From the vault: Why haven’t we heard of “life learning” before?

A reader writes me an email, May 2010:
I subscribed to PhD in Parenting a few days ago so read your great comment.[1. This one: “Lots of theories on what WILL happen…”] The more I read, the more convinced I get that homeschooling is not this terrible thing – and when I say that I mean all homeschooling, not just homeschooling done by “forward-thinking” people like you who “do it right”.

What I do wonder though, specifically WRT unschooling, is either what has changed or is the way the collective We think of the history of education off? We tend to think of public education bringing literacy and more knowledge to everyone, giving them a little more power. Is that off? Or is that true, and something like unschooling works because the cycle of illiteracy has been broken, so the coupling of adequate access to information (books, internet, etc.) with parents’ ability to pass literacy on to children is enough to teach kids any of the fact-based things they need to learn?

From my place in this (and yours is clearly different), it seems like most people can accept that it is possible to “adequately” homeschool children to a certain age – 4th grade for some, or 6th, or whatever – because adults still have that information in their heads, so they can pass it on. But then there is also this belief that once you have exhausted your knowledge as a parent (which I’m much more inclined to believe happens long before a child is “supposed” to be in school), you have to send them to the professionals, because you won’t be able to keep up. With this model, it makes perfect sense that somewhere along the line, all of that knowledge had to be injected so it could be passed down. It seems to rely on a parent or a grandparent having had a more formal education and passing it along down the generations.

Unschooling does not rely on these assumptions, so I’m wondering why didn’t life learning work before public education but it does now? Or did it work, and if so, why is our societal story about education so off?

(Ed note – Keep in mind my response is an email from one white college-educated middle class female to another and relies on some of our shared experiences.)

Thanks so much for your email. The PhD in Parenting post makes me feel a little bit of the Crazy. It aims in tone to sound “fair and balanced” but in reality it’s just full of half-arsed theories re: home education by someone who hasn’t bothered to delve deep. I’m glad several people commented and called many of these out. I don’t think the author is going to change their tone or worldview, which is one of, “Oh, just a few concerns I want to point out” – even tho’ she herself admitted she hasn’t looked into home education at all. Hey, if you don’t know anything about something, you wanna keep talking prescriptively?

In addition the author seems terrified of uber-religious types (a fear I see often). In my view the way we treat or think about religious sects or groups is not to just wish they WOULDN’T EXIST and then slap an earnest (and false) belief on the whole business: that somehow throwing their kids in the melting pot of Society will ameliorate the concerns of religious fanaticism and exclusionary lifestyle (yeah… it doesn’t).

If nothing else I’m glad in any way that my comment spurs on good conversation for people who are willing to look past mainstream thought and bias. Whether or not these readers homeschool, the deconstruction of school’s “rightness” is good for all parents and children who – and this is important – are in the position to take up more of the reins re: their child’s education.

OK, so you had a few questions.

I am not an expert on history of education in this country (although I’m studying up)[2. In fact when I think about it I know in a short time my very writings on the subject will seem trifling and underdeveloped, but I am working to learn.] but of course life learning “worked” before the public school (PS) model. The education system as we know it in America is actually quite new – mass schooling came to the fore at the turn of the century. It’s also not as nice and egalitarian and awesome as the “story” we’ve been told. I am planning on reading John Taylor Gatto’s books on the subject because I, like you, enjoyed school and think of school as a “good” thing and for most of my life did not question the latter mindset. In fact not that many years ago school was this kind of holy thing to me and even if I could allow bits and pieces of it weren’t “perfect” I still believed in it’s general goals (now I’m far less enthusiastic, but committed to improvement and justice for all kids, including the 98% in school).

Also, life learning is happening and has ALWAYS happened! What is happening now with you and your new job and passion as cheesemaker and your work learning to cook new cuisines, with me and my sewing and writing, with Nels writing music and building and literally gardening better than most adults I know, with Phoenix’s dragon-drawing and building expertise and writing and swim team? In fact most people recognize life learning as being the best kind of learning (the most fun, the most retained, the most efficient) but we somehow think we all need to go through years and years of this “other” kind of education first to earn the right to pursue what we want to do. To bad that “other” kind of education often alienates us from what we want and how to pursue it; it often eunuchs us and keeps us second-guessing what we want and what our abilities are (we trust others to tell us this).

And that leads me to the concept of “experts”. Because your questions about how one needs to go to “real” school to learn from the “experts” is awesome! I am currently writing an article for Life Learning Magazine that touches on the “expertise” in school; and yesterday I read one of Wendy Priesntiz’ wonderful articles on the subject:

“Knowledge and the Cult of Experts”

This little essay on Unschooling is probably a bit 101 for you, but toward the end it deconstructs some of the “expert” and “teacher” stuff with some nice, brief analogies:

“Unschooling or Homeschooling?” by Billy Greer

Of course as a result of school I know calculus and chemistry and… but wait, do I? If I had to perform some of these problems in a test I think I would do poorly. If I studied up a bit first I would regain my rusty skills. So that begs a few questions. Um, why did I have to learn this stuff? Oh, for college which led to my job (or as we liked to call it, my “career”). Well, the job was worth it back when I had it. Second question: did I have to go through all the rigamarole of the many formal classes I was required to take to get the requisite chemistry and calculus needed for engineering work? Oh hell no. Had I wanted the job I wanted I could have selected and with focus built my own education, got there my own way (half the foremen in my workplace – the job I attained before quitting – worked up through blue collar routes). This “build my own career” route is hard to even imagine now as when I was in high school and college I was still very much a product of the passive learning model in school. I not only willingly jumped through hoops, I was glad they were there because the concepts of thinking for myself, of “proving myself” and striking out on my own, truly, was quite terrifying to me.

American college students change their major an average of 5 times; much higher for kids straight out of HS than returning “adults”. I can’t help but think part of the reason this is due to the near total passivity that school encourages while simultaneously imposing socio-economic hierarchies in a zero-sum game. You’re supposed to be smart and an independent thinker but not TOO smart or TOO independent. You’re supposed to take responsibility for yourself but of course, if you were allowed that responsiblity (and you had the support of parents and adults) one might be inclined to leave and pursue a better education, which is rather frowned upon. There’s “not enough for everybody” so you’d better play your cards right to end up on top of the pile.

I was a good student in school. I liked to perform well and it became easy enough for me most of the time. However school teaches kids such lessons in external validation, cosmetic success, regurgitating (as opposed to true knowledge) it did not help me develop as fully as so many would like to believe about school. Children impress me, despite these obstacles. They have no “right” not to go, so I think they make the best of it they can.

I am looking forward to reading a couple of John Taylor Gotto’s books. This little bit on his site walks through the original three purposes of school vs. the fourth purpose: “American Education History Tour”. It’s a bit funny and may sound paranoid to those used to mainstream views but… well… I can’t say I disagree with the fellow (and I look forward to reading more of his work). A particular sentence struck home with me:

“What better way to habituate kids to abandoning trust in their peers (and themselves) than to create an atmosphere of constant low-level stress and danger, relief from which is only available by appeal to authority?”

I did well in school as I’ve said. Even though I felt I enjoyed school I know exactly what he means about low-level stress. Schools are also more dangerous than they used to be (not because kids are bad kids either; this is subject for a whole other conversation). And “authority”? What bullocks. Of course we know Authority is out there and we run across it every day. Playing the game, bowing to authority (no matter how unjust), learning to bully as corporate and personal policy? These are enforced in school, whatever other positive experiences we may have there.

I could talk (rant?) for much longer. Finally I want to say something more personal.

If I didn’t have my two “data points” of Phoenix and Nels I think I would be a lot more fearful of h/sing and a lot more trusting of public and private schooling. If I didn’t see how much better off they were socially, physically, academically, morally, emotionally out of school, I’d be tempted to think of school as workable, and I’d be assisting them in prevailing. After all, my kids were clearly on the “teacher’s pet” track (at least in these early years) just as I was. What a lot of nice pats on the head for me.

But school is only an “it needs work but it’s basically okay and everyone should do it” situation if you believe it’s normal and required. Once I had cause to believe it’s a choice like anything else and knew my rights to abstain, school became less of a no-brainer. I am a passionate believer in encouraging improvements for all children (this is why I write about kids so much). But of course, I also can exercise my right not to public school and once I realized school had more harm than good to offer my kids, it was an easier choice. I still have doubts and I enjoy exploring and talking about them.

I am late in getting us out the door for swimming. I’d like to continue the conversation. Many people are close-minded to H/Sing and U/Sing. I hope my radicalism doesn’t scare open minds off.

heartstrings and spoke lights

Today my son swam back and forth in the deep end of the recreational pool, over and over and with a smile on his face. He flipped over on his back and swam, and stuck his thumbs-up out of the water and winked at me.

Then he took me over to the lap pool and swam the length of that. Three times.

I’d love to write a little essay on the YMCA and their berjillion weird and contradictory pool rules, including and not limited to: children are the responsibility of the lifeguard, NO WAIT they’re the responsibility of the parents’/carers’; If the kids can swim they’re allowed in the deep end of the rec pool, NO THEY’RE TOTALLY NOT unless they’re at least eight!; you can swim in the lazy river if you’re taller than the water level, NO YOU CAN’T YOU MUST WEAR A LIFEJACKET, then No you’re NOT allowed to wear a lifejacket in the lazy river EVAR. And my personal favorite duo: small children must be within five feet of a grownup at all times; a grownup may supervise up to ten children at a time (the mental picture of the supreme unfunness in one adult with ten small children within arms’ reach, moving through the pool like so many cilia attached to a central grownup protista, is a hilarious and untenable one).

There’s also this whole “swim test” proposition posted everywhere which somehow involves testing and receiving a bracelet and getting more swim rights (I can’t even snark on the standards of this “testing” in any way because I don’t see any bracelets on kids, ever, so I have no idea if these systems are even in effect).

Given all this and the many times some lifeguard would tell my son “You can’t do that until you can ‘swim’ [meaning their version of swimming] across the pool” (I hasten to add most lifeguards recognize his swim-competence and let him do what he knows he can) Nels did what was logical: he taught himself to swim and today he took on their test. Given their inconsistent rules and spotty enforcements I don’t think the issue of Nels’ swim freedoms is as settled as he thinks it is.  I really do mean to talk to the director of the pool scene (a rather grumpy person who is clearly managing a very large program) and try to figure this crap out.  But in the meantime we are having about 99.9% fun on our swim dates and Nels’ and Phoenix’s pleasure in the over two hours of swim time we had today was pure joy.

Another first: in the course of the day we took the bikes out all around town and to East Side HQX which meant riding up then down a bridge that is very steep and has an icky re-entry to road traffic at the bottom. Naturally I was worried because Nels is not only a Speed Demon he’s a (calculated) Risk Taker in general, and the bridge path was made perfectly slick by today’s on-and-off rain. Riding behind Nels on the steep grade I held in my mind two truths that formed my amazing reality: A. the worst that could happen to him would be a broken wrist or busted-out teeth and B. I was actually okay with this because I know Nels is doing exactly what he should be doing: stretching his abilities (within his supreme self-knowledge of them) to accomplish something he wants to master.* Don’t get me wrong, crash injuries are terrible to imagine like any injury to one’s child (Phoenix’s horror-crash happened exactly a year ago!).  This is why as I was behind  him my chest fluttered and I felt supremely alive.  As we sped down the thoroughway I talked him through trying out his brakes on the slick surface and he tested these with an expert handling of the resultant slight fishtail.  At the bottom of the bridge he firmly stopped in the exact correct spot.

It’s funny because a very short time ago I was helping my little duckling daughter travel on the same bridge and now she’s so bike competent I can focus entirely on talking Nels through our ride, knowing she is behind me as well-furnished a rider as I (given much of our ride is on a highway with log trucks and a small but unpleasant selection of asshole drivers I really do appreciate being able to focus on my son). Halfway through our ride Nels began hand signals before turns, cautiously lifting his arm and shoulder-checking and discussing strategies for stop signs (which can be treated as yield signs by cyclists). He was so engaged and having such a wonderful time it was almost possible for me to not have my mind blown at how effortlessly, joyously, and willingly kids learn a whole passel of fucking awesome skills if you merely help in the ways they request help.

When we got home Ralph was already here and he got started on the meal I’d planned – fried chicken, peas, and German potato salad. He also brought me home a bottle of Jack which verily I shall be making into ye olde toddies anon. And just now I get a phone call: Phoenix has spent the afternoon and evening with a friend who now wants to stay the night, so: Sleepover! (which you simply must imagine me saying in the tone of Orange Mocha Frappucino!”)

It’s been a good day times one hundred.

* He’s also gotta lose those teeth soon anyway.

Q: Will unschooled children be limited by their parents’/carers’ worldview?

Today from formspring:

I’m thinking about unschooling my kids, but I’m concerned that my kids will be limited by only getting my perspective on things. To be solely responsible for educating my kids means that I need to address thing I don’t know much about. How do you do that?

I think this is a common concern for those open to unschool/homeschool lifestyles. They begin to become open and interested but remain fearful. I’m here to help put to rest some of those fears and assist you (as best I can) with any support you might need.

Of course as an unschooler (I prefer the term life learner) I kind of laugh at the thought of unschooling kids “only getting my perspective on things”. When I see how much exposure and education my kids get daily to many lifestyles and subjects and people (in far more walks of life than school affords) and varied social situations it occurs to me the last thing they’re getting is “just me”. And they’re only 6 and 8, not yet old enough or interested in driving/bus/bike themselves to concerts and museums and community events or take up paid or volunteer work they’re interested in (which I have an inkling they’ll do earlier and more willingly than most of their schooled peers). They are both on the verge of these activities though and of course, they both have a compass at getting around town (via walking, busing, and biking) better than some adults I know.

In other words, with an autodidactic learning environment I get to watch my children educate themselves (with my support and guidance and funds when they are needed). You remember how amazing it is to watch a baby teach itself to walk (make no mistake, they do it on their own)? Learning is no different. Give most children the supportive environment to lead the way, and they pursue most subjects with alacrity and ability that is a joy to watch (and I do believe this to be true of most children; I don’t believe mine to be particularly “gifted”). This lifestyle is not something that most American parents today accept, so most children aren’t given these environs.

It’s funny also you’d say unschooling means you will have to “[address] things [you] don’t know much about”. Two things come to mind, first off my biology teacher in high school who was mostly a football coach. I loved him, he was a sweetie. He read out of a book to “teach” us, a book nearly identical to the ones we had on the desk, open in front of us. Often he’d stumble over a word and someone would correct him (or we’d sit there with our eyes glazed, bored as hell). Guess who I know who’d be far more better at teaching my 8 year old daughter biology? My 8 year old daughter. In fact she is currently working her way through a Time Life series on the subject. Trust me, she is retaining more knowledge than I did (and I was a straight-A student)!

The second thing that comes to mind regarding “things I don’t know much about” is that as my children learn things on their own steam I have the opportunity to learn them as well or at the very least experience the joy in watching them learn the way they do. My son Nels started gardening at 4 and all I know about plant-growing is mostly due to him. My daughter humbles me, absolutely humbles me with her abilities at drawing. As a result I’ve been poring through more books and comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer) and re-connecting with my artistic self, a person I thought I’d lost years ago (back when I was voted “Most Artistic” a few times in my school career).

If you’re thinking about what we often consider the “advanced” academic subjects, such as chemistry or calculus, please. Should your child be interested in math (as both mine are; my son especially shows joy in the subject) you’ll pick up books as your child expresses interest and your learning will bloom alongside theirs. (Keep in mind a grasp of “math” is not limited whatsoever to doing problems in a book.) Or if they really take off to some high-level and you don’t want to work with them you’ll find them a tutor or another parent or another person to work alongside them. Or they’ll surprise you and won’t need help – or will seek it out on their own. I’m always kind of gobsmacked when I come across some amazing, detailed Lego structure they’ve built or some musical instrument they’ve created or a rich storyline they’ve put on paper or an email formatted beautifully – correct grammar and sentence structure and all. Part of me is so amazed at this beautiful thing, part of me feels guilty I wasn’t “around” for some of this learning, and part of me feels like an Old Person because I swear my brain is not this elastic and incredible!

A parent who is concerned their child gets good exposure to the subjects the child is interested in, and who has the tools to support the child (in other words enough money to pay the bills for the most part, a supportive group of friends and family or partner) is going to do a good enough job and hello, I’d wager a better job than any school I’ve set foot in. Autodidactic kids let us know exactly what they need from us; our exposure to them and life alongside them helps us keep in touch.

One thing I’d point out here is that I have heard kids who’ve spent time in school often have an adjustment period when you bring them out. They don’t immediately go start a garden or embark on a self-study of animal drawings, for instance (like my kids have). This process is sometimes called “deschooling” and can involve a child relearning that learning is fun – or how to be less of a passive consumer and more the author of one’s own life. I only know a bit about “deschooling” as I didn’t really have to deal with it in my family. If your children have been in school for some time and you are interested in removing them, please do re-question here or email me (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org) and I will help find some sources who have expertise and experience.

Thanks again for your questions and please don’t hesitate to write back if you like.

at play

Today I didn’t eat until almost five o’clock. Ooops!  I did drink a bunch of milk.  I’m still doing that whole allergy food plan thing and testing individual foods to discover if they are causing me discomfort (it’s borrrring). So far so good on the milk front although we’ll see how tomorrow goes (my prediction: “tummy troubles”, by or to put it more delicately and specifically, cramps and diarrhea and sweating over both).

I got a little grumpy mid-day after reading a supposed fair and balanced blog article regarding homeschooling which was, let’s face it, a handful of garden variety concern-troll points.  Instead of merely reading and digesting I chose to reply civilly and directly – as it was meant to be a discussion after all (I was pleased to notice later many other commenters quite effectively shut down some of the homeschool fallacies).  After posting I could tell by the irritation in my body that I’d put off eating long enough.  The kids and I got our asses out of Dodge to get some food, in this case at the winsome little bakery in Aberdeen.  I was so late I had to call ahead so they could fix me something to pick up before closing time – which they did, the dears.  Sitting in the sun-dappled car at the park and having a bite with the kids? I felt a bit better in general.

Because let’s face it, I am not made of stone and things get me down. No matter how well I have it in my life I can get overwhelmed and despairing; in this case over the same sort of silly myths one hears over and over about supposed homeschooler issues – that children won’t be effectively socialized, that their parents are Caspar Milquetoasts who can’t handle the Real World and they’re raising little Milquetoasts to dither about in the same manner, that there are secret homeschooler “religious” factions preaching non-stop Right-Wing hate in the ears of their little ones.  I can know for a fact these issues are not concerns unique to home education and I can be one hundred percent thrilled with how things are going in my family but – Really?  Must we?  Over and over again?

In the car at the park we finished our lunch – the kids devouring ham sandwiches in no time flat.  They discussed the new water park installation at this specific locale (which I call “Tobaccy Park” as it is located right next to a cigarette shop) and speculated on when the waterworks would commence; not thirty seconds after this the jets blasted into full force.  Of course (as it turned out upon reading the info board) the park will be running daily for the duration of the summer – but to Sophie and Nels’ eyes it just blossomed the moment they wished it to.  The looks on their faces; I’m glad I was there to see it.

The kids were out of the car and under the water jets in no time flat, Nels cutting an especially striking figure in his Max suit which, as it is made almost exclusively of terry cloth, was heavy and soaking in only a few minutes.  After a bit both kids were in their underwear and playing joyfully (mind you, it wasn’t especially warm today).

Sophie hesitated at first before stripping down.  “I don’t want to embarrass you, Mom,” she said, her hazel eyes full of depths I’ve seemingly known my whole life.  My heart melted and I felt so sad that she had sensed my very slight trepidation at the thought of her bare body  – who the hell begrudges a small girlchild the freedom a boychild has, to run and splash and feel cool water and hot sun on the skin?  I said, “Sophie, it won’t embarrass me.  You can do what you wish.” She let me pull her sweater and jeans off and she and her brother giggled and splashed and played with pressure differential in the many recessed spigots – putting their foot on one to make the others fountain all the higher.  They let me know when to warm up the car so I could tuck them into the gloaming and the leather seats and they’d be warm until we got home.

My kids are a reminder that there are people on this planet who have (mostly) only good impulses; who live truly freely, enjoying the gift of Life and enjoying those they love, people who have a light touch and can demonstrate Live & Let Live.  Our (Ralph and my) children are unfettered with troubles most of their day, and when they have them they confront them directly and with passion and clarity.  They are critical thinkers who are rarely prone to Cynicism (a disease of humanity that causes me much grief).  Today in the park I felt a gladness they were in my life, because at times my mind is eaten through with darkness. I truly wish I was smoking whatever they have; I’d be the better off for it.

ask me your questions, and i will ignore your ass

Computer stuff is always ebbing and flowing at Casa del Hogaboom; as a result of being busy writing and sewing and cooking and pissing and moaning about this and that, I missed out on a handful of excellent formspring queries. Today I took a few minutes to catch up and post. I want to say I truly do love formspring questions, and I don’t want to deter the occasional fellow who comes along and asks, turning my formspring page from a desert with tumbleweeds and buzzards to a brief, lush and verdant oasis where I get to write and talk and act like I know stuff.

Here’s what I got today:

How does it work if/when homeschooled/un-schooled kids want to go to college, an exchange year, or something that typically requires transcripts?
There are a handful of typical concerns many home/un-schooling “outsiders” or those new to the concepts ask – “But what about socialization?” is one, handily followed by the college question … (read the rest of my response here)

How is Anna del Geckaboom? Is her tail growing back?
Anna’s tail is growing back nicely. She has been molting regularly and seems quite healthy. But I have terrible news … (read the rest of my response here)

How’s the “class 5 vegan diet” going?
Two words: BORRR-RRING! I have four more days of total deprivation before … (read the rest of my response here)

Thank you for your questions, readers!

spaceship earth, circa 1983

In part in response to my previous post, a friend sent me “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wishlist” from secular-homeschooling.com.  I must admit I laughed a bit (although in general I do not consider it a part of my mission to spread snark) which was then replaced by fervent noddings at numbers 21, 22, and 23. In reading this I also felt quite grateful to be surrounded by friends and family who are generally supportive and don’t say too many silly things regarding my kids’ exemption from school.

Oh and:

From the archives: I grew up in a bus.  I used to call myself “So Cal hippie trash” before I decided I should not use the word “trash” to refer to anyone, my own roots notwithstanding.  My parents smoked pot and sort of parented all groovy (which means: assily), but they fed us and loved us pretty good.  So here I am, rockin’ the raspberry beret and breaking the hearts of my brother and some other boy we met at Yosemite Park.

El Autobús Mágico

It’s hard to see, but beneath the white wave-like motif on this bewheemoth drift the words “Inner Space”; this must be before my mom added planets as well.  Yes, that is a real wooden door with stained glass (my mom handcrafted that too).  Click on the photo if you’d like to read a bit more about our exodus from sunny CA to rainy WA.

ETA: Ralph told me this post made me sound like a hippie who was kind of proud of being a hippie.  I pulled out my cloth menstrual pad and slapped him across the face. And then I went and ate some bark, or something.

so today i hear i’m a neglectful parent, or: why “living my life” isn’t just a solo event

A few days ago Good Morning America aired a segment on Unschooling that is roundly thought by thinky people to be unfair, sensationalist, and journalistically lazy. OK, well.  It is mainstream media, so what would one expect?

Rebuttals and responses popped up around the blogosphere.  Lee Stranahan, filmmaker and writer, responded on Huffington Post by offering up his unschooled 18-year old son as an example, a young man who spent most of his life out of any form of traditional learning.  “You can keep your theories; I have my son,” he writes; a statement that resonates strongly with me.  When I read the theoretical examples of the spoiled, self-indulgent, lazy, couch potato, socially- and intellectually-backward, junkfood-devouring, abysmally-low-impulse-control wretch that is sure to result by not having the child in school (no really, people say all these things and more) it’s almost humorous when I think of the Sophie and Nels I know.

Following up Stranahan’s article, Heather at SwissArmyWife.net wrote a piece fleshing out principles that many unschoolers (or life-learners, self-directed learners, autodidactic learners, etc. etc.) live by. Concerned with the “un-” in the label unschooling, she says, “It’s important to talk about Unschooling and Life Learning in a way that is positive, that explains what we do do.” In the vein of Heather’s post, some homeschoolers and unschoolers are beginning to dislike the terms unschooling and deschooling (and their negative connotations) and instead advocate using the terms “life learning”, “self-directed learning”, or simply reclaiming the more old-fashioned term “homeschooling”.

Of course, the onus shouldn’t be on individual families to provide the perfect picture, the perfect phrasing, to therefore give the “right impression” to families who do things differently, or to those who would (sometimes loudly and visciously) criticize with no or little reflection and study.  I hope those non-schooling families that worry over their self-applied labels keep this in perspective; because in talking about labels we are really talking about concepts and the mainstream reaction to them.

So on that note, really, is the discussion relating to the supposed fringe activities of a minority of families even important at all?  Oh yes.  Oh hell yes.

After all, it is hard for us homeschoolers to simply “go our own way” when public opinion could swing such that today’s rights become tomorrow’s threatened freedoms.  Many think homeschooling is here to stay in this country, and I tend to agree.  But other countries are less friendly towards home-education models, and there’s no real reason to believe things couldn’t move further in that direction in America, especially if we take our rights for granted and the mainstream hardens their hearts to us.

There is another reason we “fringe” should discuss both nomenclature and family life; because sadly, and in no small part due to the anonymity of the internet playground, dehumanizing language threatens to create enemies where there could instead flourish challenges and disagreements amidst a backdrop of united principles of human need.

Not everyone is committed to the goals of compassionate discussion.  Today in the Chicago Sun Times Betsy Hart writes an article entitled, “Careful, don’t ‘Unschool’ your kids”.  It’s a pretty rough read.  According to her, parents who unschool are “irresponsible” and engaging in “neglect”.  She claims she’s a “parent” and the people who unschool are “unparents”.

Anyone who reads here would not call me an “unparent” nor neglectful.  Agree or disagree with any particular choice of mine (and, um, what’s up with that weird clause we say to one another, anyway? Which one person agrees with every thing some other person does?) if you’ve read here long you know I give a hundred and twelve good goddamns about my kids, their development, their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual care.  Yet people with Betsy’s views would paint our family with the broad brushtroke of “nuts” (yes, this is in the article too).

I am no bodhisattva. At first when I read this sort of thing I feel so much hurt and anger. Yet today instead of being pissed or writing her off or sneering at her choices I attempt a conversation. Clicking through to her blog and feedback form I write the following:

I’m so sad to read your attacks ad hominem on unschooling families. We are one of these families, although I do not use the label unschooling for reasons I won’t go into here.

My kids are normal. Their names are Sophie and Nels, and they are 8 and 6. They read voraciously (having learned on their own at a very early age) and show natural interest in science, math, just about every subject one can imagine. And yes, they practice hygiene, play with other children, are affectionate and direct and the furthest thing from self-centered I can imagine. Incidentally, they are also physically fit, advanced in math, reading, and writing, and love learning. They do not watch television all day (we don’t own a set) nor eat only chocolate donuts.

I say these things not to “prove” I am a good parent (you used the words “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and “neglect” to describe unschoolers) but to tell you to please stop making sweeping value judgments on something you know little about. I know the concepts of unschooling are new and unfamiliar to many. If you are interested in the subject, there are so many places you can go to learn more. If you are not willing to learn more, I’m not sure you should be weighing in.

The Good Morning America piece was an unfair one. If you have a moment, you might like to read this article, taken from the perspective of a more traditional homeschooler:

“Unschooling and Unjournalism”, at themoderatevoice.com

I love exercising my rights as an American to live our life in freedom and the way we want to live. I’m sure you enjoy these rights as well. I’m equally sure that if we met in person you and I and our children would respond positively to one another and see opportunities to learn from one another.

If you’re interested in a dialogue about what our family life is like, I’d love to engage one with you! Please do email if this is the case. If not, thank you for reading.

Thank you for your time,

Kelly Hogaboom
Hoquiam, WA
kelly@hogaboom.org

A funny thing happened as I wrote.  I found myself weeding out words that were nasty or character attacks.  I found myself attempting to gently dance along the line of offering a dialogue and perspective without lecturing. I found myself between wanting to elucidate my wonderful life with my amazing children vs. risking sounding like the proof of happy, healthy, academically-advanced children is a requirement I owe the mainstream (I highly reject this concept, as the parents of the 98% of American children who attend school are not required to “prove” their choice of institutionalized school by their kids’ behaviors and accomplishments).

After I sent my email I read the article again, and I saw something new. Toward the end of her essay I began to hear her fear and concern she has for unschooled kids; she does not see how a consensual, free living life could create a human being with the capacity to make rational, altruistic, well-informed, self-sacrificial, and well-rounded decisions.  According to her, if I may be so bold to rephrase, she worries a child who is not raised with duties and commitments they “have to do” will develop to be entirely self-centered.

When I read Hart’s article with an openness and look past her personal attacks, I can relate to her fears and concerns.  I am sad she chose to spend the first 75% of the article maligning families like mine.  If someone like Hart – without knowing me nor choosing to get to know me – thinks of me as “nuts”, “irresponsible”, and an “unparent”, I can only try to engage with her.  It is certainly a reminder, too, to keep my own thrill at my children’s developments and freedoms in check that I do not allow my joy and engagement to morph into recrimination and dismissal of the many (majority) parents who do things the mainstream way.

By making the choices we do, we Hogabooms personally set ourselves apart in a way that can be painful for others and occasionally ourselves.  But this pain is not necessarily a bad thing.  Wendy Priesnitz, social activist, writer, founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, veteran “unschooler”, and mother of two grown daughters who never went to school said a few days ago, to paraphrase, that her thirty years of experience have taught her any publicity is good publicity.  Today she posts a Facebook update reminding families who don’t traditionally school just how much they’re rocking the boat. She writes:

Change – of mind or actions – is difficult for most of us. The unschooling lifestyle challenges long-held beliefs about education as well as about children and parenting. I like to think that, by our very lives, we are encouraging and creating change, and making it easier for people to follow their own hearts instead of others’ opinions.

Sometimes I think that’s what I want most.  Not that every parent should see the wisdom in freeing themselves and their children (although it must be said, this would be a paradise of sorts), but that parents should follow their hearts – and I’d add, remain open to the experiences lived by others.  I am open to hearing views like Hart’s, even if she is not open to mine.

Each parent has the gift of self-awareness and a child whom they can continue to connect with, to learn to love anew. I have seen the power of this in my own life and my own family.  No one needs to live on autopilot; the joys, tribulations, and triumph of challenging our limitations is one of my favorite experiences in being human.

“it’s called ‘self-directed learning’, dad. & no, i don’t have to live here.”

Relatively frequently I get an an email, a DM from Twitter, or an in-person inquiry regarding our choice to homeschool. Over the last couple years I’ve observed the concerns are almost always a select few: “But what about socialization?” being the (predictable) first query (answer: Ha! You have to be joking!* although perhaps soon I will write an actual answer in detail), followed by, “I think it’s best for kids but… I could never get so organized / stand being with my kids all day” as a close second (more about this in a minute).  Finally, trailing third but still frequent enough, I get a form of: “Um, I wonder if homeschooling is right for me?” (or the emphatic “I know homeschooling would not be for us because blah-blah-blah”, although most who say this A. were not asked, personally, to consider homeschooling as far as I know and B. do not have an informed or well-rounded view of what it can and does mean to have kids out of school). In my inbox rests a handful of earnest, lengthy email queries to the latter effect; and this question – or occasional emphatic statement – is one I’d like to address here for a minute.

First, there’s so much to unpack on the subject, and the public sphere has done poorly in creating an intelligible, honest discussion. Like, so many people think if your kids aren’t in school – and you aren’t doing something nefarious with them – that you are “homeschooling”, and it means means you get up in the morning, have breakfast, your kids do some cirriculum according to a color-coded lesson plan, you take field trips with like-minded gentle Subaru-driving families, then sit at a picnic table and eat granola and drink goats’ milk kefir.  And maybe Bible study to boot.

Of course, this is only a (generalized and stereotyped) structure that some families hold to – that is (food-snark aside): a lesson plan and curriculum, possibly faith-based, taught in the home bolstered by organized group activities within the family or a narrow group of friends.  And this is where the lack of realistic, open discussion around out-of-school kiddos fosters a lot of ignorance.  Because besides a vague idea along those lines, many people accustomed to the mainstream don’t even know the differences or philosophies that can be referenced through various terminologies: homeschooling, unschooling, radical unschooling, deschooling, life learning, and self-directed learning (like, reader! I literally know you do not know what the hell I am talking about here!). Wendy Priesnitz writes a wonderful article making several relevant points about such terminology – although if you aren’t a homeschooler and familiar with authors, articles, and movements concerning those who live without traditional education, I fear this article will make little sense and seem an exercise in hair-splitting.  And yet the terminology isn’t throw-way or frivolous, whatever you many initially think, any more than knowing the much-beloved traditions, details and foibles of anyone’s unique family life are throw-away or frivolous.

To get back to the stereotypes: my kids are not in school.  But this does not mean, as their parent and caregiver, I am especially fearful of the World At Large (anyone reading here for long knows I am decidedly not), especially groovy or granola, especially fringe or religious, especially mellow and able to handle a messy house and rowdy kids (I actually totally cannot handle these things!), or especially organized. Getting up at the crack of dawn, sitting at the table and gently leading my youngsters through my well-researched lesson plan?  This is so not me.  Eating stone-ground wheat and stuff I dug out of the garden, then drinking deeply from our recycled-urine-greywater system? – okay, at this point, I’m being a dick.  But still?  Not me.  Reading about Jesus and praying as a family?  Nope.

I am also not neglectful, lazy, or interested in keeping my kids “special” and excluded because they’re smart / “slow” / ADHD / special / bullies / bullied (by the way, why, in your view, would those be those such assy motives anyway?).  Nope, nope, nope.

Enough about what I’m not.

Here’s something that living without formal childhood education does mean: you can’t use Public School as babysitting in order to pursue paid employment.  And that, yup.  It’s a bit rough.  Many people I know could afford to do this (even if they don’t currently believe this), but can’t bring themselves to.  And: fine.  Most America does use Public School as both an economic help and/or to avoid the realities of living with children.  You’re in good company if that’s what your family is doing.

And of course there are those who cannot lose a job to be home with kids – although it must be pointed out most who directly consult me would stack up pretty well according to the Global Rich List.

Here’s the other thing about keeping your children out of school: yes, you have to be around your kids.  The idea of “me time” – or the “real life” of having a job / career / money and business-casual wardrobe – because, you know, if you get paid for something it means it’s worthwhile!  That’s awesome because as a worldview, it means if I can pull in a dollar no one needs to question anything! –  yeah, you will not get the benefit of those!  Sure, you can carve out that “me time” – in fact, I think I do a rather excellent job, maybe better than lots of Mamas I know.  But you won’t get a most-days-guaranteed eight hours worth.  So yes, you will be around your kids.  A lot.  Kind of weird how some people believe Nature made us these babies and coincidentally we can care for them up until four or five years of age but then something happens where you would literally tear their head off if you were to not immediately farm them out for eight/nine hours a day five days a week! Nature is so crazy that way!

That’s about it: those two things listed above.  That’s all it really requires, and really means FO SHO, to have your kids home.

And you know, I really don’t have time – not here, not right now – to go into the many benefits of deciding to keep them home, the individual challenges and frustrations, the glorious and amazing bits, and my whole WHY do I keep them home thingy.  Some other time.  I just wanted to give you a little chat, unless you were deciding to Other me as a completely different person than you with a totally different family.

See, some (most?) people like labels.  Some like the idea that if I chose to have my kids home, instead of in school, it means I’m a Supermom who has all my shit together (Ha! Ha hahaha! < sob! >).  Alternatively, they might enjoy thinking I believe my darlings are more precious than other kids and should be separated from the Grimy Masses (so in other words, I’m an Elitest Asshole), or that I’m trying to insulate and isolate them (in other words, I’m fearful and controlling), or that I have a series of unconventional faith-based beliefs (America was partially founded on freedom to worship but please don’t worship TOO WEIRDLY!).  So if I’m a “homeschooler” maybe I’m preaching to them from the Wiccan handbook or the New Testament (or both!), maybe I’m feeding them Class Five Vegan cuisine and braiding my armpit hair into thick, supple ropes.  So, you know, these people want me to subscribe to a label so they can decide what it means without thinking much about it.  Those who are threatened by my concept of staying home with my (perfectly smart, active, academically proficient, happy and healthy) kiddos, will want to make fun of me or – a more charitable diagnoses on my part – suddenly come forth (unasked) to me and tell me all the reasons they don’t or can’t stay home (this latter means they don’t have to go through the scary experience of actually considering it!). This is why, online and in books, you’ll see a lot of articles trying to define Unschooling, Life Learning, all the above – simply because in doing something different, you are too-often assumed to be doing something weird.

My life is profundly normal, and yet I’m put at a social disadvantage where people assume it’s freakish, uncanny, odd, or exceptional.  And I really don’t know a way around this odd little facet of living a non-mainstream life. A summation up at the end of the article “Does the unschooling label help or harm?” (unschoolinglifestyle.com) reveals an existence so typical, family-based, reasonable, non-SCARY or -FRINGE**, that it’s almost easy to wonder why one would have to pen it at all:

My family learns through life experiences, as well as through direct academic pursuit, as well as through play. We live spontaneously, as well as by design. We take classes, as well as pursue new skills autonomously. We follow a biological clock, i.e., sleeping when tired, as well as a schedule when we choose to make appointments, i.e., classes, play dates, parties. We live flexibly and authentically, adapting to new needs and wants. We live communally and respectfully, aiming for peaceful and contented family relationships. We attend to discord one situation at a time, knowing we need not take disharmony for granted. We continually create our life.

Ha!  What weirdos, AMIRITE?

Photo By One Of My Kids

* Socialization? See: Hogaboom kids, and how fucking awesome they are at all times in pretty much every social setting, ever! Maybe because they get to hang out with all-ages in a more varied setting…  I dunno.

** Oh and P.S.? You can’t honestly think I, personally, am scared of “fringe” or think it’s wrong; my point is, “fringe” often ends up being used in a pejorative sense and to dehumanize or distance those who think, believe, or do differently than the herd.

dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis

Driving over the bridge this afternoon the kids were both immersed in books:  Nels advancing his reading fluency by using a story his sister wrote, illustrated, and bound, and Sophie poring through a favorite of hers. A few minutes later we shared a bento box for lunch and while I sipped very sweet, hot tea and consumed a chapter of my latest read (here in HQX we Hogabooms use the library tons, I mean tons) Sophie asked to go next door to the Dollar Tree. I used this opportunity to suggest she finish her bowl of egg-drop soup (she’s barely been eating lately) and after she left having a companionable, quiet lunch with my Boy.  Sophie returned fifteen minutes later, having taken careful inventory of the store and purchased a clever addition for her father’s intended Halloween costume (hint, he may be sexy but he is kind of a fantasy dork).

It’s the little things that make you laugh.  Or more to the point, my kids make me laugh all the time for their random, crazy shit they get up to.  Like just today I’d only peripherally noticed Nels clambering up on our dresser and messing about with the one piece of our “art” in this house – a 2.5″ by 3″ portrait of Jesus, looking relatively put-out and sad.  I told Nels not to remove it from its spot.  He apparently ignored my suggestion, because just now putting away a spool of thread in my sewing closet I found Nels’ little gallery on a small wall in the house.  Apparently he’d been scavenging several worthy items for this display and hung them in a small, discrete corner of the living room: the aforementioned Son of God portrait, 2008’s “school picture” of the two kids (they hadn’t been in “school”, of course), a paper seahorse Sophie yesterday drew, colored, and cut out, a packet of Addition flash cards, and a sinister drawing, also by Sophie (“Ah, flowers!” a feline-looking girl says, her smiling face buried deep within a bouquet; behind her, coming in off the right-side of the paper, a multi-clawed, grinning monster is only a few inches away from grasping the unsuspecting lass).

We’ve been requiring more chores of the children; Sophie has now been upgraded to doing all our family laundry.  I do mean every bit of it, including folding and putting away.  It’s kind of weird that I no longer have to do this chore – up until now a staple of my day.  Nels helps Ralph cook – when Ralph cooks, which isn’t too often – but also every night the two males do the dinner cleanup together.  As a result of our efforts, tonight by 8:30 PM (an early hour for we night-owls) we had all our household chores done.  I put on some Nat King Cole, Sophie requisitioned my help in handmaking two felt sleep masks (for her and her grandmother’s use on their So.-Cal.-to-WA roadtrip in October), Nels invested some time in Tux Paint, and Ralph worked on promotional efforts for the film we’re showing this week in town.

Yesterday I finished Sophie’s Halloween costume; today I start on yet another. Yes, the Hogabooms love to geek out on Halloween.

starting the school year off kicking

Today began the first full week of school for other families, and I’m glad for the day we had; it made it easy (and wonderful) to be an unschooling family.

The kids played most of the day, drawing pictures, cooking a bit, and Nels made a game called “Clunkers”. They helped my mom and her boyfriend doing gardening out in the yard (for quite some time) and went to the hardware store (where they bought candy). They made an “advent” chain for Halloween – their idea, and being Hogakids they are ridiculously excited about the holiday. Sophie told me there were 48 days until the big night (she will be in So. Cal. with family but Nels will be with us), so the two of them crafted 48 links (in groups of ten, then one group of eight – division with remainders). I am lazy so I didn’t even check to see if “48” was accurate. I just trust it was.

This evening Suse had her first soccer game and immediately scored three goals. She was laughing joyfully the entire time she played. We hadn’t practiced any soccer since her season ended; she was just sort of magically better. Sophie is no soccer progeny – this is just something that happens with all the kids, according to her coach.

Nels finally mastered the monkey bars.

So yeah; kids learn, kids grow. We don’t need to push or pull. It’s amazing if you really let yourself believe in it, and watch.