Monday, 14 August 2017

Camp beginnings

The first day of camp can be intense for parents, kids, and facilitators. On the first day of camp, more than any other day, facilitators have to be prepared to just go with the flow and slow the pace so they can effectively create a safe space for kids. Ultimately, we trust the kids will show us what they need to feel comfortable in this new environment, we just need to create a space where can express and we can listen.

Today I arrived at Learning in the Woods before welcome circle.  Kids were playing, things were quiet, and the mood was a bit uncertain as kids tried to figure out how things work in this new space.  Facilitators were extra busy, trying to meet all the needs.  FYI, all the needs on the first morning of camp seem to be expressed intensely and simultaneously from these young people who were trying to figure it all out. Luckily our facilitators are ready for this!

When there was a lull, the facilitators invited everyone to join the welcome circle. Suddenly there was a cry.  C, 4 years old, had tripped and she burst into loud tears. Grace spoke to her quietly and brought her back to base camp.  C got her special toy from her backpack and a friend who had attended Learning in the Woods camp earlier in the summer, offered to sit beside her.  She was crying quietly and little one-lookers listened as Tanya said,  “C got hurt.  She is crying.  She is hugging her turtle toy because it helps her feel better.”  Everyone looked at C.  “Would you like to tell us about how you got hurt C?”  C stood up and walked over to the spot where she had tripped.  The entire group jumped up to follow her. This was an empathetic response as much as it was done out of curiosity.  

They listened quietly, respectfully, as C recounted what happened. Some asked questions or made comments.  Others just listened. I suspect C felt heard by the group as she stopped crying and walked back to our welcome circle looking calm and peaceful.  I suspect the group felt reassured too, as they were calm also. 

And so, the morning continued. We finished circle. We explored the space. Whistles were blown a little too often when there was no emergency. “The Machine” was built with some disagreement and some cooperation.  Snacks were eaten with gusto when kids were hungry.  No one was rushed.  There was time for everything.  All feelings were welcome.    

C’s fall was the first group bonding experience for these campers and it was rooted in gentleness and care. It set the tone for the rest of the morning and probably the rest of the week too.  By caring for one member of the group, everyone else was reassured that they will be cared for also.  There is no rush.  We can all just care for each other and figure things out as we go.  That message is so reassuring, isn't it?  What a beautiful beginning.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The gift of discomfort

Yesterday I felt so insecure.  One of the great gifts of trying to do something outside of the "norm" is that there are so many opportunities for me to be humbled.  Yesterday I had a big humble.  I got to see how I fail and how I struggle. It's a huge gift to see that but it's also uncomfortable and difficult to live with. 

I experienced this humbling message right before I hosted a play date. There were new friends, old friends, and their kids all coming to my house for some fun on the beach.  Yet, minutes before their arrival, all I wanted to do was be still and quiet with my humbling pain. I didn’t tell my friends I was feeling raw and insecure. I wasn't fake with those around me because that might be denying my pain but I wasn't trying to connect deeply either because connecting deeply wasn't possible when I felt that kind of insecurity. So, I just sat with those feelings inside me and allowed gentle friendships to carry me for a bit. It was riding a wave and allowing other people to keep me floating for a while.  Keeping quiet but floating helped me to get me to a space that felt a bit calmer and safer.   

The safety didn’t actually mean processing the insecure feelings! Safety was connecting to a friend who “gets” it like I do.  It was nice to just by listen to her, something I enjoy doing, and feel as though I have something to offer. Safety came while fulfilling a commitment and realizing “I am feeling so sad, I’m just not able to fulfill this commitment the way I had hoped.” Being honest with myself while still honoring my commitment met my need for authenticity. Listening to another beautiful friend express her strength and self-awareness of her challenges made me feel thankful to get to watch her as she blooms. Feeling insecure kept me quiet and what I received in that quiet seemed more beautiful as a result.

Somehow, with those moments of safety, the insecure feelings just lived in me. I didn't try to understand them. I just went about my day and the humbling feeling gave me clarity to see the gifts that discomfort can bring. In that way, the discomfort and insecurity was honored.

I think this is sometimes the way life goes.  Sometimes we feel insecure and we get to choose what we do with that feeling.  Disconnecting from it, though it is painful, dulls me to the beauty of life. Processing it in the moment wasn't actually going to serve me either, it would have felt like I was rushing through the feeling or spinning it in my head.  Sitting with it, even though it was uncomfortable, gave me a new perspective which is maybe the point of that feeling anyway.

As a parent, partner, friend, and contributer to the world, perhaps you’ll be given the same gift I was yesterday; a gift that brings you rawness and clarity to see the beauty in this world with fresh eyes. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Barn School Meeting April 9th

On Sunday, April 9th, we had a Barn School meeting at Bliss Kitchen.  (Thank you for having us Bliss!) There were lots of great side conversations but I thought it would be helpful to try to capture some of the large group conversation for others to read at their convenience.


It is our hope that we can stay as close to the Self-Directed Education approach to curriculum as possible, which is a self-designed curriculum. Students decide what they learn and we know from schools that have used this approach for decades, that the k-8 curriculum in Math and language tends to be covered by the end of "grade 8" by most learners. The arts and sciences tend to vary depending on interests. Luckily, there are schools that already have this approach in the public system in Ontario. Ultimately it depends on the person who gives approvals for private schools and we may need to show some flexibility in our approach to meet the Ontario guidelines for a private school.  For example, we would be open to offering regular lessons following the Ontario curriculum in language and math but attendance of those classes could still be a choice.  High School students who wish to obtain an Ontario diploma will be encouraged to take online classes and use us as a home school resource. 


The Education Quality and Accountability Office runs a province wide test at various grades to provide feedback to teaching professionals in regards to how well students are communicating what they learn from the Ontario Curriculum.  Because we do not intend to use the Ontario Curriculum and our teaching approach is very different from traditional classrooms, we do not see the value in taking part in this test. It is our understanding that we do not have to take part in this test (I'm about 80% sure of this) but if we were required to take part, parents could opt out of it, just like they can in public schools.  In addition, we could decide as a school that we are not interested in receiving the results.  Again, it is a test designed around curriculum we are not following for the purpose of obtaining feedback for teachers who have a very different approach from us.  


It is our intention to have learner centered portfolios as our main form of assessment for full-time students.  (Homeschooling families who use us as homeschooling support on a part time basis will not need to do this.)  We intend to use an online portfolio program that offers a multimedia approach to collection and sharing of portfolio information.  Learners and facilitators can post information to a portfolio at any time, but we will also dedicate Friday afternoons for reflection and portfolio building.  In addition to portfolios, we intend to have reflection meetings once a term that are lead by the student for the purpose of long term goal setting and skill development.  We also intend to start each day with a project management style flow chart for kids to track their ideas and plan for resources they need throughout the week.  Finished projects are reflected upon and shared daily at our end of day reflections, or as they are completed. Some of this reflection could be considered self-assessment.  Much like the curriculum, we would like to stick with the Self-Directed Education approach and we will respond with flexibility if required by the Ministry of Education.

Accessing Community Mentorship

As kids identify areas of interest for them, we will do our best to find mentors and community knowledge experts in our parent community to inspire them further.  We think parents who have passions and interests and understand our philosophy are the best "teachers".  We may also ask you, our parent community, to reach into your personal networks on behalf of a learner to find mentorship opportunities as well.  Once a term, we will have a community open house where we will invite interested members in our community to join us in celebrating all we have learned that term and honor our mentors and community.  Mentorship will be especially important for teen learners.

Parent Volunteering

We are very open to parent volunteers.  In fact, we even encourage it, especially if a child is requesting it. Parent volunteers may need to provide regular police checks and participate in some training (such as nonviolent communicaiton) but our overall approach is that we are happy to have the support of volunteers.  In fact, volunteering may be an important step in transitioning a child into a new environment and may bring a sense of security and continuity to some children.  We have a clear policy that children need to be in agreement to attend The Barn School and a caregiver may be asked to attend on a regular basis if children would benefit from that support.  We are against "drop and go" approaches to transitioning.  We want a caregiver present until the child feels a sense of security and readiness.


We intend to have a 3-pronged approach at The Barn School; a childcare option for children who are under the age of 6, a childcare option for homeschoolers which will look like homeschool resource, and a full-time school option for children who are over the age of 6 and are not homeschooled.  Children under the age of 6 and homeschoolers can attend as often as they wish.  The Ministry of Education may have attendance requirements for children who attend as full time students.  We intend to operate year-round though and have extended hours, so for families who travel, they may still easily meet the requirements.  The approval processes for childcare and private school are different, so we may receive one approval before another.


Our rough pricing is in line with other local private schools.  We would like to have a third party assessment option for families that request to pay a different amount than our requested tuition rates.  We would like to find a way to have all interested families join us, regardless of their financial position.  We have started to look into how other private schools approach tuition and we feel confident that we can help families find ways to make it work.  Soon we will be looking into the legalities and financial pros and cons of becoming a not-for-profit.  If it makes sense to do so, we'll move ahead with that as it opens up some new options in terms of fundraising and grants.  Right now it is an option that we are exploring.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

"This is Where all the Nice Kids Are!"

A friend asked me recently if I had always planned to homeschool.  I explained that no, I hadn’t, but after attending my first local non-secular homeschool picnic (THN for those of you in Hamilton and Burlington Ontario), I knew that we needed to give it a try.

As a teacher, I had an idea of what a multi-age picnic would look like.  However, this picnic was different.  The kids were SO NICE!  This was the kind of community that I wanted for my kids!  After the picnic, I messaged my teacher friends to say “I’ve discovered where all the nice kids are!”

You see, as a teacher, I knew that in a school environment there are some kids that get labelled “nice kids” and as a teacher, you really hope that your own child finds that group when they enter school.  You also hope your receives that label themselves.  That label means your kid is doing alright.  The “nice kids” avoid a lot of the bullying and drama and heartache that seems to find the rest of the student body.  Every teacher enjoys their time with “the nice kids” because they are easy to get along with and having them in your class makes your teaching job easier.

After the picnic, I wondered if I had stumbled upon some magical land. The homeschoolers are really nice kids.  Everyone I met would fall into my “nice kids” label if they were in my classroom. Yet, I couldn't help but notice that the homeschool kids still have meltdowns, they still struggle with things, basically they are still real kids!  The more time we spent hanging out with the homeschoolers, the more I realized how there was something wrong with my “nice kids” label.  This is a teacher’s version of “de-schooling” by the way.

I feel uncomfortable saying this publicly, because so many of my friends and family members are classroom teachers, but all kids are, in fact, “nice kids”, it’s the school environment that creates the label dichotomy.  I’ll say that again for all the parents who have had a kid who struggled – I realize now that ALL KIDS ARE “NICE KIDS”.  I say this in the sense that all kids are the same, they are showing up, every day as a real person, with real legitimate needs.  Unfortunately, the school environment is just not set up to meet their needs.  In fact, it often amplifies their unmet needs and can even create new needs!  And so kids get labelled. (As teachers, we give kids this label as our way of dealing with our own challenges and unmet needs but that’s another blog post.)

So like every other human, kids show up to school with needs.  In a school environment, there is one adult per approximately 20 children who can potentially help to meet those needs.  The environment is set up in such a way that children are not empowered to meet their own needs, at least not regularly or in a timely manner.  So in an environment that seems impossibly unfair in getting those needs met, we add in an element of competition which creates new needs. Kids then naturally discover coping mechanisms to try to get their needs met in other ways or they become detached from their needs altogether.  These options of indirectly meeting needs or denying they exist, make it difficult for the child, teacher, and other children to exist in the same space, let alone learn the curriculum. 

Even if a child arrives at school with their needs regularly met in their home environment, the school environment is competitive, without a lot of support to navigate this competition and some kids who are “nice kids” at home, may develop strategies to cope with the competition and hierarchy at school, pushing them out of the “nice kids” category.  I remember working with a child in JK who was a “nice kid” at home but in her efforts to fit in at school, was saying mean things to another student.  This brought up her social status within her group of school friends such that losing her “nice kid” status was worth it to her.  It was her coping mechanism in this competitive environment.

Personally, I wouldn’t have this insight without having had the experience of homeschooling my kids and hanging out with so many intelligent, dedicated homeschooling parents.  Homeschoolers are learning in a completely different environment, one in which their needs are addressed directly and timely.  The pace of homeschooling is less competitive and slower, so just removing that stress is helpful.  The home environment is usually more empowering for kids to meet their own needs meaning that kids can take breaks, get exercise, spend some time playing and just basically stay in tune with their own needs so they can address them as they arise.  Sometimes needs pop up that an empowered child cannot meet on their own and when that is the case, the adult – child ratio is usually much more favorable than the 1:20 ratio in a school classroom.  Homeschooling has taught me that children, when their needs are addressed, are content.  And content kids learn.

I just want to point out that even if your child is labelled a “nice kid”, check in with them. Make sure they are not suffering behind that label too.  Children who are perfectionists, hide their needs in the name of approval or try, to become detached from their feelings are in just as much pain, yet sometimes get labelled as “the nice kids”. They sometimes like this label as they can hide behind it, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are doing alright as I mentioned above.  

I think I’m really lucky that I have been able to teach in the public system AND homeschool my kids.  I feel really fortunate to have had both experiences and the learning and reflection that comes from it.  My advice for parents, if they realize their child is expressing anything other than contentment with their life, would be to try a different environment. Show your child that getting needs met is important and model strategies about how to do it.   If you can homeschool, do it!  It is the best kept secret in education!  And if you cannot homeschool, keep looking for other alternatives. We all deserve to be in environments where our needs are met. That safe space is where human potential lies; potential for contentment, peace, love, connection, and learning.

Critical Thinking Awareness Challenge:  Type "nice kid" into a Google image search and tell me, what patterns do you see?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Comparison of Self-Directed Education (SDE), Public Schools, Montessori, and Waldorf Philosophies Part 4: How are children segmented or grouped and what does this say about the philosophy?

In this blog, I’ll tackle how each learning style groups children for the purposes of learning.  I’ll also share a brief overview as to the reasoning behind the grouping philosophy. 

Self-Directed Education (SDE):  The learner is exposed to free age mixing among children and adolescents. 

As a child, do you have memories of playing with a group of cousins or neighborhood friends?  Did your parents socialize with family friends while the kids of various ages made up their own fun?  That is what multi-age learning in an SDE environment feels like.  Older and younger are mixed together to practice their own leadership and nurturing skills. Learning feels like playing and happens naturally in a multi-age environment.
 In SDE schools, children are not usually divided into groups for the purposes of learning.    Even the youngest members of the school are given the freedom to associate with whomever they wish.  The idea behind that is children learn best from their observations of and interaction with others.  Learners acquire new skills from those who have mastered the things they are most curious about and master a skillset does not necessarily happen on an age continuum.  Experienced learners are challenged to find new ways to explain concepts to new learners and a strong sense of community develops with these regular interactions. 
Many SDE schools will have some sort of family style groupings and The Barn will have them too.  We will start each day with a small group check-in and end each day with a small group check out.  Families can request children are grouped together or separate, it depends what the kids prefer.  Although these groups exist to start and end the day, children will spend most of their day interacting with everyone.  Keep in mind, The Barn School will be small, with a maximum of 40 kids.
Small groupings also occur when children participate in offerings.  Sometimes learners will request lessons on certain topics or a collection of classes such as learning to read.  Because there are no grades or assigned work, learners are free to help each other without the drawbacks that one might find in a traditional classroom.  In fact, learners often discover that their learning deepens by helping others to understand concepts.  Plus it feels good to help others!  These lessons will be offered in such a way that students can move along at their own pace.  Having a skill set “earlier” or “later” than your peers becomes less apparent and the competitive aspects of acquiring skills in removed (assignments, deadlines, tests, assessments).  It doesn’t mean that kids aren’t competitive (it is hard to avoid that aspect of our society), but the comparisons they make have less of an impact because of the variety of skillsets. 
The Barn School will offer some limited spaces for children under the age of 4.  These younger children may spend more time with their facilitator because they are simply more dependent.  The Barn School will also offer learning for teenage students who may spend more time exploring real life work opportunities or learning experiences from community experts or online learning courses.  Teenaged learners are closer to graduating to become a contributing member of society and will be taking on experiences that reflect that.
Here is a blog from a facilitator in a SDE environment.  I think that it is helpful to families who are curious about multi-age environments.

Ontario Public Schools:  The learner is divided chiefly by age. 

In Ontario public schools, children are divided into their classes based on their age and in most cases there are multiple classes of the same grade, in which case, other factors are considered too.  If this is the case, learners are then divided according to academic needs, social needs, the anticipated classroom dynamic, and the personality of the teacher.  Parents and teachers can request certain classroom placements and although most schools say that they do not offer specific classroom placements, they want the children to enjoy their classroom environment and will make accommodations whenever possible.  For 10 months students have a homeroom teacher and other subject specific teachers in supportive roles.  Most often, children have a new teacher and new mix of kids at the beginning of each school year.  Children are divided by age because if all learners are required to learn the same thing and be assessed on it, it is easier to group like with like.

Ontario has a policy limiting class size numbers in primary grades in particular, so some smaller schools have split grades to live up to this policy mandate.  Split grades usually have 2-3 grades in the same room and although the teacher may try to teach to the group, some subjects are taught separately.  Even though the learning is very teacher directed, kids can benefit from split grades by simply having exposure to the curriculum ahead or below them.  Leadership and mentorship opportunities are more common in split grades but ultimately the age hierarchy still exists.  The competitive elements of traditional school are difficult to overcome.

In junior grades and up, class sizes vary based on the age cohort, physical space in the school, and various funding initiatives.  Most classrooms cannot hold more than 35 students.  As you can imagine a classroom with 30 same age students can be difficult for a teacher to manage without using a teacher-directed style of learning.

At fitness breaks and sometimes during nutrition breaks, students can experience more free choice multi-age interactions but it usually doesn’t take long for the age hierarchy to become established.  Sometimes teachers inadvertently reinforce this by creating rules that only the grade 3’s can play on the playground equipment on a Tuesdays for example. Many schools have programs where classes with older students will spend a period each week with younger students and the exchange is mutually enjoyable, but the activities are often fairly adult directed, thus limiting the learning for both age groups. High School learners may have slightly more incidents of free-choice age mixing such as a grade 10 student taking a grade 11 math course. 

Montessori Schools:  The learner is divided chiefly by developmental age ranges. 

Maria Montessori observed four distinct periods, or "planes", in human development; birth to 6 years, 6 to 12, 12 to 18, and 18 to 24. She saw different characteristics and developmental maturities in each of these planes, and created educational approaches specific to each period. For example, the second plane (from around six years to twelve years old) shows physical growth and the loss of baby teeth and  psychological changes such as a desire to work, socialize in groups, and emerging powers of reason and imagination.  After making these observations, Montessori created class groupings and curriculum that matched the development of each grouping within plane.

Children’s Houses, Casas or "Primary" classes typically serve 20 to 30 children ages 2 ½ - 6 years, staffed by one trained teacher and an assistant.  "Elementary" classrooms can range in size from very small up to 30 or more children, typically staffed by a trained teacher and one or more assistants. Classes usually serve mixed-age 6- to 9-year-old and 9- to 12-year-old groupings, although 6- to 12-year-old groups are also used depending on enrollment. Lessons are presented to small groups of children, who are then free to follow up with independent work. The idea behind 3 year age groupings is that older children can become guides to the younger ones and thus require less intervention from adults.  Older children also get to validate their own learning by helping to guide those who are just beginning to understand concepts.

Montessori developed her educational model for younger children. However, a number of schools have extended their programs for younger children to the middle school and high school levels. In addition, several Montessori organizations have developed teacher training or orientation courses and a loose consensus on the plan of study is emerging.  Children are separated by planes for their learning because it is thought that they can learn best by observing those from within their own developmental bracket.

Waldorf Schools:  The learner is divided chiefly by developmental age ranges. 

In Waldorf Schools, children are grouped according to their age cohorts.  Although Waldorf schools vary somewhat based on their community and enrollment, most schools try to create a warm, homelike environment for their children with significant opportunities for age-mixing under the age of 6.  Remember that Waldorf philosophy is based heavily on rhythms and cycles, and children under the age of 6 are thought to have similar needs and rhythms.

Above the age of 6, children are grouped according to their age cohorts.  There is a curriculum, just like Montessori and public schools, and children are grouped in according to age groupings to make it easier to teach this curriculum that has been designed with their developmental abilities in mind.  Waldorf learners tend to stay with their same teacher and class throughout their learning years, thus developing “quasi-familial social groupings”.  It is this sense of stability in which Waldorf believes children can be nurtured and guided.  Children learn from their teacher who is considered to be a role model who exercises loving authority. 


One thing that I found interesting about this comparison is that if there was a curriculum being used, it was based on that philosophy’s ideas of developmental readiness, none of the three curriculum options allowed for self-paced, individualized learning.  As a teacher in a public school, I always wished I could completely cater the curriculum to the student.  In other words, if the province was going to dictate what was learned, I wanted the learner to dictate the pace and when to move along.  It will be interesting to see how technology will play a role in public schools as it becomes easier to offer more personalized learning of "hard skills".

For the three philosophies that used cirriculum, whether it was taught directly (Waldorf, public schools, Montessori in upper grades) or indirectly (Montessori and public schools), I suspect peer learning also happens in these environments by observation and interaction because that is simply human nature.    

The combination of curriculum, assessments, and delivery methods make it most efficient for all three philosophies who use a curriculum to divide children by some sort of age cohort.  Without curriculum or assessments, there is no need for teachers to teach or assess and no need for age or skill divisions.  SDE was the only environment to offer a true community learning environment with no age divisions.  The children just do what they naturally do, learn, play, and create with or near others.

As a final observation, once learners reach adulthood, they all emerge from childhood with a skill set that allows them to be contributing members of society, regardless of the educational philosophy they were immersed in.  The processes are very different though and likely have a big impact on their lives as adults.  In my next blog, I will discuss the features of the school community and how those values impact the learner.  Perhaps this last blog will touch on values in greater depth.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

11 Easy to Follow Tips to Make Your Unschooling Journey a Complete Success for Everyone!

Ha!…said no unschooler ever.  But if that title grabbed your interest, I suspect you might be new to unschooling and perhaps you will find my list to be helpful.  Or perhaps you have been unschooling for a while, scoffed at this title, and clicked on it for that reason?  If you are not new to unschooling...maybe you can reflect on your own journey?  It was reflecting on my own unschooling journey that helped me to create this list.  Let's jump right in, shall we?
  1. There is no singular way to unschool.  Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes.  The way this is done depends on many factors including balancing family needs and the resources you have available which sometimes boils down to geography or community.  So for example, a family that lives in the city might be in a better position to unschool by being immersed in the local community.  A family that lives in a rural setting might be better off unschooling by strewing materials around to be discovered.  A family that has a new baby may decide that they are going to scratch everything for a while and let the baby be the learning!  Unschooling is really just living your life and learning as you go.
  2.  Unschooling requires significant amounts of time to play, explore, create, think, daydream, and "veg".  Much like a sleep cycle, the brain goes through learning cycles that bring about different emotions and require different energy levels.  Allowing for large blocks of time to pursue passions and interests and just “be” is a large part of the “how to” in unschooling.  Don’t focus on the "outputs" as you may not see the "outputs" for years. Trust the path, trust the journey, trust the learner.
  3. Unschooling doesn’t mean “no routine”.  Some unschoolers think that to unschool, you need to shed all forms of conformity or organization, but this is actually just one style of unschooling (radical unschooling).  I think unschooling is more about allowing each person to pursue their life on their terms and within the context of the surroundings they find themselves in.  So if a family member thrives on routine, they should be encouraged to embrace routines.  Find the routines that work and toss the ones that don’t!  Maybe your kid needs a lot of social outlets to stay energized and excited about life.  A routine that involves regular social outlets will need to be part of the unschooling mix for that learner.  I need a certain amount of organization and routine in my family to ensure that everyone’s needs met. Mornings are spent out of the house connecting with peers and getting exercise in unstructured settings.  Afternoons are for little ones who nap and for those of us who don't nap, that's the time we spend building things, doing experiments, completing housework, watching Youtube, and getting some work done for We Learn Naturally.  Deciding whether there should be routines, what they should be, and how they should look is ideally a joint conversation, where everyone’s needs are freely expressed and, if possible, the routines created are mutually agreed upon.  You may decide no routines feels best for everyone, and that's cool, but it's just as cool to be an organized, routine-loving unschooling family.  Type A's can unschool too.  ;)
  4. Unschooling does not mean that you are now a “permissive” parent.  A.S. Neill once said “Freedom does not equal license.”  Wise words.  Even if your family decides you like the no routine lifestyle, it doesn't mean that you live without personal boundaries.  Freedom to make individual choices happens within the context of a family, a community, and a larger society.  As a parent, allowing your child to make their own choices doesn't mean you will get walked all over.  If relinquishing control of learning to the kids leads your family to swing wildly into a zone that has you feeling ragged, it's time to think critically about your needs in this dynamic. Changing the power balance to allow for unschooling could mean that your family may need to find a new way of negotiating different requests but the point is that all members of the family are respected.  Some people may mistake unschooling parents as permissive because you need to give your child large chunks of time to play and do their own thing, which can look permissive to others who are not familiar with this style of learning.  In fact, unschooling families are anything but permissive.   This style of learning requires a really engaged, respectful style of parenting, which, quite truthfully, I find to be both challenging and immensely rewarding.  I need to be aware of my own needs, values, and insecurities so that I can stay in tune with where I end as a person and the child begins.  I regularly challenge myself to keep my own needs in check so that I do not impose my own set of values without giving the learner the freedom to explore the other options.  I want them to come to their own conclusions about life, and that involves conversation, research, and reflection.  This style of education requires tremendous trust on the part of the parents and the work involved in reaching that place of trust requires soul-searching reflection and critical thinking.  Honestly, this style of learning looks permissive only because we are so used to controlling children and their learning.
  5. Your kid will need to deschool.  As a rule of thumb, for every year that your child has been in school, they will need one month of uninhibited, no pressure what-so-ever deschooling.  No worksheets, no telling the child what to do or how to do it…just truly letting them be.  I would also go a step further and say that children will need more time to deschool if they have spent time in a structured childcare environment or spent their summers and off-school hours in adult-directed camps.  Living with significant structure from a young age takes much longer to deschool.  I would also add that if you have engaged in traditional homeschooling for a while, where you as the adult in charge decided what is learned or assessed the learning in any way, you may find that your child might also need to deschool from you!  You are changing the power dynamic between the two of you and that takes time to discover how that will look and feel.  You may find that your child "tests boundaries", "over consumes" things that you used as rewards (screen time?), or avoids things that may have felt like a punishment (reading or writing?).  These are common reactions in democratic free schools as well.  In fact, some free schools or schools that offer unschooling or Self-Directed Education, will not take children above the age of 8 because they struggle to adapt to an SDE environment.  The kids just can't get past the testing stage.
  6. You will need to deschool.  I've kind of touched on this one already.  Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes.  Making the decision to unschool is often a bigger deal for the parent.  You will be challenged to let go in ways you didn’t anticipate.  Sometimes the biggest challenge in unschooling resides within you.  You may find yourself thinking differently about things other than learning...the shift can be quite powerful!
  7. Grandparents and close friends may need to deschool too for that matter.  And if they don't, that's fine too. Lots of people will not care that you are unschooling; some will be curious and some will be knowledgeable, but chances are that you will come across a person or two who are uncomfortable with the idea…and if those people love you, they may express their concerns frequently or at high volumes. From their perspective, we live in a very competitive environment and your loved ones want what is best for you and the kids.  My advice is to approach this conversation as you would any other difficult conversation;  listen to their concerns as a way to show your love, share your philosophy in an effort to connect, offer resources if they are interested in learning more, and most importantly, let go of the struggles that reside in *them*.  Remember, ultimately, the choice to unschool came from your child and your wish to support that.  Family and friends are more like background noise and their expression of concerns are really the expression of *their* needs and values.  The Polish phrase “Not your circus, not your monkey” comes to mind. 
  8. Unschooling needs to be a choice for each member of the family who is involved in living it.  Unschooling is a mindset.  Kids don’t usually ask directly to do unschooling, but if they have never gone to school, they’ll just naturally fall into it.  As a parent, you may decide that unschooling fits your personal philosophy on learning, but if your child is requesting to attend school, explore that option with them.  In fact, exploring that option and allowing your child to make the choice to attend, or not attend, or attend for a day and then quit, is part of the unschooling learning process. In fact, it is possible to be an unschooler and attend a public school!  As long as it is a freely made choice and the decision to leave and pursue something else is a viable option, I would still consider you to be an “unschooling” family.  If it is not a freely made choice (such as a family divorce where one partner insists on a child attending public school and the courts agree), the child may still approach life with an unschooler’s attitude.  That may mean pursuing a passion outside of school and looking for ways to incorporate it in school or rejecting the aspects of school that do not work (such as treating a mandatory project as just a chore that needs to be done, putting little effort in, and accepting the poor mark.)  
  9. You may drift in your intensity of unschooling.  We live in a culture that places parents (and other adults) firmly in charge of children so it is not surprising that parents find themselves feeling doubtful or fearful about their child’s chosen learning path.  Radical unschoolers challenge themselves to find ways to say “yes” to a child’s requests, but maybe for whatever reason, that degree of unschooling doesn’t sit well with you (yet).  Some parents feel more comfortable with project style unschooling or mixing in a bit of curriculum when they start to feel panicky.  If you find yourself trying to control what or how your child learns, it may indicate that you have more deschooling to do but I wouldn’t advise a parent to let go of their “parental authority” if they are not ready.  If you are not feeling the unschooling vibe, take a break and force your child to do a curriculum book.  See where it takes you.  Your kids may buck and refuse to do it…where do those reactions lead you?  It’s your learning path as a parent and a person, so embrace it all!  Ultimately, if you feel uncomfortable, take a step back and find your footing again.  If you are trying to force yourself into the unschooling mindset, just know that it cannot be forced, it can only emerge through self-awareness and freedom of choice.  Forcing it in any direction will lead to blaming yourself “I must be doing it wrong” or blaming others “unschooling doesn’t work” which can be a vicious cycle and really isn’t in the spirit of unschooling.
  10. An unschooler may start to reject other structured activities, even if it isn’t school.  When my son first started to reject structured activities, I started to wonder what was going on.  “But you love soccer?!”  Then I realized, he does want to play soccer, but once he learned some basic skills, he just wanted to do it on his terms for a while.  Structured environments can be great for learning skills from others, so long as that is your motivation for being there.  When signing up for activities with a young unschooler, you may want to ask if you can try out a class first before paying for a whole session, just so your child can get a sense of whether they are truly interested in spending their time (and your money) in that environment.
  11. An unschooler may prefer to spend time with others who have an unschooler mindset.  As you continue down the unschooling path, you may discover that your child gravitates to other people with an unschooling mindset.  Family members who want to be in charge of children and tell them what to do and when to do it may have a hard time establishing a warm relationship with your child.  Your child may start to drift apart from friends who have a need to rebel or a need to please.  It kind of makes sense really; your child will look for friends who value the same freedom of choice and have similar levels of self-awareness.  Making the choice to let go of friends who don’t really “get it” to make room for friends who do is actually a good sign of becoming settled in the unschooling journey.  As children age, society will welcome them as free-thinking adults more readily than as free-thinking children.  Either way, they will find their fit and they will benefit from the journey being their own.

So now that you have read my list,what do you think?  For those of you who are veteran unschoolers, have I forgotten anything?  For those of you who are new, my main point is that we’re all on our own learning journeys. The messy, uncomfortable moments are just as valuable as the moments when everyone around you nods in approval. This is the path of depth and therein lies the beauty.  I wish you the best on your journey and if you are still in the approval-seeking stage in your deschooling process, I applaud you for attempting to walk along this messy beautiful path. ;)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Self Directed Education (SDE): A Natural, Child-Lead Way to Learn By Jessica Michaud

From the Author: I’m not sure when I discovered Self-Directed Education, but I do know that it has formed the foundation of my views on education and child development. I find it to be a continuum of many of the respectful parenting/child-care approaches I have been trying to use. I would love for you to read this, my first blog, and learn a little about Self Directed Education, and if this speaks to you, spread the word to others! 

“Play is how children learn to take control of their lives” (Gray P. , p. 157). It has become common knowledge that play is significant to healthy child development. Many modern studies and research are confirming that play is an important part of education as well.

In “How Does Learning Happen: Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years” from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the authors state that “[e]vidence from diversse fields of study tells us that… [c]hildren succeed in programs that focus on active learning through exploration, play, and inquiry. Children thrive in programs where they and their families are valued as active participants and contributors” (Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 4). In “The Kindergarden Program 2016”, the authors discovered through extensive research that “…play-based learning emerges as a focal point, with proven benefits for learning amoung children of all ages, and indeed amoung adolescent and adult-learners” (Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 10).

These two early year  frame work documents both align with the foundational points of Self Directed Education. It values that the child is whole and capable, and able to direct their own education, through playing, exploring, inquiring and building positive relationships with both other children and adults. Peter Gray, who is a psychologist from Boston College, has done an extensive amount of research on democratic schools that support this model. He has found that “[e]very time we reduce children’s opportunities for free play by increasing their time at school or other adult-directed activities, we further reduce their opportunities to learn to control their own lives, to learn that they are not simply victims of circumstances and powerful others” (Gray P. , p. 18).

Many parents and educators new to this model may have concerns: how will children learn all that they need to learn? There are schools that have been functioning for many years with documented success. One is the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Massachusets, which has been running since 1968. This school ranges in age from 4-18 years old  and the “school’s educational philosophy centers on the idea that, in an environment with ample opportunities, children will educate themselves through their own self-directed play and exploration” (Gray & Fieldman, p. 109). Gray’s research has shown that even reading can be attained, without forml education. He states that “[a]s long as kids grow up in a literate society, surrounded by people who read, they will learn to read. They may ask questions along the way and get a few pointers from others who already know how to read, but they will take the initiative in all these and orchestrate the entire process themselves” (Gray P. , Children Teach Themselves to Read, 2010). Through the years, studies have been done to follow the success of Sudbury Valley School students, and overall they “have been highly successful in higher education and careers, and most of them atribute much of their success to lessons learned at SVS- lessons about their own interests, abilities and responsibilities” (Gray & Fieldman, p. 110).

Organizations are forming  to raise awareness and understanding of what SDE is, and try to provide research and education to parents and the community. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education is a nonprofit organization who’s “vision, is a world in which Self-Directed Education is embraced as a cultural norm and is available to all children, everywhere, regardless of their famiy’s status, race or income” (The Alliance for Self-Directed Education , n.d.). They are membership based, and have a lot of resources and information. They also give you access to other organizations and experts that are also supporting the awareness of SDE. Individual citizens, as well as organizations, such as We Learn Naturally, are able to team up and spread awareness.

In conclusion, I believe Self Directed Education to be complementary to the natural style in which children learn. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend becoming familiar with the Alliance for Self Directed Education. I would also recommend becoming part of communities that support SDE, such as We Learn Naturally. They have programs that provide this type of learning environment for children of all ages. As well, I recommend you share your feelings and views with others- the more people become aware of the research and experiences, the more common SDE will be.

Gray, P. (2010, February 24). Children Teach Themselves to Read. Retrieved from Psychology Today:
Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.
Gray, P., & Fieldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Proximal Zone of Development. American Journal of Education, 108-145.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). How Does Learning Happen? Ontario's Pedagogy for the Early Years. Toronto.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). The Kindergarden Program.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education . (n.d.). Retrieved from