We published a thoughtful, inspiring and provoking issue with our March-April 2014 issue. Scroll down for a detailed description of each piece and links to a selected few full articles. But first an overview.
Longtime unschooler Tracey Liebmann shares the best of what she’s learned about living consensually with her family, and Suki Wessling shares the latest science on brain development which, woo-hoo!, supports unschooling in very important ways. John Gatto returns, this time with his provocative insight on, wait for it, illiteracy. Yes, you read that right. And it’s a good thing.
Grown unschooler Kate Fridkis, now a mother is reveling on the dramatic change she is experiencing as she considers the quality of life for her own child. Unschool mom Krystal Trammell inquires whether unschooling has natural limitations and her insight and growth with her own large family is so wise. Lee A. Elliott shares some critical elements of his personal journey with bi-polar disorder and how what he has learned effects the way he is unschooling his own children. Leslie Potter brings us into her world as a single parent of a now teenaged daughter and realizes that parenting without a partner has been a true gift to her.
Teresa Graham Brett is back, this time sharing what she has learned as a Dean of Students at a major university and why it is so important to her that her children make their own decisions about whether or not to choose college as part of their educational path. Erin LaBelle shares her lifelong experience with a commitment to just exploring and what that looks like for her children. A family’s loss of income and subsequent challenges turn into a positive life experience for Mary Krawczyk, and HEM editor and publisher Barb Lundgren and Mark Hegener share what they have learned about “unparenting,” a term that is bandied about by those critical of unschooling.
We so look forward to sharing all of this with you!
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March-April 2014 Table of Contents
Never Stop Exploring, by Erin LaBelle
Although my four legged friends had already deemed the bush not worthy of their time, we stopped to investigate. There was a soggy piece of cardboard and I was surprised to find a message printed in bold letters which said, “NEVER STOP EXPLORING.” The other side held a handwritten garage sale sign which probably escaped from a recycling bin to wait for me.
I take these messages seriously. They pop up every now and then and seem to be either reminders, nudges or affirmations. This one immediately struck me as encouragement about the road our family has chosen to travel.
Exploration is how we live and how we learn.
Sometimes another person’s voice gets in my head and I begin to doubt or question our unconventional lifestyle, but I always return to the familiar path paved by curiosity and trust. Since we do not live in an educationally progressive community and I come from a conservative family who probably wonder if there was possibly a baby swap at the hospital, I cherish these affirmations from another realm.
I was transformed into an “explorer” when photojournalism found me and I spent a summer on a newspaper internship in the Pacific northwest. My eyes, ears, heart and mind were finally awakened by spending each day immersed in three or four different people’s lives. Through my camera, I truly began to see. Through their stories, I finally began to learn.
Real learning, that is.
Unparenting is a word often bandied about by critics of unschooling and by those in unschooling communities who like to debate or criticize one another about parenting styles, family life and unschool methodologies. We have some thoughts on this word too, it’s use, and relative merit in discussions and understanding.
Folks who use this word, unparenting, imply that parents are uninvolved in their children’s lives, don’t make demands of their children, let children run the household, let children do whatever they want or don’t discipline. Let’s dissect the accusations:
1. Uninvolved in their children’s lives: I admit that unschooling is a lifestyle that leaves a lot of doors open for interpretation, confusion and misunderstanding. When I was mothering my kids in the early years of unschooling, I ran into much befuddlement not only from mainstream educating friends and relatives but traditional homeschool friends as well. My approach to unschooling, to listen, follow and support my child’s questions and interests while doing my level best to engage them in new ideas, places, people and things was a far cry from what most folks expected of me. Completely absent in my unschool were lesson plans, grades, schedules, or forced learning of any kind. I even recall on occasion when someone would tell me about their strict educational plan––whether as homeschooling or attending school––and ask me how my family’s educational life compared. I remember saying we did “nothing!” We certainly did nothing like they did. How we lived our life was so radically different than the way others were living that I would not have been surprised at all if they accused me of unparenting behind my back.
In reality, I and we as a family were fully engaged with one another most hours of most days. Sure, I supported all opportunities for exploration on their own or travel with others, but for the most part we all shared common space, knew what each was up to, engaged with each other on our own terms, supporting one’s own and each other’s curiosities, experiments, research and projects. It was rare that I could predict what a day would look like and almost never that two days looked the same. We were open to inspiration, mood, visitors, last minute plans of all kinds. In short, we were as far from uninvolved with our kids’ lives as parents can be, just not involved in the ways the traditional world is involved with kids––through managing, controlling, tracking progress.
Just the previous week I was so enthusiastic to get to school, excited about life and, if anything, over talkative and extra social. Like night and day these emotions and moods would follow me through my life in waves. As a baby boomer, I was of a generation where no one was labeled ADD, ADHD, Aspergers, bipolar, or any of the many conditions that we so easily label children with today. I now suspect I was suffering from ‘early onset bipolar disorder’, something unheard of at the time–the emergent form in children of what was previously known (in acute form) as ‘manic depression’. The treatment of the day was being told “Pull yourself together!”
Bipolar disorder is a cyclic condition where sufferers alternate between moods of extreme, positive elation and deep depression. In children the moods are often worse than in adults and can alternate more frequently. This is now referred to as early onset bipolar disorder, and is becoming a label increasingly given to children based on a consultation alone. There are no blood tests or brain scans that can be used to diagnose a child with this condition. A doctor may simply ask about a child’s moods, energy levels, sleep patterns, and behaviors.
Arm Farts, Life, and Death, by Mary Krawczyk
There were seasons of my life as a mother when I didn’t recognize ways in which we could have all of our needs met, or didn’t seek help that might have allowed me more time to take care of myself. When the kids were younger, they went to bed early; my husband and I had our quiet time or time together at night. We are now in a completely different season with tweens and teens in the house; they stay up late and sleep in late when they can. In this season, I find time for solitude and reflection in the morning. I use that time to do the things that refuel and energize me–journal, pray, write and exercise. I am now mindful and deliberate about the time I need. I understand in retrospect that I may have been able to meet my own needs better when my kids were younger, even when they needed my physical presence more constantly than they do now. Part of me wishes I had been as insightful then as I am now. Yet each step of the way–each season–I was doing the best I could and learning and growing right along with my kids. As they have grown older, they need me in different ways than they did as babies, toddlers or young children. My needs have changed over the years as well, depending on jobs or other commitments I’ve had.
Playing Our Way to Learning a New Language, by Jenny Lantz
Learning English. A new language for my kids whose native tongue is Swedish. As English is a language that is spoken in so many countries we feel that it is important that our kids grow up fluent in English. And in our early home ed years I have wondered about how to do it. How do you teach your kids a new language? For us the answer was: Not at all. Well, ok, I couldn’t always resist the little teacher inside me that whispered that it would be good for the kids to use worksheets sometimes, and that made me buy some schoolbooks in English to be sure that they actually learned it. But the worksheets stayed blank and the books unused. They learned through the assistance of Harry Potter, Minecraft, maps and… Pokemon. And Doctor Who. Doctor Who has been the absolutely best English teacher we could have had. But letZs go back a few years in time. Six, maybe, or seven.
That was when my oldest son was six years old with a new interest. He got hold of some old secondhand Pokemon cards and got lost in the world of Pokemon. HeZs still there, thirteen years old with bags full of the cards. Stupid and expensive cards. That was my first opinion about them. That did change pretty soon though …
TI never dreamed I would be a single parent. I grew up in the deep South and naively believed the Disney fantasy of growing up, finding Prince Charming, getting married, having a house full of kids and living happily ever after. I grew up in a family shattered by a nasty divorce so I was desperately dreaming of a happy ending. So I earnestly set out on my fairy tale quest, confident I would manifest my dream. I was going to be a famous Broadway actress who married a dashing man while having three amazing children. I’d have a nanny and spend only loving time with my children. (Oh my, how young I was.)
Embarking on my fantastic journey I did travel the world, gathering amazing experiences, all the while searching for the perfect romance, along with fame and fortune. I didn’t really “get it” that my childhood fantasy was just that until one morning I woke up and realized I was 43 years old and still hadn’t met Prince Charming. It felt like I was in a house on fire and all my alarms were going off, with a frantic voice in my head screaming, “What if you are 60 years old and haven’t had the experience of being a mother?” All of a sudden I jerked awake as if from a “bad” dream. Unknowingly, I had veered way off the path I’d originally thought I was taking and as I looked down the road of the path I was on, it was childless. This realization prompted me to find the courage to see the fork in the road and take the path less traveled.
To Go or Not to Go? Supporting My Children in their Own College Decisions, by Teresa Graham Brett
“It doesn’t matter to me whether Martel chooses to go to college or not. I just want him to be happy.” As I uttered those words, a look of shock flickered over the faces of the staff sitting in my office. At the time I made that declaration, I was Dean of Students at the University of Texas at Austin. I had spent the last 13 years working in universities as an administrator and Martel was just over a year old. As it came out of my mouth I knew that what I said ran counter to what the vast majority of my colleagues believed. When I’ve reflected on that, I sometimes believe I said it on purpose. I could have easily fluffed over the conversation, but I wanted to offer a different, perhaps even a radical perspective, from someone who was supposed to believe that college was the ultimate path to success.
During the time I was working at UT-Austin, we hadn’t yet chosen to homeschool nor had we embraced child-led learning. But I knew in my heart that college wasn’t right for everyone. Without a doubt, a college education opens doors for many individuals and families. I had spent much of my career working with students who were from low-income families, were students of color, or first-generation college students. I had seen the power that college had to transform the lives of students. I had also seen the power that college had to diminish the spirit.
Change is…Shockingly Normal, by Kate Fridkis
In the four months since Eden was born, I’ve learned that it’s OK to let a baby interrupt your life. Sometimes it’s in the interruptions that the meaning grows. Sometimes it’s in the interruptions that you grow, too. I am not the same person I was before. I’m a mother now. Everything is different. I wanted to let myself become different, which is why I made an entire new human being. Can you really do that and not be altered?
But also, there are some things about myself that I want to try to preserve, and those things are a challenge. I worry that they will interrupt my time with Eden. I worry that I won’t like myself without them. I can’t help but feel a little guilty for not being my mom. And at the same time I feel lucky for the choices I have. For being able to afford to hire a babysitter for a few hours a week, or not. I know I have different dreams than my mom. I also don’t have her boundless energy. And Eden isn’t as needy, after all, as I was. In fact, because she isn’t just like me after all, I don’t yet know exactly what she needs and what will work well for her and what will work poorly. I have to wait and pay attention and keep learning. And then I will have to fit our needs and wants together and try to make a life we both really enjoy.
Divine Illiteracy, by John Taylor Gatto
One clear sign of an educated mind is its “openness,” by which I mean its ability to challenge conventional teachings about the nature of reality. Educated intellects are ever ready to challenge conventional assumptions where EVIDENCE warrants (however uncomfortable rocking the boat makes them feel). For instance, would you listen seriously to a man who could neither read nor write and had no diplomas who asked you to believe that the world was not round, but egg-shaped. Why not listen? That costs nothing. As Aristotle said thousands of years ago, “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Does that seem ridiculous to you, my request to pay attention to such a fool? But of course, this illiterate man I refer to was a desert dwelling Arab and he turned out to be correct!
Long before analyses of rational Enlightenment science announced that earth’s shape was that of an oblate spheroid instead of a ball, an Arab illiterate named Muhammad ibn Abdullah pronounced it so in a holy book known in the western world as the KORAN, in which he claimed to have been dictated to write that as fact given him by the angel Gabriel. How would an illiterate Arab businessman have known such a demonstrable scientific “fact” if rationality lived fully up to the claims of its adherents? Suspend your judgmental ways if you wish to cultivate a superior intellect and be cautious especially about knowledge you are certain must be true if you hope to reach the pinnacle of an educated mind.
Does Unschooling Have Natural Limits?, by Krystal Trammell
We’ve unschooled for the better part of 12 years now and it’s definitely been an ongoing evolution of both theory and process. Unschooling may sound like a destination at first, but trust me: It’s very much a never ending, fascinating journey. Many families start out “just” unschooling academics, but taking a step back from arbitrary control in one area of life tends to be contagious. >From the way we eat, to our daily routines; what discipline means to us; how we communicate with our children–everything is touched and ultimately shifted by the unschooling paradigm, if we allow it to shift us.
In truth, however, there are layers upon layers of shifts–tiny, sometimes almost imperceptible, building upon one another over months and years, until one day we realize how far we’ve come. Many times we’re quite pleased with the changes that have taken place, but sometimes those shifts are accompanied with a certain uneasiness or apprehension. Perhaps it’s just a vague feeling that something’s not right, or perhaps it’s as sharp as the pain that comes from stepping on your child’s abandoned legos in the middle of the night!
Although the unschooling lifestyle tends to be extremely well-received among children, parents can have misgivings about it for a plethora of reasons. In striving to zealously support and accommodate our children’s passions and feelings, we may feel (consciously or subconsciously) that our own needs and happiness as parents are somehow being left out of the equation.
Brain-Based Learning for Unschoolers, by Suki Wessling
We know that just like with athletic ability, the important thing is that children are using and exercising their brains. This is important in different ways at different ages:
Babies and toddlers need tactile experiences. The more babies interact with the physical world and with other humans, the more they learn.
Younger children need to be allowed to explore. Trapping them in the same room every day and restricting them to the same curriculum doesn’t take advantage of their natural inclination to learn through experimentation and exploration.
Research shows that during the early teen years, ages 10 to 13, a large amount of “pruning” happens–brain connections that are not being used are discarded. So the early teens, contrary to common belief, are not just a time of social growth. These children need to be inspired to use their brains optimally at this important time.
Our teens need meaningful work, and at the same time, they need a lot more support than our culture is inclined to give them. Unschoolers are lucky in that we can foster strong mentoring relationships with our teens. At this time in their lives, teens need to be allowed to “steer the boat,” while knowing that we are there to back them up if their still-forming executive function is not up to the task.
Living and Loving the Consensual Flow of Life, by Tracey Liebmann
When I began my homeschooling journey in 2003 I had no idea how many doors would open, how many belief systems would be challenged and how my life would be changed forever! Yes, the initial reasons for choosing to homeschool changed along with our styles of homeschooling; yet, the greatest change was with my relationship with my children and how I parented. For me, well for us, our relationships have benefited most from the evolution of our homeschooling decision to unschool. After making the leap to unschooling, I realized I needed to take a closer look at my parenting, and why I reacted and made the decisions I made regarding my children.
Relationships are critical to our happiness and well-being. Our happiness and well-being are critical to our ability to learn. From the beginning I wanted to respect, love and nurture my children. From day one of motherhood I wanted to raise happy, well-adjusted kids. I had NO idea what I was doing or how to go about that. I read, I talked, I got so much bad advice! The truth is, it’s not actually all that complicated. If you stay in tune with your heart and natural mothering instincts, you can’t go wrong. It’s when you listen to others that you will most likely run into problems
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