How Unschooling Saved Us (Sort of)

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world's tallest building while still in pajamas.

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world’s tallest building while still in pajamas.


Unschooling (n):

a home-school education with the child taking primary responsibility instead of a parent or teacher; also called “child-directed learning” or “self-learning.”    –from  (The word doesn’t yet appear in Merriam-Webster)

Good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone. –John Taylor Gatto

 Living is learning, and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot, even if we don’t always know what it is.  –John Holt


Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of the word “unschooling.”  My son “Jack,” then four, was slogging disconsolately through pre-K, gamely sounding out letters with his classmates though he could already read chapter books on his own.  I was researching local kindergartens in hopes that next year would be better.

We knew finding the right school would be tough.  They’d have to be flexible and understanding, able to accommodate a kid with off-the-charts reading ability and a passion for certain subjects—astronomy, geography—who struggled to keep his hands to himself and melted down when he didn’t know the right answer.

Public school, with its crowds, slashed budgets, and tendency to keep kids in lockstep, was probably out.  But there had to be a school somewhere that would be a good fit for him.  Right?

We’d been told by an expert in giftedness that homeschooling would be Jack’s best bet, but I wasn’t ready.  I wasn’t going to go there unless we had run out of options.

Besides, my husband and I are, as he puts it, “school people.”  We first met in the teachers’ lounge of a public high school, for God’s sake. (He taught Spanish and social studies and I taught English.) Now he’s a high school principal, and I lead creative writing workshops for adults, but our shared love of schools remains.

We found an alternative private school for Jack that seemed to get it.  When we explained our dilemma to them, they nodded sagely.  “We get lots of kids like him,” they said.  “Don’t worry.”  (Yeah, right.)

It only took a few months of kindergarten to realize it was a disaster.  Jack was anxious, lonely, and angry.  His innate love of learning was fading.  His joyful demeanor had given way to a wan exhaustion.  All he wanted to do was watch the movie Cars over and over—a bad sign for a kid who used to soak up adult-level astronomy DVDs.  In January, we pulled him out without a plan, simply because we couldn’t take it anymore.

And so began our great adventure.  Taking the advice of many in the gifted homeschooling community (thank you, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum), we spent the first few months “de-schooling.”  That meant avoiding any sort of instruction and letting a weary and skeptical kid decompress, play, and relax his way back into learning.

All that letting it be made sense in theory, but it wasn’t natural for me.  A teacher by temperament as well as training, I have a perennial itch to direct things, and as weeks went on with nothing really quantifiable happening, I couldn’t help but feel anxious.

Then one day, we were eating lunch and Jack was waving his fork in the sunlit air beside him.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Trying to cut dust particles in half,” he answered.  “If I cut them,” he went on, “will they break up into cells or atoms?”

Free of the confines of school, his curiosity was coming back, and it kept on coming.  He wanted to know about weather, and the Periodic Table, and his old loves, geography and astronomy.  He invented his own carnival games, acted out long imaginary stories with his toy cars, and listened to the Hallelujah Chorus over and over again.  Between playdates and park days, he taught himself Power Point and Comic Life on the computer.  Most of all, he seemed happy again.

At some point, I told myself, we’d start doing “real” homeschooling. I imagined this would happen mostly at the kitchen table and would involve paper and pencils and me teaching him the “important” stuff.  We’d have a schedule and a plan.

But any time I tried to take charge or push an agenda, it backfired.  Jack would melt down, or instantly develop an aversion to whatever it was I was trying to teach, even if it had originated in an interest of his own.  He needed, for a whole host of reasons, the freedom to learn what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted, and for as long as he wanted.

And I needed to get out of his way.

That’s how, in our house, de-schooling became unschooling.  Simply put, it was, and is, what works best for our kid.  It’s thrilling to watch him “go deep”—delving into American presidents or skyscrapers to the exclusion of all else—while also having plenty of time and space to play and be a kid. (It’s trickier when he wants to dive into subjects that we’re less comfortable with, like Minecraft.  But that’s another blog post entirely.)

There are a few caveats here.  Unlike some, we’re kind of old school about things like bedtime and teeth brushing and limits on screen time.  And for all the faults of the public education system, I refuse to bash schools and what for me has been the joy of the classroom.  What’s more, I see a real value, over time, in knowing how to buckle down and learn something that’s not one’s first choice. We’ll have to figure out that one before too long.

But I’ve also come to believe in the wisdom of unschooling, and the way it allows kids to bloom.  For asynchronous kids like mine, it can be nothing short of a miracle.

Wendy Priesnitz of Life Learning magazine writes:

Children don’t need to be taught how to learn; they are born learners. … And if they are given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally—in the manner and at the speed that suits them best.

 unschoolingbloghopWant to read more about unschooling?

I Love You Eleanor: Kids’ Books for Women’s History Month, Part 1

From "Eleanor, Quiet No More: The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Gary Kelley. Disney/Hyperion, New York, c. 2009.

From Eleanor, Quiet No More: The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt, Disney/ Hyperion, New York, c. 2009.

My husband threw down the F-word the other day, right in front of our six-year-old son.

Jack and I had just gotten back from the library, and we were sitting at the table reading together.  My husband walked in and caught a glimpse of what we were up to.

That’s when he let it fly.

“There you go again,” he said. “Pushing your feminist agenda.”

“Damn straight,” I said, and he and I both laughed.

Yep, that F-bomb.

Now, just in case anyone’s unclear here, my husband is a big fan of strong women.  (He would say, “I married you, didn’t I?’) And if I have any say in the matter, I hope to inculcate the same excellent quality in Jack. Hence the books that have been coming home with us from the library these days.

It’s one of the things I like best about homeschooling: the freedom to include, and even privilege, certain kinds of books, certain points of view.  Like the point of view that women have had an important role in history.  Radical, right?  I know!

This is not to say Jack is always on board for whatever I might like to expose him to.  I’ve learned the hard way not to try and push him to learn things he has no interest in.  (Yes, I AM aware I just ended two sentences in a row with prepositions.  There’s another one in an earlier paragraph, too.  Deal with it.)

Luckily for me and my “feminist agenda,” Jack loves history, AND he loves women.  (In fact, he’s had a kind of swoony eye for the ladies since he was a baby. I’m not kidding, he used to say “Hi” in this rapt, flirty way to pretty young women when he was a year old—but that’s kind of a separate issue.)

Jack will happily tell you about women’s suffrage, and he seems genuinely excited about the likelihood of woman President in the near future.

That’s my boy!

I’ve got to give a lot of credit for his forward thinking to some excellent picture books we’ve read.  (Thank you, public library!)  And since March is Women’s History Month, I’ve decided to honor a few of our favorites here.

Today’s pick:

Eleanor, Quiet No More: The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt, by Doreen Rappaport.  Illustrated by Gary Kelley.  Disney/Hyperion, New York, c. 2009.

Filled with beautifully painted illustrations and moving text, this biography follows Eleanor from her lonely childhood to her adulthood as First Lady and a political pioneer who cared deeply about inequality and ordinary people’s suffering.

I’ll admit it.  I fell in love with Eleanor reading this book. (I also, um, got something in my eye as I was reading.)  Here’s just one of the many reasons why:

From “Eleanor, Quiet No More: The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Disney/ Hyperion, New York, c. 2009.

From “Eleanor, Quiet No More: The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” c. 2009.

She resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to let Marian Anderson sing in their auditorium.  Then she organized a concert for the great black contralto at the Lincoln Memorial, which was attended by 75,000.

This was in 1939, people.

Eleanor urged women to get into politics—and stay in.  She met with coal miners and sharecroppers during the Depression.  She visited the bedsides of countless injured soldiers during World War II.  She spoke out against Japanese internment and anti-Semitism when it unpopular to do so.

She had more than her share of struggles—her mother thought she was ugly, her parents died when she was ten, her mother-in-law was oppressive, and her critics dismissed her as a “do-gooder”—but she was guided by an intense will, deep compassion, and the strength to stand up for what she believed in.

Here are just a few of her quotes:

“Do something every day that scares you.”

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

“I have never felt that anything really mattered but knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty much exactly what I’d want any child—son or daughter—to learn.

Happy Women’s History Month, everybody!

Next up in the series:  Maggie Gee, female Chinese-American pilot in World War II!