Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unschool, Unfeminist? (Unschool Monday)

This post is part of the Unschool Monday meme, started by Owlet.

The style of educating that most closely resembles what we do is "unschooling," but as with any label, it depends on one's definition. There are a couple of areas in our approach to Harriet's upbringing that beg the question "can we really call ourselves unschoolers?" The first that comes to mind is our decision to place our parenting and our lives more generally, within a feminist framework.

Living within a feminist framework means that we make sense of the world around us by viewing it through feminist glasses, so to speak. For example, while some parents might see dressing their daughters head to toe in the colour pink as communicating to the world that they're girls, or enhancing their daughter's cute-factor, or unquestioningly because "it's just the done thing", we see dressing little girls in pink as a social construction born out of capitalist patriarchy for the purpose of upholding capitalist patriarchy (for more on this you can read these posts: Why not a blue globe for boys?, Mother's Day and the consumption of femininity).

Parenting and educating within a feminist framework means that our understanding of social issues is informed by a background of feminist theory and activism (for more on what feminism means and how it relates to our parenting check out our "feminism: underpinning our family values" post).

So, how do we fuse our feminist framework with unschooling? Surely the unschooled child should be free to choose her own framework for making sense of the world? Aren't we limiting her potential, just as a school would, by putting the feminist glasses on our daughter? Isn't our "rabid feminism" just as stunting as schooling's complete lack of feminism? How many ways can we re-word the same question? (The answer to that last one is: many, many more ;-P)

We don't find our use of feminism to be in opposition to our commitment to unschooling. In fact, our refusal to uphold oppressive patriarchal ideals about what colours, toys and behaviours are appropriate for little girls enhances our daughter's freedom. She has access to the boys section and receives the same love, attention and approval from her parents whether she grabs the baby doll or fire truck off the toy shelf.

At the age of two a lot of our feminist values are irrelevant to Harriet. As far as we know she doesn't notice that she's not clad in pink, and she's not quite ready for the "My Little Ponies are fucked-up" conversation. While we can identify ethical, political and social problems with some of the toys that have come to be Harri's, she plays with them as she sees fit. Because she isn't steered towards certain socially acceptable behaviour through the use of shame, praise, commercial television, formal schooling, or patriarchal role-modelling from her parents, she has creative control over her playtime and imagination. Hence her fucked-up My Little Ponies tend to get breastfed LOL.

We might prefer it if Harri didn't have an interest in the fucked-up My Little Ponies for various reasons, but she came across them through her interactions with the world and she liked them. While we may try to limit Harriet's exposure to the damaging messages patriarchy transmits to her about women and girls, we can't shelter her from it all. We do choose to try to limit messages we see as damaging (such as: little girls should be/love princesses, little girls should wear pink, little girls should be sugar and spice and everything nice, and should grow up to become sexually arousing to men) in the hope of increasing her chances of growing into a confident, self-loving, independent adult with great respect for women.

While we acknowledge that it is possible for girls to grow into women who are confident, self-loving, independent adults who respect their sex even with parents who dress them in pink, praise them for behaving princess-like and have a herd of fucked-up My Little Ponies, it takes a lot of social de-programing and unlearning the patriarchal messages they have grown up with. Our goal is that our feminist parenting will hopefully mean Harriet requires a lot less de-programming and unlearning than say, I needed to reach to the same end.

Finally, it's worth noting that every parent influences how their child makes sense of the world, even unschoolers. Unlike a lot of folks out there, we're comfortable in the knowledge that we are at least aware of which pair of glasses we've got on.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

School Free 'Aint Work Free

This baby's Godmother-to-be writes a series of blog posts about her family's unschooling experiences. Today I was reminded of her post about "Work" as I witnessed the following scene:

Harriet absolutely loves being part of the everyday running of our household (or at least she loves it for about two minutes before moving on to the next task). As I write this, Harriet is standing on a chair at the kitchen bench "cupping mushrooms" (she squeals with delight) with Ealesy, preparing our lunch.
She loves cooking and cleaning, though sometimes her help can be a hindrance to impatient parents who just want the job done and want it done properly. But most of the time Ealesy and I pull ourselves in line and think about the bigger picture: how great it is that Harri gets joy from helping, what wonderful lessons she is learning about being a functioning member of a family, that by the time she's a teenager she will be brilliantly practiced at all these tasks. Parental patience now, will hopefully pay off in the future. In the meantime giving her a practical task is a wonderful way to stave off boredom inspired winging or distract her from inconvenient or destructive behaviours (eg. "Hey Harri, instead of rolling toilet paper down the hallway how about we wash some dishes?" "YE-AH!!!!").

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A So-Called Schooling Success

If you were to hold my story up next to Sarah's horrendous schooling experience, then I am undeniably a schooling success. My institutional learning began in 1987, at the tender age of four and did not stop (not even for a holiday "gap year" at any point) until I was 24, in 2007. I've completed kindergarten, primary school, and high school (with grades putting me in the top 20% of students in the state for that year). I was accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in the country, completed a three year undergraduate degree with grades good enough for me to be accepted into the one year honours program.

Then I completed a 12,000 word thesis, for which I received first class honours (or an high distinction). The grades I received throughout my honours year were enough to be accepted into the PhD program and win me a government scholarship valued at around $20, 000 a year, for three to four years. A little over half-way through my PhD I discovered I was pregnant and was delighted to have a wonderful, life-changing reason to finally become a drop-out (see Sarah, I'm a drop-out too, I just did it 12 years after you LOL).

Schooling provided me with some incredible opportunities. First it was the method I used to escape an abusive household. Later, I got to travel overseas to speak at a conference. I became a published author in fully-refereed journals and an editor of another journal. I met some incredible individuals, many whom I continue to call my dearest friends. And I developed my research and non-fiction writing skills. for all the good it did me, there was also a lot of harm.

Feeling Smart?

One might assume from reading the accomplishments listed above that I am an intelligent person. But you could not convince me of that until after I left uni!

I believed I wasn't smart because throughout school I was not one of the "smart kids" in class. I remember the first time I got 100% on a test and being thrilled that I might finally get some recognition from my peers and teacher. But the two "smart girls" in class added extra information not asked of students on the test so they got 32/30 for their tests. Even when I did everything right, it still wasn't enough!

Once I was at uni I felt even less intelligent. I was now a little fish in a huge pond, and found it near impossible to get average or above average marks, for the first few years of uni.

Then the PhD experience was a death defying ride in which you never knew if you were going to finish the day curled up in the foetal position under a desk (the bad days). Or passed out drunk in the pub across the road (the good days). Or if you were not going to end your day at all because you had yet to earn sleep on account of working on the world's biggest piece of shit dissertation (most days).

I remember conversations with fellow academics in which we all agreed that being an academic was a never ending battle of "fear and self-loathing". Crying over research was not uncommon, nor was substance abuse. The ability to cope with the pressure was a massive issue and may have something to do with the fact that 70% of people who start PhDs never submit them.

One afternoon I left my supervisor's office and it finally hit me: nothing I did would ever be good enough! The entire system was set up to improve upon what you had in front of you. And once that was improved upon you would have to improve it further. It was never going to end! I looked back and realised I had wasted twenty years of my life waiting for the moment when something I did would be good enough and I would finally feel satisfied with my work!


From my experience the socialising that goes on within school boundaries is completely unhealthy and isolating. The fact that many people see bullying as an important rite of passage speaks volumes on this issue. Just because something happens a lot, doesn't make it okay. You know what else happens a lot: murder, rape, domestic violence, poverty, suicide etc. but few of us would tell our children murder is "character building".

The socialisation I experienced at school taught me that people are inherently nasty and you can't trust anybody. I still struggle to engage in small talk or meet new people because of the negative lessons I took from schoolyard socialisation.

Schoolyard socialisation taught me that to make myself worthy I would have to make myself beautiful (cue dieting and cosmetic surgery), or athletic (cue unhealthy attempts to "improve fitness"), or smart (cue a superiority complex and obsession with ladder climbing). Just being Sazz was not enough.

As for socialisation in class, I was constantly getting in trouble for that. Every report card I have says I do well, but would do better if I could refrain from talking. Socialisation was only permitted from 10:30-11am during recess and 1pm-1:45pm during lunchtime. Never again was socialising so regimented and inhuman as it was at school.

You Can't!

The underlying messages of institutionalised learning are damaging and they're untrue!
  • You can't be trusted to learn in your own time, without threat of punishment.
  • You can't teach yourself new skills, without paying a teacher to tell you how.
  • You can't manage your time wisely, unless we give you a schedule.
  • You can't have a career, unless you do what we tell you.
  • You can't have a happy future, unless you toe the line.
Then there are the "you can'ts" of the grading scale:
  • A maths test comes back with something below a "B": you can't do maths well.
  • You don't win a ribbon at the end of the cross country run: you can't run well.
  • Your textile's teacher has no patience for you: you can't sew.
  • You don't get selected to be in the college musical: you can't sing.
  • You never win an award at speech night: you can't do anything!
I think more than anything else it's the "you can'ts" that hurt, and take the longest to un-do. It's the "you can'ts" that have my heart racing whenever I try my hand at a new skill and my thoughts drift to failure.

Creativity & Failure

Some people claim that school is all about preparing children "for the real world". Uni students are often asked when they're going to join "the real world" and some people believe that home schoolers can't survive "in the real world". So what exactly is the real world, then, if children, uni students/academics and homeschoolers aren't in it?! I really loathe this attitude because it implies that living and learning are not the same thing.

I remember feeling like I was waiting for my life to start, and my decision to keep going to uni was based on the desire to buy more time to figure out what I was going to do with myself when I finally did "join the real world." Meanwhile my life was passing me by.

I spent my "hay day" obsessing over grades, not realising that I was a wonderful, gorgeous, fit and healthy young woman who could do anything any day she chose! I grew up fearing my own autonomy, convinced I couldn't be happy/succeed (coz those are one and the same in the schooling model of life) without rigid structure and an authority looking down upon me.

Creativity is fundamentally important to humanity. I found schooling to be a process of beating creativity out of individuals. It starts with a thoughtless art teacher who tells a young child she's doing it wrong. It progresses to detention for wearing a multi-coloured scarf in your hair instead of the school-approved, uniform-coloured scrunchies. And finally ends with a woman who used to compulsively write fiction for fun, but can no longer bring herself to sketch out the bones of a plot for fear of failure. *sigh*

The Gaps

There are important life skills I am struggling to learn as an adult that were barely (if at all) mentioned throughout my two decades of schooling. Household management is a big one: budgeting, intelligent consuming, balancing domestic duties, paying bills etc. I learned how to pay bills by watching my younger sister, who dropped out of school in year 10, take care of these matters in her own life, years before I had a clue what I was doing.

How to have empathetic and respectful relationships with others is another important topic school skipped. As is almost everything about parenting (aside from the basic lesson "don't get knocked up 'til after graduation"), despite the fact that parenting is the most important job any student will ever have.

The most amusing gap in my education is my lack of understanding when it comes to spelling and grammar (remember I'm a published academic!). I finally figured out the difference between an adjective, verb and noun at the age of 26. I didn't learn it from a text book. I learned it from the following t-shirt:
Honestly, The Oatmeal has done more for my grammatical skills than institutional schooling ever did! When I started uni, I discovered that high school had done very little in preparing me. I couldn't research, I couldn't write an essay, I couldn't reference and I sure as shit didn't know what should be referenced. Years later I was disheartened to learn that this was completely normal and got to see it from a totally new angle as the one doing the marking.

Social justice is a super important topic, one that the future of humanity depends upon. But issues of social justice are glossed over at best in primary and high school. If you go to uni and if you take some arts electives you may learn how to think critically and engage with these issues on a more meaningful level. Then there's also the issue of what issues of social justice make it onto the schooling menu. It still baffles me that the majority of adult women can't tell you what feminism is, and people try to claim that Australia is a classless society where racism is a distant memory *shudder*

But back to the gaps in my education. I can't drive a car (fuck, I still haven't earned my pen licence let alone a drivers licence!). Reading instruction manuals and recipes feels much like learning to read did, minus the excitement of a developing plot! My "cooking" leaves a lot to be desired. And I'm about as useful at assembling and repairing household items as Homer Simpson. But for what it's worth I can tell you, from year 9 physics that: a body at rest wants to stay at rest. And from year 12 English: The Riders is a shithouse book.

Something else I sure didn't learn in school was how to write a succinct blog post ;) I've all but given up on that dream!

What Is Success?

I question whether my journey can really be classed as a schooling success? Ultimately it comes down to your definition of success. If you believe the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for "the real world" then no, mine was not a story of success. If you believe the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for a fulfilling career, then no, mine was not a story of success.

Mine, is only a story of success if you believe that the purpose of schooling is to enable students to continue on to do further schooling. But, if like me, you believe success is:
  • Finding a way to be happy within yourself
  • Finding a balance between independence and interconnectedness and
  • Surviving the everyday realities of life
Then schooling has very little to do with success.

ETA (17/08/10): Big thanks to Majikfaerie for sharing the following image on the Liberated Learning forums. I enjoyed a relevant giggle:


Related Posts
You Can Take The Woman Out Of The Institituion, But How Much Of The Institituion Can You Take Out Of The Woman?

Making Monkeys Dance

Online Articles

Unschool Monday: Why?

Unschool Monday: How Does It Work?

Unschool Monday: How Owlets Learn

Unschool Monday: Algebra

Unschool Monday: Fun

No Thank-You, We Don't Believe in Socialization

Socialization: a great reason not to go to school

Monday, August 2, 2010

Choosing To Unschool My Children

When I first heard my friend Sarah mention she was going to homeschool I thought she was crazy. What would she want to do that for? Her kids would turn into unsocialised freaks! The funny thing was that Sarah had had a successful schooling experience and was not going to send her kids to school, but I had had a traumatic schooling experience but was still going to send my kids! Gradually the more I learned about homeschooling, or unschooling in particular, the more it all started to make sense to me.

I started reading stuff online about homeschooling, but I still thought it was something I couldn't do. I wouldn't be able to cope with my kids at home all day. Then I read a blog post by Currawong describing the start to their day. They eased into the day with no rush to get to school. She wrote about how she'd missed out on those moments for years. That one post made me go "oh!", something just clicked and I started seeing it all a bit differently.

I started thinking what sending my kids to school would mean: six hours a day, five days a week with an adult that I might not trust, who they might not get along with. I thought about rushing out the door every morning and being away from them for that long.

Then I started processing my own schooling journey and realised just how much damage it had done to me. I was worried that if I homeschooled that my children would finish up with gaps in their education. But I realised that I had gone to school and still had massive gaps in my education, so there was that excuse gone. I was also worried about homeschooling on my own.

I never wanted to do schooling at home, I knew that wouldn't suit my children and the way our family works. The idea I had had of home schooling was us sitting around a table with me being their teacher and I knew that I couldn't do that. But the more I learned about unschooling the more it seemed possible and suited to our family.

I love the idea of my kids being able to follow their own interests for as long as they want. If they're interested in numbers then they can follow that for as long as they want, the whole day or the whole week, there's no point at which the maths lesson ends. Or if they want to spend a month learning about monkeys they can. They have freedom and autonomy, two things sorely missing from my education.

I didn't want Iris to think that she couldn't learn something just because it wasn't the right time for her to learn it. I had a discussion with my Dad where he remembered the exact moment at which he stopped bothering with maths. He was learning long division in grade three at school and he couldn't understand and he remembers a wall going down in his brain. Forty years later and he hasn't bothered with a single piece of maths beyond that. After that discussion and thinking "what if he was meant to learn it a week or a month later? He might have discovered that he really enjoyed maths and kept learning it. Maybe he would've ended up being a maths teacher instead of a music teacher?" I knew I wanted them to have the chance to learn things when they're ready.

The older Iris gets, the more I realise unschooling is the right choice for her. She is very sensitive and I just don't think most schools and teachers have the times or resources to deal with a child like her. I've been that sensitive child in that school environment and it is not nice! I struggle enough with Iris, having enough patience on a daily basis, and I'm her mother who loves her. I hate to think of how she would be treated in school because the people there don't have the same feelings for her that I do.

Now that the decision is made I'm really excited about our future! Because we're not restricted by school hours or school terms, we're free to travel or spend the day wandering around a museum or digging holes in the dirt in the backyard. Whatever takes their fancy! The possibilities are endless!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Schooling & Deschooling

I was a very sensitive kid. I would cry at the drop of a hat and I was constantly ridiculed for that, from kindergarten. I remember a teacher told me to sit under a table "like a dog" because I bit another child. It never got any better.

I went to a conservative school and it was hung up on trivial stuff and controlling children's behaviour. So I spent a lot of time in detention for doing things like not eating my bread crusts, crying, wanting to swap sandwiches with my friends etc. I got the cane for calling a sports teacher "a sexist pig" when I was seven (I called him it because he kicked me out of the game). That was 1992.

Then I went to a public school where anything went. There were kids there who were full on, they swore and carried on and all sorts of behaviour I wasn't used to. I had spent so much time getting kicked out of class at my school that I hadn't spent a lot of time in class learning and so I had fallen behind. In grade four I got changed to a different classroom with a different teacher because I didn't get along with that teacher. He physically dragged me out of class one day and I was trying to break free from him and accidentally scratched him. I just wanted him to let me go.

I used to like to read books and do my own thing and this irritated the teachers. I daresay that teacher had been telling me to stop reading and do what he wanted, move to a different space in the room or something, but I kept reading my book.

While I was outside of class after that teacher dragged me out (and I accidentally scratched him) I heard him say to my class of 9 year olds "I hope she doesn't have HIV".

So once I was switched to the other class I pretty much stopped participating. I wasn't coping so I gave up. I brought books to school and I read them quietly, not doing what the rest of class was doing.

When I started high school I ended up at a school that none of my friends went to. I felt like the teachers were picking on me, my science teacher haaated me. She used to threaten me and tell me she would get me kicked out of school. My home room teacher said to me one day "you think you're so fantastic, but you're not" and that was supposed to be the caring one I was meant to be able to go to if I was having problems transitioning into high school.

The other girls in my class started bullying me around that time. They called me "tag along" coz I didn't have any friends. I used to hide in the library and read books, but it was closed to students three days a week so the VCE students could use it without younger kids there.

I had an altercation with my science teacher and the next day I woke up the next day and thought "fuck it, I'm not going". I could see six years of bad schooling behind me and I could see another six or seven years ahead of me and I didn't feel like I could take it anymore. I didn't feel like I had anybody on my side. I said to my Dad "you can't make me go."

Dad got angry and yelled and tried to convince me to go back. Everyone seemed to think it was a phase, that eventually I'd go back to school. No one from school ever chased me up or asked what happened to me. I never went back to high school.

I used to sit at home and read books and watch TV. At one point Dad thought I had dropped out to watch Oprah and the midday show so he took the TV away, thinking it would make me go back to school. It just made me bored. He looked into alternatives for me, schools for kids with behavioural issues, distance education subjects, but it didn't really work. There were no programs or anything to help 12 year old drop outs.

Dad used to threaten me, asking if I wanted to spend my life on a minimum wage. But I was really traumatised by school, enough to not go back.

I taught myself cross stitch and other craftwork. Now when I look back, with the knowledge I have now I can see that I was unschooling myself but it was sabotaged by other people who couldn't see that. I was constantly being told I was a failure because I wasn't at school, because they believed I couldn't learn anything if I wasn't in a classroom.

We had a social worker come to the house and she worked on getting me less fearful and getting me out of the house. She found me a community house that had an education program for adults with learning difficulties.The community house program was meant to be a gentle way to ease back into institutional education. I really enjoyed it because there were only six of us in the room and they were all adults who had chosen to be there. But my teacher told me that she could see that whenever I thought I had got something wrong she could see that I was waiting to be told off. She said she could actually see me "cowering".

When I look back now I think what a pity it was that I wasn't encouraged to follow my own interests while I wasn't in school. All I got from everyone was "if you're not in school you can't learn anything, what are you going to do with the rest of a life, you won't be able to get a job" etc. All of the things I was doing at home to keep myself busy like teaching myself to sew and cross stitch didn't really develop because I was made to feel guilty for doing them because I wasn't doing "traditional" schoolwork.

I'm still interested in the same things I was back then: handcrafts etc. But it's only now (at 25) that I'm getting up the courage to teach myself, after feeling guilty for years and years for "not studying". If I had have been encouraged I'd be an advanced sewer etc. and what a great skill that would be!

To this day the idea of doing "traditional" schoolwork still makes me feel sick to my stomach. It causes me massive anxiety (this is one of the reasons I haven't written blog posts regularly). There are things I've wanted to study but I haven't pursued them because I've been too scared of returning to study, even after thirteen years of being out of the schooling system. I'm still deprograming and deschooling my brain.

Coming to the decision to unschool my girls has helped me realise that there was never anything wrong with me. I'm finally starting to let it go and get the guts to follow my interests and finally looking at studying again.