Posts tagged Unschooling

The Maintenance Mom

Since becoming a mother, almost eighteen years ago, I’ve often thought about how to describe what I do all day. Lots of words come up, but the word I always come back to is maintenance.

The apartment  building I grew up in had a maintenance man; I’m a maintenance mom. Around the house, I take responsibility for the care and upkeep of clothes, carpets, cupboards, cleaning supplies, and an ever-changing variety of household accessories.

Around the heart, I care for sensitive tummies and bad moods,  infected sinuses and anxious minds.

I never wanted to send my child to school. Was it because I found school restrictive and boring and much less interesting than what was happening inside my head? I think so. Was it because I didn’t like what I saw as school’s not-so-hidden agenda to turn my child into the kind of citizen society thought she should be? I think so again. A recent quotation printed in The New York Times  says it for me:

I remember quite clearly one of my middle-school teachers telling me that I was a stone with sharp, jagged edges, but that I would turn into a smooth river stone as I grew older. During the years while I was making this film, I felt like I was getting sharper and sharper instead.        —Zhao Liang, a filmmaker, on “Petition,” a documentary that angered the Chinese government.

I always wanted to raise a sharp stone.

So, with regard to education, I became a maintenance mom, too. For, as Sandra Dodd states,

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling; it’s a way to homeschool. The method is to create and maintain a full-time learning environment in which learning happens at home and away, from as many sources as the family comes across.

I maintain that learning environment. Over the past eighteen years, when people ask me what I “do” (which really means, “What do you do for money?”) my answer has been “I homeschool my daughter.” (The paycheck comes in a different currency.)

I maintain a physical space that is full of books and posters and charts and magazines and pictures and DVDs and CDs and catalogs and games and art supplies. And I maintain a mental space that is full of questions and facts and observations and jokes and opinions. Answers are welcome, but they aren’t required.

The maintenance man at my old apartment building was a respected and beloved figure. He ensured that we had heat and hot water and freshly painted walls. I seek to ensure that we (our family and our country) have  a clear-minded member who exhibits good sense and honorable values.  I feel respected and beloved, too.  Gosh, I really have it all.


Comments (1) »

The Difference Between Knowing and Learning

The day after we took our daughter out of kindergarten to begin the homeschooling experiment that became the unschooling adventure that became the best possible lives the members of our family could ever have, I began to seek out educational philosophies, theories, and practices. Bloom’s Taxonomy struck a chord with me: at age six, I could already see the many ways in which my child was past the first level, simple Knowledge.

An interesting note: Since my last Internet search for the taxonomy, it has been updated to list the levels as verbs instead of nouns. Knowledge, therefore, is now Remembering. The link in the paragraph above includes both versions of the taxonomy. From this point on, I will refer to the new version.

Knowledge, or remembering, is the first step in learning because it gives us the building blocks we will use to proceed to higher levels. One must be able to count before one can do arithmetic operations. One must know the names of the colors before one can learn about how colors are used, either artistically or metaphorically.

At age six, Stephanie (like most six-year-old children) was also quite proficient in the second level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Understanding. Also known as that favorite school-y word “comprehension,” understanding is the ability to explain what one remembers, or has knowledge of. Extremely young children can do this.

Schools, it seemed to me, focused almost exclusively on remembering and understanding—two things that, based on my personal experience, a child could do just fine without any exposure to school. The real meat of Bloom’s Taxonomy comes in levels three through six: Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and—last and best of all—Creating. From day one of life without school, if I were to state educational goals for my child, it would be these, otherwise known as critical thing.

Schools, in my opinion, pay lip service to critical thinking, but the necessary assembly-line aspects of school make it difficult to achieve and, what’s worse, often enable it only within the realm of competition, which, after reading Alfie Kohn’s No Contest, is my filthiest of dirty words.

So, one difference between knowing and learning is that knowing—a skill for which schools and their accomplices, the testing companies, offer high prizes—is actually just a minor component of what life is all about, which is learning. Such abilities as being able to compare, question, defend, satirize, illustrate, and recreate an idea in another medium are the gifts that learning—getting something under your skin, owning it—brings to our lives, and schools try to address these abilities,  but I think they lose any points they gain by then exposing the results to rubrics and grades.

For example, a lesson plan for “Teaching the Compare/Contrast Essay” provides teachers with grueling instructions for explaining the ability to compare and contrast, giving examples of things to compare and contrast, etc., all the way through to proofreading the essay after it’s been written. The way in which the skill—high on Bloom’s Taxonomy and therefore essential to the development of critical thinking—is made to seem apart from real life can be found in the first sentence of the lesson plan: “The compare/contrast essay is easy and rewarding to teach because you can convince students there is a reason for learning it.”

There is so much wrong with that sentence, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s just say that this entire “lesson” happens in real life whenever a person (who might just be a child) discusses her opinions about anything, even whether old Batman reruns are better than old Superman reruns.

Critical thinking occurs naturally in any environment in which human beings feel safe and stimulated—without teaching, convincing, or proofreading. And, yes, I know that proofreading has its place; it’s how I once earned a humble living.

Moving on to what inspired me to write about the difference between knowing and learning, I read an article in The New York Times the other day called “In Praise of Not Knowing.” I urge you to stop reading this blog post right now and read the article. But then please come back here, to read what I have applied, analyzed, evaluated, and created about it.

Oh good, you’re back.

What the writer, Tim Kreider, has done in this article is very important; he has put “not knowing” in its rightful place as a crucial component of learning. Sometimes, what makes something get under your skin is what you don’t know about it. Unit-studying homeschoolers might encourage learning everything you can conceivably know about a particular subject, but Kreider reminds us that knowledge is not necessarily always the goal we should be seeking: “what we cannot find inflames the imagination,” he writes.

In light of the ideas Mr. Kreider brings to the table, I’d like to propose a seventh level for Bloom’s Taxonomy: Appreciating Mystery.  Just as knowledge is not the end-product of learning, critical thinking about some concrete fact or subjective idea is not always an end-product, either. Tim Kreider concludes his essay with this:

Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know.

The things we’re never going to know are things that can’t be assessed in a rubric, but they are things we’re going to be learning about, in some way,  every second between right now and when we die, or maybe after—things that are definitely going to get under our skin. Things that are different from knowledge. As Albert Einstein wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

In those first days of homeschooling, I bought a poster that contains those words. it still hangs on the wall in our home, to constantly remind us of the difference between knowing and learning.

Comments (14) »

The Things We Used To Do

. . . are good for us, it seems. Like watering the garden.

When my daughter was a little girl, she loved being outside. One of the things I used to do while keeping her company was water the garden. She would be busy inspecting odd leaves and aiding wayward bugs while I was busy sweeping the water wand back and forth, back and forth, listening to the sound the drops of water made as they hit the different kinds of surfaces.

When Stephanie stopped amusing herself in the front yard, I stopped watering the garden. My husband coincidentally put in some soaker hoses around that time, so the garden didn’t really need me, but I realize now that I needed the garden. I’ve started watering it again, and it feels good. The sun feels good, the sound of the water is just as lovely as it ever was, and the fresh air is wonderful. Alright, sometimes it’s humid, but mostly it’s wonderful.

I’ve started to think about more things I used to do when my kid was little that I stopped doing when my kid got big:

  • riding my bike around the neighborhood. On the sidewalk. It’s less stressful that way.
  • making coffee-table centerpieces out of pine cones and branches found on neighborhood walks.
  • using art supplies such as pastels and felt.
  • squeezing drops of food coloring onto coffee filters and watching the crazy swirls.
  • making photocopies of book illustrations I like and then decorating them with colored pencils.
  • listening to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books on tape. No wait—I’ve never stopped doing that.

My point is simple: the things we used to do with our children never lost their validity or delightfulness.  If you can remember some cast-off diversions that gave you joy then, why not try them now?  The kinds of activities we pursue when we are full-heartedly intent on pleasing and enriching our children are most likely healthy, educational, and, most of all, fun. And people of every age need to be pleased and enriched. Most enjoyable activities are not rated G, PG, PG-13, and R. (And let’s not get into how I feel about the movie rating system.)

It’s a really hot day. I’ll bet the garden needs water again. Sweep, sweep, drop, drop, good.

Comments (11) »

Support the Carnival of Homeschooling

I love blog carnivals, and the Carnival of Homeschooling is very special to me because it’s the first blog carnival I ever met. We hit it off right away and have been friends for years now. This week’s edition is at Sprittibee, and here are my favorite entries:

  • Growing Wild is a fascinating read for two reasons: 1) it describes a life that, geographically, is probably unlike your own, and 2) it describes a life that, philosophically, is probably a lot like your own. Please check it out and see what I mean.
  • Sheltering and Weird Homeschoolers proves that there is always room for yet another take on the homeschooling/socialization issue. Here’s a sample: “There is . . . not much in the allegedly ‘real’ word that resembles public school. In public school if you are being harassed or bullied you do not have the option of calling the police, or just getting up and walking away.”
  • 15 Delightful Summertime Stories tells you about fifteen places you and your child can go to find joy, and they’re all in the library.

Happy reading.

Comments (2) »

When Sleeping Was the Enemy

As I write this, my daughter sleeps. It is noon. My teenaged daughter is sleeping. She’s not home sick. She’s just home. She’s just sleeping. When I was her age, that would have been a crime.

Can you remember how much you wanted to sleep when you were a teenager? I can. Remembering the sound of my mother’s voice waking me for school can still make me cringe; it was a knife slashing my thick blanket of sleep, a rock creating ripples in my tranquil pond of sleep, a siren piercing my silent cocoon of sleep—you get the idea.

Waking up for school was a trauma I experienced every weekday morning for what seemed to be decades upon decades but was only in fact twelve years. (Twelve years, by the way, is even now  a bit less than a quarter of my life, which I think is a lot!) Nobody sympathized with my desire to sleep; it was something to be resisted. Actually getting out of the bed was only the beginning. After that, I had to fight to keep my eyes open, throwing water at them again and again, until at last they surrendered to the day. If and when my brain surrendered to the day is another matter altogether.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “teens need about 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night to function best (for some, 8 1/2 hours is enough).” Wanting to stay up late and sleep late is natural during the teen years, and “most teens do not get enough sleep—one study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights.” I wish that high schools would start their day later so that all the teens could keep their sleep blankets, ponds, and cocoons sacred for as long as they need them. If you’re an education activist, please work on that, okay?

In the meantime, I’m glad my teen is sleeping. Or make that was sleeping. I hear the not-so-pitter-y patter of her not-so-little feet above me now. She’ll be awake long after I fall asleep tonight. And she might sleep later than I do. But, as my best friend likes to say, it’s all good. It’s all good.

Comments (8) »

Just Do It

One of the times we "just did it."

There’s a television commercial I’ve seen a lot lately. The product being advertised has something to do with arthritis relief, and the voice-over proclaims that “a body at rest tends to stay at rest” while “a body in motion tends to stay in motion.” Issac Newton proved that, and it’s definitely been a fact of my life. The more I do, the more I tend to be able to do and want to do. That’s why it was a mistake for me to cast off this blog in order to write a book. That’s why this post is titled “Just Do it.”

When I was growing up, my family didn’t “do” much. Granted, we were quite poor. We didn’t have money to go out to dinner, take vacations, or see concerts and plays. I didn’t do any of those things until I started going out with friends. As a little girl, nothing much happened for me and my parents unless a relative invited us somewhere or somehow instigated something. In physics-speak, we were objects at rest, not changing our state of motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. (And believe me, some of my relatives were quite unbalanced forces! That’s part of what the book will be about.)

In the family I have now, I’m the primary instigator. As I got older, I slowly realized that I had the power to defy my learned inertia. Unschooling helped. I’m certain of that. Removing the  confines of the school calendar created a complex new life calendar, unfettered by outwardly imposed mandatory attendance. My family likes it when I put us in motion: read a review and then buy tickets to the play, or see a yard sale on the side of the road and pull over. It’s a good feeling to know that as-yet-unthought-of things are entirely possible.

When I was a kid, there was a carnival that set itself up along the major highway in my area every summer. It looked glorious—Ferris wheel turning, lights shining at night, merry-go-round spinning all day long. Never once did the car I was in ever stop at that carnival. I’d stop now. I’m in the driver’s seat now.

I say: Stop for ice cream. Go to Europe. Walk the extra block to where the crowd is gathered and find out why. Like what Sandra Dodd calls strewing, living a motion-filled life “changes things out,” providing your family with new and exciting experiences that involve “time together, shared experiences and conversation.”

For heaven’s sake, just do that.

Comments (2) »

Carnival of Unschooled Life—December 2010 Edition


Go to life, not school.

This is going to be the last carnival for a while—maybe a long while. Thanks to the confidence I’ve gained from living the unschooled life with my daughter, I’m embarking on a new project. I’ll keep you posted about it here on the blog. For now, I’ll just say that the determination, sense of purpose, and self-discipline I see in Stephanie have inspired me to do something I’ve had in my head for twenty-five years. I’m going to write a book (not about unschooling) and if I can write half as well as my daughter can, I’ll consider myself lucky.

So, without further ado, here is the final (for a while) edition of the Carnival of Unschooled Life. Enjoy!


Life at Home

Jen at Best Family Adventures presents When Homeschoolers Go Unsupervised.

Creating Nirvana describes Homeschooling on a Rainy Day.


Out in the World

Christina Pilkington at An Eclectic Odyssey offers Fall Hikes.



I’ve been inspired by a friend of mine, who has recently taken her act on the road, speaking to groups of parents about how unschooling has helped her son blossom. We all don’t have the opportunity to give speeches at education fairs, but most of us have a chance to talk about our life choices to neighbors, friends, or relatives. Just a simple declaration (“We encourage our children to spend as much time as they want to, doing the things they love to do.”) can plant a seed for acceptance of unschooling in the world.


Dark Nights of the Soul

They don’t help you, or your child, or the world. So, when you’re having one, imagine yourself flipping on a light switch and, in that light, taking a positive action that will help you, or your child, or the world—preferably all three!


Encounters of the School-y Kind

It’s always something. Today it this article in the New York Times about kids “being groomed as athletes before they can walk.” Just the other day, I saw a six-year-old who looked very tired, because he had played soccer on two different teams that day. Two games in one day. He’s six. He didn’t look “sleepy” tired. He looked “overburdened” tired. No one needs to be overburdened, especially not children.

beginnings Beginnings

Jessica at Bohemian Bowmans declares That’s stupid. So I’m not going to do it anymore. I absolutely love this post.



I’m about to pass through a door that’s been waiting for me, half open, for many, many years. There must be a door waiting for you, too.


Cristina at Home Spun Juggling offers Happy (Learning) Days.


My deepest thanks to everyone who contributes and everyone who reads this for supporting The Carnival of Unschooled Life. Words are beams of light. Let’s continue to shine them on the things we believe in.


There is no future edition of the carnival scheduled at this time.


Live, laugh, play, learn, talk, walk, hug, dance, sing, and shine—until we meet again.

Comments (6) »

  • Advertisements