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Home Education Magazine

January-February 1997 - Articles

Becoming Unschoolers - Janet Keip

Becoming unschoolers has not been an easy transition for us. Yet, like most difficult journeys, it has been worth the effort.

We stumbled into homeschooling six years ago. Our daughter was then five. Unable to relinquish that tired, but familiar school model, we harbored visions of quiet, "Norman-Rockwell-ish" teaching moments. Our daughter, Jaime, would be caught up in the throes of learning as I, the teaching parent, would earnestly ladle knowledge into her empty little head. In my arrogant innocence, I called those times "planned learning encounters" in our education plan for that year .

They were a bust. We collided violently with barrier number one at our very first planned learning encounter.

"Jaime, honey, time to begin our very first day of 'school'."

"You go ahead, Mom. I want to finish this right now then I'm going out to trampoline." Jaime replied.

"But, dear, its our very first day. Don't you want to try some of these nice books and colored rods we got for you?" I coaxed.

"No, thanks, Mom. Maybe later," she placated.

"Jaime, I want you to do this NOW - before you go outside." I stated firmly and just a little tersely. And the conversation rapidly escalated into a heated exchange. I don't recall if Jaime ever did sit down and do "school" that very first day but if she did, it undoubtedly ended in tears and angry recriminations as did most of our "school days". After a few such encounters, I finally said, "Oh well, she is young and we can start next year when she is more mature." Yet, while my words were relaxed, I could hear the clock loudly ticking. I harbored a deep fear of her falling behind, never able to catch up. Her young friends began to read and do math problems. By January, these friends were all writing stories in beautifully even manuscript printing. Some were even writing books. Jaime, when she deigned to write at all, insisted on using a clumsy block printing - capital letters only, no lower case for her, thank-you very much! Math - well, that was something you did in your head for fun or to play games with, but number facts were boring. Writing numerals - ughh! Worse yet, I worried that she was learning disabled.

Oh well, I would reassure myself, she could catch up if only we would just apply ourselves. We needed some structure, needed to make a plan and stick to it. And so it went each year. September would begin with wonderful plans, fresh new materials (and a fresh vision that this would be the year we would be successful "doing school"). By November we were losing it, spending more time in tears, recriminations and frustration than learning. I would shelve our plans until January, at which time we would begin the whole process again.

Most years we could count 15 to 20 "school days" of up to three hours each, depending on how masochistic I felt that particular day. I felt trapped between my artificial vision of what "should be happening" and my heart vision - what I knew to be the best path for Jaime and for us. Fear kept the artificial vision alive. Fear made me think Jaime would be "left behind" like some hopelessly out-of-date little coal engine on the railroad tracks of life. Fear made me reject my heart vision and follow the common path. When I could listen to my heart, whole weeks would glide by in marvelous, magical wonder. Life was rich and full. Then SLAM, fear would kick in and I would impose my curriculum of good intentions. Through it all, Jaime continued to grow and learn and amazingly enough, we continued to grow in confidence as a homeschooling family despite the imposed planned learning encounters.

Finally late last fall, after five years as homeschoolers, we made the leap. And leap it was, for we are the only real unschoolers in the area. Our school district is a geographic area of about 1000 square miles, serving 2600 children ages 6 - 18 years. The homeschooling rate is 4% - almost double the rate in other parts of the province. When we first began, there were eight other homeschooling families in our area - two of them almost unschoolers - but not quite. The rest were a motley assortment of various models of "school-at-home". Now there are more than fifty homeschooling families. The face of homeschooling seems to have changed in our area as homeschooling has become more popular. The majority of families either use a single-supplier curriculum or a patchwork assortment. All but us do some sort of "school-at-home".

It is easy to maintain an unschooling home at the beginning, when children are young; it becomes harder with each passing year. Pressure to keep pace with curriculum-based homeschoolers is relentless and steady. Doubts assail us as our children grow older. Also, there are the legalities. Unschooling where we live means skirting the edges of the law. While we don't outright lie to the school authorities, we are obliged to stretch the truth, sometimes painfully in order to comply with legislation.

All this makes for some very interesting conversations and sometimes uncomfortable examinations on our part. I find our doubts are often a result of conversation with fellow homeschoolers. It is one thing to feel defensive to those friends and neighbors who send their children to school but quite another to feel the need to defend yourself against your own.

Because unschooling is so unique in today's world, it can feel isolating. Sometimes I question our choices. I wonder why, out of 2600 children in this area, we are the only ones to have discovered the joys of unschooling? Where are the others? How could a lifestyle be so right, so wonderful, and still so unknown?

Yet, as I have connected through the Internet and various on-line services, I have come to realize that many unschoolers feel unique and isolated. Unschooling is a small segment in the growing group of homeschoolers seeking wholeness and quality in our lives. I think of us as "at the edge of the wedge," kind of like the lead goose in a great migrating "V," winging our way home.

....(articles list) | columns list)

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