Thursday, April 07, 2011

One more unschooling post

"Is it really possible for kids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers or brain  surgeons if they do not learn in scheduled/controlled ways?"

This is a question lifted from a Facebook conversation. I decided that the answer needed to be a blog post, because it was getting too long. Besides, Facebook conversations are fleeting things, and this question is not unusual.

The short answer is yes. If that is what they want to do.

I have four kids, 14-23. When my kids were younger, I used to worry about things like this. I used to worry that they wouldn't get up to an alarm. That they wouldn't be able to function in class. (I'm not going to rehash our unschooling style in this post. There are some glimpses in the past four posts. Or here on my homeschooling blog.)

My first reassurances came in the forms of my friend Susan's kids. A few years older than my oldest, they had been unschooled and were doing well in the world of work and college. That helped. As my own kids got older, I saw them each developing interests, devouring books, getting out of bed early on cold mornings for choirs, classes, and other commitments.

When Bethany could see the SAT looming, she buckled down and did two years of math in a few months. She got awesome SAT scores and a full academic scholarship. She went to classes, worked hard, had a part-time job, sang in a couple of choirs, taught piano, and graduated with a 3.98 GPA with a major in history and a minor in English. This is a girl who was unschooled from fourth grade on. She devoured books, played with her brothers, watched movies, and played piano. That was pretty much her life for nine years. After graduation she was debating grad school options, but really wanted a break. Because of her writing skills, the history department let her know about a paralegal job that was available, which she applied for, and got.

She could easily choose to become a lawyer. Her grades, skills, and work ethic would get her there, no problem. She's not likely to choose that path, however, because what she really wants is a nice Lutheran husband and family. :)

Oldest son, about whom you can read in my old blog posts was our second graduate. He was our reason for homeschooling. He was a delayed reader and has sensory integration issues. He is now a college freshman majoring in history, pre-law, with a 4.0 thus far.

Both of them are FAR more disciplined in their studies than I was my first time in college. I left high school having graduated 10th out of something in the vicinity of 400, with all of the requisite activities and honors. I had spent my entire school life succeeding in the system, and yet I crashed and burned fairly spectacularly in my first shot at college.

Our 16 yo--who has never known anything but unschooling--gets himself up every Sunday at 6:30 so that he can go acolyte at our early service. This has never been required of him. He chooses it. He sings with the Bach Collegium, just finished 10 weeks rehearsing for 3-4 hours a night and performing Joseph with the Fort Wayne Civic Theater, and this week winds up 12 weeks rehearsing for The Sound of Music with a local high school. He will graduate from high school knowing as much or more Biblical Greek as students at the seminary, and because we haven't been hung up on a school schedule he has attended many theological conferences with our pastor or at our church. Next year as a senior he plans to take a college class or two, just to get used to it and because they can also count on his high school transcript. He plans to become a pastor.

Our 14 yo may just become a doctor. Or he may be an entrepreneur. Or a professor. He really isn't sure yet. He had no interest in anything even resembling academics until he was 12. He didn't even like to read. The rest of my kids have been readers, so that worried me. I needn't have worried. He reads like crazy now and doesn't like to leave the house without a book, his Latin or his Greek, and his algebra. He probably spent more hours watching musicals and playing with legos than any child in history. He will probably start college classes his junior or senior year of high school, but that will be up to him.

I have normal kids. They are all definitely smart, but they aren't prodigies. They are just as stubborn and lazy as any kids on the planet. They did spend most of their childhoods doing pretty much what they wanted, except when I would make them help clean. But unschooling hasn't kept any of them from achieving anything, and I believe that it has helped them by allowing them to develop their strengths and interests and learn self-motivation.

More from the questioner: "
I want my children to be driven,  motivated, curious, and smart. I want them to be able to argue, debate,  and win!"

You just described my kids. :) Seriously, much of that is parenting, no matter how you choose to school them. I believe that unschooling is more likely to produce curious, motivated kids if that is what the kids see in their parent's lives. Our kids have been surrounded by books and ideas. Our life is often one protracted discussion. I always made an effort to make connections between things--history, literature, current events, movies--so that the kids would grow up looking for connections. The kids used to watch me talk back to the TV, arguing with the news people or questioning the commercials. Now they do it, too.


One of the ideas that Gatto mentioned that has really tickled my brain is that of "style." It was in the context of communication ability and how connections and associations provide opportunities.

He talked about how freedom and play lead to the development of individual style, and that a distinctive style is priceless. My immediate reaction was to think about my oldest son, not to the exclusion of the others, but because he has such a strong personal style. My thoughts then wandered through each of my own children and on to some of those of my friends. They each have it. They each have a uniqueness of expression that comes out in myriad ways: speech, writing, dress, interests, hobbies, musical preferences, college and career choices, and more. They are all comfortable in their own skins.

What a gift! I don't think I achieved any level of comfort in my skin, any real personal style, until I was in my mid-30's. My daughter's writing as a college freshmen showed an ease of expression that all of my fevered attempts couldn't achieve. My 16 year old wears a hat--not a baseball cap--and wears it with panache and proper etiquette, because it brings him joy.

Because part of my eldest son's personal style is a level of good manners seldom seen in most adult men today, he makes friends everywhere he goes. And it has rubbed off on his brothers--another post is coming...--which has helped them to make connections of many sorts, all of which enrich their lives in some way.

School squelches style. That's part of its job. You see it in the appearance of the girls going into freshman composition classes on a college campus: droves of straightened bleached hair, make up, tight jeans, tight t-shirts, flip-flops, slouched shoulders and a shuffling flip-flop walk. You hear it in the conversations. Those who dare maintain their own style in high school are usually the outcasts of one sort or another.

I loved Gatto's idea that style comes from play. I see it. In each of my kids I see echoes of their amusements in their personal styles. I see echoes of the world of Dyger, created by them when they were littles. I see and hear the influences of Jane Austen, Tolkein, and Dr. Seuss. I notice echoes of Darkwing Duck, Barbies & Legos, and the Zoombinis. I see Haydn and Beethoven and Clementi and Rush and Boston and Joseph's Dreamcoat and Les Miserables. And in their movements I see hours of soccer.

It makes me glad that my kids have had lots of freedom. And that's another post.

Why unschooling?

I had a new experience on Friday. After 14 years of homeschooling, and 12 as a committed unschooler--the first two were spent trying to figure out what we were doing--I was in a situation where being an unschooler was applauded. Wow. John Taylor Gatto, former New York Teacher of the Year, was applauding unschooling parents.

That felt good.

I've spent years feeling like I needed to defend what I was doing with my kids. Even as our results have proved that unschooling works, I have experienced a doubling-down of criticism, especially from other homeschoolers. I've never asked for atta-girls, or pats on the back; so I was stunned by how nice it was to get that unsolicited affirmation.

Gatto said some other things that really resonated with me:

We live with "a palette of unexamined assumptions" including the idea that "lurking behind anything worthwhile is standardized tests, GPAs and college." These assumptions have "allowed us to become our own jailers." Wow, again. This is so true, and echoes many of the conversations that I've had in the past few years with people who think about education. Gatto pointed out that it is still true that many highly successful people--names everyone knows: Gates, Jobs, Dell, to name but a few--didn't go to college or dropped out.

We have come to value credentials over learning, and hoop-jumping over knowledge and understanding. And it is imprisoning millions in a cycle of under-achieving when they don't measure up and student loan debt when they do.

The way to break out: "There has to be a substantial amount of your educational program that only fits you." This is the key to unschooling. It is absolutely personalized. And it cannot be done in institutional school. It is not what institutional schooling is for. That has a different purpose.

This doesn't preclude college. In fact, so far both of my unschooled high school graduates have chosen to attend college, because it fits them. Both have chosen to be history majors, one added a minor in English, the other is considering German and political science as possible minors. But that is another post.

I think Gatto's quote also challenges us to consider what is "worthwhile." Our society seems to consider only material or career success as worthy of pursuit. I would argue that there are other pursuits equally worthwhile, which do not depend on tests and GPAs. Parenting, growing food, and working with the hands come to mind, as a beginning.


These are a few posts that I put on my main blog last year, but I decided that I want them here, too.
Almost exactly a year ago, I posted some thoughts that I had upon reading John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gatto has long helped bolster the "why" of our homeschool adventure. Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a homeschool conference where he was speaking. The session was way too short, but I did glean a lot from his talk. I think it's going to make its way into a number of blog posts.

If you are a fan of conventional, institutional schooling, I'll again warn that you may not like what I'm going to say. I used to be a fan, but not any more. Gatto has done copious amounts of research into the history and background of American education. His many years as a teacher in public schools gave him a front row seat.

So what's the bottom line? Our government schools exist for the express purposes of destroying the imagination, weakening family ties, and separating children from their parents. They exist to create willing, unquestioning workers and consumers. Learning is incidental.

This is the background. The next few posts will include things that Gatto said and things that I've been thinking, and how they have connected.

Added: My friend Cheryl has some thoughts on Gatto, his book, and schools.