unschooling

I wrote this for the October issue of Family Time Magazine in 2012

After an early morning rush, the neighborhoods are relatively quiet. The sidewalks are empty except for some fallen leaves. Lawnmowers are stored, hoses are away, and ice cream trucks are in the very beginnings of their hibernations. It’s October. And according to the accepted Midwestern norms, summer things are gone and kids are in school.

Well, not mine. I’m the father of three and they’re all homeschooled. Even the two year-old. And ever since my oldest (he’s almost 8) was conspicuously absent from kindergarten, this is also the time of year I’ve had to answer the same questions from family and friends; about when he was going to join the human race. Or civilization. Or at least the rest of Chicagoland.

“So when’s he going to school?” They’d ask—politely puzzled.

“I don’t know, college maybe?” I’d answer, sometimes sincere.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Well, I can be.”

My wife and I never decided to be homeschoolers. There wasn’t a night with a whiteboard and pot of coffee as we charted the pros and cons of being responsible for our children’s education. There were no glossy pamphlets titled “Homeschooling and You!” or “So You Decided to be Weird” that we read together after putting our savages to bed. We just grew into it. It was something that felt right. It fit our parenting style and our children’s personalities.

Actually, that doesn’t sound as disruptive as it really was. I’m glossing over a bunch of angst. It hasn’t been easy for me. I’m probably like a lot of you. I used to think that homeschooled kids vibrated at different wavelengths than the rest of us making them nearly impossible to “socialize.” And their parents were members of militias. My wife and I knew some homeschoolers and liked them (they weren’t in militias as far as I knew). But my attitude was always “good for them, my kids will have futures.”

I never thought we’d be them. Or worse—the most dangerous breed of homeschoolers—unschoolers.
What? Let me explain: an unschooler is a homeschooler without a curriculum. Essentially, we allow learning to happen. The most natural kind of learning. We encourage our children to befriend their curiosity instead of trying to tame it, cage it, and malnourish it.

Here’s an example of the unschooling model: if your daughter’s like mine, she’ll flip over every rock in your backyard and she’ll see all kinds of bugs, and have all kinds of questions. She’ll look around for someone to ask. An unschooling parent will give her as many answers as possible. And when the demand of questions outstrips the supply of answers they’ll go to websites about bugs. Maybe there’s a trip to the library or the museum. Maybe there’s a place where you can go and actually hold bugs and talk with an entomologist. You get the point. You can take it as far as you want. Without waiting to get to that chapter in her Life Sciences textbook. Unschoolers can learn at their own speed. If they’re exceptionally bright, they won’t have to wait for the other kids to catch up. If they’re slower, they won’t get left behind.

Unschoolers don’t have a set time of day when information should be consumed. My children don’t look to a calendar or a clock to see if it’s time to learn. They’re always open to understanding new things. Always seeking new experiences. Always asking. Whether it’s October or July.

Just in case you’re wondering if this is something I made up in my delusional campaign against the Man, let me assure you that this is nothing new. “Unschooling” was coined by John Holt in 1977 and championed by John Taylor Gatto. Both brilliant men who have written tons of books on learning and how the current educational structure really doesn’t support the natural way people consume, retain, and recall information. More current standard bearers include Sandra Dodd who speaks at conferences around the world about unschooling—and brings her kids along.

There are actual places that are in tune with this philosophy—like Tallgrass Sudbury School, where kids of any age can pursue whatever they choose. There’s one out in Riverside that we go to regularly.

And it seems that every time we hear experts and activists and concerned parents talking about how to improve the education system, their thinking always aligns with the way we’re living. They share the same exact goals, but they’re defaulting to the old ways.

I’ve come a long way from believing that unschooling was the perfect preparation for unworking, uneating and unliving. I’ve watched my children choose to do math problems and begin to read all on their own. They’ve taken a genuine interest in the world around them and that is something I want to nurture and develop—a relentless curiosity. I have no worries that they will find passions and pursue them.

For us, October means there aren’t as many people at the museums or art galleries or zoos. It means we’ll go on hikes, collect leaves, and take some road trips. And while my kids won’t be going back to school, in many more meaningful ways, they never left.

 

6 Comments

  1. I can’t believe I never read this until now. I need to find out where you guys live – I imagine we’re not that far apart as we both live in Chicagoland. I LOVE the idea of unschooling, but am terrified of it. I was kind of doing it, but not really, for the past few years, but then found out recently my sons are dyslexic. So I have to be really intentional with teaching them to read, with a specific program, or I don’t think they’ll ever learn. It’s causing problems with math too. But it’s nice to be able to walk them at their own pace through learning to read and do math. We’re also looking at the ways dyslexia is a gift and the advantages of having it. It’s all pretty new and overwhelming still, but anyway, enjoyed reading this!

    • jeffandjill

      08/14/2014 at 10:53 pm

      Well I’m glad you got to read it. Unschooling is terrifying–as all liberating things seem to be. I’ve never dealt with dyslexia, but I’m assuming putting them in classes with people who don’t deal with it or understand it would be less than ideal. From what you’ve written, it sounds like you’re finding your balance. I think finding their pace and making them understand where their normal is set is right on.

      Yeah, we live on the southwest side, and there are a surprising number of people homeschooling and even unschooling. We’re like Fight Club only no fighting and only sometimes blowing shit up.

  2. “So You Decided to be Weird.” Haha!

    I randomly surfed in from the web, and the first article I read on your site was this one about unschooling. You’ve got a new follower just from that! I was unschooled (my mom was a definite pioneer back in the early 80s!) and now I’m unschooling my own children. It’s hard to believe it could possibly work, but somehow I acquired a good education, and my six-year-old taught herself to read at three (she’s at a high school/college reading level now). She’s bright and curious and learning a lot. My toddler is still learning how to talk. 🙂

    Props to you for unschooling! I appreciate my mother so much for making the effort to let us learn that way.

    • jeffandjill

      03/14/2015 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for finding us. Yeah it’s a huge leap of faith. And your mom definitely was a pioneer! It had to be a lot scarier back then. We have TONS of resources our parents didn’t have with the Internet alone. Jill wants to write more unschooling posts and I’m torn because I don’t want to push an agenda. I think it’s much better to just demonstrate that unschoolers have the same smartphones and culture as everyone else. It’s different, but not alien. And we have some of the most connected, attuned kids I know.

      I hope you enjoy what you read here.

  3. I really liked this post and wish I could unschool my kids. I can’t for so many reasons but I do add to their education by unschooling at home. My kids know they can ask any and all of the questions and I will give them an answer. If I don’t know it, we look it up. Although doing all unschooling would be really cool, I’m glad they get both sides. They can see how the world works currently in school and how awesome it is to be able to ask any question and get an answer.

    • jeffandjill

      10/19/2015 at 1:05 pm

      Yep. That’s the important thing–finding that balance. Whatever works for you and your family.

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