Building Understanding Instead of Fearing Outsiders In Radical Unschooling

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It is the conversation many home schoolers dread.

What if the school board looks you up and wants to investigate what your day truly looks like? What if they needle your child?

When we first moved here just over three years ago, Sean was 6. That fall, he would turn 7, and we would need to write our letter of intent to home school for our district, per our state law.

We had chosen unschooling – radical unschooling at that, by the time he turned 5. It was a natural and seamless transition from the responsive, attachment parenting and mindfulness he’d experienced since birth.

The fall that Sean turned 7, a casual discussion with a journalist at a Lego activity led to a front page spread about our family’s chosen lifestyle. It was both exciting and scary – putting ourselves out there in a public manner, telling the general public about our unorthodox strategies for raising our child in whole life learning. The article later won an award for that writer.

To my knowledge, we are still the only radical unschooling family in our town, and as far as I’ve been able to discern, we are the only truly unschooling family here as well.

That newspaper article was like riding a bike for the first time. It led to an increased openness about “what we do” with our child across personal and social perspectives.

Later that fall, I met one of our district’s school board members who had read the article. She wanted to know whether or not we really used curriculum. I responded to the question as an opportunity to build a bridge for understanding. I figured this would be a somewhat daunting task, as she was also a veteran teacher of 30+ years.

I picked up on her questions as being based in a combination of conditioned expectations and genuine, well-intentioned concern for all the poor little home schoolers who lacked socialization, or worse, were being kept at home in isolation for the sake of religious indoctrination.

I did my best to offer perspective, but it was a limited conversation. I later fantasized about a conversation with the school board to eliminate fears and stereotypes, but then I second-guessed whether this would be fruitful, or harmful to my family, personally.

Throughout our residency here, I’ve had several fly by conversations – run ins – with the same school board member. This is a small town. But, these contacts were never expansive enough to lengthen the bridge.

Now, Sean is 9 going on 13 with his YouTube and gaming fan boy attire and decided interests that decorate his identity. He holds his own in just about any adult conversation and inserts his fact-based knowledge into our days at random turns that continue to blow me away.

Just today, he asked me when our home was built. I told him it was built around 1938. He replied that it was built just before WWII. OK then. I had to google. My only knowledge about WWII relates to the year 1942. I have a Master’s Degree. I was public and parochial schooled. I should know these dates, right?

Google tells me that WWII is associated with the year 1939. How did he know this, better yet, how did he retain this information? I really wish I could convey what I’ve learned about this phenomena to the school board members, so that they might see that intrinsically gained knowledge wins in application and retention over extrinsically fed facts-for-the-test.

Alas, we had an opportunity to stretch the connection tonight. We ran into this same school board member at a social engagement, where she (once again) asked what grade Sean is in. This time, he spoke up before I could answer to say that he is unschooled. She said that she knew that much, but what grade would he be in right now?

This is always a tough one – I have to stop and think about it because we never really focus on what grade he would or should be in. So much of what he does or knows is high school or college level, his practical knowledge prepares him for the real world in ways kids in school can’t possibly experience, and in other ways he is behind his cohorts according to comparative measures. The answer is third grade.

She peppered him with questions…

What curriculum are you using? I just learn on my own.
Are you working on a science project right now? No.
What are you doing for (insert subject)? I learn from whatever I’m doing.
Do you take any tests? No.
How do you show what you’ve learned? I usually just tell my mom. (I loved that answer.)

Later, I asked how he felt being questioned that way. He said, he just figured “she was from a different generation.” I asked if it bothered him. It didn’t. He was perfectly confident, not put off, and did not feel threatened by the questions. Nine years of freedom has provided him with discernment and confidence.

As our friend (and truly, she is a very likeable, genuine acquaintance who always inquires as to our well-being), the school board member got pulled away to other conversation, I sought out an opportunity to carry things further. I was finally able to ask her if she would like to hear more about what we do, because I wish the board had some understanding for how we do things.

We had a fruitful conversation that involved what a typical day entails for us. We live our lives, facilitate his interests, go about our business, try to incorporate fun things when we can like adventures to museums or trips, such as our recent trips to Chicago and Denver.

I explained in great detail how he’d literally taught himself math and how he applies the higher concepts, how he absorbs constant historical knowledge, and how he has developed discernment and maturity beyond that of his peers in school.

She had already heard about his martial arts activities from his Dad, and the only other activities going on right now are related to our homeschool group meetups (swimming, and the monthly museum program).

We talked about the attention he receives, and the difficulty teachers have in reaching every student in a homogenous cohort, and how public schooling is a confluence of so many arbitrary factors like legislation, budgets, and standardized testing. She asked me more questions –

Aren’t you afraid of any gaps? No! He can fill in any gaps the same way we do as adults when we need to learn something.

How will he go to college? Will he go to college? He will take the ACT if necessary. Right now he wants to major in computers, if he goes to college. (I told her about the Sudbury Democratic School and its 40-year history with students picking up ACT math in weeks without issue).

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to explain how unschoolers are sought by colleges for their self-directed learning styles, and maturity. I also didn’t get to describe how many unschoolers become entrepreneurs or otherwise cultivate livelihoods from their passions.

As mingling once again interrupted the flow of our discussion, I found her a final time before we left. As she always offers a heartfelt hug, I offered back that if she ever has any questions for me about what we do, or if the board has questions, I am more than happy to talk about it.

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