From King Arthur Flour to the ‘Flower of our Chivalry’

Contributed by Jennie Marable

I am a creature of habit, and I have been risk-averse for as long as I can remember. I like the same things the same way, at the same time. I have never been a daredevil–even as a child I was cautious and unwilling to attempt new things. I like rules, and I like following them, and I’m easily upset when other people flout them, even in small ways. So when I read David Guterson’s “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense,” I was surprised that it did, indeed, make a tremendous amount of sense to me. The idea that you could say ‘no thanks!’ to the monolith that is American public education, that you could opt out of a system that we all (or so I thought) agreed was, for all its faults, utilitarian, and, furthermore, inevitable–birth, death, and in between you go to school–was totally outrageous. That was some serious rule-breaking. And it made sense. And it scared the hell out of me.

So, I decided to try it. My homeschool epiphany occurred when my twins had just passed their second birthday, and that year was alternately exciting and dull, because on the one hand I had decided to take this unknown route to an uncertain destination–Whoopee!!, and on the other hand, not much happened. We simply moved through our days just like we had before I decided to start my education revolution: a lot of walking, a lot of talking (mostly me, the twins hadn’t really gotten started yet), a lot of reading, a lot of looking. I was ready for the next two years to pass, and quickly, so I could start ordering curriculum and setting up my classroom space, and drawing up schedules from pre-k til graduation day. As a transplant to a new coast, I had survived the early, dark days of the twins’ infancy, without family or friends to assist me, by virtue of ruthless scheduling–every minute of our every day was planned. I knew that I would approach homeschooling with the same devotion to the clock, to a plan, and to clear goals with measurable outcomes. We might be breaking all the rules in not ‘going’ to school, but I was going to bring school to us, just as I had experienced it.

All that year, I had a giant pile of library books–anything and everything related to the subject of homeschooling–stacked next to my bed. One day, I randomly opened a book and began reading about the philosophy of unschooling. And I rolled my eyes and skipped right to the chapter about creating attractive filing systems for storing school work.

Time passed, and I was antsy to ‘start’ school. I researched pre-school curriculums and counted the days til the twins’ fourth birthday when they would officially become ‘students.’ They started talking, and never stopped until they were asleep. I was so mentally exhausted at the end of each day from questions and statements in stereo that I began to question my ability to be home with them all day every day indefinitely–to be THE question answerer. One rainy afternoon, we were baking cookies and my son pointed to the bag of flour and said “what is that guy?” And that is how we (unwittingly) became (gasp!) unschoolers. The CRAZIES.

That bag of flour:

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Led us to this record:

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Which led us to this book:

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Which led us to another record:

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At which point Daddy proposed a movie night:

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And on to another book:

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And another, and another, and another, and so on.

That bag of flour led my three year olds to some pretty choice vocabulary words; to a more concrete concept of time: past, present, and future; to the ability to identify and distinguish between other cities and countries, and more importantly, a desire to travel far and wide; to a love of magic, and theatre, and song; to be able to operate simple machines; to a grasp of politics and power and the evil and good present in both; and to the idea of human rights, among other big and little ideas.

I did not see it right away, because it was not planned, it did not follow a timeline, and I didn’t ‘do’ anything to begin the process, but we were unschooling. Apparently, we always had been.

So here we are. Where are we? For now, I’m on the fence. I’m calling us someschoolers.

Despite witnessing  first-hand the explosion of knowledge that occurred when I simply got out of the way and let them pursue their interests, I don’t know if I have the courage to completely let go and trust their passions to guide their educations. Furthermore, I feel very lonely because realizing that I might be an unschooler has made me realize that I don’t seem to fit the profile of what– despite the trumpeting of ‘anything goes’ in the movement–an unschooler is supposed to be. In my late-night trawls through the internet, endless reading, and lurking at the edges of unschooling groups, I have yet to come across another mascara-loving, Elle Decor-reading, you-say-spirited-I say-bratty, detached parenting,Type-A kind of lady (call me if you’re reading this!). I feel like a bit of a fraud, actually, and worry that I might be breaking the unrules, or whatever, because I make my kids eat vegetables and maintain a strict bedtime, and in doing so am impeding their intellectual growth–at least that’s what I’ve read. But I also find that as I’ve begun to consciously unschool my babies, I am unschooling myself too, shedding years of rules and regulations and anxiety about those rules and regulations. Including the new-to-me rules about unschooling. And every time Arthur and Guinevere sing a duet at the breakfast table, and every time I hear them making profoundly sophisticated connections, like applying the axiom, “might does not make right,” which they learned from a Disney cartoon, to the concept of segregation, which we started talking about because our books about King Arthur had led to reading about the Magna Carta, which in turn opened a discussion of what rights for all actually meant in different historical periods, I take another step back from the clock, from the grade book, from the belief that there are right and wrong ways to learn–right and wrong things to learn. I back away (slowly, slowly) from the idea that I have any control at all over the directions their minds and hearts will go in the years to come. Because really, all I did was buy a bag of flour and amazing things happened. Whatever will be next? In the words of my favorite literary rule-abider, “What a lark! What a plunge!”

Unknowingly Unschooling
Unknowingly Unschooling
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13 comments

  1. Fantastic, Jennie! Thanks for sharing this. I had my own journey in the direction of unschooling, and it was a really wonderful unraveling to realize there doesn’t have to be a box around “learning” for it to happen. I almost cringe at certain words now, like teaching and schooling–I tend to think of my job as more of a facilitator, stuffing my kids lives full of possibilities to explore and doors to open, then being there to support the unfolding. And contrary to some folks idea of unschooling, sometimes limits are an important part of that support.

    • Thanks, Jana. I love the notion of being a facilitator, and of stuffing:) This process has made the world big and new for me and my husband all over again–so unexpected and so fun.

    • Wendy–I think we met at the rainy day zoo meet:) Thanks for reading and I hope we see you around–loved reading about your creative ventures on your music blog!

  2. This is wonderful Jennie! What a journey so far! Kids are so amazing and naturally curious, aren’t they? And for the record, you don’t sound like a fraud at all to me — you sound like an authentic mama figuring out what works best for your family, and that’s pretty awesome in my book! 🙂

  3. Wow, Jennie, I am so impressed. I homeschooled for 8 years. They and myself learned so much. We had a Konos group on FR which was like unschooling. I loved it, I was definitely not as organized as you. Wish I had been more organized but we got through. Love to hear how you progress.

  4. Patrice–I had no idea! So quiet insubordination runs in the family:) I would love to hear more about your experience

  5. Thanks – I think that I may have to adopt your ‘someschooler’ – I am practicing what I am sometimes calling ‘strongly-guided self-directed learning’, after I realized that I am definitely not a purist unschooler. Your name for it is much simpler.

    • 🙂
      Hyphen abuse is definitely an unacknowledged side effect of home schooling–in all its iterations. Glad to be of help.

  6. “You say spirited I say bratty,” ha ha ha!

    I too have tried to run the balance between unschooling and traditional homeschooling. I like using both approaches, though those on either side of the fence think I’m crazy. 🙂

    • Lisa–yes!! Day to day I’m still trying to decide if working with elements of both is genius or just plain disorganized:) This post was in part a response to all the articles I’ve read attempting to define “real” unschooling. Here’s to standing on the fence!

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