Sunday, June 30, 2019

How to Unschool Graduation

For a number of years in our household, there's been discussion about whether or not to graduate - to get the diploma - to take a bunch of required courses and jump a hoop of our culture's pre-determined life-trajectory. The debate has mostly been among the parents, because neither of our children has been very willing to consider non-graduation. We know that it's possible to apply to university as a "homeschooler", and enter without a high school diploma, but I think our kids want to prove to themselves that they can achieve what the mainstream offers. Still maybe not in a wholly mainstream way. So I'm delighted to announce that our son just unschooled graduation!

Taliesin in the crowd of graduates.
Maybe it's a bit of an oxymoron to say one can graduate from unschooling, because it is, after all, a philosophy of self-directed life-long learning. But you sure can self-direct your grad celebration and the way you choose to create and cross a threshold, and these fabulous humans did so!

Taliesin receiving a joyful hug from his principal.

Our kids have attended Windsor House School these past three years. Windsor House is a democratic public school that was founded, run, and then held in integrity for nearly fifty years by Helen Hughes. The school's slogan is "room to grow and be yourself", and the school's staff and community lives up to this in every action they take or choose not to take. They accept all students as they are without condition. They don't give grades. They encourage creativity. They don't discriminate. They respect students' identities and choices, whatever they may be. They don't coerce. Ever. So Windsor House is a school full of unschoolers.

Helen Hughes, founder of Windsor House, receiving a standing ovation.
At Windsor House students are empowered to make their own choices, and to be accepted no matter what those choices are. At Windsor House you can spend all day every day drawing pictures, gaming, or playing basketball, and instead of trying to diversify your activities, teachers will celebrate you and encourage you, including when you finally move on to a new pursuit. If you come to school only twice a week or don't come to school for months at a time that's OK too. When you don't do any provincially-mandated academics for years at a time and then decide you want to earn a graduation diploma, teachers will help you make up all those academics you need for credit. At Windsor House there is no dress-code, and no gender grouping. All toilets are always for all genders. There's nobody going to tell you what to do, and there's a culture of non-violent communication that lives organically between staff and students, held up by respect and a practice of good, deep, thoughtful conversation. It's not unusual for people to stay or return to Windsor House as adults. The principal is the daughter of the founder, who attended Windsor House herself, and now runs it with an abundance of passion, love, integrity and creativity, being connected with, loving and supportive of every single human from Kindergarten to adulthood. At Windsor House you can choose or create your own pathway, and you will be celebrated for doing so. Including for graduation.

Our son Taliesin wasn't originally going to graduate this year, since it was technically his grade eleven year, but he had nearly all the required credits already, so when he heard in late March that Windsor House is closing, he decided to add a couple of courses to his roster and finish early. He wanted to get his high school diploma, but didn't want to attend a large mainstream high school for just one year. So since making this decision in early April, he worked tirelessly - many hours nearly every single day - to finish the courses he needed for credit. It was definitely hard work, exhausting, and at times felt like meaningless drudgery, but I think it was nice for him to discover that he can, in fact, pull off the kind of school-work that his mainstream friends do.

Taliesin enjoying grad his way - outside, hanging with a good friend.
There were just over twenty Windsor House graduates this year, and they each had unique stories. Some students have completed our province's graduation requirements and some haven't. Some were graduating as "adult grads" and at least one graduated "early". Some took the grad stage for the first time; some had been there before, but chosen to come back, do more school, grow a little more, and graduate again. And again! This is what graduation looks like when you self-direct it. It's a celebration of the achievements you determined for yourself were important, and a threshold on to the next stage of your self-determined journey.

"...has successfully completed their self-directed education at Windsor House..."
Those receiving actual high school graduation diplomas will receive them by post once all the grades are received by the Ministry of Education, but this certificate may be the most meaningful one to many.
 And let's talk about grad traditions: the caps and gowns and diplomas and cap-throwing; the prom and the speeches and all. the. excitement. This class self-directed those, as well. The group of kids who organized this event sourced the venue, the attire, the decorations, food and even advice from their community. They rented a hall that isn't normally rented for such occasions but was perfect for the event, with a stage, gorgeous sound and party lights, disco ball and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And in their neighbourhood. My mother and a couple of friends provided the enormous number of fabulous flowers for the event, cut fresh from their gardens. The grads got mortarboard caps from a local university's recent 50th anniversary celebration, and we redecorated them with purple ribbon, because purple is, fittingly, Windsor House's school colour. They found gowns for everyone who wanted to wear them - some were borrowed, some where home-made, and some were the death-eater costumes from the school's recent Very Potter Musical performance. The food was potluck, and some generous soul ordered in pizza late in the night! The graduation speech was not given by an elected valedictorian, but by a student who felt she wanted to speak. The kids announced at the end of the ceremonies that they would now flip their tassels to the other side, and throw their caps - and they did! Most kids didn't arrive with corsages and boutonnieres, but at the end of the night they dismantled the flower arrangements and flowed out the doors holding gorgeous bouquets and bedecked in various creative ways with the flowers from their prom. Not every Windsor House class has chosen to carry on these cultural traditions, but this one did. And when you choose it, you own it. They did everything in their own, gorgeous, unique styles! And it was fabulous.

These wonderful humans will continue going on to the rest of their lives; some to work and travel and explore, some to continue being involved with Windsor House activities, and some to post-secondary education. Every single day is, of course, a threshold to the rest of our lives. Every day we wake up and choose how we're going to engage; how we're going to move in one direction or another. There truly is no right or wrong way; no right or wrong speed at which to reach any milestones. And there are no mandatory milestones. We are who we were born to be, and unschooling allows us to live in that truth.

*graduation ceremony photos by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude
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