Although we’d tried to choose the least school-like environment we could––a tiny Montessori school in the redwoods––being trapped in a classroom and having to follow rules that made no sense to her was too much for her to handle. The behavioral difficulties started immediately; we went through two aides before I finally started attending school with her. A few weeks after my return to kindergarten, I had to admit that I didn’t blame her. School was clearly not the right place for her (or me).
In homeschool, however, she thrived. The child who couldn’t fill out a worksheet won first prize at the science fair. The child who had no interest in learning math facts got an honorable mention in a national invention contest.
Like many unschoolers, we largely ignored grade-based benchmarks and focused instead on making sure that she had a rich, varied life. She developed interests in Pi, ancient Greece, and horses. We devoured audiobooks while driving to events at our homeschool cooperative. She made movies, wrote stories, turned our kitchen into a restaurant, invented the Baby Space Program (complete with baby doll astronauts), hunted for mushrooms, wrote a book of spells, adopted a pair of darkling beetles, and started a newspaper called Fantabulous Inventions.
“I want to go to school”
Despite our rich unschooling life, she never lost her fascination with school. Partly, I know it was Harry Potter’s fault. Every time she went through a phase of reading and rereading Potter, she asked to go back to school again. Yes, she knew that she wouldn’t have potions class, but she was interested in this right of passage that has such an important place in children’s literature.
For a few years we put off the decision simply by pointing out that she’d have to get out of bed at 6:30 and eat breakfast promptly. For a kid who loved to sit in bed and read until she was “really hungry,” this was a big change.
But last summer, something happened: she became unwilling to back down, cheerfully adopting a positive point of view on all the negatives: Get out of bed? She’d get more done! Have to bring lunch to school? She wouldn’t have to figure out what to eat every day! Get locked in a room with 31 other kids every day? At least she wouldn’t have to be home with mom, dad (who works in a home office), and brother––she’d make new friends.
I had mixed feelings. My other job is writing about education, and in that capacity I’d had plenty of opportunity to explore what has gone wrong with our public schools. I knew that her unusual interests and choice to dress in boys’ clothing could make her a target for bullies. I knew that her considerable strengths as a homeschooler would seldom be highlighted in a classroom. I knew that what school education does value––following directions, writing neatly, finding the “right” answer––was not her forte.
In my family’s unschooling life, however, one principle is paramount: we honor our children’s goals and see our role as providing support to achieve those goals. She wanted to go to school––who was I to tell her that this wasn’t a goal worth pursuing?
Behind enemy lines
Come August, we found ourselves walking onto the campus of our local elementary school, feeling a bit like spies in enemy territory. But our reception was surprising and gratifying: the incoming student council, meeting in a courtyard, kindly showed us where her room would be and gave us the beef on her potential teachers. Later, we remarked to each other that one girl on the student council had a fauxhawk––my daughter wouldn’t be the only girl with short hair.
I have to admit that we went into this experiment with heavily reorganized priorities. In our unschooling life, a successful day, week, or month is one in which my children are challenged, achieve creative goals, and learn more about the world around them. In my daughter’s school life, I set one unvoiced, straightforward goal: That she get through the year unscathed emotionally and better equipped to judge the value of her education.
Having heard for years other homeschoolers’ experiences with school, I was on guard for a number of possible pitfalls:
Her teacher would blame her deficiencies on homeschooling
It’s not uncommon for homeschoolers returning to school to meet up with hostile teachers. No matter what challenges the student might have been facing going into homeschooling, any deficiencies noted by antagonistic teachers will be attributed to the child’s being homeschooled. And antagonistic teachers don’t necessarily keep their opinions to themselves; many a formerly homeschooled child has been told by teachers that their parents caused their problems by homeschooling.
She would be shunned or bullied by conformist public school kids
One of the great things about unschooling is that it allows our children to develop naturally, without pressure from school culture. Children who have unusual attributes at the outset are not pressured to conform. Children who might have fit in well in school are allowed to grow and express themselves. We were definitely a family that turned to unschooling because we were already far from the norm, and I was concerned what a vicious student culture might do to my unusual person’s sense of self.
She would be made to feel “stupid” because her strengths are not rewarded in the public school curriculum
One of the most important conversations she and I had to have was about homework. I warned her that she’d have homework, and that she would be judged not by how creative she was or how well she knew the material, but by how neat and correct her answers would be written on worksheets. Given that worksheets were the bane of her existence, I feared that she would lose the confidence that creative expression had instilled in her.
Her old battles with self-control would be rekindled once she was in a rule-heavy atmosphere each day
We had gone through long years of occupational therapy, various behavioral approaches, and dietary changes to find the cheerful, energetic, creative dynamo that we now had. I remembered with dread the voices of teachers past––I’d like to check in with you about your daughter’s behavior today”…“we need to talk about circle time”…“have you had her assessed for ADHD/autism/ODD…”
So far so good…
It’s only November, so all the data from our year-long social science experiment isn’t in yet. But in many ways, I think we’ve been lucky. Her teacher is a credit to his profession: caring, flexible, and as creative as public school will let him be. He has been extremely respectful of my experience, using me as a resource to help him work with our daughter better, rather than dismissing me as an intrusive parent.
Homework, as well as in-class work, has been as good as we could expect. So far, the emphasis has been heavy on her weakest skills: math calculation instead of math concepts, analytical reading rather than creative exploration, writing from prompts rather than from interest. But at least her teacher has been flexible enough that she and I haven’t had (many) battles about doing assignments the way he wants rather than the way that makes sense to her.
The truly gratifying thing has been that homeschooling has apparently prepared her perfectly for the challenges of public school “socialization”! I asked her about whether there are cliques in her school, and I loved her incisive social analysis. “There’s a very strict rule that if you’re excluding someone you get benched, and you might even get a referral, so it’s basically no excluding,” she explained. “But anyway, most people like that you don’t want to be near because they’re the biggest idiots in the school!”
In fact, she says, schooled kids are pretty much like homeschooled kids, with some key differences. “They are the same as homeschoolers except that they tend to wear shoes!” she says. “[School kids] probably follow rules worse because homeschoolers aren’t used to rules so they think they have to obey them or something bad will happen, but school kids are totally used to them, so they’re like, ‘I don’t care’.”
And how the rules affect her? My girl who got so confused about the myriad rules in her little Montessori preschool has come a long way. “I don’t care about all the rules because nothing happens to me because I’m not getting benched or getting referrals,” she says. “You have to do something pretty bad. And the kids [who do bad things] don’t tend to get in trouble because the teacher says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s him again’.”
Our year-long social science experiment, it seems, is chugging along nicely. It’s gratifying to see solid evidence that our homeschooling has hardly hurt her ability to function under school rules and expectations, and also gratifying that she is clearly not taking it seriously. She knows that if she does “get benched” at school because the rules don’t make sense to her, unschooling will still be there for her.
I love seeing my confident, well-prepared unschooler setting off each day to conduct her observations and continue to learn the curriculum that she has written for herself. So far, the plan is to return to homeschooling next year. And if all she gets out of this year is a better sense of the freedom and responsibility of unschooling, I’ll consider it a success.
This article appeared in the May-June 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine
Suki writes about parenting, education, gifted children, and homeschooling. She also homeschools her children and serves on two non-profit boards. Her book, From School to Homeschool, is a manual to help parents transition from a school-based to homeschool-based mindset. More information at www.SukiWessling.com.