a blueprint for courage

ed. note – I receive no compensation in any form for links provided here or at my journal, kelly.hogaboom.org.

Phoenix +  Harris = Lurve

We are only a few days away from moving from our two bedroom rental into a larger one. The new home features lower rent, a reduced utilities bill, and sits next door to my mother’s house. My husband, children and I are happily painting, cleaning, and preparing for our new circumstances. That said, I have a fondness for the house we are leaving. I am enjoying its relatively serene space all the more as I come home after an evening painting, scrubbing, and trying not to over-think, over-plan, or over-worry.

It was in my early days in this current home I first found the motherlode of support for raising children in the autodidactic tradition (or as I shall shorthand the practice here, “unschooling” or “life learning”). And as we pack up the place, those memories are exhilarating in the recall – but now comfort-worn by my years’ experience, and my gratitude to the many individuals who’ve helped, and continue to help, along the way.

My husband and I started our children early in the tradition of institutional education. We’d taken part in playschools since the kids were nine months and two weeks, respectively. We were one of those, “give your kids every advantage” families – like most parents or carers are, regardless of what particular strategies they employ –  so we continued in the tradition I was raised in, believing academic success and so-called “socialization” to be the two brass rings of Good Parenting. We also believed it was our civic duty to participate in public schooling. After all, I’d had a pleasant enough experience in school, and I had the straight-As and the engineering degree to support my “success” story.

Playschool was fun for most everyone in the family, but by the time I was volunteering twice-weekly in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom (as it happened, I was the only parent who did) my views on institutionalized and compulsory education were changing. I perceived many hazards and shortfalls and, increasingly, I intuited fewer advantages. As for tangible, culturally-supported motivations – such as a second income to say, pay our bills and/or have running cars, let alone provide me with Social Security – even these did not outweigh my increasing desire for a different life for our little family. It would actually be an overlong article were I to list the many things I found lacking in (first) the public school, and then, as I investigated further, any compulsory schooling model within our reach (let alone the lifestyle required, which I could write pages on). Ultimately I came to a mindset of, YOU make your case to ME as to why I should require my kids to school. So far I’ve not heard a compelling answer nor experience an unmet need, and I’ve listened intently to many arguments over the years.

So in 2008 we stepped out of the relatively comfortable, and culturally-supported, public school experience. At first it was a bit harrowing as, since I’m the Mommy, I was tasked with TEACHING MY OWN CHILDREN, horrors. I had binders full of lesson plans and a Google Calendar set up with subjects we’d cover. Most people left me alone about the venture or even praised me, figuring I was, basically, smart enough to go about it (I only footnote here my culturally-afforded privilege as a white, working-class, college-educated cisgender married woman with a university degree, a home, and no visible disability). With my husband’s enthusiastic support and participation we dove into the “brave” world of homeschooling.

At this point I’d been exposed to the concept of “unschooling”, but it still sounded like a craven mess to my ignorant yet somehow biased thought-life. However as the kids and I did our thing, I became less and less satisfied with the very school-y model I knew how to employ to instruct my children. As I see it, the model I knew is typical and two-fold. First, we tell our children what to think, believe, and parrot (within a narrow range of “acceptable” beliefs and thoughts, all the while giving lipservice to freedom and “critical thinking”). Second, we motivate them using praise and its counterpart, emotional pain – in other words, “you can’t eat your pudding if you don’t have your meat!” (it’s true, if you look deep enough into what is really happening). Initially as a homeschooler I wasn’t doing much different than the enterprise I’d removed our children from, even if the environs were a lot healthier in most ways.

It was at this time I found, somehow, Wendy Priesntiz’s publications Life Learning Magazine and Natural Life Magazine* and began reading there – as well as many authors and blogs referenced, and the books, articles and blogs tangentially-linked to those. At the time, specifically with regards to Priesnitz’s pieces, I found validation of truths I’d felt deep inside since I was a child. To wit: that “absorb, regurgitate, & be graded” methods of education were superficial and ineffective. To wit, that children shouldn’t be treated as cattle nor capitalist fodder for the United States’ edifices of consumerism and consumption (forces I like to jokingly reference as Jack Handey’s monster: “trampling and eating everything it sees”). To wit, my suspicion that what  many adults wanted a great deal from children was to be able to control their movements and especially their behaviors and especially their thoughts and beliefs. Deep-down I knew it wasn’t possible nor intelligent to demand “respectful” behavior from children while we robbed them of their agency and basic human rights (these demands for “respect” yield spoiled fruit; I’m reflecting on last year’s bullycides and the many angry and frightening responses from grownups; also the recent public cheers when a father publicly destroyed his “disrespectful” daughter’s laptop with a firearm). The fact adults scream – and hit – for “respect” from children is something I occasionally feel a sense of deep embarrassment-by-proxy about.

All of these things – things I “knew in my knowing place” – were given voice by someone thousands of miles away, with decades more experience. I can’t fully express the excitement and possibility that began to open up for me those few days. Those experiences were a cornerstone as I continued to read and relate with other authors, professionals, parents, carers, teachers, and adults with an avocation and passion for our children.

The exercised right to raise one’s children without putting them in an institution continues to draw fire, myriad subtle or blatant slings and arrows. Most of these arguments, primarily, reduce down to our culturally-indoctrinated reflexive desire to control children’s lives, emotions, thoughts and expressions, and physical movements. The latest anti-homeschooling piece referenced in my tweetstream comes from Slate (“Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids”, February 16, 2012), trotting out the “if you’re progressive you owe it to society to put your kids in the public school system” argument. And you know, this was a view I once held myself not so long ago, so I relate. In my case, Eva Swidler’s piece in 2010 was seminal in articulating the fallacies inherent in the argument that participating in the system with your child’s fulltime lived reality is the only ethical thing to do (after all, there are many ways to support schooled kids, even if you do not have children or your children do not attend school – and Swidler’s eloquence, I might add, addresses this beautifully). Other good refutions have emerged recently, specifically challenging the popular concept that compulsory state-run schooling is a major ameliorating force fighting socioeconomic disparities and systemic oppressions.

The expectation of, and massive mainstream pressure to, institutionalize children is a new experiment in terms of humanity. But from the beginning I’ll bet you’d find this argument of civic duty: “You owe it to _____ agenda to participate [in this exact way]!” Personally I think many who frame forced school attendance for children as the only way to be civic-minded and ethical are merely, if they were to examine their root feelings, scared. Arguing that home educating parents are cloistering their children and telling their children who exactly to trust is not only a logic fail in one way (as if sending them to school without right of veto isn’t telling them who to trust), but also fails on an even deeper level – because children actually decide who to trust, as much as some people don’t want to admit this (I trusted School, by the way… the problems I later had are the subject of another article). Many won’t entertain the concept children have the capacity and the right to have a regarded and significant voice in their own daily lives. And dare I say, those most fearful are likely those of us with a series of gold stars attached to our name by virtue of the educational system.

My children’s forty hours a week times thirteen+ years is pretty important to me – and to them. When I find the institutional proponent who speaks of children as anything other than chattel (or cattle), subhumans (check out popular language describing teenagers if you’ve the stomach for it), requisite products and/or extensions of our own values, or capitalist investments, I’ll listen all the more intently. Most proponents operate from the perspective children are second-class citizens, that we know what’s best for them, and they couldn’t possibly learn if we stopped relying on desks, tests, and doled-out potty-breaks.

I provide my children, and the schooled children who frequent my home, with safety, emotional and physical nourishment, and a great deal of autonomy. And the practice grows up some pretty good kids.

Look, my theories that articles such as the latest on Slate, or examples like the vitriolic and lengthy tirade “HOMESCHOOLING IS CHILD ABUSE” (actual title from a self-identified college professor), are primarily fear-based? I could be incorrect. What I can say with confidence is I was a school-achiever and school-believer – and I was fearful at first. I was scared to commit to the supposed “huge” responsibility of educating my children. Scared of relinquishing (the illusion of) control by exploring, by merely entertaining the idea of, autodidactic family life. I was scared of not playing the “more income=more happiness” game, even though my logical mind told me we had a roof over our head and enough coal to burn. I was scared of doing something different than the herd and having my family life interfered with by the State (that’s a founded fear, by the way). I was scared of being told I wasn’t doing what “everyone else” thought I should (again, a founded fear, also reinforced by school, incidentally).

Mostly I was scared of giving up (the illusion of and) the practice of Control.

I look as deeply as I can into articles regarding children’s education and parenting, and those are the fears I see.

I live in gratitude for those who went before me and mapped out a blueprint for courage. As we pack up this home to move to another, the memories are pretty sweet.

***

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

A Free Service
Coffee Date w/Emily

***

* both helmed by Wendy and Rolf Priesnitz, with over thirty years’ experience in the fields of life learning, writing, social activism, and publishing. Full disclosure; I’ve written a few pieces for these publications, including one published here – “the conversation t hat never happens”.

the conversation that never happens

Ed.note: This piece was originally published in Life Learning Magazine and is intended for readers familiar with the field of autodidactic learning and/or forms of homeschooling. It is somewhat more specialized than typical writings at Underbellie in that it was tailored less for generalized audiences and it is a bit more personal than typical UB pieces; but as I’ve said before, Underbellie is not a 101 space.

Life Learning Magazine is a publication I whole-heartedly endorse (and no, I do not get a kickback or whatever for saying this); you can subscribe to this publication here: [ link ]

Nels swims!

As some gentle and bearded songwriter once asked, Where do the children play-ay-yay-yay?

My children are Nels and Phoenix are six and eight.  They are well-spoken, physically active, able-bodied, happy, early and adept readers, mathematically proficient, (usually) well-“mannered”, direct, articulate, and fairly compliant with regards to Authority.  Because in many respects they are pleasing and convenient to other adults in my community they are often assumed to be being raised “right” (by my husband Ralph and I).  This means when friends, acquaintances, and strangers find out they are homeschooled (or unschooled, autodidactic, or life learners to be more accurate) the question of how they’re turning out so well despite the <gasp!> lack of structured learning in their life is a subject most grownups ignore with studious precision.

Most life learning families who’ve been doing this a while run across the question How can children possibly learn outside of school? online, likely because many of us seek out the discussion with other like-minded unschooling familes.  But in the real world with our friends, acquaintances, and sometimes our family they keep their minds and mouths shut like a trap.

It its way it’s almost humorous.

Keeping one’s children out of school and not imposing home-curriculum is a fringe choice in this country.  Given that, I think part of the reason this conversation doesn’t happen is many of us prefer to think of fringe people as being, well, wrong.  When we see their choices working out well it’s a bit uncomfortable.  Thus it’s much easier to think of my kids or myself as some kind of an exception to the rule.  The kids are either “bright”, or I am a super-hard working mama administrating organized curriculum and I have extraordinary “patience” to spend so much of my time with my own children (why children are assumed to be such a horrible group of people to be forced to mingle with is the subject of another article).

Last Friday I volunteered at our local historic theatre for a movie showing. As we volunteers milled about in the lobby I struck up a conversation with my seventh-grade English teacher B. (I am 33 so I took her class almost twenty years anon). The subject came up of the G. family, neighbors I had known as a child.  They were a wonderful family with three kids, a warm and cluttered house, lovely home-cooked food, a garden and an impressive treehouse.  They were also homeschooled, and back in the day they were the only homeschoolers I knew.

I told B. I’d run across the youngest child D. at the grocer’s; he had grown from the small boy I knew to a very tall young man barely recognizable to me (although recognize him I did). When I spoke to D. I brought up homeschooling and he’d told me he disliked it and felt much happier when he’d been enrolled in school (that was about as much time we had before his employer needed him again).  Relating this story to B. I’d meant to convey my amusement that as an adult who’s thrown herself into the world of learning with her children, at least one member of the seminal family I knew as The Homeschoolers on first blush wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm.  But my ex-teacher B. interrupted my story to offer:

“Well, I think you’re probably being more thorough than S. [the children’s mother].  You know, the girls had reading comprehension issues.  I mean nothing against S. but I’m sure you’re more…” she trailed off (more what?).

Get that?  My ex-English teacher immediately assumed, first, I was teaching reading and, secondly, whatever impressions made by the G. girls were evidence of some inherent deficiency of the homeschool model (not say, the fact different children show different abilities at different ages, or B.’s own bias in favor of compulsory schooling).  The fact my kids were performing to her standards meant I was doing something extra awesome that apparently most parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be willing to do.

Now when I hear the oft-spoken rather narrow-minded ideas of how children learn I sometimes speak up and sometimes I merely listen.  In this case I said the first thing that came to mind. “It’s funny you’d say that, because both my children were early readers but I never ‘taught’ them how to read.”

“Well, but you read to your children,” she responded earnestly (and how does she know this I wonder?). Then she quickly amended, “I’m not saying S. didn’t read to her kids, it’s just…” and the conversation once again puttered out awkwardly.

Many unschoolers know exactly where B. went next.  She asked, “How long are you planning on keeping them out of school?”

Right, because even though my kids are so obviously flourishing (so well my six year old son did the raffle drawing on stage that night, reading numbers loud and clear and showing a great deal of gravitas in the public eye), truly this must be either a quirk, or they are “brilliant” or “clever”, or I am doing some kind of hard-core educational stuff that I will surely not be able to keep up with (this reminds me of some of the points on “The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List”1).  There was in B.’s mind no curiosity as to what we were actually doing for our education; experiences of “academic achievement” must only stem from innate brilliance or school-like strategies of imposed learning.

Now, I know B. is just one person and this is just one brief conversation; and yet I’ve had these exact same exchanges many times in our burgeoning unschooling career.

Because if we were to admit that autodidactic children in a loving and secure environment perform very well indeed in aggregate (given nearly any marker of success), we’d have to then question the many tenets of the school model.  One thing I’ve observed about most educators (and many parents and carers) I’ve met is that no matter how much they disliked (or currently dislike) school, or admit they learned very little, or saw and/or experienced shocking instances of bullying, or didn’t retain the knowledge taught therein, or weren’t particularly well-fed or emotionally-nourished during their childhood, or “coasted” through or were patently ignored as a person, they really don’t want to consider perhaps things could be better.

What would I want to happen differently?  I guess I’d like to see in my interfacing with the public more discussion of the things so many assume are true (such as: school, homework, and externally-enforced “discipline” are needed to produce joyous, competent children-cum-adults who are a credit to our society).  Now I am a realist and know that for those who claim many “can’t” unschool, there are many, many more who simply won’t consider it as an option.  The sad thing about this is not merely it impedes growth in the number of life learning families, it’s that in avoiding the discussion with successful unschooling families, parents and carers ensure they are closed to possibilities and mere “consumers” rather than authors.  They remain alienated from the true nature of their children and self-neutered in the tools and convictions to ratify change.  It keeps the adults who have the means and support to do the most good merely busy messing about in making only cosmetic improvements to their children’s scholastic environs (if they put in effort at all). Many parents follow their children’s teachers’ dictums regarding their kids’ performance and sometimes even their kids’ characters.  Parents and carers force children to complete homework (hours of this after nine-hours of compulsory schooling) and chase grades instead of swarming the halls of our schools to demand and enact more meaningful reform.

I’d hope for the families who can’t unschool or homeschool – or as is very common, can’t bring themselves to consider homeschooling or unschooling – that they might at least begin to understand the nature of learning and support their children accordingly.  Perhaps they might begin begin to see their children as being in the right by their natures, and with clear eyes address the demagogy of factory-based schooling and the deep flaws within.  Within schooling families, perhaps at parent-teacher conferences instead of listening to the teacher pick-apart their child’s “performance” they could sit with their child in the knowledge it is not their child who is the problem; he or she is likely coping as best one can in such a system.  That for the schooling famlies who have the resources maybe they’d advocate for higher adult ratio in classrooms, maybe they’d volunteer more in classrooms, maybe they’d speak up against piles of homework that in American schools begins in kindergarten.

And I wish they’d stop making every effort to not talk to me about my children and their learning journey.

Bio for the article:

Kelly Hogaboom  is a writer, sewist, wife and mother living in a semi-urban little green coastal smudge of Washington state. She cooks, sews, raises kids, cats, and chickens, and spends her days joyfully living.  You can find her journal at kelly.hogaboom.org and her twice-monthly columns on social issues and B-movie culture at underbellie.com.

  1. “No. 18 – If you can remember anything from chemistry or calculus class, you’re allowed to ask how we’ll teach these subjects to our kids. If you can’t, thank you for the reassurance that we couldn’t possibly do a worse job than your teachers did, and might even do a better one.” from Secular-homeschooling.com