Sunday, August 23, 2020

Celebrating my daughter quitting school!

 

My smart, motivated, academically capable daughter just quit school -- and we're celebrating! Yep. Last year I wrote about our son, who, after a lifetime of eclectic and meandering unschooling, decided to graduate and pulled a high school grad with honours out of a hat in just two months at the end of his grade eleven year. You can do that. He did. Now I'm writing to tell you that our fifteen-year-old daughter Rhiannon, who has been mastering the distributed learning system towards what we thought was going to be a much more straightforward high school grad, has quit. She's decided to register as a homeschooler, not attempt high school graduation, and work on her own pursuits, instead. And I think it's the best decision of her academic career so far.

For those not familiar with the basic options available to kids in our province (British Columbia), let me briefly explain. We have five legal options: 

  • Public School: (mainstream "brick and mortar" school run by a school district)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person, generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • publicly-funded
  • Independent School: (private school - non-district-affiliated)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled" 
    • attend in-person (usually), generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum, sometimes with a little more flexibility
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Public DL: (public distributed learning school run by a school district) 
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week, OR partially or completely online
    • some PDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome
    • publicly funded
  • Independent DL: (independent distributed learning school, not district-affiliated) 
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week OR partially or completely online
    • some IDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome 
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Registered homeschooling: 
    • terminology: child is "registered" as a "homeschooler" under section 12 or 13 of the provincial education act
    • no official teacher oversight or support, although some families hire teachers, tutors, or mentors, and children may attend supervised programs outside of the public system
    • this is the most freedom available in our province, legally, and allows families to live, grow and educate in near-complete freedom
    • no curriculum is provided, but many families purchase or create their own curricula
    • no graduation diploma
    • registered homeschoolers in grades 10, 11 or 12 may enroll in distributed learning courses
  • Unschooling: Unschooling is not a registration/enrollment option. It's a lifestyle and learning-style choice, which can be accomplished in any setting to larger or smaller degrees. Generally, unschooling means following one's interests in life and learning from all experiences. For parents of unschoolers, it means also following personal interests, while supporting and nurturing children who are busy following their own. Registering as a homeschooler gives BC residents the freedom to be unencumbered by regulations and expectations, therefore allowing more time for exploration of personal interests, and it's therefore the easiest way to follow an unschooling pedagogy.

Now back to our family...

Rhiannon hand-binding the children's book she wrote in 2018.
Rhiannon is an academic queen - especially when she can blend school with her passions of teaching young children, musical theatre, and middle grade fiction. She loves to work in a structure, she loves to create neatly-packaged projects and turn them in. She loves to evaluate her progress and climb the ladder of education, just like she's slowly climbing the becoming-an-author ladder. In fact, she loves all these things so much that school held her back. 

When she had free time in her earlier years, she edited and published two magazines for children, wrote a few short books, played endlessly with her dolls and pets and imagined worlds, taught herself to play guitar, created a few complex board games, researched, wrote reports on, and attended online university courses on subjects she was interested in (usually relating to early childhood education), and developed her singing and acting skills. Then through her teens, as she attended public and distributed learning schools to be with her peers, she ran out of time for most of those things. She's been keeping up as well as she can, managing to write a few stories and papers over the years, attending various theatre programs, and usually writing a book or taking an online course in her free time from school. She's developed a children's and YA book review website, written a middle grade novel, and is currently working on a second novel. But her time is always broken by the demands of school, and often those demands have felt like aimless make-work projects just to get through specific hoops to somebody else's goal. Somebody else's goal is graduation. Hers is "to have a nice life", and highschool graduation doesn't seem to be necessary for that.

She does find it important to attend the Reggio Emilia early childhood education program at Capilano University. Not some other school. Not some other pedagogy, because she's known since she researched these things in her own childhood that Reggio is the philosophy best suited to her beliefs. She's been researching careers and schools and entrance requirements for years, and now at fifteen she's in conversation with staff at the university she wants to attend about how to prepare a homeschooler's application. She figures she's got a couple of years to accomplish her pre-university goals, and she'd like to be unencumbered by school, in the meantime. 

This morning she told me, "I feel like everybody thinks that graduating from high school is the big teenage achievement, but if I don’t go to school then I can have other achievements that are even better, like getting a book published."

Knowing that she has managed to write a book and send it to publishers during her otherwise busy grade ten year, I asked her what she expects will be so different about homeschooling.

She leaned against my feet where I sat, and mused, "It used to be stressful because I had so much work to do and it’s now it's stressful because I don’t know how it will all work. It used to be a relief to know what I had to do, and now it’s a relief to know that I can do what I want. Now I can focus on writing books, managing my youTube channel and website, making music, and getting a job, which I find much more exciting than school."

And that, I think, is the key. It's why we've been unschooling all along: Because life should be exciting! Why would we drag through school just to get a diploma, only to get into university, if we can live an exciting life, and then still go to university... arriving full of passion and experience? Or, as my son seems to be leaning towards, potentially unschooling ourselves right through university and into the rest of our lives, dispensing entirely of the education system, and building our lives, piecemeal, according to our passions and opportunities?

This isn't so crazy as it sounds. Most of us are trying to follow our passions and opportunities, often at the same time or combined with our trek through the prescribed journey of life and education. With increasing instability in our economy, climate, and social structure, the gig economy is increasingly accepted as normal, and people of all ages are necessarily becoming more flexible. We're learning that not every year will be the same in our gardens; not every job will be long-term; not every passion needs to remain our focal point. Personally, I've begun blending and re-mixing my diverse careers of parent, explorative learning facilitator and artist, and finding that a whole plethora of new potential titles come out of the mix. Through this pandemic I find myself to be a learning consultant, an artist, a farmer and a YouTuber! Last year that would have sounded ridiculous. My daughter's choice to buck the norm and head to university without a high school graduation looks to me like a very good strategic plan for her, but also a great way to keep herself open and flexible in this constantly-changing world we inhabit.

We were recently celebrating the fact that our son graduated with honours... feeling weird but proud to wear this badge sported by so many conventional parents. And now I wonder if my daughter will feel let down by not having her family celebrate a graduation. Can we celebrate something else, instead? Hell, yes! I'm celebrating her embarking on the path she desires! I'm celebrating the very thoughtful human who is looking critically and creatively at a life in very undesirable pandemic-induced constraints, pulling enormous courage out of a hat and turning her dreams into reality, on her own terms. I encourage all of us to look at our children's accomplishments the same way -- to celebrate their personal choices instead of just the moments they stepped through expected hoops. I can't wait to read my daughter's next book.

---

More information for people looking into homeschooling legalities in British Columbia: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/support/classroom-alternatives/homeschooling

The photo at the top is my daughter Rhiannon's promotional portrait taken by her brother, Taliesin.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Unschooling Screen Time!

Probably the biggest source of stress in our unschooling home as been screen-time. I just can't stand seeing my kids sit in front of their screens all the time! I literally ran an outdoor exploration program since they were babies, and brought them outside to play and gallivant in the woods every single day until they were too old to be easily led outside. And slowly, as they grew into teens and now older teens, computers have seeped into every aspect of their lives. As our culture moved more online, even I became a constant screen-user, and with this pandemic, well... screens have won. 

My inner voice screams at me, "bad parent! You're ruining your children! Where's the outdoor time?!"  And at way-too-frequent intervals over the years, my inner voice invaded my throat and I bullied and badgered my kids, tried to bargain with them, tried to limit their screen-time, even took away computers and other devices, once resulting in a physical conflict with my son as I tried to walk out of his room with his laptop and he righteously tried to stop me. None of these actions align with my own moral, parenting, or unschooling values. My kids are supposed to be self-directing! They're supposed to be free-range! They're supposed to be unencumbered by my parental fears and judgments! Definitely free from me stealing their stuff. And yet my deep shame over screen-time has caused me to break all those values so many times.

It's a struggle, for sure, and I know it's the same in so many homes around the world. But I'm writing this to share the one thing I think really helped us in this situation. Did you notice I said I was "stealing" my son's laptop? That's because it's his. He owns it. And that's the big deal, here.

My kids at 11 and 14 with their first personal laptop.
 
I remember a Mad Magazine comic from my childhood in which Webster (I think?) gets sent to his room, and is delighted to go up there and be with his big TV and whatever other electronics he had. I remember thinking what a good child I was to own none of those things - not even as a family, at that point in my 10-year-old life. And I think that pride set the stage for my rampant shame over screen-time.

Then I had my kids in the early 2000's. In their first few years we had one family desktop computer which my husband used for telecommuting two days a week and the kids and I shared for online adventures like videos, games, Google earth expeditions (WOOOOOT!!) and word or image processing on other days. It was pretty ideal. I felt like we were graciously treading the waters of screen-time.

Then we went to an unschooling conference where we discovered entire families of people gleefully wrapped up in creating a Minecraft version of the hotel where the conference was taking place. COOL!! I discovered that it's really OK to enjoy video-gaming with our kids, and in fact it can be a creative family experience. Enter Minecraft in my life. And with so many more amazing resources becoming available around 2010, enter so many more amazing times spent on screens. I didn't feel really bad about getting a family laptop. It meant the kids and I could use a computer even when their father was working from home on the main computer! 

I saw our slow slide into more screen-time, and the conflicts became more frequent. Also, conflicts between the two kids became more frequent as their screen-time needs and values diverged.

Around that time, my kids became old enough to earn their own money, and we have always maintained that while they don't earn money for chores at home (because we don't earn money for this either; it's just a part of living in a home), any money they earn for themselves is theirs to spend as they'd like. This is basically our unschooling way of teaching them to manage their money. And they managed it differently from each other, one saving and saving, while doling out tiny bits for necessary items like gifts and dates with friends, and the other saving exclusively until making larger passionate buys. And guess what! The first big purchase each of them made at around twelve and fifteen years of age was a refurbished laptop. Now at fifteen and eighteen they're migrating to more powerful desktops as their studies and interests have pushed them into daily computer use. My daughter has recently been given a free desktop and financed her own accessories, and my son built himself a powerful machine for his rendering and digital music composition. 

My son's new fancy set-up, complete with a rolling stand that he built to hold it.

Why is this so great? Learning. Self-discovery. Money-management. And personal health choices. The best part of all of this is that they always financed their computer owning on their own. This gave them the independence to provide for themselves in a limited but very important way. It made them feel powerful. It means I can't freak out about screen-time, because they truly own their computers, and they worked a long long time to get to this point -- on their own terms. 

Of course, I still freak out about screen-time once in a while, to my great shame, including that time I tried to steal my son's laptop from his desk, but I'm getting better over time, and so are they. The fact that they own their own devices helps remind me that their lives are not mine to control. The basic tenets of the unschooling life we aspire to mean that I will do better by loving them and leading by example than by trying to control them. Just seeing their fancy self-designed set-ups on their desks reminds me of that. Life and living in community is always a complex challenge, and my own growth as an intentionally laid-back parent is always slowly improving as well.

Most wonderfully and surprisingly, having complete ownership of their own devices seems to mean that my kids are also pretty responsible with screen-time. The pandemic has meant a lot more computer time, and I've noticed both of them intentionally scheduling outdoor, off-screen, or exercise time into their lives. I won't say I'm always calm and accepting, nor that there aren't days they rarely see the light of the sky outside, but despite all my fears over the years, I think we've done all right in navigating this one. 

I'd like to thank the massive support network of unschooling families all over the place who have kept reminding us that it will be OK. It truly is. May we all keep swimming up like good little Minecraft players before all our bubbles pop, and then run around on the land exploring and being creative!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Ethical Food: killing our own meat

The set-up for this day was a big home-made killing-table, complete with a restraining-cone and sink on one end, a bunch of buckets and bowls for the parts, the hose, some newly-sharpened knives, and a borrowed camp-stove on which to scald our birds before plucking. Our first chicken-butchering day: It was a day we were afraid of, but we were committed.

Our son cleaning up after butchering his first bird.

Thirteen years ago I wrote a blog post called Wild Food: Killing Our Own Meat, which went on to become by far the most popular thing I've ever written, mostly because people are shocked and awed by the idea that we killed and ate slugs with our children. At the time we had a pair of ducks, were eating duck eggs, and thought we might end up getting ducklings which we'd raise for meat as well. But a mink killed our ducks, putting an end to all those plans. It's been a long road of parenting and growing since then, but this year we finally got back on the trail toward raising our own ethical meat.

I've been told before that no meat is ethical, but for my partner and I, the question of food seems so much more complex, so I'll explain a little, here. Please know that this is my and my partner's personal perspective, and we understand that the world is vast and varied. You are entitled to your own opinion, and we respect the choices of those who travel other paths. We hate the industrial farming industry - both the vegetable-based production and the animal-based production. Nearly all of it is deeply unethical, causing irreparable harm not only directly to animals who are involved, but to the environment, through mono-culture, exploitation of land and resources, and through physical and chemical destruction of the land. The world is a vast ecosystem of ecosystems, each with many interdependent communities within it, and each community made of many interdependent species of plants, animals, insects, microorganisms and fungi. Every single part - no matter how small - is vital to the health of the whole. Many people have been alarmed to discover that palm oil, which is frequently used in vegan products, usually involves the destruction of endangered orangutan habitat, and even outright killing of orangutans and other species. Enter "sustainable palm oil". And more products using coconut oil... but wait. Coconut oil has recently been linked to even greater destruction than palm oil! And that's just the oil and processed-foods dilemma. Most of the meals my family eats are vegan, as well as gluten- and soy-free, due to our auto-immune issues. So we eat a lot of almonds, (almond flour, almond milk, etc.). Almonds aren't vegan either, due to the massive impact that large-scale almond-farming has on the bees who are transported across the continent to fertilize the almond-groves of the west coast. Further, the impact that the large-scale mono-culture of almonds has on water-systems, forests, and the ecosystems that would otherwise have thrived there is colossal. What is an ethical eater to do?!

For us, the answer is growing our own food. In our climate, and on the 1/4 acre of land we can use, we are slowly figuring out the most efficient ways to produce food for our family. We know we can't meet all our needs, but we're having some success with peas (dried for winter soups), cauliflower, potatoes (about 1/3 of the number we eat each year), kale, (a few) tomatoes, and now chickens.

Remember those adorable chicks we welcomed just four months ago? This week we slaughtered the first four of our chickens. It was the first time I had killed any animal for meat (though I've had experience with many compassionate killings of injured and sick animals, in the past), and the first time my partner and son had butchered an animal at all. Our daughter bravely caught and handed over the roosters we killed that day, but chose to stay away from the place we butchered them, because we gave both kids the choice to join or not, since nobody should ever be coerced to commit such a traumatizing act as killing, plucking, or gutting an animal.

Bringing each bird to the back driveway (so they'd be far away from the rest of the flock who we didn't want to traumatize) was very, very sad, and a difficult thing to overcome, for our psyches. Me cutting those birds' throats was excruciating. We wholeheartedly believe that we, as animals, eat most ethically when we accept that in order for us to live, something must die, but we would like to make that process the least harmful possible for the ecosystem of our world. Part of that is accepting that eating meat is painful, so that we don't do it wantonly. 

It's important to us that if we're going to eat meat, the animals have happy, healthy lives, and we think we've achieved that in our chickens. Then, we try to maximize the nutrition from each life we've taken. After processing these four birds, I was actually quite pleased to discover that we'll get the protein component of four family meals out of each of them. Here's the breakdown of how we're using these birds:

Directly from what we processed on slaughtering day:
  • 1 cup of livers into the freezer (1x liver pate = 1 fancy family meal, later)
  • 2 jars of feet, neck and gizzard broth made and canned (2x family soup meals, later)
  • 1 family meal of gizzard and neck-meat poutine (with chicken gravy)

Then we put the four birds into the fridge to loosen up (from rigor mortis), and two days later I prepared them: I roasted two of the four, then picked, boiled and dehydrated the meat, made bone broth of the bones, and froze the roasted skin. I froze the two remaining birds whole, which will be feasts, later on, each providing an additional meal of bone broth soup. We ate four roasted wings for our dinner that night, which was delicious, and the perfect amount of meat for our family of four. Meal tally from second day of processing:

  • 2 family feasts of a whole roast bird
  • 5 bone broth soups with bits of meat
  • 2 chickens roasted and dehydrated (4 meals, later)
  • bag of 5 portions of chicken skin (to add to stir-fries and other meals)
  • 1 family meal of wings, on the day I roasted them

My partner's birthday dinner:
Homegrown beans & broccoli with chicken poutine
from the first animal he ever butchered, himself.

Total: 16 meals plus chicken skin.

I can't say I'm enormously proud that we enjoyed eating the meat of the birds we had held in our arms, but I was relieved. I wasn't sure we could do it, and we managed. We fed ourselves.

And I learned something huge about myself in this process. I've always been repulsed and horrified by gore and violence in movies, which seemed incongruous with the fact that I spent my childhood helping with trimming and gutting rabbits, chickens and pigs on my family's hobby farm. Why do those movies upset me so much? In killing my own home-raised chickens, I discovered why: It's compassion. In movies, killing is done for show. Blood theatre. It's needlessly violent, needlessly cruel, and increasingly, it's gratuitous. On an ethical farm, killing is done carefully, and at great cost to the killer. The reason my parents raised meat birds and meat rabbits was also out of a desire for ethical meat, and ethical farming - whether for vegetables or meat - requires a close connection with our food; a deep emotional journey into the lives and greater ecosystem of all the plants, fruit and animals we intend to consume. It requires sorrow, and compassion, and an overcoming of that sorrow when we accept that we need to kill to eat. We choose death in order to survive, and we never do so wantonly, or for some kind of theatre.

Every single bite of chicken that we eat this year will taste of sorrow, compassion, and deep, deep gratitude.