Tuesday, December 18, 2007


My blog has been included in another Blog Carnival......yippeee! If you are interested in reading a clever compilation of posts from homeschoolers from an assortment of styles and perspectives, check it out......a great way to see who else is out there writing about homeschooling. Thanks to The Common Room for hosting. It's an honor to be included.

By the way, when you read something you like, be sure to leave a comment....we bloggers love that!

Unschooling the Nutcracker Ballet

Last week, if you had asked, I would have reported that I was officially in Nutcracker hell. The girls will be performing this weekend in the Nutcracker Ballet. Last July, when they begged to audition, it felt like a fantastic idea. In the summertime, we often attend Ballet in the Park. We pack a picnic dinner and watch professional dancers perform on an outdoor stage. It's wonderful. At the end of one of the performances this summer, the director announced that auditions were being held for the Nutcracker Ballet. Children of all ages were encouraged to attend. We're unschoolers, we say yes to all kinds of new and exciting opportunities. Auditioning for a big-time ballet performance, complete with professional dancers and amazing costumes seemed like a great experience. And a long shot. I figured they'd get a chance to see what a big time audition was like, get politely dismissed, and we'd all once again watch the Nutcracker Ballet safely from our seats in the audience. I was wrong. Both girls were cast, in multiple roles. Rehearsals began in October and were very tame at first. Weekends only, pretty low key. I was pleasantly surprised at how well we were navigating the world of serious ballet.

The girls have taken dance for years, but never serious dance. To me, the whole point of unschooling is to try lots and lots of cool stuff for a long, long time before getting serious. They're kids! They've got their whole lives to get serious, right? So far, none of them have latched on to any one thing long enough to warrant serious commitment. Last week, this Nutcracker production launched into full-fledged, serious commitment, and I was not happy about it. Rehearsal schedules changed at the last minute, multiple times. Rehearsals ran late. Expensive hair pieces I didn't even know existed needed to be special ordered. I ran around town trying to buy white knee socks. When was the last time you shopped for white knee socks? Not fun. Nutcracker hell.

I couldn't remember why in the world I had agreed to all this. Suddenly at rehearsals, I felt completely out of place. This wasn't my world. We're not a serious ballet family. We're unschoolers. We're not cut out for this. In the midst of my ballet panic attack, a friend asked how the girls were doing with it all. I was so caught up in how hassled I felt by the whole thing, I had forgotten to check in with them. The kids. The whole reason I agreed to this in the first place. When we talked about it later that night, the girls seemed fine. More than fine. They were having the time of their lives. We talked about the intensity of rehearsals and the impatience of the older dancers and the director. They explained that it really didn't bother them. They loved it and couldn't wait to perform on the big, big stage. I breathed a sigh of relief and took the weekend to rearrange my own attitude about the whole thing.

This week, it all feels much different. Dress and Tech rehearsals have begun, costumers and stage managers are freaking out. I, however, am cool as a cucumber. Tonight, Charley and I stayed for rehearsal. When we walked upstairs to the glassed in viewing area, there was an excitement in the air that I hadn't felt there before. It took just a moment for me to realize what was different. The principal dancers had arrived. All of a sudden scenes I had been watching absentmindedly for months came to life with an intensity and passion that was remarkable. My girls, and the other amateur dancers, watched in awe and met the adult dancers' skill with a newfound grace and confidence. They were sharing the stage with real, live, professional dancers.

Every year, a team of professional dancers travel 300 miles from a much larger city with multiple ballet companies, to perform the principal roles in our Nutcracker Ballet. They descend upon our small town studio just days before opening night to put the whole show together. I've known this all along. We've seen the Nutcracker almost every year since we moved here. The Sugar Plum Fairy never disappoints. The male dancers can leap and lift just as well as the ones in New York or San Francisco, I'm sure. It's just that in the midst of my little tantrum last week, I didn't remember all that. I also had no idea how it would feel to actually sit and watch them all rehearse. With my girls...on the same stage. Whoa. It was a privilege. I get chills just thinking about it.

As we walked out of the studio, we were all buzzing with excitement. The girls giggled and squealed about what it was like to finally rehearse the party scene with the real Drosselmeyer. I could hardly get a word in edge wise. I was just as excited as them. As we chatted on the way home I took a moment to apologize for my attitude. "Remember last week when I was all grouchy and irritated with all the Nutcracker madness?" I said.
"You mean when you told us we could never, ever be in the Nutcracker, ever again?" Macy asked.
"Yeah, that," I replied sheepishly. "Well, I'm sorry I was so negative. I'm really happy that you guys are having such a good time. I really can't wait for opening night."
"Does that mean you're not mad anymore about how expensive the hair pieces were?" Janey teased.
"Okay," I admitted, "I'm still not thrilled about that, but I'm really, really proud of you guys. This is a really big deal, and you've handled it so well."

And they really have. Who knows? This could be the beginning of a lifetime of serious (or not so serious) dance for one, or all of my children (god, I hope not). But that's the beautiful thing about unschooling. We won't know until we're there.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Quiet Meal At Home

It's been a long, hectic, crazy week. News from my surgeon on Tuesday was good: No tumor! Hooray. This news early in week allowed me to plunge ahead full speed into the busy-ness of life without school, with three kids during the holidays, later in the week. The part that really confuses me, though, is why this week has been so chaotic. I don't even do most of the things that create chaos for most people at this time of year. I don't shop. I'm not baking for the entire neighborhood. I'm not writing Christmas cards and sewing costumes for the pageant. What gives?

I suppose that simply being a single parent, with three kids who are active and involved, who get around without a car, is enough. At lunch yesterday, we all sat down at the table. Janey was the first to notice that it was the first time we had all sat down for a meal together, in our own home, all week. Now that, is some kind of crazy. The number of meals that we are cooking at home and eating together at home is certainly a barometer for me on how we're doing as a family. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief as we ate lunch and talked about the week. We reviewed the events and rehearsals and meetings and Parks Days and festivals. All of them were fun. We felt grateful to have so many cool opportunities to be involved and get together and spend time with people that we enjoy. However, we also all agreed that it was too much. We didn't have enough down time. I was frazzled and grouchy most of the week. The kids were tired and stressed. And in a few short hours, they would be leaving to go to their dad's house for the weekend. Bummer. Just when we were all ready to settle in and just be together, it was time for them to go.

That's the thing about unschooling. The kids aren't occupied by a school scheduled Monday through Friday. We are free to say YES! when cool stuff comes our way. That's my favorite part, actually. Being able to say yes when opportunities come up. But sometimes saying no is the better choice. That's the tough part for me. I've always been very comfortable staying busy. As I've become older, and a bit wiser, I'm learning to be comfortable not being busy as well.

So this weekend, I am getting some much needed rest, and doing a lot of thinking about what, if anything, we might be able to cut out for next week. It's already gearing up to be a whole lot more of the same: going in nine different directions, all day long, for days on end. There are a few commitments that we've made that we won't back out of. But I'm thinking about what we can let go of for the sake of sanity, and a few more quiet meals at home.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Why worry?

I'm not typically a worrier. I can usually send my kids off down the street on their bikes without me just fine. I might call after them, "Be safe!" or "Keep your eyes open!" but once they're gone I don't really worry...that much. This weekend I spent a lot of time worrying. Not so much about my kids, well, sort of about my kids, but mostly about me.

I have this pesky bone tumor. Well, I had this pesky bone tumor. It was removed last February. The pesky part is that it happens to be the kind of tumor that likes to grow back. Because of that, I travel 300 miles to a big time hospital with big time specialists every four months to have my wrist x-rayed to make sure it isn't coming back. This summer, at my last appointment, I impressed the surgeon so much with my speedy recovery, amazing mobility, and clean x-ray that I figured I was out of the woods, so to speak. My wrist started bothering me a lot this weekend. It freaked me out. I began to worry.

I have heard it said that, "If you worry, why pray? If you pray, why worry?" Which I really believe is true. 95% of what we worry about never ends up happening anyway. Right? Why bother? It seems like wasted energy to me. But I did it anyway. I spent about 24 hours feeling afraid and quite sorry for myself. I suppose that the one good thing that came out of all that worry was a fair amount of gentleness and compassion for myself. We moms spend an enormous amount of time and energy feeling gentleness, sweetness, and love for our children. When was the last time you did that for yourself....really?

So I worried and played the "What if?" game for a whole day, and now I'm done. As my friend says, "There's nothing to worry about until there's something to worry about." Right? I'll be at the doctor tomorrow afternoon. Pray for clean x-rays. But don't worry.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

'Tis the Season

Last night I helped out a friend by sitting in her booth at a craft fair so she could take a break. My friend Trace is an amazing seamstress, artist, and activist. Her tote bags and hand towels are the kinds of gifts I want to give. They are beautiful works of art, made from mostly re-claimed fabrics. She only purchases organic hemp-cotton blends and she hand dyes everything. She is a true artist.

For the past few years I have been inching my way toward buying less and less, especially around the holidays. The kids and I prefer to make homemade gifts. One year the kids did simple line drawings and I had them xeroxed onto recycled paper and made into note pads. Last year we made beeswax candles. It's been so long since I've actually been Christmas shopping that I'm often surprised by the traffic and congestion downtown at this time of year. This year I don't have one big project planned, but I know for sure that anything I don't make myself will be locally made, by someone I can look in the eye and thank for their craftsmanship.

Try it! Buy local. Before you buy, try to imagine whether or not your purchase will likely end up in the landfill in 5 years. And check out Trace's website. Every little bit counts.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Presume Goodwill

It was raining all day today, and I forgot my rain pants. That really, really sucks when you use your bike as your primary form of transportation. The good news is that I didn't forget to make sure the kids had their's. A cold, wet mom is a whole lot easier to deal with than three cold, wet kids. I was able to get warm and sort of dry for a few hours while the kids played at our Unschoolers' Park Day (held at an indoor play-cafe when it's raining). A cup of coffee and great conversation helped me forget about my wet feet and soaked jeans for a while.

When it was time to go, my friend and I did some kid swapping. It was still pouring, so we decided I would take the four kids and two bikes to the bus stop and we would bus home. The bus was late. Did I mention that I was cold and wet? When it finally pulled up, ten minutes late, there was only one spot left in the bike rack on the front of the bus. I shuttled the kids to the door and proceeded to load my larger bike onto the rack. I figured Macy's smaller bike could come on the bus with me. I was wrong.

"That bike's not coming on this bus," growled the driver. I was stunned.
"Excuse me?" I replied. "This has never been a problem before. People bring bikes on the bus all the time."
"Not on my bus." He stared straight ahead.
My mind went blank. What was I supposed to do now? I couldn't even think. The kids looked at me for an answer.

Not long ago I was at a workshop. The speaker was challenging us to assume the best of people in all circumstances. He suggested that we "Presume Goodwill" in all our affairs. I have a tendency to do this anyway in life, but I appreciated the reminder. It is my experience that people rarely intend to cause harm. In this case, however, I was struggling to presume goodwill on the part of the bus driver. How could one little bike really affect him? Come on, help me out. He was just being mean.

"Seriously," I asked again, "you are seriously not going to let me bring this bike on the bus?" Surely he would cave any minute. I was wet, cold, miserable, and had four kids staring at me. He refused to back down.
"You're holding me up."
"You bet I am," I thought to myself. Presume goodwill....yeah right. If I had been alone, it's possible that I would have said rude things I would later regret. With four kids staring at me, I decided to hold it together and take the high road. I took a deep breath and proceeded to swap my bike for Macy's bike in the rack. I told the kids to sit down and to get off at our stop in front of our house. I would ride home and meet them there. I took off in front of the bus, furious.

The first mile of the downtown route is slow for buses and cars, and fast for bikes. We played leap frog, that grouchy bus driver and I, several times. Each time I passed the bus, I felt strong and powerful and elated. Each time the bus passed me I cussed and swore and said things outloud to myself that I will never have to explain to my children. As cold as I was, I was going to beat that bus home if it killed me. As I rode home the second mile and the bus turned off to loop around the other side of town, I composed my letter of complaint to the bus company. How dare he! And so rude on top of it all. I was all fired up. When I got home, I knew I still had five minutes before the bus came. I parked my bike and ran inside to get the phone. As I explained my complaint I was politely told that bikes on the bus are up to the driver's discretion. Well, that just figures. This complaint wasn't going far.

As the kids got off the bus, and I lifted Macy's bike out of the rack, I avoided eye contact with the driver. I was still mad. And cold. The kids shared a few stories about experiences they had had with the grouchy driver. He's always like that, they said. He never smiles. He gets mad if you take too long fishing for quarters. We talked about one of my favorite sayings, "What other people say and do is a reflection of them, not of you." This was one grouchy driver. Could I possibly presume goodwill? Could he have had a reason for not letting me bring that bike on the bus? Maybe he can't help it. Maybe his cat died. Maybe he hates his job.

Later that evening the kids went to their dad's and I took the bus downtown to meet a friend for dinner. As I waited at the bus stop, I thought how ironic it would be if it was the same grouchy driver. It was, but he wasn't grouchy. Several of us filed onto the bus and he greeted each one of us with a smile. He even got chatty with a woman sitting near the front. I was amazed. He was a completely different person. I almost didn't recognize him. He wasn't grouchy. I wasn't cold and wet anymore. People change. Feelings change. Presume goodwill. Maybe he wasn't out to get me after all. My heart warmed. When I told the kids the next morning about my experience with the not-so-grouchy driver, they smiled knowingly. "See, Mom," said Macy, "He just woke up on the wrong side of the bed."

General Knowledge

I had a conversation with another unschooling mom not long ago. We were talking about the way that concerned family members express their doubts about unschooling. She shared that her mom rarely asks about their unschooling way of life because it's just easier not to know all the details. My friend figures that by not asking for details, her mom can create her own, more easily digestible version of what their homeschooling life looks like. This makes sense to me. I can only imagine how confusing it must be for people not familiar with the ideas behind unschooling.

My friend did go on to report, however, that her mom recently asked a few questions. They were chatting on the phone and her mom asked how the kids were and what they were up to. After my friend's response that they were fine and that they were really enjoying their circus class, her mom paused. "Honey? I'm just wondering," she stammered. "How are they going to get, you know....general knowledge, without ever having been to school?" My friend and I laughed as she continued telling me about the conversation.

General knowledge. Hmmmmm. Let's see. Did she mean those mundane and completely irrelevant details that we all spent hours and hours memorizing in school so that we can to this day amaze our friends when we play Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy? I don't know about you, but I didn't learn "general knowledge" in a classroom. I learned it everywhere else.

Today at our Unschoolers' Park Day, we were discussing the various forms of this supposed general knowledge. Is it the information one needs in order to navigate the world around them? Is it a set of skills that allow someone to perform a particular task? Could it be that general knowledge is simply the term people use to describe the kind of "smarts" that a person should have so that they don't appear to be stupid or ignorant? We went around the table and shared about times in our lives when we felt like we "should" have known something that we in fact did not. Mostly our experiences conveyed feelings of inadequacy, that horrible sense of feeling foolish.

The thing about our unschooled kids, though, is that they have yet to experience that feeling of: "I should know this, and I don't...what will they think of me?" If you don't believe that memorizing irrelevant bits of information to please and amaze your teachers and friends is important, than it doesn't matter anyway. I shared in a post recently that my daughter Macy didn't even flinch when a well meaning friend asked her to name a particular state on the map. When I say she didn't flinch, I don't mean that she answered the question immediately. She didn't. Rather, she asked a question in return: Why? I was stunned, and proud. I took her question to mean: What relevance does that bit of information have for you and why are you putting me on the spot?

My unschooling friends and I agreed that in this day and age, it takes about 12 seconds to Google something and find out that little factoid you never knew. I recall at some point in Junior High or High School memorizing the three branches of our US government and their particular functions. I probably passed that test and maybe even wrote a paper about it. I don't remember that information today. It is not relevant for me in my day to day life. Anyway, if I really need to know more about US Government, I can call up my good friend Maud, who knows a ton. She grew up in DC and has always been a political activist. It's an important skill to know who to ask.

My kids are learning that I don't know everything and that learning who to ask is half the fun. At a family gathering recently a distant relative asked about homeschooling, "So, you are the children's only teacher?" I smiled and tried not to laugh. I politely explained that I was only one of many, and that I learn as much from my children as they are learning from me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It's working!

We've got a whole lotta readin', writin', and knittin' goin' on at our house. Last night, as I was doing the dinner dishes (okay, breakfast and lunch, too) and chatting on the phone, I realized that each one of my kids had found their own little corner of the house and was completely absorbed in a project. Janey, 11, was upstairs in her room knitting and listening to a book on tape. Charley, 6, was sitting at the table writing out a note for Santa to paste on the front window. This from a child who had zero interest in letters and reading until 4 days ago. Macy, 9, was parked on the couch (as she had been all day) playing herself in a game of Monopoly. (fascinating to watch, she actually knew who was winning - "I'm winning and losing, Mom"). From time to time she would take a break (perhaps to let her other half contemplate her next move?) to read the chapter book she's almost done with. It was an amazing moment, when I hung up the phone and dried my hands, to realize that my kids have reached that stage of being able to occupy themselves. Sometimes for more than a few minutes!

The most amazing piece in all of this awareness for me, is that these are the times when I know for sure that what we do is "working." This is very different than saying that it always works, of course. I have multiple moments most every day where I question my ability to even be a parent, let alone raise kids as unschoolers. Especially when we are driving each other bananas or are irritable or bored. But regardless of the mood in the house or the events of a particular day, I look to moments like this for the validation that I need in order to carry on in this way another day.

Unschooling, for me, is about taking what works and running with it. My kids have no need for me to teach them in an academic way. They are perfectly capable of asking questions when they want answers and letting me know in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that they need something from me. To me, unschooling is simply an extension of the kind of parenting most parents do when their children are very young. Young children have needs, lots of them. Most parents spend the bulk of their days attending to and meeting those needs. The learning (schooling, in this case) happens organically. A toddler has a need to get outside to run around and play. A parent may use that time to show the child how to hold hands crossing the street or how to share a favorite toy. The child may point up in the sky at an airplane passing overhead, which may lead to a conversation about things that fly. We still do that. It just gets more involved.

Today we were standing in line at the post office. A man several people in front of me had a very unhappy toddler in his arms. The little boy was squirming and whining and kicking his feet. He had major needs. His needs were being ignored. These moments are always tough for me. I smiled at the boy, who was facing me. The woman behind me played peek-a-boo with him, hoping to distract him from his discomfort. As I forced myself to suspend all judgment of this man's lack of attention to his child (we've all been there), I reflected on the ways that we tend to ignore the needs of children, especially those who cannot yet speak. In my experience, sometimes all a child needs is to feel heard. I wanted so badly to validate that small child's needs in line at the post office. I wanted to reach out and touch his sweet face and tell him that I heard him. That I could see how uncomfortable he was and how hard it is to wait. He didn't need words to tell me. I could see that he had something to say.

Unschooling has taught me that kids often have something important to say. My challenge is to help provide an atmosphere where their voices can be heard.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

New Post up at the Life Without School Community Blog

I have a new post up today at the other blog called Life Without School. It's a response to a reader's question about how you can unschool as a single parent. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a magazine style blog with a variety of contributors. I'm one of them. Check it out.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Salute - A Quick and Easy Math Game (that doesn't feel schoolish at all)

I don't typically teach my kids things in a traditional way. We unschool, so things come up as we move through our life and we learn about them as they happen. Because I was a teacher, way back when, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but mostly I follow their lead and try to get creative when they ask for something specific.

Lately, we've been playing tons of games. One of my favorite math games is called Salute. It is a simple card game that practices addition and subtraction facts. It can be used for multiplication and division as well. I worked with a principal many years ago who taught this to me. All you need are three people and a deck of cards. I use what I call leftover decks. You know all those decks of cards that are missing a few? Don't throw them away. They come in very handy. Depending upon the skill level of the children, I sort the deck, pulling out all face cards and higher numbers, if necessary.

Once you have your deck of digits, deal them to two players (called flippers). The third player will play, but will not need any cards. The three players sit in a triangle. The two players with cards begin by each flipping over their top card and holding it to their foreheads so that the other two players can see them. It is important that they not look at their own cards, only the card of the other card flipper. The two flippers should now have cards on their foreheads. The third player adds up the two digits and calls out the sum. The two flippers now subtract the number they can see (the flipper sitting opposite them) from the sum to get the number shown on their own card. They then call out their number.

Players can take turns being flippers and non-flippers to practice both subtraction and addition. It's fun, fast and a great way to play around with math.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Childhood Dreams

Janey, age 11, told me this afternoon that her childhood dream was coming true. We laughed because the other day I told her gleefully that my childhood dream had finally come true. It only took 29 years, but I finally got my very own pair of Dorothy Hamill ice skates. White, never been used, they even have the blade guards on them, and I only paid $7.99 for them at Goodwill. I love it when that happens. Every Christmas, from the time I was about 8 years old, that was all I wanted to show up under the tree. White ice skates, just like Dorothy Hamill. We skated at the outdoor rink in our town this weekend and I couldn't stop smiling.

Janey didn't have to wait quite as long. She finally has her own room. It's been an exhausting day of disassembling furniture, reassembling furniture, unpacking bookshelves, repacking bookshelves, sorting through books and clothes and crap. It's been fun and not so fun and I'm pretty sure the chaos of moving will all be over tomorrow, but Janey finally has her own room.

I've been resisting this for months. We live in a very small house, and finding a private space for everyone is a huge challenge. Janey and her younger brother Charley have shared the big bedroom for almost a year. Over the past few months Janey has moved into a new developmental stage and her pesky brother can't do anything right. I had the smaller bedroom to myself and justified that because I work from home and need space for my desk. I couldn't imagine sharing my room. It would never work. Macy has the closet under the stairs and loves it. No chance she'd be willing to give that up. For a long time I held Janey off. I told her that converting the attic into a bedroom was too big a project for me right now, so she was just going to have to deal with sharing for a while longer.

The other night, it hit me. I had this huge shift. Janey has been so patient with her brother. She is discovering a new found independence and spends hours and hours alone reading, listening to music, writing letters and daydreaming, only to be interrupted by a busy, noisy 6 year old constantly. As the oldest of four, I remember all too well what it was like to crave the quiet of my very own room. I didn't get mine until the summer before I turned 15. As I reflected on Janey's needs and got clear about my own, I realized that Charley and I could easily share a room. He takes up very little space and ends up in bed with me most nights anyway. It was a perfect solution.

Even though I'm exhausted, and there is still so much to put away, it feels so good to be able to give Janey what she needs right now. I think this new arrangement is really going to work. Knowing us, it will all shake up and change in 6 months anyway. Raising kids and unschooling have taught me to stretch my ideas of what will work. Once again I've had the humbling experience of realizing that my kids really do know what they need most of the time. All I have to do is pay attention.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Proud, Car-Free Mama

I am so proud of my kids right now. I knew I'd better write about it fast, before the wind changes and they are driving me nuts.

I finally sold the van. There was a big part of me that really, honestly, never thought it would actually sell. I mean saying that you're going to sell your car and go car free is all well and good, but actually being car free is a very different story. We've officially been car free for 6 days, and I'm so darn proud of my kids. They've ridden home, on their bikes, in the dark, in the cold, after long, full, fun days out in the world, and they are still smiling.

I've heard it said that it takes ninety days to kick a habit, and I think that's just about how long it took us to break our car habit. At the end of August I made the decision to not fix the van and posted it for sale. Although we had already been biking and taking the bus from time to time, I sat the kids down and explained that we needed to seriously commit ourselves to using the van less. The sweltering heat of the summer was subsiding and we began to pretty much walk and ride everywhere.

The first few weeks, the kids would walk to the car anytime it was time to go somewhere. I would remind them that we were biking and the whining would begin. "I'm too tired." "It's too far." "I hate my bike." As we moved into late September, the whining shifted to a low grumble. I started parking our van on the street and we began using our parking space for bike parking. I cleaned out the van so that it no longer stored extra shoes, jackets, water bottles, books, whatever. We were now down to driving once or twice a week, at most. By October, when the cold set in and we got some rain, the kids began begging me to take the bus rather than bike. Yeeesssss. That's when I knew we were on our way to kickin' the habit. They were begging me to let them take the bus. I think I'm in heaven.

The van sold last Tuesday. I got what I asked for, a very fair price, I thought. The new owners, a young couple with a 9 month old baby, were so excited they wanted to drive it away that night without even test driving it. As they drove away the next morning (I convinced them to come back in the morning so they could sleep on it and at least see it in broad daylight) the kids and I cheered. We did it! Then we looked at one another. It was really gone. "I feel kinda sad," Janey murmured. "I didn't realize that last night would be the last time I rode in our van. That's sad." I agreed. I was sad, too. And a little scared. Now we were really car free. Yikes.

The reason I'm so proud of my kids is that they have embraced being car free completely. It's been about ninety days, and we're no longer experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. When it's time to go somewhere, we grab our scarves and gloves and rain gear and we hop on our bikes. It refreshing and fun and good for us in so many ways. Tonight we were riding home from dinner at a friend's house. It was late, and very cold, but we were all excited about how invigorating the ride home would feel in the moonlight. At one point Macy shouted, "I'm hot and cold all at the same time.......weird!" My kids, and I are learning how to live a little lighter on this earth. And I am so proud.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Yesterday was one of those days when I couldn't remember why in the world I would choose to live life without school. School would mean a daily 8 hour break from the chaos. The kids were irritable and grouchy and bickered most of the morning. At one point I took a shower, just so that I could escape the negative vibes that were being thrown around the house.

And then, suddenly, without warning, it was peaceful. Janey and Charley were happily rearranging the furniture in their room. Macy was quietly sketching at the table downstairs. All was calm. How do they do that? In an instant, my kids went from angry, hate-filled creatures to angelic cherubs. It took me a few hours to recover. I was still reeling from the thought that my children were going to grow up to be psycho-paths who would never get along with anyone, ever, in the world. They were fine. They moved on. Just like that. Kids have an amazing ability to stay in the present. They teach me to forgive and move on. Just like that. Amazing.

Today is a new day, and my house is quiet because the kids are with their dad for the holiday. Today I am grateful for the stillness and at the same time, I am grateful for the way my home fills up with their energy when they come home. Today I am grateful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Wonderful World of Words

In a post not long ago (in a land not far away.....sorry, I couldn't resist) I mentioned that my 6 year old son Charley is completely uninterested in learning to read. As an unschooler, this doesn't concern me in the least. He's six. He has years and years to learn. He is active and busy and noisy and full of concoctions and projects and ideas, and someday, he will want to learn to read. Because we don't sit down at the kitchen table each day to do lessons, our learning happens spontaneously, within the context of our daily life. Charley has spent six years listening to his sisters spell out words and read street signs and follow recipes and today, the light bulb went on. I love it when this happens. It must be like how an engineer feels when they drive across the bridge they designed many years before.

I was sitting at my desk and he wandered into the room. He stood next to me for a few moments and began doodling on a piece of paper. A few more moments passed and he said, "Mom, is vomit spelled v-m-m?" I absent minded-ly replied that he was missing a few vowels, but was darn close. A moment later, I glanced at his paper and realized he was attempting to write the word vomit. I smiled and pointed out that he was hearing two of the sounds. Together we sounded out the o and the i, and then the t and he proudly wrote v-o-m-i-t on the paper. "Wow, Charley, you just wrote the word vomit!" He beamed.

As he was turning to walk out of the room, he giggled. "Hey Charley," I called, "why do you need to know how to spell vomit anyway?" He continued giggling. A few moments later, he asked me how to spell the words you and are. Then he asked me for the tape. Okay, so maybe it's not so nice to tape nasty signs on your big sister telling the world that she is vomit, but Charley, my six year old son is learning to read, and I'm proud.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Good Enough Parent

I've been thinking a lot lately about good parenting. I spend lots of time every day observing the ways in which we treat our children and how we, as parents, move through the world. So much of my daily energy is spent reading, writing, and talking about kids and unschooling and parenting, it's easy for me to place myself upon a pedestal as unschooler/mom/teacher/parent- extraordinaire. But I'm not. Clearly. I have a lot to learn and screw up daily in various ways.

What's really got me thinking this week is how we each, in our own way, judge the parenting of others. Lately I have had several situations come up with other families where conflict needed to be resolved between our children. Naturally, as parents, we each advocated for our own kids and struggled to be respectful of the needs of the other. In both of these situations, my child was the aggressor, the bully, the one who did wrong. No one wants to be the parent of the bad kid, and no one wants their kid to live with the belief that they are bad.

Way back when, when I was still teaching, and before my own kids had come along, I believed strongly that difficult children came from difficult parents. If the kids screwed up at school, it certainly meant that Mom and Dad were not doing their job at home. I remember sitting in parent teacher conferences listening to parents, puzzled about their child's inability to sit still or follow directions, or stay on task, thinking, "If I were the parent, this child would be much different." Not many teachers admit to this kind of arrogance, but I think it's pretty common. Especially for those of us who hadn't yet experienced the shock and awe of watching your sweet, beautiful, perfect child do something completely unmentionable right before your very eyes.

I remember my best friend Jodi, also a teacher with no kids of her own, admitting this very belief to me shortly after Janey, my oldest went through her 18 months of terrorist behavior at the age of 2. Janey was beautiful and sweet and rosey cheeked and lovely. She had these amazing blonde curls and big, bright eyes. She was the picture of innocence. One day, while we were standing in line at the bank, she wandered up to another little girl, several years older than her, and with a big smile and a casual glance over her shoulder in my direction, she yanked on the little girl's pony tail so hard, she brought that sweet, innocent little girl to the ground in one swoop. It was horrifying in every way. And it forever changed my naive belief that good parenting makes for perfectly well behaved children.

I've learned a lot in the 9 years that have followed that fateful day at the bank. I'd like to think that I've moved past the need to prove to the world that I'm a good parent. But it's tough. Especially when your kid does some thing bad. The good news is that I'm learning. I'm learning that there are as many ways to parent a child as there are children in this world. And many of them are good enough. I really do believe that as parents we all do the best we can. And I also believe that in respecting another's way, I am honoring my way. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do know what works for me. And that's good enough.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Homeschooling Sites of 2007

I just stumbled upon a contest for the best Homeschooling Site of the year. If you like this one, you can nominate me by clicking on the icon below (it's flashing, you can't miss it). If you could care less about this site or about contests, for that matter, clicking on that flashing icon will take you to a list of the sites people are nominating (listed individually in the comments section). Now that's super cool. If you have a site of your own, you can follow that same link to copy and paste the icon onto your site.

Yes, you can nominate yourself.

Yes, I did. It's good for my self esteem. So there.

Best Homeschooling Awards- Submit Nominations

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Wink

My daughter Janey is eleven years old and has a weekly babysitting job. She hangs out with a sweet and precocious two and half year old named Enny for about 3 hours. It has been an amazing thing, as her mom, to watch my little girl grow up right before my eyes. While she's babysitting, she is patient and kind. She is creative and laughs easily. If Enny innocently dumps out a box of 150 puzzle pieces, Janey giggles and calmly explains that it's clean up time. She doesn't lose her temper and she seems to have an endless supply of fun ideas and games at her fingertips at all times.

I remember fondly what it was like to have that kind of responsibility. It made me feel important and special and capable. I was the oldest child in my family as well, and babysitting for other families always came easily to me. As I wander in and out of the room on her babysitting days, I am amazed at this girl, my little girl, being slowly and gently transformed into a young woman.

The other day I was in the kitchen listening to Janey explaining to Enny that it was time to clean up the four games that were spread out on the floor. Enny didn't want to, but Janey insisted. "I wanna listen. Listen to Pooh," Enny protested, pointing to the stereo.
"The stereo's broken Enny, "Janey responded gently.
"No, I think it works just..." I blurted out before Janey cut me off as she peered over the pass through window and winked at me. You know, the wink.
"The stereo is broken right now Enny," she turned and winked at me again, "It's time for us to clean up and then we're going to go play outside." My jaw dropped.
"Outside! Outside!" Enny cheered and began putting Tinker Toys back into the bin. As they finished cleaning up and marched outside, I was overcome with emotion. Janey had learned the wink. Okay, she'd also learned that a little white lie can sometimes help move things along, but she had crossed the line from dependent child to capable, confident pre-teen babysitter. When did this happen? I was amazed.

Now, to be fair, she hasn't completely crossed that line for good. Just this morning I had to break up a pinching fight between she and her 6 year old brother over who was hogging the covers. Yesterday she complained for 20 minutes straight about how far we had to ride on our bikes to get to an appointment (it wasn't that far). She is only eleven, after all. But what a joy to watch her navigating her world and growing up little by little along the way.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Post Halloween Blues

They're here once again, The Post Halloween Blues. All that excitement, all those costumes, all that candy. As I write, Charley is curled up in my bed with a tummy ache. He's decided that today will be a "no candy" day. I really struggle with the junk food aspect of this holiday. I love the costumes and the parade downtown and the glowing pumpkins. Going door to door is so friendly and seems to bring out the sweetness in most people. But the mountains of crap that enters my home afterwards leaves me reeling.

For years, we lived out in the country and didn't really trick or treat. We'd dress up and visit friends or go to a party. Last year we moved to town and the onslaught began. I couldn't believe how much candy came back to our house. I'm sure it was no more than I had when I was a kid, but it felt like an assault of sorts. We eat well most of the time. Sugary treats are just that. A treat, and we tend to choose them carefully. So last year I struggled with how to unschool Halloween.

The girls are pretty even keeled about the whole thing. They seem to know when to say when and just don't care about junk food that much. Charley, age 6, is another story. He becomes obsessed. When a friend mentioned that the Halloween Witch visited their house on Halloween night and traded candy for a special toy each year, my ears perked up. The kids asked whether I thought that would work at our house. Who knows? I said. Can't hurt to try. So the kids sifted through their treat bags, choose a handful of their favorites to keep, and left the rest next to the door for the Halloween Witch. And she came!!! Last year she brought some cool art supplies, but this year she must have been in a rush because she brought cash. The kids were happy to pick out their own new toy at a store downtown the next day.

It's still hard to see the kids consuming that much sugar in a short amount of time, but I'm glad they've found a way to keep us all a bit more sane. Charley is learning the hard way that too much crap feels well, crappy. I could say no and insist that he stop eating all that sugar, spare him the discomfort and engage in a battle of the wills. But I believe it's important for kids (and adults)to learn for themselves. I'm glad it's him choosing a no candy day today.

My Little Secret

I have this little secret. Every once in a while it sneaks up on me and rears it's ugly head. You see, part of my income every month comes from tutoring other homeschooled children. There, I said it. I tutor. Not so bad, you say? Well, here's where it trips me up.

The other day a mom was picking up her son. We had just spent the past hour playing math games together. Mancala, Set, Tic Tac Toe, Tangrams, Pattern Blocks, Uno, and a few card games I have made up that practice math facts. Every once in a while I break out the three corner flash cards because his mom wants to make sure he is comfortable with his basic facts. We have a great time. It doesn't feel like hard work because we are playing the entire hour. When I see that he is struggling with a particular concept, I come up with a game we can play that addresses his need. Sounds fine so far, right?

Here's the tricky part. I don't do this with my own kids. Oh, we play plenty of games. And our games always have educational value. Not because I'm screening them for academic muster, but because when you unschool, everything has educational value. The part I don't do is the constant monitoring and evaluating and tweaking to make sure my kids have learned enough. I don't need to. I believe that my kids have always learned enough. I evaluate them everyday simply by being with them, interacting with them, observing how they move through the world. For me, this is enough.

As the mom and I were chatting about our time together, I heard myself say, "He's doing so well. I'm seeing lots of progress." She responded by agreeing and explaining that she is so pleased with the progress her son is making. "He has been working so hard, I'm so pleased," she beamed. My teacher-ego puffed itself up. I was being complimented. Then my stomach turned. The unschooler in me couldn't help feeling discomfort. Progress and hard work imply that this child was not enough prior to this moment. That he has somehow been less than and is only now inching toward "good".

Schools, many teachers, and some homeschool philosophies will have us believe that kids aren't enough until they have reached a particular bench mark or memorized a set of facts. Everyone knows that you can't move on to fourth grade long division until you've mastered 2 digit multiplication......right? Yeah, okay, it's true. There are skills that are needed in order to move forward academically, but I don't buy the notion that kids should be held up to an artificial standard that doesn't have a place in their everyday lives. My kids don't have a need for long division mastery at this point. Someday they will. They will learn it at that time because it is relevant and they are ready and it will come easily to them because of it.

A few days later I hashed out my discomfort with a good friend, also an unschooler. I explained that my tutoring job makes me feel a bit like I have a double life. I tried to think of a time in my kids lives where it was important to impose a yard stick for improvement. Because learning at our house isn't framed in an atmosphere of milestones and progress, it was a struggle. I asked my friend if she thought there was anything wrong with me participating in this notion that a child needed to be tutored in order to measure up. My friend smiled. She reminded me that I have an ability to play with kids in a really fun, educational way. She reminded me that I have strengths and gifts to offer this child that his parents may not. She reminded me of the times that she and I have been able to mentor each others' children in various ways simply by being a different adult in their lives with a different set of skills and strengths.

This all makes sense to me now. One of the major benefits of homeschooling is that my kids have the opportunity to interact with many, many different adults on a regular basis. Just like the mom who drops off her child at my house to play math games, I rely on countless others to help me provide my kids with the care, nurturing, and stimulation they need in order to be happy and fulfilled. And, sadly, as a parent, I will also come up short. Just like my parents and their parents before them, there will be times when I will miss the mark and fail my children. It won't be intentional, but it will happen. In the meantime, I think I can continue tutoring with clear conscience.

Check Out This Month's Carnival: An Unschooling Life

I've discovered a new unschooling blog carnival called An Unschooling Life . They've included a post of mine in this month's edition. Yeah! There are some other really great ones included as well. Blog Carnivals are an easy way to access multiple sites on a particular topic. The host or hostess lists links and gives a brief description of each so you can just click your way through the page and end up in all kinds of interesting places.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Everything's Harder When you Don't Feel Like Doing It

As I was tucking Macy, age 9, into bed last night, we had one of those sweet, late night conversations. Macy is my middle child and lives in the closet under the stairs. Seriously. Our house is small and we have had to get creative in figuring out how to fit three growing kids, a work from home mom, and various pets into our teeny, tiny 2 bedroom house. Macy was the perfect candidate for the Harry Potter room. It's a tight space and it's hard to fit all of her stuff in it, but she loves it.

When I tuck her in her bed at night I have to remember to crouch at just the right angle so as to avoid whacking the back of my neck on the doorway. Most days her stuff accumulates in her doorway and spills out into the living room. I end up kicking it back in so I can shut the door. At the end of the night, she has to wade through the pile to get to her bed and we have the same conversation each night as we are saying goodnight.

Macy: "Didn't I just clean this room?"
Me: "Seems like it, huh?"
Macy: "I'll do it first thing tomorrow, when it will be easier."
Me: "What about the morning makes it easier?"
Macy: "Everything's easier when you feel like doing it, you know?"
Me: "Yep, I know."

I got to thinking about the tasks that exist in my life that I rarely feel like doing: housework, filing papers, paying bills, reorganizing the growing pile of CDs on top of the stereo. And yet, regardless of my feelings about it, there are times when they must be done. In the course of a day, or a week, or even a month, they all, eventually, get done. But they are usually the tasks that are last on my list. Long after knitting, reading, running, writing, eating and sitting on the couch with the newspaper and a cup of tea. I try to remember this when I feel the need to pester my kids to get their things done. I know how it feels to not be in the mood. I'm often not in the mood.

A parent asked me the other day, "But what happens if my daughter never does want to learn how to read? What will I do then?" This is a parent who has been frustrated with her current schooling situation and wanted to know more about unschooling. Her daughter is creative and artistic and intelligent and could care less about reading. She's 8 years old. I suppose you could say it's last of her list. I feel for this mom, I really do. It must be agonizing to wonder if it really is possible to let go and trust kids to learn what they want, how they want, and when they want to.

"What if I regret unschooling later?" she asked. The answer for me is simple. I have always said that we will unschool as long as it is working. As soon as it isn't working anymore, we'll stop. I secretly know that this day will never come. My kids may decide someday that they're missing out, or there is something they want that school has to offer. I've told myself this may happen. When that day comes, I have told myself that if I truly am an unschooler, I will let them go. I will support them as best I can. And I will be ready and waiting when, and if, they decide to come back home.

Will this sweet, bright, artistic 8 year old never want to learn to read? I doubt it. But if she were my daughter, I suppose I would many, many more years before worrying about that eventuality. Unschooling has taught me to keep the focus on today. Do my children have what they need today? The answer is yes, for the most part. Macy's room is still messy. The pile of papers and unpaid bills still lies on my desk. Everything's harder when you don't feel like doing it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Better than Christmas

We could hardly sleep last night. This morning we all jumped out of bed and hurried through breakfast. The kids looked like they had ants in their pants as we walked to the bus stop. We giggled and grinned and couldn't wait for the doors to open. We waited six very long months and it finally happened: Our town's library re-opened today.

Some of you may have read my post a few months ago about the controversy surrounding the closure. After ballot measures, failed levies, passed levies, community meetings, and letters to the editor, we have our libraries once again. They're just not public anymore. Our county decided to out source our library system to a company in Maryland to keep costs down. We've apparently got 3 years before we have to figure something else out. This is not good news. I can no longer refer to our library as public. We now visit the private library. It just doesn't feel right.

As we waited excitedly on the front steps of the building this morning, newspaper and radio reporters swirled around interviewing us. The kids were too excited to sit still, but I agreed to answer a few questions. I did say that it felt a lot like Christmas morning. The anticipation of waiting for months to have access to all those books, magazines, tapes, CDs, movies, and newspapers once again was amazing. I can't even count the number of times over the past six months that I had to stop myself mid-sentence as I suggested to the kids that we head to the library to find out more about something cool we were curious about. It was heartbreaking.

I explained to the reporters that it was bizarre to think that this is time in our lives our kids would remember as The time we had no libraries. What does that say about our priorities? What does that say about our culture? Our government? I was asked if we found ourselves using the internet more often over the past 6 months to fill our library needs. This question really irked me. The argument that our society no longer needs libraries because of the internet will never, ever fly with me. A warm, dry, safe gathering place, that does not charge admission for use, full of public information could never be replaced by the internet. Sure, we can Google milkweed pods when we want to know more, but we can actually go to the library and get so much more.

At 10 o'clock sharp, the doors were unlocked. As the kids walked through the doors my eyes filled up with tears. It was like coming home again. They walked right past the juice and cookies as they made a bee line for the children's section. Within 10 minutes, our towering stack of books was teetering on the edge of the table, while magazines and books on tape were spilling out of my bag and onto the floor. The shelves were overflowing. I hadn't really considered the fact that this would be the one time that all library materials would be on the shelves and not in circulation. The movie section looked like a video store! It was hard to not grab everything in sight. As the kids settled in, I headed upstairs with my wish list. All of my choices were there! It really was like Christmas! When we finally checked out later, a reporter asked us how many items we'd checked out. We counted over 60 items!!!

As we made our way home and interacted with neighbors and friends, there were knowing smiles and a buzz in the air. The library? Have you been? Did you go? Were you there? Is it true? By late afternoon, we just had to go back. I reminded the kids that the library would indeed be open tomorrow, and many days after that. But we had to go back. So we did. Just a few more books, okay Mom? You bet. Living life without school means we have loads of time to hang out at the library. It's been a long six months. I'm not happy about the solution our County Commissioners came up with, but I am very grateful to have our libraries open once again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Perpetual Field Trip

Unschooling, for us, is really just like one big field trip. We take our time in the mornings, but once we're up and out, we are on the go most of the time. There's just so much to see and do and so little time. It' s a big, wide world out there, and we don't want to miss a thing. I think that if my kids ever had to go to school, that would be the hardest part. Losing all those hours every day of doing what we want to do, when we want to do it.

Tonight we went to see the movie In the Shadow of the Moon. It's a documentary by Ron Howard on the Apollo missions to the moon. It's very well done. Charley, who's 6, only got squirrely at the end. The movie is made up of television footage of the various missions as well as commentary by the astronauts who went to the moon. Talk about science and social studies lessons! I whispered in the kids' ears throughout most of the film, reading captions and explaining historical figures and important events. We kept the conversation going the whole way home, through dinner, and into bedtime. I'm sure we'll pick it back up at breakfast tomorrow as well. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, women's lib., the Civil Rights Movement. Test pilots, engineers, rockets, atmosphere, gravity. Phew. We've got a lot of material to cover. And it doesn't have to end because the bell rang or because the unit study is supposed to be over or because it's time to move on to the Renaissance. As long as it is interesting and fun, we'll keep on exploring, and we will all keep on learning. My kids and I have an unspoken contract in this life. I promise to never ask them to write a 5 paragraph essay on what they learned today. They promise to always let me know when they are done learning about something. It's that simple. Their cues aren't hard to miss.

As the credits rolled on the film, my friend and her sister packed up their things, while I asked the kids to help gather our trash as we inched down the aisle. Between my three and my friend's two kids, we were quite a sight, I'm sure. My friend's sister, not yet a parent, laughed as we followed them out of the theater, "Man, I feel like I've just chaperoned a field trip or something." Yep, that's pretty much it. Life is one big field trip.

I got the socialization question again the other day. "Aren't you worried about socialization if your kids aren't in school? How will they ever learn to be with other kids?" My answers? No. and: They will learn to be with other kids.... by being with other kids....in the world, not in a classroom! Tonight they learned to whisper in a darkened movie theater. They learned to pick up after themselves when the movie is over. They learned that the people behind you can't see when you prop your feet up on the seat in front of you. They learned that there is more money for popcorn when you bring drinks from home. They learned that movie theaters are often empty on school nights, and a whole lot more.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Good Stuff

Last night I was out with two other former teachers. I actually had no idea that either of the other women had been teachers, but the conversation eventually made it's way around to the fact that we had all, at some point in the past, taught elementary school kids. One of the women at the table knew that my kids didn't go to school. The questions began. I started out cautious, as I sometimes do, especially with teachers. Teachers work hard. Most teachers are creative and passionate and care a lot about kids and education. I tread lightly when admitting to a teacher that I don't send my kids to school. So, when she asked what curriculum I used, I told the truth. I just didn't admit from the get-go that not using someone else's curriculum meant that I wasn't staying up late every Sunday night creating my own. Good teachers do that.

But as the conversation progressed and we got to know one another a little better, I let my guard down and told the truth. No curriculum, no lessons, no grades, no tests. Only the good stuff. I explained that even in the most creative and alternative schools that I had the good fortune to teach in, the good stuff rarely came in the form of pre-planned lessons and texts. For me, as a teacher, and now as an unschooling mom, the good stuff is never planned. It's invariably the unplanned, the tangents, the brilliant conclusions kids draw for themselves without any help from an adult. It's that question that your child asks randomly in the car on the way to the grocery store. It's that milkweed pod that your son picks up on the walk home that inspires a quest to find out all you can about this groovy little plant. It's the hours and hours spent each day asking questions, answering questions, snuggling up and reading together, finding out, discovering the world, being curious. And not because anyone said you had to.

My friends agreed. We swapped stories about some of our best teaching moments and one theme rang true: Our best moments in the classroom were all about the kids. Those bright, empowered, amazing little people that were capable of anything. We all agreed that we had learned so much from those kids, that we, in fact had been the students, and they, our teachers in many ways. Even after this deep and meaningful conversation, I don't know that I converted anyone to become an unschooler. Living life without school makes lots and lots of people uncomfortable for many reasons. But I am aware that I must continue to put myself out there in these situations and tell the truth. My truth, that is. When I read statements like the one below from the NEA, I realize that I must educate others about the importance of parental choice in education. It seems that the National Educational Association in their 2007-2008 Resolutions has taken a stand against homeschooling.

It reads: "The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress. Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.
The Association also believes that home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools.
The Association further believes that local public school systems should have the authority to determine grade placement and/or credits earned toward graduation for students entering or re-entering the public school setting from a home school setting."

Statements like this remind me that we've got some educating to do. Don't be afraid to speak out about your right to choose the best way to educate your child. If you're inspired and want to make a difference, sign the petition as well.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pop Quiz

This morning a friend stopped by to show someone our house. This happens often. My neighbors and I built our homes in 2006 as part of a sweat equity program. People who have an interest in community development and affordable housing often want to see them. As I was telling our story and showing off our super-cool house, my friend noticed the large US map we have on the wall in the living room, and decided to give Macy, age 9, a geography quiz. He covered up the name Nebraska, and said, "Hey Macy, which state is this?" Macy stared at him unamused. For a split second, I panicked. She doesn't know that one. He's going to think I'm a horrible parent for not teaching her which state is Nebraska. He doesn't get unschooling. Maybe I should.... But before I could say a word, he asked her again, "Which state is this?" Macy didn't flinch. She looked him straight in the eye, "Why?" she asked. I relaxed. That's my girl. My friend smiled, "Excellent question."

The whole experience made me realize that because my kids have never been to school, they are not accustomed to being asked to regurgitate random bits of information. I honestly can't remember the last time a well meaning relative asked them to recite their times tables or to name the capital of Iowa. And I love that to them there is nothing shameful about not knowing the answer. My school-ish brain and fragile ego were the ones reacting to the pop quiz, not Macy. After all, why should she know the shape and placement of Nebraska? We've never been there. She doesn't know anyone who lives there. We haven't read a book lately that takes place there. Nebraska may be hanging on our wall, but up until today it hasn't been on our radar.

The other school-going 9 year olds in our town may very well be able to point out Nebraska on a US map, but that doesn't concern me a bit. Macy knows plenty of other states. She's traveled the West Coast, no doubt she could pick out CA, OR, and WA. Her grandparents live in CO and we've driven there lots, so I bet she can pick out AZ, UT, and WY as well. Her aunt and cousins live in HI and the long flight there this summer made us all chuckle at the improper way it is placed on the US map. Unschooling allows my kids to soak up whatever it is that we are doing in the moment and remember it because they want to, and because it's interesting. Not because they are going to be quizzed on it later.

Had I been the 9 year old asked by a family friend to name the unnamed state on a map, I would have died of embarrassment if I didn't know the answer. My face would have turned red and I would have wanted to crawl into a hole. I suppose there are probably unschoolers out there who might be concerned about answering a question correctly in a situation such as this. Personality can certainly play a role in how a child handles this situation, but I have to believe that sparing my kids from the need to memorize random bits of information for no other reason than to spit them back out for the pleasure of other adults is a pretty good thing. I also believe that empowering kids to ask "why" on a regular basis is a very, very good thing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Me & Oprah

Tammy over at Just Enough and Nothing More posted the other day about a dream she had about appearing on Oprah. She was appearing to talk about homeschooling, of course, and in the dream she struggled to come up with something clear, clever and concise to say that would make sense to a television audience. As I composed my comment to her post, I got to thinking about the history of education in our country. It's amusing to me that anyone would be surprised by a family's choice to live life without school when sending kids off to school is such a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn't that long ago that everyone was homeschooling. Compulsory school attendance didn't even exist in this country until the late1850s.

150 years just isn't that long, in the scheme of things. Actually, school should really be considered still in the experimental phase. Still working the kinks out, so to speak. I think Oprah could appreciate that.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hey You Gu-uys!

Remember The Electric Company? It came out in the early 70s in response to a challenge the US Department of Education put out to the creators of Sesame Street: Teach kids to read on television. And for those of us who were watching TV in the early 70s, it worked! We rented The Best of The Electric Company recently. I was feeling nostalgic for the way television used to be and wanted to show my kids a bit of my childhood. Charley (age 6) watched it first. He came downstairs after about 20 minutes with a scowl on his face. "They're just trying to teach me to read, Mom. It's so boring." I was crushed. Was it really that bad? A few days passed and I still hadn't watched it, but I was curious. Macy (age 9) and I just watched a few episodes. It rocks.

I mean, who wouldn't want to have Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby as their reading teachers? There's no question that the graphics and technology are way outdated, but the content and approach is right on.....an unschooler's paradise, really. It's funny, logical, and doesn't assume an audience of idiots. If only children's television today could be half as clever. In a 20 minute episode, Macy figured out the difference between hard and soft C sounds and the purpose of punctuation. She got the jokes and immediately tuned in to the repetitive nature of the sketches. It makes sense to me why Charley was bored by it. Although he says he wishes he could read, he totally not ready. He's far too active and physical right now to be bothered with sitting down with a book and figuring out how to decode words. Macy, on the other hand is primed and ready.

Macy began asking to learn to read about a year ago. In that time, we have sat down together on the couch with a stack of easy readers a half dozen times, so that she could practice reading to me. We only do that because she wants to. I have no other agenda except to cuddle up on the couch next to my sweet middle child and give her my full, undivided attention. A few weeks go by, I ask if she wants to read to me, and sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn't. As an unschooler, I don't believe that she needs me to do any more than that. If mAcy were in school, she would have learned to read three years ago. But at what cost? Our days without school are filled with questions and answers and investigating and exploring whatever comes our way, so it's not like we sit around and stare at the wall. We read together often throughout the day. I point out words and billboards and signs and print around us in the world all the time. There is no way my kids are not going to learn how to read. Janey (age 11) did, Macy is on her way, and no doubt, when he's ready, Charley will follow. Genius programming like The Electric Company just makes it more interesting.

I wonder if the "education experts" who wrote those first few episodes of The Electric Company had any idea how aligned their approach would be with unschooling. I'm sure they didn't. They were just meeting a challenge from the suits at the Dept. of Ed. to make learning novel and fun...imagine that? Sketch comedy, groovy music, singing, dancing. It's brilliant. Wouldn't we all want to do it, if it were fun? That's what gets me about so many people's idea of what "real" or "valuable" learning is. It can't be fun, it can't be easy or come naturally. It has to be difficult and painful, or it's not valuable. Maybe this comes from the idea that anything worth having must be hard to get. For me, the hard and difficult part only makes sense if it is something that the potential learner wants. If I want to learn to play the piano, the daily practice and difficulty of learning new pieces of music makes sense. It's something I want. Therefore, the difficulty, and the work, fits into my greater purpose: to learn to play the piano. If I don't want to learn to play the piano, it makes no sense.

Charley still thinks The Electric Company is boring. That's fine. He can do something else while we're laughing and the girls are secretly learning the rules of the English language. And maybe he'll wander in at just the right time and get something out of the program he may not have gotten another way. And maybe not. But no one is going to tell him it's time to sit down and watch and learn. He gets to decide. In the meantime, I'll re-live my childhood and giggle while much younger versions of Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman help me keep learning about words fun for my kids.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Community, At Last!

In my six years of calling myself an unschooler I have often felt like a bit of a freak. Even amongst many of my homeschooling friends, I have often been a bit of an outsider. No curriculum, no tests, no lessons at the kitchen table. It makes people uncomfortable. As I watched friends and neighbors dip in and out of unschooling, varieties of homeschooling, school at home, and alternative-type schools, I stayed fast. I got used to being a party of one, so to speak, and each summer anxiously awaited the HSC homeschooling conference where I was first introduced to the term unschooling and realized that what I'd believed all along actually had a name.

At the conference I am surrounded by hundreds of other homeschoolers. Parents, young children, teenagers, toddlers, babies, young adults, all homeschoolers, many of them unschoolers. It is heaven. This summer as I was driving home from the conference, I reflected on what exactly it was that made me feel so grounded at the conference. It didn't take long for me to see that it was the amazing sense of community. Sitting by the pool with other moms and dads talking about living a life without school. Asking a parent of older teenagers to tell me about what it was like for them. Listening to experienced panelists and key note speakers share how they have lived for years. Laughing, crying, living and breathing life without school. It is an awesome experience.

As I got closer and closer to home, I got sad. Where was my unschooling community? Why couldn't I experience tat sense of support and belonging right here at home? As summer turned to fall, I started talking about my desire to create an unschooling community. I was thrilled to find that others were looking for the same. One day my daughter was dropped off by another homeschooling mom. I had no idea what her particular homeschooling flavor was, but I asked, "Would you be interested in joining a homeschoolers group?" Her eyes lit up and she laughed, "I've been dying to hang out with other homeschoolers!!" We quickly discovered that we'd both been longing for the same type of support and immediately set a date for our first meeting.

I just returned from that first meeting. We met at the park. It threatened to rain, but we were bundled up and determined to get to know one another. 9 parents, 20 kids and a desire to be in community. Some were skeptical that we would be able to come up with a regular meeting time that worked for everyone. Others expressed that if we really want to form a supportive community, we may have to sacrifice other commitments in the future to make it work. Big kids played with little kids, moms and dads shared snacks and swapped stories. It was a huge success. And we did find a meeting time that works for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Stay tuned. I've think I've found my unschooling community.

Read Me on LWoS Community Blog

My first post is now up on the Life Without School Community Blog. If you're curious about How I Became an Unschooler that's the place to look. It's also a fantastic site that features many different homeschooling and unschooling perspectives, really a great read. I am now a Featured Author, and will be posting there about once a month.....hooray!

This is a Riot

You really must take 4 minutes out of your life to watch this clip. If you are a mom, or had a mom, it is well worth it.....you will laugh out loud.

I found it on a cool blog called Hip Mama/Hip Babe.

Or watch it here.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

What's Your Motivation?

I had the opportunity to talk with a mom new to homeschooling today. She shared with me that the first 6 weeks have been good in lots of ways, but that she is really struggling with a few key issues. Like many new to homeschooling, they are trying to find their style. Unschooling makes sense to her, but her partner is not ready to consider it. School at home doesn't appeal to her. Her son is bright and creative and yet struggled immensely in the rigid confines of the classroom. She is ready to follow up on his personal strengths and interests and create an educational plan for him that emphasizes these interests. The problem here is that she is very attached to the success of her plan. When she puts time and thought and energy into planning a morning full of exciting, creative activities for him, she is quite disappointed when he's not interested.

We talked about the classic power struggles that she and her son engage in on a daily basis. She is very clear that school was incredibly boring to her son, so she has made a point of following his lead and keeping the focus on some of his favorite activities. Yet the power struggles continue. She knows that I am a committed unschooler. She knows that I don't require my kids to do particular activities throughout the day. But she wanted to know what I thought about unschooling some aspects of their time together and not others. As she explained their situation, I remembered something I heard a few years ago. Whenever I am struggling with how to handle a particular parenting conflict, it's important to ask myself, "What's my motivation?"

A few posts ago I shared about a time when I was harping on my kids to put away their laundry. In the beginning, I was convinced that they needed to put it away because they should be helpful and responsive when I ask them to do something. In the end I realized that this line of thinking didn't match my desire to consider their needs as important as mine. I had a need to not trip over the laundry baskets anymore. They had a need to not have to stop what they were doing in order to meet my need. My motivation (or need, in this case) was to get the baskets of laundry out of the kitchen and out of my sight. As soon as I realized that it didn't matter if they got put away right away, the kids stopped what they were doing for a moment to move the baskets to their rooms, and we all got our needs met.

I shared this with the new homeschooling mom. I suggested that she could homeschool in any way that felt authentic to her. If that meant unschooling some aspects and not others, so be it. But determining the motivation is a good way to check in to find out why we make the choices we do. I asked her to think about what her motivation was in spending time planning creative and educational activities for her son. Was it because she had a desire to spend quality time with him? Was it because she felt he should take direction from her and do what he is told? Was it because she was afraid that if she doesn't plan anything there won't be anything to do? Does she have a need that he accomplish certain tasks each day?

As the conversation progressed, she became aware of her motivations. She shared that their situation is still so new, it is hard to be clear about which path is right for them. I don't think this is the end of the story for her. They have made a radical change in their educational choices and it will take loads of time before they find the right fit. I am grateful to her for the opportunity to remind myself of this important question. Even though we have always unschooled as a family, I wasn't unschooled myself. It is taking years for me to re-learn how to parent with the principles of unschooling in mind. When faced with a parenting conflict, it helps to ask myself, "What's my motivation?"

Unschooling a Tantrum (otherwise known as, "Hitting the Wall at Mile 19")

I ran my third marathon today. I crossed the finish line exactly 8 hours ago, and I think I may never get off this couch. But laying on this couch, hydrating, and eating and resting my aching muscles has given me lots of time to think. As I've been re-living the entire 5 hours of my race multiple times in my head, I got to thinking about the parallels that exist for me between running 26.2 miles and unschooling.

The first 15 miles of the race are great. I feel full of life and excitement and strength. All those months of training and preparation pay off and I feel like I could run forever. The crowd and the cheering and the people-watching keep my mind occupied and my body goes on auto-pilot. And then, somewhere around mile 19, I hit the wall. My feet ache, my legs feel like concrete, and suddenly the cheering from the enthusiastic spectators is irritating. Those well meaning folks who shout, "You can do it, you're amazing, you're almost there," become my worst enemy. I want to throw them off a bridge. Really. My head becomes filled with negative, irrational thoughts. I can't see outside of the moment I'm in and I certainly can't remember why I put myself through this physical hell in the first place.

The funny thing is, I keep going. Something deep inside knows that if I just hang in there, something will shift and I will eventually feel better. Or maybe it's just that I know the end will come much more quickly if I keep on running. As I approach mile 23, my mood shifts. I begin to realize that the end really is near. Just a 5K, certainly I can do that. My pace quickens, my legs lose their heaviness and a smile returns to my face. I suddenly remember how much I love to run. I begin to plan my next marathon. The cheering fans are suddenly all cheering for me. I might even win this race! Nothing can stop me, and I cross the finish line, a very different person than the one I left behind at mile post 22.

Janey, my eleven year old, has a temper. There are times when she hits her wall in very much the same way. When I got to thinking about it, our experiences are really quite similar. She gets overwhelmed with intense emotion and in that intensity, perceives the world to be all wrong. She gets so caught up inside her own bad mood that she can't see that she has ever or will ever feel any other way. In that moment, life sucks and it always will. She screams, she rants, she throws a fit. Anyone in her path bears the brunt of her intensity.

There have been plenty of times that I have attempted to intervene on the premise of helping her through her tantrums. I calmly try to explain away whatever it is that has upset her. I try to distract her from her feelings. I remind her that she has been here before and it always passes. None of it works. What I have discovered, is that in order to allow her to move through her feelings in her own way, I have to get out of the way and let her unschool her tantrum. There are a few ground rules, of course. No one gets hurt. If she can stay respectful of others, we steer clear, and give her space to choose where she wants to be. If she can't, she needs to be by herself. If she needs help, she asks. And then, like magic, her feelings pass, she moves on, and as quickly as it began, the tantrum fades. Just like my magic mile 23.

I get really triggered by her tantrums. I have to remind myself that it's not about me and that her tantrums are not a reflection of my ability as a parent. The more I am able to get out of her way and allow her to move through her feelings in the way that suits her, the more she will be able to continue do so as she grows into a young woman who knows that feelings are not facts. They come as quickly as they go and they do not define us. I also realize that unlike me, she may not have to struggle with the need to suppress intense feelings out of fear. She is already learning, on her own, that she can have big, huge, intense feelings, and still be okay.

The revelation that hitting my wall mid-marathon relates so closely to my daughter's experience has given me the gift of compassion. So often, in her rage, she throws around insults and nasty comments to her siblings and myself, and it's easy for me to react. How dare she speak to us that way? What I realize now is that she just needs compassion and respect. All I have to do is bring myself back to my 4 mile slump at the end of a race and remember that this too shall pass. She's just in a funk. It won't take long, give her space, and she'll be back shortly.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Social Studies Lesson

They've made an American Girl doll from the 70s. I asked Janey if the doll (named Julie) was wearing funny clothes and she said, "No, they pretty much look like the ones we wear today." The girls brought the new catalog into my bedroom this morning and I had to laugh out loud. Janey was right. The bell bottoms and striped turtleneck and braided belt looked pretty much like what hippies around our town are wearing today. The best part of the Julie doll, though, is her bedroom. She's got an orange shag carpet, beads hanging from the ceiling, and a little mini record player that plays 45s. The girls were envious. It's so funny to me that my childhood is now history, or historical at least, in the eyes of my children.

As we laid in bed this morning perusing the catalog together, we talked about the various times in history that the dolls are from. Samantha is from the early 1900s. Felicity is from the late 1700s. The clothing and accessories attempt to recreate what young girls' lives may have been like at the time. A Social Studies lesson, if I've ever seen one. This is what I love about unschooling. No lesson prep. No homework. No moans and groans about how boooring it all is.

Tonight at dinner, Janey explained that she wanted to drop her dance class. She likes the teacher and thinks the class is fun, but felt strongly that there are other things she would rather do during that time. The kids mentioned one or two friends that didn't have the option of choosing a class for themselves. "I don't get it," Janey commented. "Why would their parents say the had to take a particular class? What's the point?" I began to explain that some families need their kids to be occupied for certain hours of the day, and that some parents have strong feelings about the classes their children take. The look on my kids' faces were priceless. It just didn't compute. Kind of like the time we read the book about cartoon cows that unknowingly dress up like bank robbers and hold up a bank. I thought the book was hilarious (Minnie and Moo: Wanted Dead or Alive, by Denys Cazet) but the kids were confused. As soon as I clued in and realized that they didn't get the whole bank robber theme, I tried to explain the humor (wanted posters, passing the teller a note, bazookas) as we read, but it just wasn't as funny anymore. If you have no frame of reference, it doesn't make any sense.

I'm grateful that my kids have no frame of reference for compulsory education. I love that if something's not working for them they are not afraid to speak up and make a change. This is something that as an adult, I have struggled with until very recently. Later in the day, I asked Janey if she was nervous about letting her dance teacher know that she wouldn't be continuing in the class. She looked at me and snorted, "No, why would I be?" I smiled to myself. I'm learning a lot from these kids of mine.