Unschooling Ourselves: Dealing With Our Doubts
by ALISON MCKEE
Years ago a friend said to me, “We don’t know how to homeschool.” In response, I remember being dumbfounded. Her children, like mine, had never been to school and both of us had teens. Needless to say I asked her to clarify what she meant. “We have all been educated in school. We unconsciously work from the school model. Our children have never been to school and therefore know more about what it means to be homeschooled than we do.” To this she added, “We need to follow their lead. When they want to learn something we should listen to them and follow that advice.”
I knew from experience that my friend was correct, and I also knew how difficult it was to follow that advice. At that time in our homeschooling venture, our difficulty was learning to accept that what our family did and how our family lived was the normal way to live. On the surface I understood that the institution of school, a human creation, was, in fact, an institution which removed learning from its natural realm of the greater world and put it within the confines of brick buildings. I was well aware of the fact that the mammoth educational institution, so pervasive throughout the world, often caused me to forget that this humanly created institution was still in its infancy. I needed to consciously remind myself that schooling , as we know it, has only been in existence for the past hundred years or so. Before that time most children spent few hours within the confines of classrooms and did the majority of their learning alongside the masters of the arts and trades to which they were apprenticed. I’d often forget this fact, and when I did I’d find myself face-to-face with my own doubts about my abilities as a home educator. Even with today’s success of the homeschooling movement and my twenty years of active participation in it, I too can sometimes hear the skeptical, critical little voice in my head questioning whether we have done the right thing. Over the years I have explored this doubt--where it comes from, what it is like and why it is so pervasive--with others who homeschool and in so doing have tried to help them, and myself, come to terms with this only partly tamable beast.
I have learned through experience that the best way to come to peaceful terms with our doubt is to tell our stories to one another, in much the same way that we do when we attend homeschooling conferences, so that together we can create a new understanding of what healthy living and learning look like. It is my hope that by sharing our personal stories with one another we can begin to destroy the myth that without full-time traditional schooling our children will somehow become less able adults than their schooled peers. The oral tradition of story-telling, as a means by which to transmit culture, has long been part of the human experience and so it is within this context that I’d like to tell you some of my story. As you read it, I hope you will be encouraged to tell your story to friends and fellow homeschoolers and thus help us all form a new basis of educational understanding which views learning within our homes and communities as the rule rather than the exception to the rule.
My husband and I have been homeschooling our two children since 1978 when our first child was born. As preschoolers, Christian’s and Georgina’s lives were their schools. When Christian became school age we decided just to continue allowing his life to be his school. As his sister reached school age, we made the same decision for her life. For neither child did we want text books or curriculum. We’d witnessed the miracle of learning that had taken place in our living room and out in the community and sensed that things might continue in the same way if we simply allowed Christian and Georgina to learn from what life brought their way. Why, then, were we sometimes haunted by doubts about what we were doing? Did we not trust our instincts or our children? Why is it that we sometimes, even now, feel the pressure of society, questioning ourselves and our decisions? Our children are grown, one is even in college, and yet with one teen still at home there can be momentary lapses when we question what we are doing and the direction we are going.
Like most parents who make the decision to homeschool, our decision was made with great care. Before Christian had reached school age, we had already had many serious discussions about it. We read all we could find, starting with an interview with John Holt in The Mother Earth News and continuing with all the back issues of Growing Without Schooling, Nancy Wallace’s book Better Than School and all of John Holt’s books, some of which we had read in college. We eagerly read anything that was available. I even had the wonderful chance to spend an evening with John Holt when he came to a music educators conference in Minneapolis. All of this foraging in the realm of homeschooling made us feel we could do it. By the time Christian was school age, we felt pretty sure that we were well prepared to take on the full responsibility for his education. That was back in 1983.
As luck would have it, a confluence of events took place the summer before Christian should have gone to school. I was suddenly, and most gladly, back at home full-time. David was done with his degree and had accepted a job in Wisconsin. If school were to be our choice, Christian faced the possibility of spending three weeks in kindergarten before we moved. We decided that rather than put Christian in kindergarten at all, we’d simply keep him home “an extra year” and try our hand at homeschooling. After all, what sense could it make to enroll a five-year-old in a school, remove him three weeks later and put him in a new school in a new town and state? We also knew that Wisconsin was in the process of developing new homeschooling laws, which meant that there would be the possibility of having a voice in the process. All of these events, when considered together, seemed to be an open invitation to take the risk and try a year of homeschooling.
Given the fact that we were well prepared to homeschool, and that it seemed the only sensible thing to do, how did doubt creep in? In the initial stages of our homeschooling life, the most serious concern we had was limited to one important issue: Finding support, in our new community, for our chosen educational path. This was a scary issue at the time because homeschooling was not so well known. Eventually we made connections with two families in Wisconsin who were homeschooling. Although these two families didn’t live anywhere near us, we felt as though we had found the support we needed. We were, by no means, going to be the sole homeschoolers in Wisconsin!
In those initial years, we continued to build a network of support while we watched our children grow and learn. From an educational standpoint, we felt relatively secure with our decision to homeschool and continued to keep “trying it for another year” as the years rolled on. It seemed to us that our young children were mastering the basic skills of life quite successfully with little guidance from us. Christian learned to read, Georgina showed an interest in the written word but was not ready to master reading, and both children seemed to be happy and outgoing. Those early days of homeschooling were both a joy and a frustration. Yet, even though David and I could recognize that our children were making progress in their personal and educational development, we still worried. Georgina was definitely a “late reader” and Christian’s “allergy” to writing caused us to think of him as a “non writer.” These issues combined with the often invasive questions about our educational choice and whether or not we were harming our children by keeping them at home kept staring us in the face. We’d often find ourselves asking, “Are we on the right track?”
We found it easy to doubt ourselves when we focused on our children’s “difficulties” with reading and writing or on “bad” days. It took us a little time, but soon we learned to focus ourselves on the positive aspects of homeschooling. We reminded ourselves, when we worried about academic issues, that our children were not becoming stagnant. They always seemed to be mastering new skills whether it was how to use the telephone to make inquiries, tie their shoes, cook a meal or spell the name of a new friend. With such reminders, it became easier to assuage our doubt and replace it with a new found confidence in our children’s ability to learn and grow according to their inner voices rather than our schooled expectations. When we were confronted by a series of “bad days,” which might be marked by quarreling or endless boredom, it was important to remind ourselves that these, too, were learning opportunities. By homeschooling our children we were giving them endless opportunities to work through their differences and learn the intricacies of living closely with one another. Their boredom more than once served as a motivator and spurred them on to long-term, creative learning ventures that neither David nor I could ever have planned. By teaching ourselves to focus on the positive rather than the negative, David and I learned to recognize that, indeed, we were on the right track after all. Our children were thriving, happy and curious about their world. They fit in socially with adults and children in our community of friends.
It took quite some time before I realized why David and I could fluctuate so easily between feeling so good about our decision to homeschool one day, and being so unsure of ourselves the next. Like most adults, we had been traditionally schooled for thirteen years not to mention the fact that both of us were college graduates. It turned out that those years in school had done more to us than we realized. If I really thought hard about it I understood that, beginning in kindergarten, we had been taught to recognize our failings and our weaknesses. In fact, most of my adult peers had learned the same lessons. Some of us learned that we were not able to color well, others learned that the alphabet wasn’t easily mastered and, most importantly, many of us found that our peers and teachers were not always supportive of our differences. These lessons seemed to be the simple beginnings of what I came to realize was the self-doubt that school instills into our collective psyche. Schools taught us that all children should be on the same developmental path. If they aren’t, we worry and try to think of ways to manipulate them onto “the right path.” In this way, David and I, and most other schooled people, have been taught to doubt the value of being a unique individual.
On days when things were running smoothly there were other situations which brought our doubts to the fore. Most commonly it was the questions of friends, neighbors and even strangers. No matter how they worded it they all seemed to be asking one thing: How will your children learn if they are not in school? It was clear by the tone of their voices that they believed “real” learning could only take place within the confines of a classroom. As a homeschooling parent at the threshold of our homeschooling experience, I was just beginning to tear apart this myth. I was coming to understand that school buildings are not the holy temple of learning nor are its teachers its priests. Slowly it became apparent that most children I knew, myself included, had never been given the chance to recognize just how much is learned by self-education. Instead most of us were told, beginning in kindergarten, “Now you are big children and you must settle down and learn.” Implicit in that message was the failure to recognize the value and merit of any self initiated learning that may have been done outside of school not to mention the fact that unique interests had little value in the classroom setting.
Another large dose of doubting ourselves as homeschoolers came from direct observation of our children and what they were doing and not doing. Although I was becoming conscious of the fact that genuine learning - learning that was as authentic as the unstructured home-based preschool learning our children had done - need not be tested in order to prove its value, my overly educated self often thought otherwise. On the one hand, I could recognize that when Georgina asked me to teach her to use the library’s catalog, I didn’t have to resort to worksheets and tests to evaluate whether or not she had learned the skill. I recognized that the authentic experience of working through the process, followed by being able to find books on her own, was all that was needed. On the other hand my doubts about our natural form of homeschooling (unschooling as it has come to be called) lingered because of my limited personal experience of authentic learning. I remember being concerned because my children were not doing those things which I had halfheartedly expected them to do. They did not naturally gravitate to sitting still for hours on end nor did they seek out textbooks when they wanted to learn about something. For quite some time, they were the only people I had long-term firsthand relationships with who learned in this way. Although Georgina’s and Christian’s authentic learning experiences were small miracles to behold, David’s and my doubts could easily loom large when we saw how differently they went about their daily activities--their work--compared to our childhoods.
Oddly enough, our doubts about whether or not our free-form approach to educating our children subsided after I took on work as a long-term substitute teacher in 1990. The stark contrast between the work that my children were doing and what my students were doing helped us put aside our concerns and know that our path, while still uncharted, was by far superior to the traditional approach to education.
That year of substitute teaching was the same year that Georgina became immersed in the study of ancient Egyptian culture, an interest that began with her random browsing through books at the library. We would read anything we could get our hands on--adult books, picture books, encyclopedias--it didn’t matter what. Georgina was fascinated by anything to do with ancient Egypt. Some days we would sit on the kitchen floor and work on a scale model of an Egyptian city, some days we would talk about Egyptian hieroglyphics and on some days Egypt had nothing to do with our daily activity at all. Our days had a natural rhythm to them and we thoroughly enjoyed our discoveries together.
On the first Monday in November this suddenly came to an end. My subbing work began. As it happened, two of the students I was working with were studying ancient Egypt with their classmates. The first day that I sat in on the classroom discussion I was jarred by the unreality of it all. “Egypt,” for these children, was something that was only discussed between 10:30 and 11:20 on certain days of the week. “Egypt” was memorizing the meaning of terms like “obelisk,” “pyramid” and “mummy” for a multiple-choice test. “Egypt” was something to be forgotten when the class moved on to “Greece” two weeks later.
Georgina and I discussed Egypt at breakfast or read about it for our bedtime reading. My students were reading texts for certain facts which they would be tested on and do worksheets on. Georgina was reading and being read to about something that fascinated her. There was no test or worksheet at the end to test what facts she had learned.
My heart sank as I sat with those sixth graders and wondered how such an interesting subject could be made so deadly dull. The class seemed uninterested in the discussion that their teacher was trying to lead. My gut reaction was to get up and shout, “No, this is wrong, this is awful!” Of course, I didn’t have the nerve to do it. Instead I sat in disbelief and felt my heart sink because those children could not experience the excitement of studying Egypt the way Georgina had. At home Georgina was alive with Egypt. As I sat in that classroom, on that particular morning, I was transfixed by the absurdity of what I was witnessing. All children deserved to experience the magic of Egypt and none deserved having that magic stolen from them by lesson plans, text books and prying questions.
It was at that moment, and many others that followed, that I began to feel truly confident that David and I were on the right path. Over the years we continued to allow our children to follow the magic that sparked their interests. They have been led down paths of study which have included learning about foreign language, animals, drama, theater makeup, orangutans and apes, fly fishing, singing, swimming, radio production and many more. They also immersed themselves in the lives of their community doing volunteer work at meal programs, radio stations, for political candidates, at pet stores, and clubs of particular interest. When necessary, they found tutors/mentors to help them learn the foreign language, develop their dramatic skill or help them refine their singing techniques. Each time our children ventured out in a new direction, David and I became more confident that we were on the right path. If we ever doubted that homeschooling was the right choice, we simply reminded ourselves of what I encountered when I worked in the schools.
My life has been lived in two worlds. The artificial world of school and the natural world of homeschooling. Each week for the past eight years I have spent anywhere between two and twenty hours a week within the walls of educational institutions working one-on-one with visually impaired students. Often times I feel a terrible sadness FOR my students. As I try to bring them the freedom of the homeschooling experience, within the confines of their school, they bemoan the drudgery of their regular classroom instruction. Each time I hear them complain about being forced to waste time on “busy work” I am reminded that our homeschooling life gives me very little worry these days. Gone are the days of wondering whether or not Christian or Georgina are “doing what they are supposed to be doing.” Of course they are! It is the schools in which I work that seem to be on the wrong path. My students confirm that schools are entirely out of step with what the lives of children are really about.
As David and I come close to the time when we will have no children at home, I often find myself wondering why we ever gave our educational worries much consideration. Of course, I know that hindsight has lots to do with how I feel now. It is for this reason that I enjoy sharing our story. I hope that those of you who are just beginning to venture down the homeschool path can take from this story and the stories of others who have gone before you, the secure knowledge that your children will succeed in life as long as you offer them your support and guidance as they follow their unique and true path in the world. ■
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