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.