a full-fledged Tuggle, and he has been the impetus for my ranting, reframing, and finally relaxing as a homeschool mother.




Young children require a lot of time and energy. Foster children are more time-intensive, even when they are healthy and need no physical or mental interventions. When Anthony was our foster son, we had to attend ongoing training. Our family was visited at least three times a month by social workers. We took Anthony to visit his birth parents twice a week, and the girls and I waited at the visitation center for him. Although I knew these meetings were necessary, I couldn’t believe how much homeschooling time they were sucking up. We tried to do math at the visitation center, but we got distracted and ended up reading novels to each other. Studying in the car was not an option because we had to use the drive there to prepare Anthony for his visit, and we used the drive back to comfort him. Between having the normal day-to-day care of a preschooler again, our obligations to the county, and my constant fatigue that has always necessitated a mid-day nap, I was not able to homeschool at the times I wanted. I was in constant rant mode.


This loss of control almost made me lose my mind. It also didn’t help that Anthony and I were experiencing a personality clash. In retrospect (and to my friends as it was happening), my little boy was just being his adorable self. He really was a fish out of water in our cerebral, language-intense household. I was accustomed to my other kids speaking in paragraphs and using adverbs correctly by the age of two. Anthony didn’t have a chance. Part of my ranting stemmed from my thinking that he was a master at pushing my prescriptive grammar buttons. If he put “unfortunately” in a sentence about the dinner I cooked, I’d take it personally and answer, “Tonight we’re having a big plate of go to your room.”




It became evident that we had to embrace a new vision of what homeschooling would look like for our family. tuggle-familyFortunately, I have never been very curriculum driven. Put me in a school store or a homeschool swap and I’m looking for the fun stuff. I like us to finish a math book in a timely fashion, but I accepted that real life learning must be our priority for a little while at least. My big kids learned how to change diapers and give baths and make simple meals. They learned to share their living space, food, and parents. Their eyes were opened to the fact that not all children have parents who can take care of them. They learned how to be hospitable to the social workers that came to our home and to be gracious to their foster brother’s relatives. I was feeling pretty good about what they were learning.


I still tried to grab academic time whenever I could, and I tried to include Anthony. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a small child who didn’t want to read for hours and who only wanted to talk about training to be a cage fighter. Out of desperation, I assigned Asher, Abigail, and Emma activities to do with the baby while I rotated them through their schoolwork. I figured this would be more “life learning” time for them. My plan backfired. First of all, the activities always ran out before the Latin did, which left us feeling rushed and unsatisfied. Second, having the older children do school-type things with their brother emphasized their differences even more, and they got really frustrated with him. They thought that all four year olds were able to follow directions, speak clearly, give a straight answer, and know things they’ve been told once or twice. And to tell the truth, at that point, so did I.


Fortunately, both of my best friends homeschooled their highly kinesthetic sons. They assured me that Anthony was just like their boys were at four. In repeated conversations with these ladies I realized that maybe a kid who could ride a bike without training wheels at two wasn’t able to sit still for a board book. I realized that his body always had to be on the move, which made it hard for him to concentrate. He was unable to pronounce a lot of words because his eyes were always roving, making it impossible to focus on the way our mouths were moving. For years he was oblivious to the fact that anyone else was talking and was always shocked when we told him that talking out of turn was rude. He couldn’t follow simple directions because he would be off and running to do the first thing we asked and then have to guess about the second thing.


tuggle-courtI had to do a good deal of damage control by then. It was a momentous task to reframe our view of the little guy: Anthony wasn’t academically slow at all, just really physically quick! I had to incorporate more physical activity into his routine, and I had to back off on the little amount of seatwork he was doing. If I wanted to get his attention, I would break out my Zumba moves or whip out a lightsaber. I had to train the big kids to compliment their little brother on how strong and brave and fast he is. I started to notice what a charming boy he is (as my friends kept telling me), and that he really had been working hard to fit in with his strange new family.


At this point, if he had asked what we were unfortunately having for dinner, I would have been proud of him for attempting to use an adverb and would have pointed this out to his siblings. A small part of me was still trying to frame everything academically, but mostly I was figuring out that he really valued being a Tuggle, which included approximating our speech.




In the process of studying Anthony, I began to notice that the kids had been developing all kinds of neat non-academic skills of their own. Asher is an organizer of online HeroScape tournaments, and he writes his own games. Abigail creates comics, sings while playing piano, writes novels, and draws. Emma fills the house with the smell of cookies baking and the sound of the sewing machine humming. I decided that if I could allow Anthony to relax into who he was made to be, I could do the same for the other three.


We still do academics, but we know that they aren’t really the most important thing about our family. The most important thing about our family, is, well, family—the new “shaken up” version. When I hear Anthony say, “Mama, what are we having for dinner tonight unfortunately?” I give him a big hug and don’t really register anything beyond “Mama.”


This article appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of Home Education Magazine


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