We discovered unschooling while researching homeschooling methods. Our kids were attending public school but we were frustrated by various aspects of being a part of that system. We were truly focused on our daughter, who was in third grade at the time. Our son seemed to be doing fine in school. So fine, in fact, that at first we were only going to homeschool Kimi, leaving Shaun to complete his second year of a multi-age group classroom. Attending the Live & Learn Unschooling Conference in Peabody that summer changed our minds and we removed Shaun from public school, too.
It was nearly a year later that Shaun began to tell us about some of his experiences while in school. He sometimes felt completely overwhelmed in the classroom. He would see the perfect penmanship letters posted on the walls around the room and worry because he wasn’t able to write them as perfectly. He would be given writing assignments and couldn’t get his thoughts down on paper as fast as they bubbled up inside his head, so he thought there was something wrong with him. Sometimes, he cried, but he would hide it from everyone. If asked if he was okay he would reply that he was just tired. We had no idea that he had placed unrealistic expectations of perfection upon himself and that he was quietly crushing his own spirit.
We joined a homeschool co-op, which had many interesting study groups and activities. I always let my pick and choose for themselves, including the option to not go to anything, and sometimes Shaun chose not to go to anything. I wanted him to participate in groups because he was getting something out of the experience, not just because I thought he would benefit from it. For, as I’ve written so many times before, if anyone is not engaged in the thing they are doing, they are not going to learn anything new from it. Retained learning comes from intrinsic motivation to pay attention to the experience. So Shaun joined LEGO Mindstorms, and an ecology group that included composting with worms, and a math/logic games group, and a geography games group (yes, the gaming groups were mine). Groups he ignored – anything with writing.
One semester, one of the moms led a group called “Create A World”, a huge project that had the kids each creating his or her own new “world”. Each week the discussed aspects of what makes a world, such is the climates, the transportation infrastructures, the foods, the industries, etc. Shaun loved this class. One of the wonderful things that the mom did was to help write things down for Shaun when he had a lot to write. He had no problem labeling things on drawings, but if he had to write many sentences he, again, would feel frustrated that his mind speed and his hand speed didn’t synch up. So the mom, with no fuss, would write it down for him, helping him write without writing.
The following semester this same mom led a “Creative Writing” group. Shaun signed up. I spoke with him about it, making sure he understood that this was going to be different from Create A World – this was going to be writing, a lot! He understood and went to his group. After a couple of weeks Shaun showed me some of his writing. The stories were cute – mostly pulled from his life experience with his family. One thing stood out – it wasn’t literally written by him – it was a grown up’s penmanship. The mom was taking dictation from Shaun and any of the other kids who wanted help. She was making the group about getting their stories out, not about putting pencil to paper. How the story got recorded was so less important than getting their stories recorded. What an amazing thing! I am so grateful to her and her approach to creative writing with children. She helped Shaun find the confidence to be creative and to tell his stories. I seriously doubt this would have happened if he remained in public school.
Shaun needed the time and the support to find his own way of being creative, of telling his stories, without the pressure or constraints that exist within a standard classroom setting. If I had made him practice writing, or spelling, or grammar I believe he would have been driven further away from story writing. Unfortunately, in public schools, when children are assessed as having academic weaknesses, those “weaknesses” become the things they are made to spend more time and effort upon, so as to bring them up to their peers’ level, sometimes by taking time away from the things they are good at and enjoy doing. From an academic standpoint of meeting standards, I suppose this makes sense, but from a humanistic standpoint it’s awful. The attempt to create “well-rounded” people ends up meaning that school systems can, and often do, limit kids’ opportunities to engage in things they enjoy and demonstrate strong aptitudes because they want the kids to develop skills in things that they do not enjoy or struggle to do. As an adult, I choose to spend my time doing things I like and that I am good at. Yes, I still challenge myself to learn new things – but I get to choose what those things are, and I get to choose when the thing is no longer worth my time or effort. Somehow kids do not get this same right. We think we are helping them broaden their world by making them do new or difficult things when in fact we are limiting it and possibly frustrating them to the point that when they finally can choose, they will choose to never, ever do those things again.
So, why am I writing this story now? Because my son, who hated to write, is now writing his own story. Last night, after much secretive hinting, self-published the first draft of the first entry of his story Chronicles of Alaria . Which means, not only is he writing, but he is willing to share it “rough” for feedback from others. That’s a very brave thing to do no matter what your creation is – because opening up something you have made to judgement can leave you feeling quite vulnerable. Yet he is willing to do it. My son, the boy who refused to write, is now a writer.