From Schooling to Unschooling

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This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

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We tour nearly 30 schools, apply to a few privates and a charter, and enter the public lottery. Although we receive an acceptance from our first choice private school, we choose to release that spot and ultimately endure a two-week stint at our number five public school pick before settling in at the charter school.

Our daughter, Taylor, excels academically and cultivates a tight network of friendships. Art, dance, and music are weekly staples in her school diet, and our morning commute takes no more than 10 minutes on foot. In theory, this is the perfect scenario for an 8-year-old and her family living in San Francisco. Why would anyone in her right mind want to change this situation, risk losing it all, and step into unfamiliar and uncertain territory?

Beginning in Taylor’s toddlerhood, my intuition tugs at me until I conclude that my husband and I can offer learning experiences beyond the lessons a school system can provide. At the end of second grade, we choose not only to withdraw from the school system, but also commit to ceasing conditioned ways of teaching and of perceiving the learning process. I choose to let go of biases upheld by mainstream culture, by my upbringing, and by my training and classroom experiences as an early childhood and elementary school teacher.

For ease of labeling, we are homeschoolers; however, it is more accurate to identify us as “unschoolers,” a family who forgoes curriculum in favor of learning opportunities driven by our children’s interests, interests rooted in and fueled by their intrinsic motivations.

What does this look like? For starters, I am no longer the homework warden, the living alarm clock, or the human version of a cattle prod. I no longer cross-reference our daughter’s food intolerances with the list of restricted snack duty items, nor pack lunches adhering to aforementioned dietary restrictions, which may or may not be consumed by day’s end anyway. These small shifts alone are cause for celebration, but there’s more, so much more.

Taylor sleeps until her body is fully rested. She no longer schedules her trips to the bathroom. She eats and drinks when she is hungry and thirsty and consumes these meals and refreshments at their intended temperatures. With someone else’s agenda lifted, Taylor has the time and space to pursue her interests.

Stay up past midnight to read Harry Potter? Yes. Play Minecraft while watching YouTube videos of other miners and crafters? Absolutely. Unknowingly initiate a conversation about fractions and then ask to solve more difficult problems based on the initial inquiry? Sure thing. Ride bikes on the valley floor of Yosemite National Park? By all means. Ponder the possibility of parallel universes? Yes, that too. We explore the known and unknown together. As with any partnership founded on trust and respect, we take turns leading and sharing our individual passions, organically influencing each other and propelling our discoveries further.

Sounds like a vacation, doesn’t it? Certainly the sense of freedom we enjoy feels vacation-like, but the primary difference is that we are not escaping from anything or anyone. Learning happens at every place and at all times in contexts that are authentic and meaningful, not within circumstances curated, enforced, and measured by arbitrary standards. Problems to solve are not hypothetical extrapolations of a bureaucrat’s imagination; they are met within the reality of everyday encounters. Taylor walks into a toy store and calculates how many My Little Pony blind bags she can buy with her twenty-dollar bill. Life’s challenges present themselves naturally; we meet Taylor where she is, and we scaffold the unfoldment of solutions.

Through the lens of unschooling, we approach life holistically, where lines between work and play blur, where “should” and “have to” stand by the wayside of our life paths. “Good” things are received gratefully, and “bad” things are just part of being human or seen as an opportunity to initiate change.

Is living an unschooling lifestyle always rainbows and unicorns? Of course not. At first, we struggled to find other homeschooled girls, but through persistence and patience, this challenge continues to dissolve. The ultimate obstacle, however, is fear—fear of falling behind, fear of not doing what everyone else is doing, fear of paving a pioneering path.

But, is this really a pioneering path? At first glance, yes. Upon further reflection, maybe not. For the near entirety of human history, we have been a species of unschoolers. Formal education barely registers a tiny blip on this timeline. When fear arises, when I feel that irrational panic to buy a math workbook, I invite stillness to live in the present moment, not in a projection of a future self. When I consciously choose to dwell in the sweetness and ease of being internally still, clarity inevitably surfaces. Needing to master long division by fifth grade falls away. Cultivating joy and passion and continually asking “I wonder…” and “What if…” become the process and the goal.