Saturday, May 28, 2016

Unschooling to School... AND BACK AGAIN!!

It is with great relief and joy that I finally formally announce that, after two years of independent school experience, we're going back to unschooling. Since we made the decision after spring break, Tali has begun to get his passion back, and both he and Rhiannon are becoming more giddy as the days go by, and as they make exciting plans for the future. Unschooling is not without challenges, of course, and we've been asked a few questions about this decision, so I thought I'd answer them publicly.

How will they graduate?
First of all... they might not graduate! I could easily start listing the many options for unschoolers to achieve highschool graduation, but the technicalities are different depending where you live, so Googling the topic or connecting with local homelearning resource groups would be your best bet if you're interested in this. What I can tell you is that it's OK with me if my kids don't graduate. At least one of them will probably attend a university, because that's what he wants, but both of them are more interested in their long-term life goals and following their passions than in stepping up the ladder. Many careers don't depend on university, and many people benefit from university courses without enrolling or pursuing degrees or certificates. Both of my kids have already followed online university courses for free, simply because they were interested.

The world is changing - it used to be that libraries, universities, and some other institutions were the go-to places for information, knowledge, and success, and only available to the privileged. But it's not that way anymore. The internet has opened those things to everyone. Not only are universities free to attend in an increasing number of countries, but even in countries like ours where they continue to be expensive, they offer ever more and more for free to the public. The internet has made many such resources available to people in remote places, and has provided a venue for connections and conversations that might not otherwise happen. In other words, the richness of learning, development, and ingenuity that used to happen at universities is beginning to spread out via the internet, and I expect that by the time my kids are in their late teens, the campuses of the world will be more like the world wide web.

What if they do choose college or university? 
There will still be some benefits to having physical labs and gathering spaces, of course - both for my physics-obsessed son and my pop-star hopeful daughter. So how will my kids get into such spaces if they choose to? Well, it turns out that unschoolers have some advantages when it comes to university application. There are also lists available of American and Canadian schools that are known to accept homeschooled/unschooled applicants. (I know these lists aren't complete, because our local university, UBC, has definitely accepted unschoolers and is not on that list.) With the growth of unschooling popularity, I can only imagine that the welcoming attitude towards unschooled university applicants will continue to grow, as well. My kids have a little bit of experience with presenting a portfolio, and are both becoming interested in leaving an online trail of their work and innovations, so I have little doubt that their entrance into universities - should they choose to go that route - will be a natural step on that pathway, when the time comes.

In 2011 Peter Gray did an interesting survey of grown unschoolers' journeys into the worlds of post-secondary schooling and careers. Most interesting to me was that it appears to make a noticeable difference whether kids were fully unschooled or only partially unschooled - and possibly not in the ways you might guess: Psychology Today article.

Don't they need a broader influence?
It's definitely true that unschoolers can miss out on all the specific influences and ideas that come from big schools - unless they attend one, of course. And I have known a couple of unschooling families who stuck very close to their own small circle of friends and activities, and whose kids may indeed have had a narrower view of the world than some others. But this kind of narrow view can be taken by schooling families, as well, and in my opinion has nothing to do with unschooling. I know both unschooling and schooling families who make an effort to experience many varied things, and we do this ourselves, too. I think it's essential that kids have freedom to choose their own paths, and with that freedom they need to have doors opened for them.

In order to open those doors for our kids we include them in almost everything we do (to the detriment of parents-only dates, unfortunately), and we allow them a lot of freedom to explore in the world and online. To keep them safe online, we have installed wired internet service in our home, and it's not available in their bedrooms. They understand that it's not because we don't trust them, but because we want the internet to be a public thing in our home. It keeps all of us accountable and safe. And plus - it means they often discover new things while reading over our shoulders! To keep them safe in their physical travels, we've accompanied them on bus-trips (once even observing from afar as they made their way through the slightly complicated city bus routes and transfers), to help them develop safe behaviour and confidence out there. After that we just clasp our hands together as all parents do and hope with all our hearts they make it through life relatively unscathed!

What about socialization?
Ah, yes. Well... socializing, at the moment, is the one true challenge of unschooling. At least in our small community it is. There are very few kids our kids' age who are free to socialize during the week, and there's still a small but not insignificant amount of derision from community members around our choices.

Which brings me to my terminology gripe, and a much bigger issue. "Socialization" means "to socialize" ... as if it is a thing one does to one's children. Like we might bastardize or customize or equalize them. My kids don't need me to socialize them. Being social is human nature. And they're different in the way they do that! My daughter is passionate about spending time with friends. She has many friends and she thinks about them all the time; she looks at most things in life through a social lens. My son would rather process things alone. He has a few very treasured friends - the sort of friends who are like cousins to him, even when he doesn't see them for years. He appears to be very lonely, sometimes, and sometimes he even feels lonely. But going to school for two years has made him lonelier. And that's the bigger issue.

Tali went to school because we wanted him to have more social interaction. We thought that his penchant for spending time alone or just with the family was making him miserable, and school would solve that. So he chose a lovely little school where he already knew a few of the kids, and his uncle is one of the teachers. It's a good school with high moral standards. He never faces the kind of frightening bullying that he has encountered in passing at other, bigger schools. The teachers and some of the other kids are thoughtful and supportive. And things were all right for a while. But gradually Tali's own feelings changed, until despite spending five days a week in a large group of kids, he now feels that he doesn't have any friends. He doesn't feel anymore that he's happy to be the person he is, but that there is something inferior about him, in the way he exists in the world. I remember that feeling very well. That feeling is the reason we chose to unschool in the first place. That is the feeling from being at the bottom of the social heap. And it is nurtured by the default situation of school.

A school of kids is like a school of fish: a homogeneous group of little beings, seen by the powers that be as a whole. Of course the teachers see the individual students, and the students see the individuality in each other, but the school has to make choices that benefit the whole. So the grade sevens go with the grade sevens to all the same classes, and the grade eights go with the other grade eights to the other classes, and at lunch time they go outside for lunch, but it's difficult for the two groups to merge because they've been separate in all the other activities. Outside at lunch, or in the corners of the progressively free-range classrooms, kids grapple with the social ladder, and take every possible shortcut to the top. They passively and not-so-passively intimidate and threaten each other; they compare their successes and failures, and they turn their backs on the kids they're using as rungs for climbing up on. In class-time, kids are evaluated and graded, which separates them into further categories, and no matter how unique they are, and no matter how much effort the teachers put into celebrating their individualities and strengths, they will still be part of the whole, and they will know where they sit on the social ladder. To some extent this happens in the adult world as well, but we have the freedom to leave the situations that don't serve our needs. At school kids don't have this freedom. Because they exist as a school of children.

So here we are, nine years into our unschooling journey, and now I can finally say we are going to "un-school". My kids never had to un-school, before, because they had never been to school. We parents certainly un-schooled ourselves and will always be doing so. But now that our son has fully participated in one of the best schools our region has to offer, he will also have the opportunity to un-school himself.

Of course, his journey will be much simpler, because he's not forging a new path; just making his way back to a path he has traveled, before. And he's doing it with great delight. He has already made some plans for next year - plans that will give him opportunities to be social with other teens! And he has begun countless new projects as the sparks of curiosity and creativity that drove him during the many years before school seem to have reignited.

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