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.

stuff my kids are doing...

Since we committed to go back to unschooling again, both kids are much more inspired about life, and both doing things I'm proud of. So... how about a bit of kvelling!?

Click to enlarge and read this. He made this in school while he was supposed to be working on a group project about riverside development. He diverged...
And here's a group of beautiful friends making their first music video.

Also, Rhiannon is still healing from her wound. Two days ago (after 21 days!) a stick delivered itself out of her knee, and yesterday she got her stitches out. The wound isn't closed yet, and she has to soak it at least twice a day, but she's much more comfortable now, and can do pretty much anything, although she's using crutches for longer walks.

She is also changing her hairstyle. I promised her this as a sort of indulgence after the protracted injury and recovery and many boring hospital days. Stay tuned! It will be rather unique!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

how and why to use technology in a forest school

One of the draws of forest schools is the fact that many are 'unplugged'. At a time when our culture is becoming exponentially more digitally connected, we're noticing some pitfalls of being too connected. We are seeking ways to ground our thoughts and experiences, often literally by going out on the land and leaving technological devices behind. I think this is great, but I also think technology has a place in forest schools.

At Wild Art you'll definitely notice fewer electronic devices, which isn't even so much of an expressed rule as a matter of practicality when we're traipsing around over logs, through creeks and swamps, and up and down trees. We're too busy using our senses to bother with devices that require hands and mental focus. But there are exceptions.

It's important to me that wilderness is not just an escape from the rest of our lives, but that it is integral to our lives. That means that we have to let wilderness into our homes and technology from our homes into the wilderness. This way our thoughts and learning have no boundaries.

At Wild Art, a whole-world view and self-direction are paramount. Of all the things I hope people will learn at Wild Art, I hope most that they leave with a sense that their own engagement with the world matters. And technology is a part of our world. Banning it would be futile, and worse still, would force it into dark corners, where there is little support. So just as I welcome any conversation topic during the time we share together, I welcome technology.

Watches, visual aids, cell-phones and cameras are by far the most common devices among the kids I work with. Watches allow the kids to keep track of their own time, and sometimes help them understand the world around them (movement of the earth; weather, and even reflection and light as they play with the sun bouncing off their wrists). Visual aids are usually brought by me. I have a nice pair of binoculars, and flashlights are sometimes helpful, but the best of them is a pocket-sized 60x microscope that I carry around for looking at anything and everything that suits our fancy. Cell phones aren't that common. Many kids have them, but leave them behind for fear of damaging or losing them in the woods. I don't have one myself, and although occasionally someone pulls one out to check the time, take a photo or arrange a ride home, I rarely see them. I think that reception is pretty poor when we're in the forest out here, anyway. And cameras.

I love cameras. I document Wild Art days myself at least once a month, and sometimes the kids get involved with cameras, too. Getting new perspectives on the things we look at is always a great way to engage, and using cameras can be an excellent way to find and explore new vantage points. Camera-use also often means thinking about communication: Not only does it matter what we are communicating with our photos, but how does the photo-set up influence the viewer, and how does our own perspective influence the photo? All of these questions (and many others) come up and scatter widely into other areas of life. Even just the social interactions that arise from sharing our vantage points, our technological ideas and understanding, and our creativity are valuable. And this is all when the technology is on the side. What about when it's at the core of the group's inquiry?

Recently one of the Wild Art groups made a movie. It was a natural path to take, since their engagement had been mostly social, comedic, and with a lot of talk about video games they had been playing at home. So I embraced it and suggested movie-making. They spent the next four weeks developing and filming their funny idea, and this is the result:

(Thanks to these wonderful teens for allowing me to share their movie!)

They also presented their movie in the woods, using a projector, a king-size sheet, about a hundred and fifty feet of extension cords, and some ropes, sticks and rocks to set it all up. It seemed to me like a fabulous combination of technology and wilderness.

But what about the wilderness? Doesn't all this technology take away from our engagement with it? Maybe. But it also deepens our engagement. When we work and live in the wilderness, we can't help but be deeply familiar with it. Just like you know the feeling of your favourite pillow under your head, you know the different feelings of sitting on various types of moss and bark if you've spent enough time doing so. You know what species of tree branches will work best to hold up your bed-sheet movie screen, and what age of fern-fronds will be strong enough to tie a knot with. You know which twigs you can break off for convenience, and which are still alive and better left alone. You not only become familiar with the species of plants, insects and other animals that you cross paths with in the wild, but you become aware of their habits, their habitat, and the way these things matter and intersect with your own life. You will be an integral, engaged, and conscientious part of the world. And after all, isn't that what we use technology for?

Monday, May 16, 2016

when your eyes are bigger than your stomach...

Hmmm... what shall I find for a snack today...?

Oh hello. What's this? I see a little cat.


Holy giant snack!

Hey little kitty. Did you see me fly?

Check out this.

I'll just sit on this low little stump over here and turn my back to you. Really I'm harmless.

It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.


La la la...

Oh hello. You're still there.


Ah! Vulture! Help!

Heh heh heh...

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Family Update

As you may know, this blog is partly our way of keeping connected with family, so I thought I'd update on our personal lives at the moment. Sort of a Christmas-Letter-in-May. The biggest news this week is Rhiannon's injury. She fell on a log last Monday and gored her knee quite badly. She has been in town having stitches or wound care and IV antibiotics every day since then. Today is the first day she won't spend hours in the hospital. We have very sensitive systems (and skin!) in our family, and she not only got a raging infection from the wound, but then had reactions to antibiotics, wound-dressing tape, and the IV (hence why she had to have two IV's at one point). Poor Annie. It's been a bit of a long haul for her. But spending so much time in the emergency first aid department allowed us some perspective, at least, in seeing that by comparison with some other people, her situation is not so severe, and she's managing quite well, under the circumstances. Just yesterday she finally had her IV out, and is increasingly able to hold her leg up enough to get around on crutches. Today we're going to try going to the community choir concert!

This experience has been humbling. I have been extremely grateful for the care she's received from our doctor (who spent about 40 minutes cleaning and picking wood out of a very large, gruesome wound, and then stitching it up again), two of our local ambulance crew, plus Brian for the water taxi ride, and a large collection of ambulance attendants, nurses and doctors at the hospital who have cared for her with thoughtfulness and sensitivity for her young age and fears. As a bonus, she has learned a lot about physiology and medicine, and is now doing her own wound-care, at home. This experience is an excellent learning opportunity for all of us, and also a great way to gain some perspective on both our privilege and fortune to be who we are, living where and as we do.

So Rhiannon is missing a couple of weeks of school, which (aside from the constant sitting down and computer use) is a nice preparation for our next news: We're going back to unschooling next year! Rhiannon is still desperate to join the local private school that Tali has been attending, but they have no space for her. And Tali is thrilled to be leaving. He can't wait to have his time to himself again, and to get back to his many passions and experiments. We're going to make a concerted effort to find him some lab science classes to attend, next year. Rhiannon is still trying to figure out how best to spend more time with her friends, and is also diligently training herself to become a pop singer.

As for us adults, I am busy with teaching and getting the kids through their many spring activities (plus this unexpected hospital adventure, of course). And Markus is busily trying to finish the new kitchen before his June vacation, when he'll tear out the old kitchen and bathroom and replace them with a fresh new rot-free section of house. After that I believe our whole house will finally be free from rot and mold! We're pretty excited about that, and hold enormous gratitude for Markus' dedication, since for the past few years he's given up almost every single day that he didn't have to work to repairing this old house. We're also looking forward to a time (hopefully less than a year away!) when we do not live among heaps and stacks of construction materials and misplaced household items.

In the bigger picture, it's early May and we're already into a drought. The well hasn't gone dry yet, but that has something to do with the fact that my parents have added a pump to the pond and are watering much of their garden from that instead of their well. Despite the dry weather, we do have some vegetables coming up, and hope to eat a good amount from our own garden for the next few months. It's the bumps and pitfalls that remind us how beautiful life is; how lucky we are, and how treasured are the people who care for us.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight: Maple Blossoms

As published in the Bowen Bulletin, April 27, 2016:

Last year for the Earth Day Bulletin issue I began a series called “Earth Day Every Day”, where I explored the island and talked about my discoveries. That year has come full circle, and it's time for this series to evolve, too. I'd like to share some foraging delights with you! So, every couple of months for the next year, I'll explore a seasonal wild food opportunity that we can easily find here on Bowen.

One of the most iconic and bountiful plants we have here is the bigleaf maple. As you walk through the springtime coniferous forest you can see a maple a long way off, as it's brilliant leaves catch and hold the sunlight – chartreuse against the deeper greens of hemlock, cedar, fir and spruce. Even its bulky-looking trunk and often sprawling limbs seem to burst with vivid colour: In early- to mid-spring the moss that covers them is a vibrant rich green, punctuated only with the deep grey-brown and white of the bark, and sometimes with haphazard fields of licorice fern.

Look out to the ends of those sprawling branches, reaching umbrella-like over your head, and if you're there at the right moment you'll see it's blossoms. Maples' blooming times vary according to their geographic location, elevation, and situation in the forest. Although as I write this most of our local maples have finished blooming for the year, if you explore a bit you're likely to find a few still going strong.

A maple blossom cluster is referred to as a raceme, due to the fact that many flowers hang off a central axis (or stem) at approximately equal lengths and distances. The flowers develop first at the point closest to the branch, and successively out to the end of the raceme. Therefore, if you pick a raceme at the height of its development and sample it at various points along the stem, you'll notice that it has various different flavours. (Note: Maples are as delicious to insects as they are to humans! Before you eat it, check the blossom for flies, aphids, ants, etc. and knock them off.) Now start tasting. Any closed or barely-open flowers near the end will have a bitter, astringent taste, due to the oxalic acid which they and many other fresh wild greens contain. Further along, both the stem and the blossoms lose this sharp flavour, and have a much more pleasant, mild taste. The flowers that are in their prime even have a slight sweetness, and this is absolutely delicious in salads! Further up, and nearer the branch, the stem becomes progressively tougher, and the flowers less flavourful. Eventually, where the two pistils in the flowers have turned brown, the flowers will taste very bland, and by the time the whole flower begins shrinking, it's more like dried leaves – not worth eating!

So now that you've familiarized yourself with all the different flavours of the maple blossom... what to do with it? Some people stir-fry them. I've heard of people battering and deep-frying them, too, but I prefer to taste them in all their glory: quiche, rice-wraps or salad!

For a quiche, simply prepare a good savoury butter crust, steam some maple blossoms until they're wilted, and fill the crust with a mixture of the blossoms and some other sweet or mild vegetable such as fennel, mild celery, or spinach. Mix up some eggs, milk, and a bit of sea salt, and pour it over. Cheese is always an option, but I find it overpowers the maple blossoms in this case and prefer to leave it out. Bake and enjoy!

Wraps are as diverse as they are easy. Whether you use pitas, tortillas, nori or rice paper, fill it with some sweet rice, maple blossoms, and a dressing you love. It can be quick and dirty or absolutely elegant, depending on your desire and presentation.

My favourite for last: Salad! Take out the most delicious section of the racemes, and fill your salad bowl half-full of these – flowers, stem, and all. I break the stem into sections approximately one inch long. Now make up the rest of the salad with whatever mild greens you like. Butter lettuce works well, but so do many other seasonal wild plants such as salmonberry or dandelion petals, bitter-cress, or miner's lettuce. If you grow kale year-round in your garden, it may blossom at the same time as local maples, and kale flowers are also a delicious and beautiful addition. I like to make a dressing of grape seed oil, maple syrup, and lemon juice, as well as sometimes a little salt or wholegrain mustard, depending on the ingredients in my salad. Experiment to year heart's delight, and enjoy! I hope you love maple blossoms as much as I do.