Our family are almost unschooling.
Not because we force curriculum in one or two areas, and otherwise respect our children’s freedoms. But because, we’re not there yet. Because, we were schooled.
Yes, we take the liberty of calling ourselves unschoolers, even though almost unschooling is an oxymoron.
We are unschoolers, on our path. We just happen to be at the beginning.
Here’s how we’re un-unschooling, so far:
De-schooling, the nerd way…
When you start a school-free life with children who’ve been schooled, you’re supposed to take some time to de-school. Which means, giving yourselves time and space to disconnect with school, and schooled mindsets.
At the beginning of our school-free journey, I’d scheduled this de-schooling thing in. Yep, scheduled! What can I say, I’m a nerd. No, Nerd. In upper case.
I knew I needed de-schooling too, because I was schooled through my childhood, then a teacher. And since I’m thorough, I’d read the rules about what we had to do, to de-school:
- no workbooks
- no contrived ‘learning experiences’
- no forced instruction
- no worksheets
- spend time together
- nothing resembling school in our days, whatsoever
I liked these rules. They were something to follow in an otherwise unknown, new regime. I like known paths and outcomes, and things wrapped up neatly in boxes. Which is probably how I ended up teaching public school and Montessori, in the first place. I like to have a map to get me to where I’m going. I’m the careful traveller, not the free-spirit in the Kombi with a ukulele in one hand, and her whims in the other. (You can read some of my bohemian musings, here.)
So, even when I decided to unschool, I approached it like a formula, with rules.
And then one day, early on, my daughter said, “Mummy, can I do a worksheet?”
I don’t mean that she was scrolling the internet, and a printable caught her interest, and she wanted to download it. No. I mean, we were in the kitchen making a snack, and she said she wanted to do a worksheet. “Like the ones we used to do in school.”
What to do?
We were staying away from anything that might be associated with school, like the unschooling folk said to do.
Yet, we were living respectfully of our children’s freedoms, like the beliefs that made us go school-free in the first place, compelled us to do.
I couldn’t say no to a worksheet without infringing on my daughter’s rights. That would be the same dictatorship she’d just left.
I’m embarrassed to say that I was gutted my daughter asked for a worksheet. Gutted! It didn’t fit with my ideas about de-schooling. Hello. My schooled mind was trying to control things. To align my children’s lives with my own expectations. Where did those expectations come from? No one had ever been us, at that time, in that place, with our particular set of past experiences. How could I have expected to wrap our unique contexts inside a formula that looked like someone else’s?
Admitting my shortfalls and moving on.
The first thing was to admit that I didn’t understand unschooling yet. How could I? I was schooled into my twenties, then worked in schools. I was approaching unschooling as if it were a homeschooling method. Which it isn’t.
Unschooling is living a life that’s free of school. It isn’t a set of rules about what families can and can’t do, and engage with. It isn’t about freeing yourself of worksheets. It’s about freeing yourself of your schooled mindset.
I realised, that meant unhinging my old beliefs and habits, like trying to control my children’s paths. Even their de-schooling paths. Instead of placing rules around this thing, I had to let it unfold. Let go of the stress that our unschooling didn’t look like other people’s unschooling:
‘Proper’ unschooling people’s.
I had to get comfortable with being ‘us’ people.
What I did next was to follow my daughter’s lead.
Together, we scrolled the internet until her interest was piqued, and printed out a worksheet about whales. She looked at the sheet, then found a book about sea mammals. Then, days scattered with viewing, reading, painting, sculpting, writing and playing, about whales.
You know what? She didn’t even do the worksheet. Didn’t touch it. Except for a tiny streak of blue colouring in on the whale’s back. Maybe she’d asked for a worksheet out of habit. Maybe she was seeking something familiar, something tangible from her classroom days; a little bit of comfort while she navigated her new school-free life.
Or maybe, she just felt like doing a worksheet.
Whatever her reason, if I hadn’t supported her inclination, I would have taken a flow of inquiry away from her. And happiness. Not to mention happiness.
Oh, and freedom. That niggling little thing we’re all entitled to, children included.
My daughter didn’t mind that we were in the de-schooling part of my schedule…
Or that we were supposed to be actively not doing worksheets. I’d scheduled in de-schooling: which is a bit of a ridiculous statement in itself, if you think about it. But, that wasn’t my daughter’s agenda. It was mine.
She was coming down from school, in her own way. And I had to ask myself what other reasonable way there was.
I realised that I couldn’t fit into any prescribed ideal about what a life free of school should be, or look like. Even if that ideal was the freest one there is: unschooling.
- The funny thing is that even with unschooling, there will still be people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, and what does and doesn’t classify as a part of your chosen regime.
- The truth is that while you’re shifting to unschooling, you won’t be there yet. You don’t have to be. And your unschooling path doesn’t have to look the same as anyone else’s. Your context is unique. So is your children’s.
So, can you almost unschool?
If you ‘unschool’ in most areas, and dictate one or two, like maths, then no, that’s not quite unschooling.
But can your children use a worksheet, or a set of maths books, if you’re unschooling? Yes, if they choose. Not if they’re coerced. My guess is they won’t choose them forever, once they find their free feet. But everyone is different, and you never know.
- Can you almost respect children’s freedom, and protect their childhood? No.
- Can you almost trust your children, and uphold their rights? No.
Unschooling isn’t an educational method. It’s living without school, and without a schooled mindset. And for some of us, that’s still a process—not a process you can half-embrace, but a process, nonetheless.
Many people might not recognise our aesthetics as being free of school.
We have some maths books on the shelf called Life of Fred. My children love this series. They often want to dip into it. But sometimes they leave it alone for months, too. My daughter also has some workbooks that she brought home with her from school, and wants to continue from time to time. Why? Why did we want this stuff in the first place? Because it feels a safe thing to have, something we recognise? Because we’re still new on our unschooling path? Or because we genuinely like it? Whatever the reason, it has arrived here with us. It’s where we’re at. We won’t apologise for that, even to ourselves.
Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t ban my daughter’s wish for a worksheet. No matter how uncool, or un-unschool it might be. It’s where she’s at. I respect that. Unschooling isn’t about avoiding worksheets (though I don’t recommend the blah things); it’s about going with the ebbs and flows of a school-free life. For children who’ve been schooled, the tide can wash up a mixed assortment.
I’m not sure why I expected our journey to resemble anyone else’s.
The thing to do is trust.
So, for the first time in her life, this Nerd in upper case, failed a school thing. Or, an unschool thing. I can’t tell you the relief I felt seeing that big red cross over my list of rules, and starting the blank page, again. (Not to sound schooled or anything.)
You can’t put rules around the process of freeing yourself and your children from your schooled mindsets. You can’t put rules around what your children should and shouldn’t do, or ask for, at any stage of their school-free lives.
You can only trust.
- Trust your children.
- Trust that you are learning what it really means to respect your children’s capabilities, and choices. And autonomy.
- Trust that if you mess up, it’s okay. Your children will understand. They’ll know you’re learning to free yourself of your schooling, too.
- Trust in the knowledge that you are exactly where you need to be in your unschooling life, or your journey towards unschooling.
- Trust in the respectful choices you’ve made to go school-free in the first place.
- Trust in the values you place on respectfulness and freedom.
Relax. It will come together fine. It might come apart first, if you’ve been schooled. That’s okay. It’s supposed to.
Don’t take it from me though. Take it from your gut. Otherwise known as your instinct. That’s your roadmap.
An appropriate quote, to conclude my spiel, and inspire your path, and mine?
“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”
Thank you for reading my harp about our messy beginnings to unschooling.
Yours in the free world.