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Alison McKee’s Unschooling Ourselves 

The Bigger Picture

When it’s least expected, questions come my way that make me pause and think. Recently I was asked by a young special education teacher, “What should my goals be when I am working with young children who have significant difficulty learning to read?” 
My response took a moment to formulate. How could I possibly tell this teacher all I had learned about helping children learn to read? Then I remembered the principal that guided my husband and me as we helped our daughter learn to read and the words, “Find any way you can to keep the children’s interest in learning alive and don’t worry about the rest,” rolled off my tongue. 
She looked at me questioningly and offered back, “Oh, I know that, but really, what should I be focusing on in these early years of their education?” I knew from her response that she did not really understand what I was talking about. More importantly, though, I knew she wasn’t going to be able to help children learn as I had been able to do with mine. She wasn’t in the position to un-school them. Still it was important, I believed, to engage her in conversation about the importance of helping children fall in love with learning. 
Often homeschooling parents come to me with questions about becoming unschoolers. These parents are homeschoolers who are not having success using traditional curriculum at home and are beginning to think that unschooling is the last resort before opting for putting their children in school. I know by the questioning tone in their voices, though, that they don’t think unschooling is the best choice. They’d rather stick with what they know best: Traditional schooling methods.

My first question to these parents is the one I asked this young teacher, “What are the issues that concern you most?” Like the answers I get from parents, this teacher had a very complex response. She said that some of her youngest students were not able to remember which letter was which or could not grasp the basics of early phonics. Homeschooling parents who question the value of unschooling often start answering this same question by sharing their concerns about reading also. The teacher went on to report that other, older kids could not recognize many of the most basic sight words. Here again, parents who are struggling to continue with homeschooling often talk of older kids who have not yet learned to read with fluency. Back to the teacher, many of the young children who had learned to recognize letters were eager to try to read aloud but were beginning to show signs of giving up. Parents of young children who are trying to help their children learn to read, often mention that reading has become a battle ground. Children who had once been eager to learn basic skills were simply shutting down and refusing to read when asked. Similarly with the teacher, her older students were overshadowed by a sense of failure and stupidity and had lost all interest in reading. Often homeschooling parents who are considering the unschooling option chide themselves for having made their older children feel stupid. They recall how eager and excited their children were as young learners. When they are talking to me they are reporting that these same children, now much older, think of themselves as being stupid and not knowing enough. The teacher finally came around and said, “I guess the issue for me is to learn what goals I need to focus on and leave the rest alone.” She’d come full circle in a few minutes. Now we could have a more open discussion about the bigger picture.

As parents ponder the pros and cons of whether or not they should become unschoolers, I always try to help them focus on the bigger picture. Since this has been a discussion about helping children who have difficulty learning to read, I am going to focus on the bigger picture of reading. All of us worry and fret about the basics of education when our children are young. If we have children who are learning at an accelerated rate, we worry about how to keep them interested; if we have children who are not learning at a rate that we would expect, we worry too. I have been on both sides of that fence with my two children. If there is one thing my parenting/unschooling years taught me, it is that we must do all we can to help our children maintain an interest in learning. In my book, Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, I put it this way with regard to reading: “Georgina seemed to be saying that she would learn to read in her own good time...We were coming to understand that our sole job as parents was to keep Georgina’s joy of reading alive for that time in the future when she’d be ready to master the skill. Never mind decoding skills, word recognition quizzes and comprehension tests!”
Most of us equate the phrase “an interest in learning” with thoughts of reading and doing math. Why? Because that is the focus of most of our educational experiences. We have come to believe that if we cannot do these two things and do them well, we will not be able to “make it” as adults. In my opinion this is an unfortunate situation. Yes, reading and math are important skills to master. Are they so important, though, that we sacrifice the child who learns at a slower rate, or is truly dyslexic, to endless lessons in these subjects? I don’t believe so.

How can I, an educated woman and a teacher, say such a thing? It is simple. I just take a moment to consider all that there is to do in life and all of the ways one might do it. Most of us do not spend hours on the job reading or doing math. I am just such a person. Those who do, and I know some people who do, are people who have self-selected work that allows them to use skills that come easily for them - reading or math. Those who don’t spend hours on the job reading or doing math are often those who had to struggle, for years, in remedial math and reading classes. As adults, these people routinely select occupations that allow them to use the skills they are good at or can learn easily. I would venture to guess that most of these people select jobs which allow them to become plumbers, electricians, road builders, carpenters, artists, musicians... the list is endless.

Rather than spend countless hours trying to make a fluent reader out of a child who will never be one, or a mathematician out of a child who will never be one, why not change our educational focus? Why not change it so that they can begin to prepare for a non- reading or non-math-based career at earlier ages. Changing the educational focus for children who learn at a faster or slower pace than their peers can be a scary thing to do. Most often it is scary because our educational experience doesn’t train us to do these things. Unlike special educators, unschooling parents have the opportunity to follow the lead of their children. This often helps remove the fear of having to “teach” our child skills we know nothing about. Why? Because the child will follow their bliss and forge their own unique educational paths. We will simply have to facilitate the process when we are asked to do so.

For a child who is slow to learn the skill of reading, joys of learning abound. Such children often use their imaginations to build, make music, or do art. They might ask for materials to build with, an instrument to play, lessons on the instrument, art supplies and the like. Their interests will lead them along the path. As they mature, they develop a love of learning that may or may not lead them down avenues that require them to use extensive mathematics or reading skills. If there are no neurological reasons for not being able to do either of these skills they will simply learn them as they go. I have seen my own children, and many like them, learn mathematics in this way. Reading came quickly for one of my children and came later to the other. There was no harm done to either child by letting go of our expectations and, for the one who learned at a slower than average pace, as a teenager she could read with the best of them. Later in college, she managed exceedingly well. This often happens, if we simply let the skills develop and unfold according to each child’s individual developmental timeline.

This sounds so simple for children like mine, who do things at a different pace than most. Unfortunately not all children fall into this category. There are some children who have neurological or physical reasons that will forever be in the way of their becoming fluent readers. I do not mean that these children do not understand written material, but rather that they cannot decode it. For children such as these, we as unschooling parents (or special educators) need to help them become successful adults in spite of a lack of ability to do these tasks. We can help them keep their interest in learning alive by making sure they know about resources at hand and become fluent in their use. Children who are unable to read print, for any reason: visual impairment, physical disability or neurological processing, should be familiarized with the wealth of material that is available to them through agencies like the Library of Congress or Recorded Books for the Blind and Dyslexic. If mathematical calculation is a difficulty that will not be overcome without brutal workouts, over years and years of one’s life, there are calculators and computer programs that can help. Children who know that they can manage their own learning needs remain enthusiastic learners. In fact there is no stopping them. Unschooling parents should always try to keep the bigger picture in focus: Children love learning when given opportunity to develop their talents and skills. ■ A.M.
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Alison McKee is a homeschooling mom of two grown children. She is also the author of “Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves” published by Bittersweet House. You can write to her at amckee@mailbag.com.