Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Trials and Tribulations: Proud to be Homelearners!!!

Oh these past few weeks have been difficult, and I promised myself I wouldn't make this blog all about how great it is to be homelearners. I promised myself I'd be real about it, no matter how much criticism may come my way for the choices we've made.

My kids are being ostracized because we're homelearners.

Yes. It's true. It's the number one concern most people have when they find out we're homelearners: "Well how will they develop any social skills?" Some say it with alarm in their faces; others say it with a tone of gentle warning, others imply a deep emotional concern. All of them mean well. And I always assure people that my kids are doing just fine; that they participate in a weekly class for homelearners on the island, and also a few classes with their peers. And of course they have many play dates. Some people tell me they spend too much time together; it's not natural, or they'll grow to hate each other, or they'll resent me for it, etc.

So now, here we are, feeling like the last ones picked for the team. The team is running away and we don't qualify.

Our local homelearning support program has two options: the half-time program (2.5 days per week of classroom activity, to be supplemented at home), or the distance-education program, which offers us enough money to cover a couple of class-registrations for the year, if we're careful about what we choose, and 2 hours of classroom (art and play) experience with their distance-ed peers. This would be great, except that my two kids happen to have no peers in the distance-ed group. My oldest is 1.5 years younger than the youngest of the other distance-ed kids, and the gap just increases from there. What that means is that my kids have little contact with the other distance-ed kids. They visit mostly with the kids in the classroom program, because those kids are of similar ages. And in small groups, some of these kids are very close and friendly with mine. They've maintained some precious relationships with kids in both the regular public school, here, and with the classroom homelearners.

But it's with groups that the problems begin. These days, the play with groups of those kids seems to be becoming more and more adversarial. It's natural that those children will adhere to their school-group when it's available, but I would have liked for my kids to be included. Instead, they seem to be a separate little 2-person unit that cannot mix with the others. Even if they understand the game that's being played, the other kids often behave as if they're not there. At worst, we have experiences like yesterday, when my two kids were taken to the centre of a labyrinth by the others, labeled "the bad team", and shot at with "invisible arrows", while they were encouraged to defend themselves by throwing sticks back. My kids played along, came home totally wound up and ready to fight (they fought each other viciously and angrily all evening, which is extremely unusual). My kids had never experienced anything like this before, and it was a pretty difficult issue for us to deal with, partly because they don't understand that it was wrong. They told me they felt OK about being "the bad team"... but the emotional consequences of it were impossible to miss. It's just not OK with me, as a parent, to see any children villianized or victimized in that way.

Of course, we can't really expect 6-8-year-olds to understand about inclusion, so it's up to us parents to help out. I have been trying to find a way for my kids to join for an hour or two of the classroom kids' program, so that they can have that shared experience and take it with them into the rest of their lives, hopefully helping them to mesh with the group a little better. Unfortunately, some parents (I emphasize the some because I am aware that it is only a small number of the whole) would rather we didn't join. The biggest reason, as I understand it, is that parents do not want a class-size increase. It seems unfortunate, to me, since it's not a big deal to have two friends there for an hour or two, but I can understand how some might fear it's a slippery slope to having more homelearners want to join, if one day there were more homelearners of this age.

But this is what really irks me: Suddenly people go out of their way to remind me on a regular basis that we are not part of the group. Shortly after the labyrinth incident, yesterday, I stood with some friends (parents from our centre) watching our children at gym class. Most of the kids in the class are from the classroom program. And one parent - a friend and mother of kids who attend the classroom program - mentioned that the kids in the gym class were mostly kids from our centre, but there were also a few kids from the regular school, and a couple of homelearners. Are my kids not part of that centre, too? They think they are! I felt the way I think my kids might have felt in the middle of that labyrinth, and I stood frozen to the spot, unwilling to pick up sticks and throw them back. Then I just walked away into the forest.

In my heart I know that these comments come from a different perception about what our learning centre is: I think it's a resource and support centre for homeschoolers; others seem to increasingly see it as a sort of part-time alternative school. The word school would never describe what I see as the benefit of the centre. These people don't mean to be hurtful, but the ostracizing, as well as my perceived loss of what once was an ideal social support centre for our unschooled children does hurt.

I decided to look for mushrooms. I walked and walked and walked through the forest behind the mainstream public school that I attended as a child, remembering my childhood, and allowing myself to just feel. Feel without fighting. At last I came to the Alder grove, where I found a Jones bottle cap on the ground. I picked it up. It said "solutions will come to you while you are walking". Since no solution presented itself, I continued walking.

Through the Alder grove there is a little path onto a secluded bluff. This is where I spent most of my grade 5 and 6 lunch hours, hiding. I hid on this bluff, and nobody ever came. I often wondered if I just wandered away and never went back to school, would anybody think to look here? I picked huckleberries and salal, there, and considered them my private garden. I wrote poems in my head, and made sculptures out of sticks, rocks, and moss. The bluff is hardly changed, today. As I explored it, I found a few bits of lunch garbage, and a structure built of logs. Kids are still using this special place - maybe in groups or maybe alone; I don't know and it doesn't matter. No solutions came to me, but somehow the pieces of my feelings fell into place.

I've been agonizing over this for a long time, now. Teachers and some other parents have worked very hard to help me find ways to include my kids. I've thought of endless possible solutions, but all of them have flaws. It wasn't until tonight, when I emailed the message from the bottle cap to a friend, that I found my solution. In reply to my bottle cap story, she sent me this:

11-year-old Birke Baehr talks about "What's Wrong with our Food System" (just over 5 minutes long):

Thank you, Birke, for your wonderful speech. Thank you for having the guts to present it, and to decide to be a farmer - yes, we need farmers, but mostly we need children who have been allowed to follow their passions. Thank you for the person who cheered when Birke said he was homeschooled. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes parents follow our hearts because we just have to. And sometimes it is right for our children. What I realized when I watched this video was that I have forgotten to listen to my children. They are not telling me they're unhappy! It's me who's afraid that they'll end up on the bluff. I'm not afraid for them; I'm afraid for 10-year-old me. And sometime, I have to let that go.

This is not a me vs. the other parents situation. It's just part of my journey. We all do what's right for our kids. My friend has her kids in the classroom program, and I have mine in the distance ed program, and we both know that, for now, we're doing what's right for our families.

We came back today from an adults' ballet class, (which my kids are allowed to join for the barre segment), and from Tali's first private music mentoring session with our local violin-maker. We felt wonderful! Yesterday was really very difficult. Today was redeeming. This is where we are meant to be. Oh, of course we'll continue to try integrating the kids, more; I still think it's important. And hopefully in November the kids will be able to do a little bit of classroom activity with the program's excellent science teacher and some of their friends. That will be nice, if it works out. These difficulties with my kids being ostracized are not great, but I know they'll sort themselves out, over time. That's just what happens.

And if my kids do end up on the proverbial bluff? OK! It's part of who I am, and better for being acknowledged. We'll cross that bridge if we get to it. And solutions will come with walking. :--) (See previous post: Wandering Learning.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wandering Learning

You can click these photos to enlarge them!
My kids are like every other kid: infinitely amazing, if you just look at them with loving-parent eyes. :--)  They have their difficulties and their passions, though, and some things that they manage to totally impress people with.

Both kids are pretty passionate little scientists. They know more about how stuff works, local plant and animal species/habitat/ecosystems/reproduction, and the details of environmental concerns than many adults I know. This also encourages a rather advanced understanding of compassion, community and relationships, and, even more importantly, a sense of their importance in the world, and a feeling that there is an infinity of exciting universe to discover. In short: a passion for learning.

Guess why they have this? Because at least once a week for most of their lives (sometimes much more often) we walk in the forests. It's usually the same forest, even: the park beside our home. We just walk around, there, sometimes build forts, sometimes climb trees, sometimes look for wild food, sometimes are just on our way from one place to another... but always, always, we look at everything around us. And yes, I do know a bit about the forest ecology, myself... but not really enough. We make up names for the things we don't know, and look them up in our books, at home. We look at what various plants and animals, as well as earth, air, and watersystems are doing. We talk about what's happening, and sometimes get so inspired about our ideas that we go home and Google them for more information. We notice the year passing, not in distinct seasons, but in an endless parade of activity, and this is how we learn about the world.

Yesterday we went out mushrooming. We were on a quest for more of the delicious Chicken of the Woods we'd harvested the day before, but found none. So around and around the forest we tromped, scouring rotten logs for the delicious mushrooms, and instead finding centipedes, squirrels, frogs, birds (& vulture feathers!), tiny fish and skeeters in the now barely-flowing creek, another creek that is not yet flowing, again, but which we know is a wide, untraversable stream, all winter. We checked out the trees that have fallen this summer: two big ones. And talked about the different sounds they made (we heard them fall from our house), and talked about the interesting geometry of the other trees they took out in their falls, and how that could have happened. We also found mushrooms; far too many to look up and name, since there are apparently 2 or 3 times as many fungi as vascular plant species, in BC. But these are the few that took our fancy: yellow jelly fungus, artists' bracket and parchment fungi, all sorts of polypores, black-eyed parasols, toothed jellies (we think), acres of some unidentified parasol-like mushrooms, some tiny dark brown unidentified blobby life-form, and finally a bright pink bubblegum-like blob with milky droplets on it. It rather reminded us of a sea-slug! These photos are just from the few mushrooms we took home to identify (I didn't have my act together enough to bring the books or the camera with me, this time). Some other things we noticed on our walk were that most leaves really haven't turned, yet, but the licorice root is starting to be revived from all the rain (it dries out over the summer), spruce cones all over the ground, suddenly, some mushy poop (Was it deer poop? Why did the deer have diarrhea?), banana slugs are out in force right now, and seem to prefer certain types of mushrooms, most of which turned out to be edible, when we checked, and the interesting fact that the Run For the Ferry markers had been forgotten on the trail we followed, home. Oh -- and all that garbage! The dump road, which is the trail that runs through the park, used to be the road to the dump, and naturally is littered on either side (deep into the woods) with garbage of every description, but including a lot of broken glass and old rusty home equipment from 50 to 100 years ago. Interesting to explore, from a historical perspective (we thought the museum should have some of those things), but also we wondered at length why the GVRD didn't clean it up, when they made the park.

Is this going on a bit too long? That is how it is! Endless exploration! How can I possibly distill the learning and exploration we shared in 2 or 3 hours of walking down into one paragraph? I can't! Learning Happens. (I want us all to have t-shirts that say that...) In that one walk the four of us (Mama, Pappa, and 2 kids) made deep journeys in the areas of (to name just the major ones) geology, biology, geometry, physics, math, history, social studies, politics, ecology, and psychology (Why does this walk in the rain make us all so happy? What is it about being out here that is so good for our family? Are all people like this?)

Today I was talking about making our required annual learning plans with our homelearners' support teacher at Island Discovery. We so don't fit the forms!! She knows this. This is pretty much routine frustration for unschooling families (and for our poor teacher, trying to work within a system that doesn't fit the families she's working with), but nevertheless it's a frustration I thought I'd write a bit about, here. Those forms make it seem as though all of our learning can be done by planning! No way! I want the school boards to understand what we're doing; I want them to know that today, while I discussed their ridiculous requirements for homelearners, my 8-year-old son who can't spell to save his life and flat-out refuses to accept traditional education, left the room where his sister was participating in a group activity for grade 1-4's, and stood upstairs near me, pressed between a door and a wall, listening to the class he dearly wanted to join: the older kids learning about the molecules that form DNA. Why does he know and care about DNA? From our walks in the forest.

This isn't really all that new or different; it's the way my mother has always taught preschool to 3 and 4 year olds; it's the way we all learn when we have forgotten our obligations, and are just following our hearts. But somehow we forget that we learn this way. In the rigid social and political systems we've created for ourselves, we forget that we love to learn. We think that learning is about acquiring a set of skills or knowledge; we think it's about being able to conform to accepted norms and becoming acceptable, contributing members of society. Then we spend our lives escaping from our jobs at nightclubs, movies, bars, on mountaintops, in books, dreams, and in front of televisions. We forget that, once, before we went to school, we were learning every day; everything was interesting, and we didn't even want to go to sleep at night, because there was so much to experience, still.

Unschooling certainly has its pitfalls. We live on one income, we are hopelessly ignorant about the trends and fads that other families are spending their energy on, the kids are sometimes ostracized from their school friends' lives when they cease to fit in, we're not used to crowds (though this is partly a rural thing, too), my kids' knowledge-base is definitely different than that of their peers, sometimes we're lonely... and most of all, we spend every day questioning ourselves and our choices -- wondering if we're doing the right thing; wondering if our kids will resent us for this choice; wondering if the government will pull the rug out from under us and we'll fall hard on our beloved forest floor, flailing on our backs like flipped beetles. But this, like most things, turns out to be about trust. We are trusting that this path will lead somewhere beautiful, and so far it has.

Tomorrow we are going to bake cinnamon buns and have a play with some other homelearning kids.

Thank you, universe, for that.

What doo-nin'?

...that phrase was how 2-year old Taliesin used to ask us what we were (or would be) doing.

This is basically just this year's laundry list of planned activities. I find it really hard to make this fit the intended curriculum areas of the school board, partly because there is SO much we all learn from our usual activities, not the least of which is just simply walking through the woods. Anyway. Here goes. The plan, so far:

  • Weekends: home with the family.Firewood, yard-work, music sessions, hikes, housework, etc.
  • Mondays: art/cooking/fun class with other homelearners; Annie's theatre school.
  • Tuesdays: Tali's theatre school; gym games with other kids.
  • Wednesdays: Mama's adult ballet (kids join for barre segment); music mentoring for Tali.
  • Thursdays: free day! town trips, forest walks, playing with friends, etc.
  • Fridays: activity with classroom homelearners (November/December), and once in a while kitchen junkets at night.
Somewhere in there we're going to start a weekly wild play group, open to other families to join us. Just for fun.

    That's the plan!!

    the eating slugs blog

    ...or so I obviously should have named it. Looking at the tracker, today, I see that by far the most common reason for coming to this blog is as a result of searching for info on eating slugs. Second? Other slug-related searches. Third? It's a toss up between no-TV, consumerism, and unschooling. In all my time, I've made only the following slug-related posts:
    Roasted Dusky Arion Slugs on my Feral Food blog
    Fried Banana Slugs on this blog (read the comment section, too)

    Really. That's it.

    Hey! Slugs are important! They are even an important food source for snakes, birds, and some other animals... and we happen to have LOTS of them. But really I wasn't trying to create a slug website, here.

    This begs the question: what do slugs have to do with unschooling?


    Post on this, shortly.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    Back-To-School Time!

    On our first year we went for a not-back-to-school beach party with other homelearners. This year no such party was organized... and we're edging a bit more into classroom life.

    I have decided that it will be helpful for the kids to have some more class-like time with their peers. Last year was great, with circus school, and a few local classes, too. But they didn't really manage to keep as tight with their friends as I would have liked them to. So this year they're going to join a couple of year-long programs: the local theatre school, and also (hopefully!) a once-per-week planned visit (maybe an hour or two) with the classroom kids at the program (who attend the homelearners' classroom program 2.5 days per week). Many of the classroom kids are also attending the theatre school, and both are really excellent programs. Tali will also (also hopefully, depending on whether we find the right teacher) begin mentoring with a violin player.

    I'm also joining our learning program's planning council, to help sort out some more inclusive options for full-time homelearners, like ourselves. I guess I want a bit more community around it all. We'll see how it all goes. Going to be a lot of work, I know, but obviously it's worth it.

    A friend just mentioned something about "authentic selves". I feel good knowing that for all the sacrifices we make, financially, and sometimes even socially, we are nurturing our own and our children's authenticity. I know we waffle, change course, redirect and waffle again, and I know this will probably continue on throughout our lives. But it's about following our needs and dreams with conscience and care. It is indeed worth it.