Tag Archives: Unschooling

state mandated tests for kids are torture devices designed by demons who hate me

AAARG, I’m ready to scratch my eyes out, the kids are doing the North Carolina required academic test that homeschoolers have to plow through each year end, goddess save me from multiple-choice hell.  It’s worse even than Hulu commercials.

Although it IS kind of interesting to watch the kids and their emerging test-taking styles.  Sophie grinds through each question, plod, plod, snacks help, don’t interrupt her flow or it will take her fifteen minutes to get it back, she’s going to finish this fucking thing no matter what. It’s like a vendetta with her.

Luc, on the other hand, tricks out each question, sussing out the answers as much from deductive removal of options as from answering the actual question at hand: A is stupid, B is obvious red herring, therefore it must be C.  Or, if I read the last sentence I can get the answer to this without reading the whole thing…etc.  Like the way he does math: to multiply, say, 24 x 6, he doesn’t work through the steps, 6×4, 6×2, etc, with a pencil, that would take too long.  Instead he does it in his head by doing 20x 6, 4×6, and then adding them together.  To subtract nine, he quickly subtracts ten and adds one in his head.  So tricky, my little boy.

But oh, how he hates it.  “NO, not more!  I’m so BOOOORED.”

Talk about boring.  I’m about to die.  Because I can read the word, or do the math, or know what should be capitalized in this sentence, but I can’t say anything.  I have to watch them struggle, or get it wrong, or get distracted for the twentieth time and keep my mouth shut.  I can’t even show any facial expressions because Luc is examining me minutely for clues.  Part of his strategy is tricking me into revealing the answer with an eyebrow twitch.  He’s very good at it.  Apparently I would be a terrible poker player. I’m going to have to start wearing a bag over my head.

I’ve been dealing with all of this by youtubing old Julia Child videos.  Quite unexpectedly, I find Julia helps me to stand being there at the table to answer questions (which mostly I can’t answer),  and to keep the kids from sitting around chatting or just generally falling into a morass of unfocused, glazed, despair. (“You can’t answer questions if you are hanging upside down out of your chair. How about sitting up and squeezing just one more out.  Then we’ll take a break.”) Julia keeps me from slitting my wrists.

If you want a dadaist test-administering experience, I recommend sipping sake, watching Julia, and helping kids fill in stupid bubbles with #2 pencils. Because Julia is hilarious and marvelous and totally lovable.  That’s a fact.

Some of the questions are so DUMB and often bizarrely outdated feeling, or ethnocentric.  Like questions about writing down phone messages, when all anyone does now is leave voicemail on someone’s cell phone, or, sends a text.  It’s like IQ tests used for gorillas who can use sign language: Of the five following things, which two are good to eat? 1-flower, 2-block 3-shoe 4-ice cream.  A gorilla will answer 1-flower, but it will be marked wrong. Luc, especially, is full of logical reasons why the “right” answer is the “wrong” one.

Really, testing is the absolute worst of school (minus the bullying and the cafeteria lunches) distilled down into one torture device designed to make you hate the things it purports to test.

Plus there is this sort of thing:  Luc, technically in 2nd grade, is doing 4th grade math, and Sophie, technically in 4th grade is reading at a 7th grade level.  This without ever doing any school or study.  My kids are great, but they aren’t savants.  It’s just that SCHOOL IS SUCH A SCAM.  Seriously, school is totally unnecessary for learning this stuff! Yeah, when you get further along and want to specialize beyond the general knowledge stuff that they cover in elementary school, sure, school can be great.  You have a goal, you want to learn X, you go learn it.  University for the win!  But elementary school?  SUCH a waste of kid’s precious time.  They’re kids, with that wonderful kid perspective, for such a short time.  If they’re in school, the mass of those few years gets squandered doing unnecessary busywork.  I really believe this.

Okay, to be fair, North Carolina is an easy state to home school in.  It’s not like Maryland, say, where you have to come up with a portfolio of what your kid did all year, a portfolio that the state might reject.  Imagine having to justify your life to some stranger!  Screw that.  In comparison the test isn’t so bad—a few days of torture and then we’re free for another year.  So there is that.  If I can survive.

Oh god, two more days to go.  I need some really wickedly awesome reward after this.

Remember, if no one is watching, you can use the sides of your hands!

unschooling is learning by playing, and it really and truly works

Not having internet for a month got me thinking about how much of my and my kid’s lives are organized around fun, that is, our entertainment.  I feel guilty, thinking of all the people in the world who work sweatshop jobs for most of their waking hours, when we…play.  All day.  It’s amazing, really.  Games, contacting friends (texting, FaceTime, email), books, movies, tv, music, audiobooks, looking up an endless list of things up, etc.  We are so blessed.

I mentioned this to SuperHubby who generously supports the kids an I in our rock ‘n roll lives.  “We pursue fun like it’s our job.  Education from entertainment.”

“Edutainment?” he said.

No.  Edutainment is when you want someone to learn something you’ve selected for them, and so you’re trying to make it fun,  to get them to stick with you through your message.  It’s manipulative, really.  No, I’m talking about the opposite—when you’re having fun, you learn stuff, whether you notice it or not.  Learning happens automatically when you’re enjoying yourself.

People have no problem with this idea with babies.  Babies learn by playing, it’s a truism.  But as kids get older, gradually playing isn’t seen as good enough anymore.  You’re supposed to switch over to ‘work’ and ‘get serious’ about your studies.  I honestly believe this is a bunch of crap.

In North Carolina you have to test your homeschooled kid once a year with a state-approved test and I used to hate this because it seemed like whatever number you get, it messes you up.  If your kid scores high, you think differently about your kid and about what you’re doing for your homeschooling, than if your kid scores low.  And either way you’re looking at a number instead of at your kid.

But lately, I’ve noticed a nice side effect of the test.  So far, Sophie and Luc test right at grade level and I’ve found that gives us and our unschooling lifestyle a certain bulletproofing.  When people gape at me incredulously “you don’t teach reading at all?” or, “what about math???”  I can say, “we don’t do any of that stuff and the kids are exactly where they are supposed to be [according to some arbitrary, State chosen plan, which I could give a shit about, but still, it’s a standard most people buy into].

Take away point: at least at the elementary school levels, you really don’t need to do all that stuff they do in school in order to learn school stuff.  The kids get it through living rich interesting lives in a rich interesting environment. They get it through the air.  That’s right, I’m saying that, at this level, kids learn reading and math and history without any effort at all.

Reading sidebar: Sophie is currently reading Wonderstruck, by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabaret (both amazing books).  The first books she ever pursued on her own and read through was all twenty-seven (27!) volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist, last year, a super complex, interesting, funny, morally challenging manga series.  Reading Wonderstruck or anything else, for a ten year old is not so special—except it might be surprising to some, given that Sophie has never had any reading instruction.  Well, she watched a few episodes of Sesame Street when she was little, and has had me reading or spelling for her anything she has ever asked me to read or spell (books, game text, movie subtitles, texting with friends, etc etc), since she was born.  But that’s it.  She got to reading all on her own, with no apparent effort.  Her brain was ready and boom, it happened.

“It’s so enjoyable to just disappear into a book for a while,” she said to me a few days ago about Wonderstruck.   I played it cool, but, as a reader and a writer who hopes to share my love of books with her, I was jumping up and down, cheering.  “I totally agree,” I said.  And I do.

Which made me think of this homeschooling curriculum I’ve seen out there called “Teach your child to read in 100 lessons,” and I can’t help but think, man, what a waste of time!  You guys could be partying instead and the reading will still happen when the kid is ready and has something they want to read.  Like Fullmetal Alchemist for Sophie.  When she started with Volume 1, it took her a week to plow through one.  By Volume 27, she flew through one in an hour, like a carousel picking up speed as she went.

What if there is no age-determined line where learning is supposed to switch over from playing to hard and boring?

I’ve seen my kids hunker down and focus like CRAZY to learn something they’re interested in.  This from kids who can, for example, watch as much tv as they want, no limits from me, and who rarely turn it on.  I say this in case some reader might think “playing all day” doesn’t include, at times, intense concentration, goals, focus, and drive.

Concentration, work, and drive are really, really FUN when they are in the service of your own goals.  Ever seen a baby struggle and focus to build a block tower, or poke a stick through a leaf, or pick a rainbow up with a pair of tongs (mine did all of these)?  That ability to work and focus doesn’t go away. Just don’t mess it up by sticking your own goals in there.

Bottomline: learning is easy when you’re having fun (and really hard when you’re not), but fun—playis hard when you’re being made to do something you aren’t interested in.  We all know that about fun, but forget.  Seriously, kids don’t need to work hard to get this stuff.  They just need to play all they want, however they want, in a rich, fun environment.

Okay, that’s enough soapbox from me today!

education by minecraft

The other day Luc, 7, asked me, “is booties spelled with a ‘ys’ or an ‘ies’ ?”  This level of spelling awareness blew me away because, maybe only a month or two ago Luc could spell six words: Luc, Sophie, Paul, Maya, love, and poop.  In other words, Luc had had zero interest and near zero ability in writing things down—and then BOOM.   Suddenly he’s writing all kinds of things.

What changed?


In case you’ve been living in a gameless hole, Minecraft is an open-ended, goal-free video game that involves building things out of blocks.  Okay, that doesn’t even begin to cover it.  If you play on survival mode then you collect materials from the environment with which to build and, well, survive (for example, you have to eat, so growing crops or hunting, or you go mining for stone or iron to build weapons or tools, etc) plus you have to stay safe from the monsters (cute zombies, creepers, and assorted others) that come out at night.  Alternatively, if you play on creative mode you have unlimited resources from the get-go, plus you can fly. S0, you know, basically you’re a god and you can build anything you can imagine.  Minecraft is often called a sandbox game because it’s like playing in a big virtual sandbox.  You make up the game, the rules (if there are any) and it can be a challenge, pure creativity, a story with a goal, simple building stuff, blowing stuff up, whatever you want.

Lately, while wearing my Homeschool Administrator Hat, I’ve been quietly observing the shit-ton of stuff the kids have been learning while they play.

For example: MATH.  Like figuring out how many blocks of various resources will have to be mined/collected for any given project.  Or figuring out, if you want a wall to be x high, how many blocks will you need mine to finish it?  Or if a pyramid is going to be x across, how many total blocks will be needed for the ground floor, and how many tiers will that give you?  Or how about plotting a point on an x, y axis?  Because the location of objects in Minecraft is given by an “address” using an x,y coordinates with 0,0 being the point where you originally spawned.  So if you want to find something, you’ve got to grasp the whole x, -x, y, -y concept….

And the kids now do. Because they are seriously motivated, plus these problems have context and meaning to them.  Math is not done in a vacume in Minecraft.  There are observable stakes that matter.

But moving on.  LANGUAGE:  The kids started Minecraft on the ipads, but recently we rented a server to host an on-line version of the game so the kids could play Minecraft with their friends.  SO MUCH FUN!  I can’t even begin to tell you how cool it is for them to play together with their buds, having adventures, setting up things for each other, building stuff, killing monsters, creating elaborate plans, creative solutions, problem solving, all while safe at home, and all while chatting via short text messages on the screen.

Suddenly their motivation to write is HUGE.  Because you’ve got to be able to chat with your crew!  Sophie is well on her way to literacy but Luc, as I mentioned, has just started, but man, his brain must just have been Ready To Go because it’s like the writing/reading section has just powered ON.  He is writing all kids of things…thus the “booty” question.  It’s all super cool to watch.

But it’s not just text chatting.  There is also sign making (“No Nose picking!” “No Griefing, Ever, I am always watching you” and the ubiquitous, “Sophie is poop,” always a favorite) and naming things (“Infinity Blade of Doom” and “George the Pig” for example).  Plus there are also enchanted books that can be written, filled with, say crafting recipes, or possibly knock knock jokes.  Whatever.  It’s writing.  And Luc is doing it.


I really think so many kid are pushed to read too soon.  They end up feeling stupid if they aren’t ready, comparing themselves to other kids, getting judged and graded and harassed and pressured.  When does that get fun?  One of the great things about not going to school is being free to learn on one’s own, inner schedule.  No reading-instruction-related wounding!  Because here’s the thing:  I really think that, in an environment loaded with cool written-word-material (books magazines manga subtitles games web etc), when a kid’s brain is ready to read, he or she just will.  They’ll just figure it out.  It isn’t that hard.  Look, we have done zero reading instruction around here beyond spelling out any word on demand and reading anything asked for, and Sophie, 9, now reads books for her own pleasure, while Luc, 7, is texting his friends and googling Minecraft videos.   All this literacy  just happened.  Effortlessly.  Reading instruction was not necessary.

/end sidebar

Back to Minecraft.

CIVICS.  Oh man, the in-depth discussions we have ended up having about types of government, the history of governments (such as the Revolutionary War, the creation of the Constitution, the French Revolution, etc), the utility of laws, punishments to enforce laws, taxes, economics, so many more things…all because of Minecraft.

Because a Minecraft server is a community built out of the people who play there.  There is a sign now in the village that says, “No TNT in the Village!” because it was discovered that uncontrolled TNT might blow up a neighbor’s house…and so the agreement/rule/law was put into place by the kids that there was no TNT to be used in the village…and then someone broke the rule.  What to do?  Was Luc the King of the village (because he built it) or was it a cooperatively-run consensus situation?  Who would enforce the law and how would they do it?  What happens when we break the agreements of the community we live in?  ETC.

I am just scratching the surface here.  Geography, geology, chemistry, art history, all have come up repeatedly in the context of Minecraft.

Seriously, Minecraft is the bomb.

Along these lines, it blows me away when I hear so many moms talking about how they struggle with their kids over Minecraft, fighting over the arbitrary time-limits they set on their kid’s play, and also strange rules I can’t figure out like only playing in creative mode and not survival, or only playing with the monsters turned off, or not identifying with their game character…I mean how much to people need to control their kids, anyway???  No no no.  Don’t struggle with your kid about something they love.  Don’t be a roadblock your kid has to get around to get to what they love.  Embrace and support.  Bring snacks.  Set them up servers.  Spell words for them, over and over (and over and over).  Read articles to learn more.  Find them videos.  Learn to install texture packs.  HELP THEM do what they love.  Do it with them.

That’s what I think, anyway.  The crazy cool learning happens when humans are free to go nuts with the things they love.  Including Minecraft.

I was pondering all of this and then I ran across Mike Rugnetta on PBS’s The Idea Channel talking about Minecraft as a great educational tool.  Apparently I’m not the only one noticing the Minecraft Learning Effect.  I don’t really support using Minecraft to teach an externally created agenda—I prefer to see the learning that happens on its own when the kids are totally engaged and loving what they are doing.  Not that anyone is asking me what I support, haha, but hey, this is my blog right?  But still, some cool stuff in this video, well worth a gander!  I’ll leave you with Mike….


Crafters Unite!

dragonbox algebra app review

I am the absolute last person to look at something or purchase something or recommend something for the kids because it is supposed to be “educational.” This might seem ironic, given that we are homeschoolers. But come on, 90% of anything I’ve ever been exposed to that was “educational” was BORING. And I really don’t think learning happens when we are bored.

I’m not saying everything that is touted as “educational” is bunk—National Geographic is fantastic mag/site/channel that often is called “educational” and I love it…it’s not that I have a superstition about the word. But I think it is used as a marketing gimmick to assuage parental fears and to get them to buy shit they’re kids don’t want because it will “be good for them.” But I say screw that. Life is too short. We learn all the time, we don’t need boring, pre-packaged “educational” crap to learn.

Anyway, having read all that, you might be surprised to hear me recommend an iPad math app! I’m tricky like that! Let me back up. We don’t “do math,” we don’t use curriculum here at the yurt, we don’t do worksheets of any kind around here. But a mom I know who is as anti-curriculum, anti-anything- boring as I am told me about this ipad app named Dragonbox that her kid had been grooving on recently that secretly teaches algebra. How the heck does one secretly teach algebra? I wondered. Curious, I had to take a look.

And I discovered that Dragonbox is super fun. Luc , best spy apps for iphone free 7, and I fought over who’s turn it was to play while Sophie did her aikido class yesterday. After aikido, even though we weren’t gps spy chip killing time waiting, we kept playing until we finished the game (too soon!).

My seven year old now knows basic algebra. No kidding.

Not that I care if he knows algebra at this stage in the game, not that it is a race, not that math is some holy grail of learning that http://blog.mbcharlotte.com/phone-command-spy-blj2/ we have now achieved, just. WOW. THIS is how math should have been taught when I was in school. Because math classes were absurdly boring. Right? You know I’m right. And Dragonbox isn’t.

This is kind of a DUH because algebra is the ultimate puzzler, right? Solve a puzzle using a complicated magic system…sounds like fun, right? Isn’t that what algebra is though?

Here’s a screenshot from early in the rio spy para android game.

In the beginning, you’ve got something like this and you want to get the box (that red square with a sparkly box on it) alone on one side or the other of that central bar. The box has a dragon in it, who wants to eat the other boxs. The dragon grows as you progress through the levels. You help the baby dragon out by doing various transformations on the other little monster characters in order to achieve this box-alone-on-one-side-goal. For example, “night” and “day” versions of a monster cancel each other out (corresponding to positive and negative numbers). Or you can put monsters on top of each other and that makes them disappear (when the numerator and the denominator are the same, the result is “1”). The catch, any transformation you make to one side of the screen has to made to the other side. Get the box alone…solve for x. Sound familiar? That’s because it is, you know…algebra.

You get more powers (more ways to transmute monsters) as you go. Soon the screen looks like this:

And a little later it looks like this:

More and more letters sneak in until you are doing this:

Yep, it’s algebra all right.

Luc, who has no math-class-trauma, approached all of this as a gamer would, not as a math student. Puzzles to solve using the rules of the game–he knows all about that and set to figuring out how this particular game system (algebra!) worked. He loved it, sat in absorption from beginning to end. Sophie, who is less of a gamer, played for a while and then drifted off to draw. But I noticed she was playing again this morning. I even sat and played for a bit while I waited for my haircut yesterday. It’s just…fun. Algebra is fun! The shock of it all, right?

So many people I know have math trauma. They think they “can’t do math,” or their brain freezes up in anxiety when they have to figure out the 15% tip, or they think they “hate math.” In Adventure Time, one of our favorite shows, they acknowledge this general mathphobia by actually using “math” as a swear word as in, “Math that, let’s get out of here!” I attribute all of this to the way math is taught in schools.

Along those lines and going into much more intelligent detail, here is a wonderful talk given by seasoned unschooler, Pam Sarooshian. She is an economics teacher who has 3 now-adult children, all unschooled, all college graduates, all lovely people that I met at a conference several years ago. She speaks here about about learning math without anxiety—it’s well worth a listen whether you are a homeschooler, an unschooler, or have math phobia of your own.

For more like that, here is a great page, a collection of links and writings by many unschoolers, including Pam, on math. Some great stuff on that page.

But back to Dragonbox. I definitely recommend it! Real math is cool. Dragonbox exemplifies that.

john holt changed my life

John Holt seems to have been an amazing person and I wish so much he was still alive and I could meet him. Instead, I read his books and become inspired again and again about how humans, especially young humans, thrive. Mr. Holt started out as an education reformer but somewhere along the line he gave up on that route and instead supported home schooling. His magazine “Growing Without Schooling” was the center of the  burgeoning unschooling movement back before the internet made it so easy to connect with other like minded people. I have almost every issue on my shelf, purchased when I was pregnant with Sophie and I was still shedding the instilled beliefs I didn’t even know I had about education and parenting. Thank the Heavens I found Mr. Holt ad his works! Thank Chocolate I found unschooling! I fervently feel this gratitude almost daily.

Shortly after finding John Holt, I found another major unschooling influence for me, Rue Kream, author of Parenting a Free Child, which I have read over and over until the pages are getting soft (reading in the bath does that). Unlike Mr. Holt, I got to meet Rue at a conference a few years ago, and found her lovely, a bit shy, fiercely intelligent, and overflowing with obvious love and enjoyment for her husband and two daughters. I said it then and I’ll say it now, Thank You Rue, for your wonderful, courageous life and book that has so influenced how Paul and I live with Sophie and Luc. May many blessings rain down on you and yours!

Anyway, how nice to visit Rue’s blog this morning (something I only sometimes do because she very sporadically updates) to find a whole slew of some of her favorite John Holt quotes. They’re so good, like medicine I need to take regularly to counter the anti-kid prejudice that exists EVERYWHERE once you start noticing it. In case you would like to partake of the same medicine, in case you’ve never heard of John Holt and don’t know what you’re missing, I lifted some gems and brought them here.

Watch out though. If you’re like me, you’ll read them and go on with your day, thinking nothing more of it, while quietly, in the back of your mind, they’ll start working on you….  There’s a lot, skip around if you like, scroll, read here or there.  All of them are good.

Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

“Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how.”

“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards – in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

“Living is learning and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot, even if we don’t always know what it is.”

“I would insist that much of the seemingly irrational and excessive anger of little children—‘tantrums’—is in fact not only caused by things that happen to them or that are said and done to them, but that these things would make us angry if they happened or were said and done to us.”

“I would be against trying to cram knowledge into the heads of children even if we could agree on what knowledge to cram and could be sure that it would not go out of date, even if we could be sure that, once crammed in, it would stay in. Even then, I would trust the child to direct his own learning. For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn.”

“A man can not say Yes to something with all his heart unless he has an equal right to say No.”

“‘Allowed to experience childhood.’ At one level these words are true, but hardly worth saying. At any age, we experience being that age. Clearly the users of such words mean something else. Being allowed to experience childhood means being allowed to do some things and being spared having to do others – or forbidden. It means that adults will decide, without often or ever asking children what they think, that some experiences are good for children while others are not. It means for a child that adults are all the time deciding what is best for you and then letting or making you do it. But instead of trying to make sure that all children get only those experiences we think are good for them I would rather make available to children, as to everyone else, the widest possible range of experiences (except those that hurt others) and let them choose those they like best.”

“No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the child do not interest him, his attention will slip off to what does interest him, and no amount of exhortation or threats will bring it back.”

“To parents I say, above all else, don’t let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your kids alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together as well as you can; enjoy life together as much as you can.”

“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.”

“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.”

“There is no difference between living and learning.”

“Education now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and fans, driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.”

“The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.”

“It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school, if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call ‘motivation’. A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.”

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

“Be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.”

“Why do people take or keep their children out of school? Mostly for three reasons: they think that raising their children is their business not the government’s; they enjoy being with their children and watching and helping them learn and don’t want to give that up to others; they want to keep them from being hurt, mentally, physically, and spiritually.”

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

“It’s not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It’s a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.”

“When a child is doing something she’s passionately interested in, she grows like a tree — in all directions. This is how children learn, how children grow. They send down a taproot like a tree in dry soil. The tree may be stunted, but it sends out these roots, and suddenly one of these little taproots goes down and strikes a source of water. And the whole tree grows.”

“It is as true now as it was then that, no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.”

“We ask children to do for most of the day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”

“Every child, without exception, has an innate and unquenchable drive to understand the world in which he lives and to gain freedom and competence in it. Whatever truly adds to his understanding, his capacity for growth and pleasure, his powers, his sense of his own freedom, dignity, and worth may be said to be true education.”

“Teaching does not make learning…organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to being 100% false. Learners make learning.”

unschooling at work

Yesterday I walked by Luc spread out on the bed with a bunch of animal, dinosaur, and fish books, turning the pages in some kind of methodical search.

“Watcha doing?” I said, balancing a mountain of laundry with the skill of a circus performer.

“Well, I’m testing my hypothesis,” he said, only he pronounced it hypofosis. “That reptiles do not have compressed hair horns.”

I kind of did a slo-mo about-face. “Wha–?”

He kept turning pages. “Well, rhinoceroses have compressed hair for horns so they must be mammals, even though they have skin and armor like a dinosaur, but maybe reptiles would have to have bone horns, because they don’t have hair because they are reptiles. So I’m looking for skulls to see who has skulls with holes where the horns were, and who has bone skulls with bone horns. Because the hair horns would probably decompose but the bone horns would still be there, probably. See?”

Okay. This kid is six. He’s never been to school, loves video games and legos, is free to watch as much tv as he wants, and this is how he chooses to spend his morning. Plus, he correctly used hypothesis in a sentence and clearly understands and can apply the scientific method.

I think we can safely say that the unschooling is working.

And here’s one thing I’ve come to know in this unschooling life so far: kids free to follow their interests learn at the speed of light. There is no baggage in the way, baggage that says learning is boring, hard work, or full of someone else’s agenda.  Stuff just flows into their heads unimpeded, connections are made, knowledge is easy.

Free the children!  Free the children!

Here ends today’s public service annoucement.

And did you know that thing about rhino horns being hair?  I didn’t.

unschooling is vacuum learning

I’m sitting here drinking my Iron Man Juice—you remember in the second movie how he’s always guzzling chlorophyll water to counteract the growing toxicity in his body due to the palladium in his chest?  Well, I, too, drink a bizarre, green, chlorophyll drink for breakfast, which has, of course, now been dubbed “Iron Man Juice” as if there are ground up Iron Men in it.  “How does it make his blood less toxic?” said Luc.  Which led to a whole google trip on blood purification and diet and diabetes (because of dialysis as an example of cleaning blood) and why blood is red and little movies of blood cells moving through veins—the internet is just amazing.  And when Luc had had enough, he ran off and built with legos.

(My blood is fine, in case you’re wondering.  I just like the drink.)

But anyway, I’m sitting here sipping my green sludge while Sophie uses the iPad to film funny videos of Luc who is giggling hysterically.  They are on the other side of the yurt, so I can’t see what they’re doing but I can hear them.  She directs like a pro. Giggle giggle.  “Don’t smile, just let your face be natural.  Okay, now look a little to the left and stick your tongue out.”  Mumble mumble.  “No, Luc, I’m not filming your butt.” Giggle mumble.” “Okay, maybe in the kaleidoscope setting, but that’s it.”

Just a normal day….

Oh, and Henry just ran off the chase a deer and the goats are waiting to be milked.  After that, yoga and then some sort of kid adventure.  We were thinking maybe the Planetarium because we’ve been learning the constellations—actually we already know a lot of them because of these awesome picture books we had when they were younger, memorized from multiple readings.  So now the kids are reactivating that old knowledge (yes, you can have “old” knowledge when you are five, who knew?) and adding new layers to it.  And how about that awesome ipad app where you can hold it up to the sky and it shows you what constellation you are looking at????  We are soooo living in the future.

Yes, I am going somewhere with all of this.

So, yesterday, because Hulk calls Hawkeye “Cupid” in an Avenger’s episode, Luc asked me what Cupid’s deal was, and this led to a long discussion about Cupid/Eros’s history, parentage, and why so many of the Greek stories are so mean, not to mention how exactly those arrows work.  “What if the first thing you see is an animal?” “What if the first thing you see if yourself?” “What if you take the arrow out, do you fall out of love?” “What if he shoots himself with an arrow?”  Of course, each of these questions has a myth that answers it (and some had constellations, so that was a cool hook-up with other interests), so I told lots of myths over breakfast, ending with Eros and Psyche, one of my favorites.  “She shouldn’t have opened the box with the beauty sleep in it.  She shouldn’t have looked,” said Luc, worried.  He’s so sensitive.  For example, in the aforementioned Iron Man 2 the character he was REALLY WORRIED about was, can you guess it?  Whiplash’s bird.  “Are they going to let that bird out of the bag?” he said, big eyes.  This from the kid who’s favorite toy is a battle-axe.  But back to Psyche.  “On the surface, maybe,” I said, “but every time she was told not to look, she did anyway, and in the end, she became a goddess.  Maybe the moral is always look no matter what you’re told.”  To which Sophie answered, “only if you want to be a goddess.”

Right.  That is one perceptive kid.

So, why am I rambling on about all of this?  I was just listening to them giggle and thinking about how easy the days flow by and how curiosity can start anywhere and take you anywhere else if you don’t stop that flow.  From Hulk to deep questions of whether one should want to know divinity.  From picture books to astronomy.  From Iron Man to chemical nature of blood.  From funny videos to…?  Google lets us pursue any question to the exact degree that it is interesting in the moment and then we all run off, dispersing to our various projects until the next question comes up.  And that little node of knowledge gets hooked up to the web of knowledge in our individual brains in individual ways, through various links that have nothing to do with orderly lesson plans or structured “Units.”  A day or a year later that node will be there to hook more knowledge onto when the next spurt of interest arrives.  I just love watching them learn like this.

Because look: that intense vacuum-learning you see in a two year old, when they, say, pick up an entire language, or multiple languages, at light speed with zero apparent effort?  It’s my experience that that keeps going.  And by vacuum, I mean my powerful Hoover, or maybe those scenes in SF movies where the hull is breached and space starts sucking everything out the hole including the air and people are clinging to whatever is bolted down and even then they probably won’t make it.  Vacuum learning as in, my kids suck in knowledge like my dog Hoovers up scraps that get dropped on the floor.  Because at seven and five Sophie and Luc are as voracious for the world as they ever were, no diminishment, if anything, MORE.  I’m telling you, if people/society/school/parents don’t get in the way and mess it up by trying to make kids learn and think in a certain way, or on certain topics, or within a certain time table, that vacuum learning does not stop.  It just isn’t organized and quantifiable and testable.  It’s much much bigger than that.  All this nonsense about “getting kids interested in learning” really means “getting kids interested in learning what we think they ought to learn when we think they ought to learn it,” and I think it’s wrong and the worst kind of thought control.

Sounds extreme I know, but you’d think the same thing if you saw how easy it is for them to gorge themselves on experience and knowledge if one doesn’t try to control that in-flow to suit one’s own tastes and beliefs.  Because, from what I can see, kids—humans—are unstoppable learning vortexes.   And it’s hard for someone who was schooled, whose brain was molded in that way (like mine! Twenty years of school!) to even begin to grok how a mind can learn when it has always been free.  It’s like MAGIC.   Some days it’s a challenge to keep up with their hunger for more learning.  The idea of “getting kids interested in learning” tells me just how broken that model is.

Okay, okay, the goats are hollering at me and so I’ll get off my soapbox now.  But I’m serious about all of this.  Thought for the day: Learning is easy and automatic and voracious when we’re free enough to let ourselves follow our mind’s own path, no matter how non-linear and crazy fun that path might be.

zombies don’t care that they can’t spell

Sophie, 6, is learning to write.  It is so cool to watch her excellent mind figure this stuff out. We don’t do any formal training (we’re unschoolers after all), but she is surrounded by words and books and text and stories and writers, plus the easy-going expectation that, of course, when she wants to, she’ll write.  Why wouldn’t she?

This week I was particularly aware of Sophie’s writing because it would appear that zombies are hanging out around the house, leaving me notes.  (If you’ve ever played Zombies vs. Plants, this will have a little context.) Look at this one:

Es yr kac flavrd wif brans?

Can’t quite parse it? It took a minute, too.  Is your cake flavored with brains?

Clearly zombie related.  Her letter choices all make sense—reading her writing highlights how illogical English really is.  But as long as I stay totally literal in my reading, I can usually make it out.

Brraans is on yr plat!

Brains is on your plate!

Those crazy zombies, such one track minds.

Some of the notes lately are not directly zombie-diet related, but still are rather disconcerting.  Such as these…zombie jokes?

Gd Bi! hahahahahaha

Good bye!  [evil laugh] and,

Doo you no the time hohohoho

Do you know the time? [more evil laughter]

And this one, taped to the kitchen counter this morning when I got up to make coffee:

Hav mrsy on yir sol.

Have mercy on your soul.

Good heavens.  If this is my last post, you’ll know why.

i’m glad for our choices

Here’s another sweet picture I found while trying to wade through the 500 photos on my camera’s memory card.

This was taken on the first day of school—we know because there is a school down the road from us and we had seen the line of bumper to bumper cars trying to get in there.  Sophie would be starting 1st grade this year if she wasn’t homeschooling—Thank the Angels she’s here with us instead!  I can’t imagine sending her away for most of the day.  I’m glad we realized we had other options.

Anyway, instead of heading off to the government-run Training and Indoctrination Camp,  Sophie lounged in the hammock eating strawberries with Luc and I.  At some point in the conversation she asked me where the first letters came from.  I thought pictograms, or maybe Cuneiform or Ogam.  When it got too hot in the hammock, we went and googled.  (It’s Hieroglyphics or Cuneiform, they’re not sure.)  Then I found a book on the shelves about the history of Japanese Kanji and they set to work inventing a script based on the pictures therein.  Somehow that turned into writing me notes from zombies (“Hav murcee on ur sool!” and “Wee wunt ur branz!”) and lots of giggling.

Much better than classrooms and worksheets.  If you ask me.

Yay for choices!

guitar/yoga/reading–on not hurrying, or, it takes as long as it takes

My guitar playing is coming along.  I think I have a bit of a head start because of my piano playing, back in my previous life. I remember I first wanted to learn to play piano when I was seven or eight because the music teacher in my first grade class could play and I thought the movement of her hands across the keys was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.  I have the same feeling now when I see some amazing guitarist, not so much the rock or pop kind, but these contemporary fingerstyle instrumentalists, when I see what they can do.  I wonder if I could ever do that?  As I type this, the fingertips of my left hand ache as they hit the keys.  I have developed massive-seeming-to-me calluses on them, but they still hurt all the time!  It’s only been a few weeks, so I’m hoping for fingertips of steel, any minute now.   Ambition to learn lights a fire under my butt, which is a good thing—motivation is a necessary ingredient, right?—but I’ve noticed that there is a difference between inspiration/ambition and being in a hurry.  Desire keeps me going.  But being in a hurry doesn’t seem to help at all.

I had three piano teachers over the course of my piano-playing.   The first—I was eight, I think—seemed to be in a state of perpetual anger at me.  Maybe she just didn’t like teaching piano.  She was very nice in front of my Mom, but when it was just the two of us, she scowled and beat time on the piano with a ruler, accusing me of not practicing.    She would drill me on sight reading and I would read the finger numbers on the music as a cheat (instead of reading the musical notes) to try to play better than I could, for fear of her.  Wrists up!  Fingers arched!  Back straight!  She wanted progress faster than I could deliver it, and so I faked it and cheated, and learning stopped.  I nearly gave up piano because of her.  Her hurry hurt the process of me learning piano.

But I still had desire, and eventually, I was back at it.  My second piano teacher, years later, was a young man, Patrick, who enjoyed playing, and would arrive early at the place where the lessons were and play long, rolling improvisational pieces before our lesson.  I loved to sit and listen.  At the time I had a friend, Crystal, a Japanese Mormon and an amazing pianist despite having tiny, tiny hands.  Crystal was my hero.  I remember her sitting down to play George Winston’s “Thanksgiving” at a piano in a department store at the mall and a small crowd gathering and clapping for her afterward.  Her tiny hands flying across the keys were beautiful. I studied with Patrick so I could, maybe, maybe, play like Crystal.  And since there was no sheet music for George Winston’s music  at the time, to play anything by him you had to pick it out by ear, listening over and over and finding the notes on the keyboard.  So that’s what I did.   Patrick taught me tons of music theory to help in the process of picking out music, key signatures, chord structure, scales, improv techniques, progressions, transcribing, etc.  And now the time-tattered remains of this knowledge is being rebooted by my guitar studies. I actually know what a suspended fourth chord is, say, or an augmented seventh, or embellishments for a I, IV, V7 chord progression might be.  Thank you Patrick!

But there was a difference, I found, in knowing what to play (having picked it out) and being able to play it.  I was in such a rush, I would move on to the next piece before my fingers learned how to play the hard parts of the song I had been working on.  As a result, I could play half of most of Winston’s songs.  Even now, the miracle of muscle memory let’s me still play the first half of “Thanksgiving.”  But I could play all of only a very few songs.  I was in too much of a hurry!  Eventually I moved away and didn’t study piano for several more years.

(I wonder whatever happened to Crystal?)

My third and final piano teacher—I can’t remember her name to save my life, although I was twenty, I think, when I started with her—taught me classical pieces.  I had this idea that I wanted to play ‘the masters.’  There was not much direction to our work together.  Find a piece and learn to play it was the basic template.  But this gal (what the heck was her name?) had had serious trouble with tendinitis, and as a result, had studied and learned much about playing piano in the best possible way for the human body.  She approached playing as a physical training as much, or more, than a mental thing. Using the heavy, relaxed weight of my arms to push down the keys rather than rigidly arched fingers, for example, was big with her.  Relaxed shoulders was her mantra.  And practicing sections of a piece at glacial speed, so that even the most difficult run was easy—I mean, whole seconds to move from one note to the next—was key.  “Playing the piano is training your muscles to make intricate motions,” she used to say.  “Practice a mistake and you’re training the muscles to make the mistake.  Go slowly enough to never make a mistake, and speed will come on it’s own.” “Tense fingers can’t move quickly.  Try to go quickly and you make more tension. It’s a vicious cycle.”  And this, over and over:  “If you make a mistake, you’re practicing too quickly for the level of your technique.”  This turns out to be very good advice for learning guitar!  Thank you, whatever your name was!  But thinking about it now, maybe I was in too much of a hurry to take her good advice.  I wanted it now.  I was too impatient to practice so slowly, and the fire of my ambition went out.  It was all too slow.

But all that talk about muscles and injury reminds me of where I’ve come to in my yoga training.  Instead of pushing or straining to go further in a pose, I’ve been practicing the David Williams way, at 60% ability, finding the ‘sweet spot’ where a pose feels wonderful, and taking the long view for advancement rather than trying to rush forward.  Accomplishing a more advanced version of the pose is not the goal, but rather, doing an enjoyable practice every day.  Going further in a pose happens on its own as a side effect.  I have noticed less yoga ambition in myself, a good thing, but with less fire under me, I’m less motivated.  Will I quit, like I did with piano?  Keeping the desire, without the hurry, seems to be the trick to master.

Could playing guitar like Vicki Genfan ever be a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable guitar practice?  It’s hard to be patient enough to play slowly enough to play with perfect technique.  It’s hard to wait for the muscles to learn in their own way, rather than pushing them (and creating tension that blocks progress) by applying more control, more force, more pressure.  But I think that, looking over my piano history, cultivating that patience would be the path to playing the way I would love to.  How to keep the desire without hurry?

Which makes me think of why Paul and I unschool the kids.  We really believe that learning to read (for example) happens as a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable interaction with a word-rich environment.  I observe it happening in the kids—watching them learn to read has been so cool!  Trusting their speed, their ‘reading sweet spot,’ rather than having ambitions for them to learn at an externally chosen speed, takes the same kind of patience as doing yoga at my body’s current level of ability, or practicing chord changes in slow motion.  The predominate paradigm for kid-learning is that you have to apply more control, more pressure, and push kids to learn to read (or learn anything), with tension-producing drills and practice whether they want to or not.  Constantly there is a message of “getting” a child to learn.  But how many people are damaged by being pushed to read before they are ready—people who are told they are slow, or ‘remedial,’ and put in the ‘stupid kid class,’ and all the loss in status and self-esteem that comes with that.  Like taking a body and trying to force it into a backbend, or taking a hand and trying to force it into a G chord, creating tension and injury that goes against the very goal one is trying to achieve.

I know this about unschooling. I guess I just have to be generous with myself to apply it to my own learning.

So, what’s the rush, I’m asking myself in my guitar playing.  Why so impatient?  Go slow, just like whats-her-name trained me to do, and my body stays relaxed while my muscles and nervous system acquire the motions I want to be able to do (lightening fast chord changes!).  Without losing the desire!  Keep the fire burning! Desire without the hurry.  Advancement as a side-effect of daily, slow-enough-to-find-ease practice. Patience.

Maybe I’m in a hurry because I know, underneath, that I’m going to die?  I’ve only got so much time, after all.  But even so, I’m not just talking about it being more pleasant to learn this way.  Even from the point of view of the ambition: forcing (and the tension it creates) blocks advancement.  And in some cases, say a yoga injury that ends practice for good, or the way people think they ‘can’t do math,’ pushing and hurrying STOPS advancement altogether.

How to cultivate the relaxed patience to let learning happen at the speed it actually happens, instead of bearing down harder, trying to get it to hurry up?  I don’t know.  Tequila?  No, okay, maybe not.  I seem to be able to do it for the kids, what’s the trick there?


(Gah!  Forget that!  I want it now!)

(Breathe, grasshopper. Breathe.)