Saturday, June 28, 2008

River Rats

We just got home from our annual canoeing trip. It's always hard for me to come back to real life. 5 days of living in our swimsuits, paddling downstream, far from the ringing of phones and buzz of electronics.......ahhhhhhh, I miss it already.

Janey and I have been doing this trip with friends from California for four years now. Macy came once, and didn't love it, but this was Charley's first time. I was waiting until he was a very strong swimmer and could do his share of the camp work without major complaints. I am so glad we waited. he had the time of his life and really understood what was expected of him. He and I shared a small "pack" canoe, which was perfect for the two of us. He paddled when he felt like it and stretched out like an Egyptian prince when he didn't. On our last morning of paddling he even took a 2 hour nap in the bow!

One of my favorite parts of this trip is the focus on survival (relaxed survival, anyway). We paddle anywhere from 7 to 18 miles in a day and set up camp for one or two nights at a time. We share the camp chores of meal prep and clean up, hauling water, purifying water, latrine set up, and gathering firewood. This takes up a fair amount of our off river time, but the rest is gravy. Napping, reading, strumming a guitar, bird watching, waterfall jumping, hiking, or just sitting around the campfire and chatting. It's all just so slow and relaxed. Bliss.

Janey has spent the past few years paddling from the middle of a canoe. This year she graduated to bow and she did amazingly well. She takes direction from the stern well, knows all the strokes, and is strong for her age. I felt so proud of her. She's learning to read the water and although she has a healthy fear of whitewater, she doesn't panic, and knows she is capable of paddling through rough spots.

People on this trip often comment on how mature and responsible my kids are and are shocked to learn that they have never been to school. This trip has become a metaphor for unschooling for me. I had never canoed before that first trip four years ago. I learned it by doing it. I'm still learning. I usually dump the canoe a time or two, and each time, I figure out a new way of reading the water and anticipating tricky spots. Well meaning, more experienced paddlers have tried to explain and teach and educate me, but the only way I'm going to get this is by doing it myself.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lessons Learned

All this talk about unschooling my kids is really just a front for the unschooling I'm doing myself. Seriously. I try to play it off like I know what I'm talking about and how great this is for the kids and blah blah blah....but it's really all about me.

I have this bad habit. Actually, no, take that back. I have this habit of walking out of the grocery store with waaaay more groceries than I intended. Common problem, you say? Well, my particular version is not exactly financial. My problem is that I do my grocery shopping on my bicycle.

I have this nifty, but fairly useless, wire basket that hangs on my handlebars. Anytime it is filled with more than about 3 pounds, it rattles and shakes and threatens to fall off the front completely. I also have a super cool saddle bag my friend Michelle gave me that can carry one regular sized grocery bag full of stuff. Heavy? No problem. Over-stuffed and bulging? Not so much.

So this afternoon, like many other trips downtown, I decided to stop by the food co-op before heading home. There were four items on my list. Four. Mustard, dishwasher soap, coffee, and rice. How does this happen to me?

As I passed by the shopping carts on my way inside the store, I argued silently with myself.

Me: Using a cart is not a good idea when you are trying to stick to your list.
Me: But a cart will make it so much easier to pick up just a few of these herb starts.
Me: Herb starts are not on the list.
Me: But they're 50% off and you meant to buy them a few days ago and now there are only a few left and you need these herb starts.
Me: (with a sigh) Alright. Use the cart. But no funny business, you did not bring the trailer.

Bringing the trailer to the grocery store seems like the smartest option, doesn't it? But you see, there were only four things on my list.

Did I say four things? Cuz, it would be so much easier to just buy that loaf of bread now, rather than waiting until we run out later in the week. Rice cakes. Macy has been begging me for rice cakes. Hey, they're on sale! Cool. Ooohhh, melons. Yum.

You see where this is going. Not good. Yet, somehow, lying there in the cart, everything just seems, well, do-able. It will all fit. I know it will. No problem.

As the friendly cashier rings me up, I skillfully fit everything (except the 2 boxes of cereal, the 5 plant starts and the the box of dishwashing soap) into my roomy, now overflowing with loaf of bread and sleeve of rice cakes, cloth shopping bag. It will fit. It becomes my mantra as I wheel my cart over to the bicycle rack.

As I unload the cart, I can feel other shoppers staring at me. Is she crazy? She doesn't actually think she's going to fit all those groceries into that weeny little saddle bag. No, she can't be serious. Fred, look, she's stuffing the heavy box of dishwashing soap into that flimsy wire basket. Ha! Oh this is good....go get the camera.

Okay, maybe the other shoppers didn't actually say these things out loud, but I know they were thinking them. You would have too, trust me. I was quite a sight. The boxes of cereal fit, sort of, next to the dishwasher soap in the basket. The over-stuffed saddle bag pulled me gently to the right as I rode away. Not ten feet into the parking lot, rice cakes, a bag of pretzels, and the loaf of bread spilled out onto the pavement. Foiled again.

I did make it home, after creatively looping the handle of the cloth bag around the bulging items and tying it to the seat post. Why do I torture myself like this you say? I'm stubborn, and creative, and endlessly searching for ways to do things a little bit differently. An unschooler through and through.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reason #683

One of my favorites aspects of not sending my kids to school is that they have yet to put limits on the ages of kids they are willing to play with. I'm sure there are schooled kids out there who are flexible and willing to play with kids not in their "grade", but my memory of schooled kids is that for the most part, it ain't cool. I absolutely LOVE that my kids are just as comfortable playing with a 3 year old as they are a 15 year old.

Today at our Unschooler's Park Day, several new families joined us. A gang of older girls decided to walk down to the fountain a few hundred yards away. As they walked off, a 3 year old newbie was crushed. It took me a minute or two to realize that she wanted to be included. I offered to walk her down to the fountain to see if she could join the big girls. She (and her mother) were thrilled. As we approached the girls, it suddenly dawned on me that maybe these preteens wouldn't be thrilled about caring for a toddler. Was I setting this child up for further disappointment? I quickly ran scenarios through my head. What would I do if they didn't want her to join in?

We called to the girls, and they turned around. Two of the 6 rushed up to greet me and my new little friend. A wave of relief washed over me. Ohhhhh...that's right, I reminded myself. These kids have never been to school. They don't know that it's not cool to play with kids younger than you.


My oldest daughter Janey scooped up her new friend. The little girl beamed. When they all turned up 30 minutes later, our new friend was blissful. "These big girls are my new friends!" The feeling was obviously mutual When I checked in with my middle daughter Macy later that day, she exclaimed, "She's my new best friend."

And that's reason #683 not to send your kids to school.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Free and Easy?

Well, summer is supposedly here, though you'd never know it by the weather. It has been chilly and rainy for weeks. My vegetables are lovin' it, but I'm ready for some heat...wait. I shouldn't say that too loud, because it will be smokin' hot before I know it. I take that back.

Even though we don't go to school, the summer schedule is a huge relief. The lessons and classes the kids were involved in this spring came to an end and we are all breathing a huge sigh of relief. This is week two of no schedule, no big plans, and the kids are working through the boredom and settling in to their own groove. I'm needing to be more disciplined about my work schedule at home (always a challenge). We've still got a few weeks before Macy's Theatre Camp begins (5 weeks, 7 seven hours a day, yikes!) so I'm relishing this time at home with all three kids.

We rode our bikes to Macy's theatre camp orientation yesterday, about 7 miles each way. The girls did great. I was so proud. We allowed ourselves loads of time and even stopped to play in the creek along the way. I would have normally borrowed a car, but we'd be talking about taking a long ride anyway, so we went for it. Charley stayed behind with a friend, so it was just us girls. They did awesome. At one point, Macy said she thought her heart was going to explode, but she had a smile on her face! Now that they've ridden that far, no more complaints about a 2 mile trip downtown!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Foiled Again

Every once in a while.....okay, more than every once in a while, I get caught trying to pull a fast one on my kids. It's not like I do it on purpose, it's just that I get overwhelmed and stressed (who, me?) and my pre-unschooling brain clicks in and I forget that my kids know better.

The other day, I was irritable and frustrated. I had a list of things that needed my attention, the house (read : my room)was chaotic and disorganized, and I was tired. As I loaded clothes into the washer and reviewed my mental to-do list, I barked out my demands to the girls (Charley was brilliantly nowhere to be found).

ME: (in my most grouchy voice)"Your rooms need to be picked up and laundry put away before lunch. I mean it! This place is a dump and I want some help around here....blah blah blah blah."

You get the idea. A few moments later, Janey glared at me....glare glare glare.

JANEY: (in her most sassy voice)"Uh, Mom. I hate to tell you this, but you've already let us know that our rooms are our business and unless I'm mistaken, none of my stuff is here in the living room right now, so why are you telling me to clean my room? That is totally unfair."

ME: "Oh. I guess you're right. Never mind. I guess I'll go clean my room now."

Darn. Foiled again.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Big Picture

In 2006, I spent most of the year building my house (and 8 others) with my neighbors. It was an amazing and life changing experience on every level, and when it was over, I was so glad to be done. The hands-on, sweat equity nature of the project meant that for 10 months I was scrambling to find friends and family to come out to the job site every single weekend to help me. This was a community effort, and would have not been successful without the generous hours put in each week by those volunteers. At the time, I knew I was asking for a lot, and some weeks, it felt like it would never end. But it did, and yesterday, I was able to give back.

A few months ago a friend started construction on his home in the very same manner. The second project is located just 2 blocks from my home and weeks ago I told him I would come out and help. I was nostalgic as I dug my work boots and tool belt from the attic. As I filled my coffee thermos and packed my lunch, I recalled the seemingly endless days that I spent pounding nails and raising walls just 2 years earlier. As hard as it was, it had all been worth it. I now have my very own affordable house to show for it.

It only took about an hour for me to get back in the groove. We were siding, which I love, and as soon as the three of us figured out a system that worked, we rocked. They took measurements and called them out to me at the cutting station. I measured out and made cuts (with a handy new power tool that I fell in love with) and passed off the concrete siding pieces. Every once on a while I nailed a few up with the nail gun, just for old times' sake....god, I love that nail gun. It was really fun.

As we worked, it was so interesting to be on the other side of the crew, so to speak. I wasn't the homeowner. I was just the labor. It became important for me to defer to my friend as the crew leader. This was fine by me, actually. It felt way more relaxed and my detachment from the finished product was refreshing. What I found fascinating, and very familiar, however, was my friend's inability, as as first time home builder, to see the big picture.

As a novice, on the job site, each new task holds an enormous learning curve. The project manager instructs you on the proper method of hanging siding, for instance. He explains how the cuts should be made, where the seams should join, how far the spacing should be and how close the boards should be to the trim. As the novice works, mistakes are made and repaired. Care is taken to follow the instructions of the supervisor and progress is made. When I joined the crew yesterday, they had begun only the previous day. They were still "green" and extremely careful in following the guidelines to a T.

As we worked, my friend and his partner noticed a few gaps at the end of a few boards. They discussed ripping the boards out and starting again. I looked closely at the gaps and reassured them that they would be fine. "Once those ends get caulked, no one will be bale to see the gap. I'm sure it will be fine." They looked at me doubtfully. "We were told that the gaps could be no larger than a 1/4". I think we should start again," my friend was insistent.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. I had the benefit of being able to see the big picture. My house was done. After siding 9 homes for months on end that summer two years ago, I had obsessed about that same 1/4" gap ad naseum. But what I knew months later, after completing the final caulking and painting, was that a hair over or under 1/4" made no difference at all. Once the finish work was done, minor flaws and gaps disappeared. It just didn't matter.

I didn't push it with my friend, however. He still wanted to rip out a few boards and perfect his work, and after explaining what I understood to be true, I backed off. It's important for him to learn in his own way. I did the same thing. I needed to feel like I was doing it right. That I was learning something new and doing it well. But as we continued, I thought a lot about putting new learning into perspective.

My old frame of reference for learning came from my years as a student and eventually as an elementary school teacher. So often, in the teacher/student model, what is missing, at least for the student is the benefit of the big picture. Learning happens in bits and chunks, designed to fit within the confines of a school day or the convenience of a calendar year so that benchmarks may be reached and standards fulfilled. A geometry lesson here, a science experiment there. But what's missing in this educational system is the relevence. Why does it matter that the area of a triangle is 1/2 x b x h ? No wonder so many of us don't remember what we learned in 9th grade math. We didn't have the big picture.

Unfortunately, school doesn't often allow for the big picture. Learning needs to happen on a schedule, at certain specific times, under very specific circumstances. I feel greatful to have found another way for myself and for my children. Unschooling allows us to take in the learning life has to offer every step of the way.