Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Keeping a record of what they learn

When my teens were younger, our family produced a weekly radio program called Radio Free School. It was a weekly show by, for an about home based learning. It ran from 2002 to 2008 from out of our local campus radio station (CFMU 93.3 FM McMaster). It was carried internationally by other campus radio stations. You can still hear it if you'd like over at the archives at Radio4all.net and search Radio Free School.

Many of you know that the book Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education is a collection of essays derived largely from that part of the show were we interviewed advocates of unschooling and home based education. But the greater focus of the show was around topics that the children came up with. We would ask the kids, "What do we want to have on our show for next week?"  It was up to them to come up with suggestions. Astronomy. Belly dancing. Poo. Bugs. Parks. Mathematics. We would then go out to the community and find people to interview who were involved in the interests we were exploring.

With our help, our children would prepare questions to ask. We would then speak to the interviewee and get a first hand glimpse of what sort of work they were doing. What is it really like to be a conductor? Or an organic farmer? Or a midwife? Or a novelist?
We would also do book and movie reviews.
Now, I listen to their voices on these shows and it is moving beyond words to hear them as they were then. And although we never intended this as a way to record what our unschooled babes were learning, in hind sight, what a great way to document a living, breathing autonomous education in action!
Reflecting on that show today, it was a life shaping initiative for all of us and one of the most significant part of our unschooling journey.

When it comes to keeping a record in order to show yourself or someone else what your kids are learning it’s something I’d recommend because doing so can make you feel more secure about the process. It also helps you realize how learning is indeed happening all the time—even when we don’t think it is. Even if it’s the case where nothing seems to be happening one week, or even one month, over the period of a year, your notes will reveal that learning was happening—you just didn’t have a minute by minute hour by hour, day by day account. And why should you have? That is not a natural way to learn. All that day to day is the fodder for that time when a ‘big’ event happens, that can be pointed at no one can dispute, ‘learning has happened.’
Since I am a writer, I'd blog (still do). I also kept and continue to keep journals and those are full of the voices of my children and their thoughts.
I am a big one for collecting their drawings, taking photos of the dress ups they would play in, music they would compose, stories they wrote. When they were little, I also collected together their work on learning math in all sorts of intriguing art work and stories and games they game up with.

Kids take note:
My kids also enjoyed journaling time to time. They would sometimes get notebooks and write what happened in their day. They would find images of things they liked/were interested in (from magazines) and stick them into scrapbooks. Anything from dolphins, to diamonds to ice-cream to treasure maps. Even when they didn't know how to write, they would tell the story or what they did, and I would write it down for them.
One daughter filled notepad after notepad of stories and illustrations based off Harry Potter.

Another practical reasons to record your unschooling journey 
Many families record for school transcript purposes should you child want to go to highschool. I brought samples of one of my daughter’s writing (short stories, contests she won, involvement and commitment to dog fostering etc), the zine she produced as a child, documentation of the dogs she fostered etc).

Over the year, when you look at the materials made, discovered, invented, the places you’ve visited, the films you’ve seen, the books you’ve read, the conversations you’ve had, the people you’ve met, you will impress yourself. I guarantee it.

What about you? How do you record unschooling?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How does this work? And then..?

My nephew explains to me how his solar powered toy helicopter works: "When the sun shines bright, the energy goes into the battery," he shows me. "And that goes through the wires into the propellors and they start turning..."
He describes to me an "invention" he is working on--it has to do with collecting rain water for a shower.
On the trampoline outside, while we enjoy the physicality of bouncing up and down for the sheer fun of it, my nephew points out to me that when we jump down, the springs of the trampoline are stretched and pulled down and when we jump up, they are released.
This kid turned 4 last month.

Science and how things work are his current interests, evident since he was a mere 2 year old.
While I couldn't care less how things work as long as they are working,  for him, it is an actually need to know: "How does it work?" "And then?" He always wants to know what more.
I gave him a book that my own kids had no interest in when they were younger. It's that great scary book by David Macaulay, The Way Things Work.  Advanced as it is, he loves it and requests bed time stories from it.
"I'm a builder," he pronounces.

My sister says she has to look up things all the time in order to answer his many questions.
Then there's his baby sister. She wants to see what he is doing. She wants to do what he is doing. At just 9 months, she is already walking which means trouble for the parents.  At the piano, she shoves my hand off the keys: SHE wants to play. She listens attentively to the sounds she is making, she grins at me. I try to play a note or two, she pushes my hand off again: "I'm doing this," her gesture suggests.

Another niece who is nearly 7 is obsessed with animals-reptiles in particular. She knows the latest on all types and she watches Youtube to learn more. She is also obsessed with rainbow loom and makes all sorts of intricate jewellery and even animal figures--the patterning and math involved is astounding. Her baby brother loves to dance and loves all things that fly—especially hot air balloons.

When given freedom to learn, children's interests become evident. It is simply a matter of watching, listening and exposing them to the myriad opportunities out there. Children with freedom to learn are unstoppable.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cheap Unschooling

Time after time, I hear people saying that they can't afford to unschool. The concern is that it's too expensive to pay for lessons (that at public school are often free). Supplies are too expensive, going to fun places is prohibitive.
I understand. Expenses can seem insurmontable. The thing is, if you think that way, you are getting ahead of yourself. You are also setting yourself up for failure.
What's needed is a change in mindset. In this post, I am offering ways to think about unschooling and its innate opportunities--that make unschooling a great choice, even when you don't have a lot of money. I for one, didn't when we were unschooling our three kids. We had one income--and even that was very modest. So let's look at unschooling in a new light.

Time is money
Time is a very precious commodity. What unschooling means, more than anything else, is having more of it. When you are unschooling your family you are offering them an opportunity to marinate in curiosities and adventures and quests. If they like to read, or watch films, or go on hikes (binoculars are affordable if you know where to look) and study natural history, or local history etc they have that time to go as far as they want to.

Volunteer. Volunteer. Volunteer.
There are no ends to volunteer opportunities in your community.
Not-for-profits like environmental groups, theatre groups, art galleries and museums are always seeking people to help (older kids especially). Soup kitchens, community gardens, markets could use a hand. Civic engagement is always welcome by local groups who want to see improvement in government. Get involved in community planning.

Use the community resources. Explore your community.
When my middle was around 9 she wanted to join a violin orchestra. We were able to get her into the local school strings program even though she was unschooled. All three girls took a foreign language (Mandarin) through the free language programs at the school (for kids who wanted to learn their heritage language. We were able to attend even though we aren't Chinese).
My oldest joined a homeschool choir at very little cost.
The library offers all sorts of courses. We used to do Mad Science courses at the library before we'd sign out materials (for free).
Our community centre offers swimming, cooking, piano and soccer lessons. Skating is free. Sewing and craft courses are available at most local community centres.
Our local university has very affordable dance classes taught by university students. Rock climbing as well for a very affordable price. There are free lunch hour concerts a the local college and university. Plays and performances are often cheap for youth. Public Lectures are in abundance.
We have a canoe and make use of it, especially when the kids were smaller. It would be an easy 'day out.' We use the bike trails or go down to the harbour for an outing while stopping for an ice-cream.
Learn your local history and connect it to the wider global histories. Also, museums are often free at some point during the week.

The internet
The internet is a readily accessible kingdom of knowledge. Research all sorts of free curriculum (Khan Academy, MIT courses for the older kids). There are countless offerings for 'Do it Yourself' (DIY) to make things with very affordable materials. Kids can learn how to build forts out of branches, cardboard furniture, clay, found materials. Knitting and crochet is all the rage and you can even learn these on line.

Basically--there is no excuse in a world of plenty to claim that unschooling is too expensive.
If you child really wants something expensive, you will find a way to get it. I got a piano for free by posting in my local paper (I put an ad saying I could afford $300) and someone offered it to me for free.
Sometimes it means waiting--which is not a bad thing since the kid learns that they can't get everything they want right away. Sometimes it means saving up for something. Sometimes it means asking grandparents and family to give $$ instead of useless plastic toys.
If it is really that important, like a dream trip, it might mean taking a loan (proceed with caution). What I'm saying is that where there is a will there is a way--in time.

As the kids get older, they can start earning for what they want (one daughter (16) teaches violin and with the money she earns, she can pay for the fashionable clothes she loves to wear etc. She is also saving up for a higher-end violin).

More cheap fun ideas:
Badminton. Ping pong. Thrift shopping. Tobogganing is free, and ice skating and road hockey is cheap etc.
So take heart. Courage. It can be done for very, very little.
I welcome your thoughts/advice. Let's keep the conversation alive.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I think I want to unschool. Where do I begin?

Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Ivan Illich.

"I think I want to unschool. Where do I begin? What do I do?"
What do you do? That's easy. Pick up my new book. Joking. Not. But really, the first thing to do after the shivers of excitement have run their course and you're now filled with trepidation and self-doubt is --not do. Anything drastic, that is. But do remember to breathe. In. Out. Calm. Go for a walk. Take a long bath. Breathe some more. Go look out the window. Go outside.

The Weekend Attitude
To help you think about unschooling,  take a regular weekend at home. How does it look like? What do you do with the kids? Do you wake up a little later? Do you read before having breakfast, go on youtube? Do the kids then pull out the rainbow loom, or do they get ready to go swimming, or visit family and friends, or go to chess club or soccer, or science club?

You check your 'local events' sources. What's going down at the market? Baking for kids? What about the museum? Half price tickets for the piano concert this afternoon? Or are we all going to just hang out at home in pajamas, cook an elaborate meal, clean up, get more work done?
It's what we do when we unschool. It's all good.

Unschooling older kids and teens
Many parents say that if you're starting out with older kids or teens who have been in the school system, there needs to be time to deschool (both yourself and the youth). It's like a detox. This period can last for months and months--even a year or two it seems.
The advice I'm picking up is that it takes a while to rid oneself of school mentality. It takes time to reconnect with oneself, before one can discover what one is interested in and passionate about.
Some youth already know what they want to pursue and so they go for it without hesitation.
Grace Llewellyn's classic Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education is must. Another hand book is the recent Stay Solid!: A Radical Handbook for Youth
Other helpful links on deschooling include my own posts with Ivan Illich .
Living Joyfully with Unschooling has a tonne of practical advice and Life Learning Magazine rocks it.

So new unschoolers need to be gentle and patient with themselves.
Put aside unrealistic expectations. Give yourself time.

Now do:
Read about the philosophy of unschooling. Learn about how it's done and then gain confidence in the method by hearing from those who have grown up unschooled (oh! How convenient! Natural Born Learners has it all in one place!!).

While you are educating yourself, deschooling and expanding your understanding and knowledge about unschooling, your offspring will be getting into sewing and drawing and computer games and music composition and chemistry experiments, singing, sports, dancing, building and destroying and hiking and biking and on and on...
You will be doing your thing--as you keep an eye on their progress. You will be planting your garden, researching along side your children, earning money, cooking with the kids, painting, fixing things by yourself.....

Relationships, friendships
You build these. You seek them out--join groups (common interest groups like eco-groups, soccer team, homeschool group), meet neighbours, start your own group.

What do other unschoolers say about starting out with unschooling?
I'd love to hear your comments so send on!
Also, if you are about to embark on the journey, what sort of questions do you have? What are you worried about?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

They're Giving it Away: Natural Born Learners (3 copies available).

Over at  Unschooling.com, a chapter of Homeschooling Education Magazine, they are offering the Natural Born Learners reader. Here's what they say about it:
Just recently published, Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education, edited by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko and Carlo Ricci, is a fabulous compilation of insight and wisdom from many involved in unschooling over the last decades.

Head over to the site and enter the competition to win your complimentary book!
Go. Do. It. He says so!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Remembering Lee Hoinacki: Friend and Collaborator to Ivan Illich.

I was saddened to hear that Lee Hoinacki had passed away on February 27th, 2014. For those who don't know, Lee was a former Dominican priest, author, professor of political science, and subsistence farmer. In 1960, he met Ivan Illich in Puerto Rico and became his close friend and collaborator. Influenced by Illich he raised his children unschooled.

I would like to honour his memory by sharing the podcast with you that we did at Radio Free School a decade ago.
It was called Remembering Ivan Illich: Lee Hoinacki on his life and work. Now let's remember Lee Hoinacki.
I want to include a little part of the excerpt here because, Hoinacki had an interesting perspective on unschooling. Read on.

How about yourself, I read that you started homesteading. Do you want to talk about that experience too?
I wrote a book on the subject. I thought, well Illich was talking about subsistence. He said the modern world was produced by the war against subsistence. That’s what he said, the whole point of modernity. And I said well, if that’s true would it be possible to live, that is to the extent that one could do it today, in a subsistence mode? Would it be possible to do that comfortably?  So my wife and I built this house ourselves.
Well, the first thing I think you have to decide is, if you want to live outside this economy is to get rid of electricity and phones. So we got rid of these things and then I found that one could live comfortably. One could live in beauty. Because people who saw our house said it was one of the most beautiful things they had ever seen.  One could do that and could survive.

I thought that I lived very well. I was selling my excess produce at the local farmers market and from that I could live. I was tied in to the larger economy because I’d have a pickup truck to get the produce to the farmers market and so on. So again, you don’t turn you r back on the question of the modern world but you try to live in it. And I wanted to try and see if we could do it enjoyably.
So we took our kids out of school and they sort of grew up sort of wildly there- on the farm.  It was a question of no school of any sort. It was kind of a totalitarian thing because they had no choice- they had to just do it because we did it.

I think that the point is that children growing up have to see what goes with what; that if you want water, it has to come from some place. The kids saw as we were working out ways to get water into the house--water to drink and for irrigation--and they saw that if you want to get rid of waste matter, or garbage how do you get rid of it? You don’t just flush toilets. We had no flush toilet. We had a composting toilet so they had to learn what went with what.
When we moved there, we were living in a tent, and we started building a house. We knew we had to get it finished by the winter because the winters there were cold. So we got enough finished to move in the winter.  So there was a roof over our head. Children growing up--what’s important is for them to know the connections; to know what is connected with now.
I see here, where I am living in Philadelphia, that people will turn on the hot water for example and just let it run.  Well you can’t do that. That’s a sin against the water and everything else. Or people who throw away garbage, or throw away food they are not eating. Well you can’t do that. The kids saw all that and I think they learnt from all that.

If I were to do it over again, I would do the same thing.  I would even be more lenient--less directive in terms of what they could or could not do.  I think John Holt is correct on that, he’s right.  I hadn’t read Holt at the time--that you let kids grow up like reeds, and they’ll grow up all right.

But the reason I would not encourage people to do this is that it was difficult.  We were out so far in the boondocks by ourselves, surrounded by a national forest. And so the little piece of land that we had in the forest, the kids could run all day in the forest, well, this is not what you can do in a city.  My wife and I had planned all this ahead of time; what we were going to do, where we were going to do it and that kind of thing. And so although we were serious--again it’s something that Illich would say--it isn’t something that has to be imitated or copied by other people. More like, there’s something that’s been done and perhaps I can do what I’m able to do, within my limits and my conditions and my situation. But I see this kind of exemplar in front of me.

For example, when I first went there, I had read Scott Nearing and I don’t think that one can imitate Nearing, but one could take that as a kind of exemplar of an ideal that one would hold before himself.

How did the children manage? How did they turn out?
Well, it’s funny. Our daughter is now 35 and she says, "I now understand what you were trying to do and I’m really grateful we grew up that way and I see the importance of it." And  she’s on a farm in Oregon. But she also picked up a PhD.  She’s a funny kind of person. The two kids are very different. Ben, our son, he refused all schooling of any kind.  In high school at the time of the divorce, he refused to do anything. We put them in high school because we couldn’t reproduce what we were doing there (because we were separated) and so my wife understood that. So she put Ben in a school that would be easy on people, no requirements. He took basket weaving type courses and things like that. I don’t know how he got a diploma and graduated from that place. But then he would have nothing to do with schooling from that day on after he finished that, to this day. But he gets along very well. They are very different, but they are also very much alike.

Illich? It’s very hard to say his influence because I met him in 1960 and I've live with  him for many, many years and my wife said, "What are you going to do when this guy dies because your whole life has been centered around him?"  I said well, I don’t know.  I get along very well. That is, I think I do. I’m glad that he’s dead because being close to him you see how he suffered so much, he was in pain.

I think that this new book that I've just finished every chapter is influenced by Illich in some way.  Right now, I’m doing various things. I’m working on projects to make his thought known which I think is not known as widely as I think it should be. The book is just one step in that process. And I give talks to try to articulate what he thought and what he stood for, and to make these ideas and his life better known.

I think that Illich’s books are important and as he said himself, you don’t read these books as you would a newspaper. I worked with him on a number of these books, some people would say trying to make them more intelligible but they are his ideas and they require some work to understand what he is all about.
I would say Gender, which I think is the most important book he ever wrote, is not reviewed. There is one review, an important review, but other than that it’s never mentioned in any bibliography and nobody reads it and no one know it. But it’s a theory of economics which if one were to take it seriously, would have to reinterpret what is called a social history of Europe.  And I think it’s powerful enough that it requires that kind of rethinking of what is called a social history of Europe.

His book on Tools for Conviviality is a theory on technology and no one has ever come near those 5 dimensions that Illich talks about there. The only thing they talk about in technology is the first dimension which Illich dismisses almost immediately. He says unless you have all five of these dimensions, unless you look at all of them, forget about it. Bits and pieces of people are saying all kinds of important things and saying all kinds of good things here and there, but I would just argue that I think Illich too, was saying something that could perhaps be taken into account.

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