They're all over the Internet this week...those ubiquitous back-to-school and first-day-of-school pictures. They seem to be expected, accepted, and largely unquestioned. We, the viewers of these pictures, know the role we are supposed to play, and, for the most part, we comply. We ooh and ahh over the adorable, preened children waiting sweetly to climb onto the big yellow bus, then commiserate with those sending cherished babies off for the first time, or nod knowingly at those who say that now life will get back to "normal" and they can do all those things they couldn't, with kids around all summer.
Before, I've always played along nicely. But this year is different, and I can't do it anymore.
You see, it would be Annalise's kindergarten year. Both my children would be gone, elsewhere and away from me, for many of their waking hours. I hear kindergartners get homework these days. Unbelievable!
Jeremiah would, as a third grader, definitely have homework. He'd spend more of his time sitting somewhere, doing something ordered by someone else, something he was perhaps not the least bit interested in. More of our day than the school hours would be consumed by school things. In a sense, we'd be slaves to school hours and school business. Family business would have to be squeezed in around the edges of that all-important school life...
But the business of this family is passion, and fun, and self-discovery. These aren't things that do well being crammed in at the edges of life. They are big and fluid and often all-consuming.
I can't imagine giving them up for those few hours of "freedom", which I would pay for with imposed bedtimes, mealtimes, waking up times, dress codes, textbooks, worksheets, homework, bus schedules, teacher conferences, and the like.
I want to offer an alternative view. I've been trying, for a while, here on this blog, in my day-to-day life, and on Facebook. But, somehow, thinking about all the things that would change if school were a part of our lives has crystallized a lot of things for me.
Around here, learning is like the air we breathe, the love that surrounds us. It's effortless, and constant. It flows freely and easily, as we go about our lives. The idea of sending our children off to a classroom to be taught, sitting at tables or desks, doing worksheets, reading assigned books and watching the teacher write on a black or whiteboard has nothing to do with what I see daily - two children who simply play, watch television, talk to their parents and each other, go to playgrounds, musuems, libraries, and grocery stores, spend hours on video games, and reading, and freeform play...
Traditional parenting says that too much TV and computer play are bad for kids, and shut down their minds...that kids who don't have chores will never learn responsibility, that children should be involved in extracurricular activities or sports to keep them "off the streets and out of trouble", that children not forced to share will never be generous, that parents need to have control and enforce their rules with disciplinary measures, and that school and homework are essential if a child is to "get a good education".
In a classroom, Annalise might see a teacher play with or, more likely, demonstrate, prisms and talk about how they separate light into all its colors. After that, she might have gotten a few moments to play with them, while other children were awaiting their turns. Then she'd probably have been read a story about rainbows, or given a worksheet about light, or a craft project...
None of those things are bad, of course....just unnecessary to the learning process, for her. She found these light diffracting glasses somewhere around the house (our home is full of interesting things just waiting to be discovered), and came to me wearing them, talking about how they "broke the light into colors". She explored with them for about five minutes, and had the joy of her very own discovery. No need to force it with a lesson, a worksheet, or even a story. Some of those may happen, at another time, if she chooses, but, for now, she'd had enough, and moved on to other fun, and other discoveries, also her own.
Most elementary classrooms have Legos...to be used during playtime. Lise keeps a set of larger blocks in her room, and there are smaller ones in the living room. She has the freedom to use them any time she wishes; there is no pressure to use them, and I handle the cleanup, so she won't skip playing to avoid the drudgery of finding scattered pieces.
At ages 8 and 5, there'd be little chance of my children seeing each other much during their school days. Here, at home, they spend long and happy periods together, playing involved fantasy games, watching Magilla Gorilla or Family Guy or PBS Kids together, digging for dinosaur or mastodont bones under the swingset they named Rocket, which takes them on adventures through time and space. They learn from each other, and enjoy each other. They haven't lost the connection of their younger days, as siblings in school often do.
Here at home, there's no wrong time to wear a lobster hat with a princess nightgown, or to indulge in any snack we happen to have around, even those that do considerably more for the soul than for hungry bellies. There's no need to wait for dressup time or snacktime...
A school math lesson, for a kindergartner, would likely involve another worksheet, on counting or pairing or more/less than, or writing numbers. There isn't much chance it would be the spontaneous desire to count the "monies" being stuffed into a piggy bank she'd just painted herself, or that it would include interesting tangents like wheat pennies and what it says on that Irish coin, or why the Sacajewea dollar doesn't look like a paper one. One of the many things unschooling offers that traditional schooling can't, is the incorporation of learning into the very fabric of life. Coins were counted, identified, compared for size and value, saved for later spending power. There was realizing that all pennies don't look alike, nor all dollars, and that coins from other places look different and have different names than ours.
The day after these photo were taken, Annalise came to me with a serious look. "Mommy", she said, "can I have $11?"
I was surprised. She's asked for money before, but only in bits, usually coins she saw on a table. "Why?" I asked.
"Because Jeremiah says I need to pay $10 rent to come into his room, and, that way, I'll have 1 dollar left all for myself."
Pretty good logic for a five-year-old. Good enough that I gave her $5, and asked her to please not give any of it to her brother, because he wasn't being fair.
There was a lot more than 10+1=11 learned in those moments. Not that 10+1=11 is something seen in the average kindergarten classroom to begin with. That's for first grade.
Here, though, I have Annalise. She's not in a grade. She's not limited by what's being covered and her ability to understand it in the form it's presented, then translate it for use in her daily life. This moment was her everyday life. She knew the equation without seeing it, and she used the information she had to ask for just what she wanted. Add in a discussion about fairness and self-protection, and I can't imagine a planned lesson could come close. The focus there would be on math, or on character education. Not both, at once.
I imagine homes where the children are in school are probably clean more often then ours is. Spending six or more hours away from home gives those children less opportunity to do messy stuff. I also know many parents feel that, since there are paints and glue and stickers and clay aplenty in classrooms, there's no need to have them at home, too. We have those things, and they see regular use. So do science kits, building toys, dollhouse furniture, books, movies, and cooking ingredients...some days, it's dizzying enough that I panic and think there'll never be a time when I can look around and call it done. The kids don't have cleaning chores, so often, during Jim's work week, there are two creative children creating, and one Mom trying, with varying degrees of success, to maintain safe paths through their creations.
Yet, these messes have stories. Often, I know why the mess is there, and what was learned in its creation. Other times, I happen to come across something, some piece of paper, glued or wrapped or built creation, that I had no idea existed. The learning there isn't always so easy to decipher, but the fact that whatever it was got made to begin with assures me it was there. Once, at three, Jeremiah strung tape from point to point across the dining room for 45 minutes. I didn't ask what he was learning or trying to do...the intensity of his expression said it was a personal thing, and I would be intruding if I bothered him then.
There are certainly things I never do find - art given to friends or just thrown out, recipes the dog ate, towers that crashed before I saw them, experiments conducted privately...
So I am learning to breathe when panic threatens, and to see the mess as evidence of learning rather than any kind of attempt to harass me personally, or complicate my life...
Annalise has had an alternating terror and fascination with volcanoes, lately. This has expressed itself in many ways through the last few weeks, and some of that has been documented here.
This night, she decided to draw her passion - four times over. Personally, although I like all of these, the first is my favorite....more like a Zen drawing, and with more fancy. The others were all about the volcano structure and how the lava moves through it (I see interesting parallels between this and her passion for intestines). And she did it shirtless, because sometimes she likes to be in her skin when she creates. Not an artistic preference that can happen in a classroom...
"The Tower of Plaza"....(I think they mean Pisa, but I'm not sure it isn't an invented name).
Both kids show considerable architectural and design tendencies...some day soon, I am going to dig out and scan some of Jeremiah's early, pre-unschooling creations...very cool.
This one was made by Annalise, who has a very keen sense of balance not only in her own body, but in construction as well. This design was entirely her own in conception and execution. It's not the first time she's awed me with her prowess for balance - notice the edge hanging off the table, and the natural gradual curve that compensates for it....the tower stood until she tired of it....we had recently watched something on the World Trade Center, which dealt with construction. This may have been an expression of what she took from that show, or something completely different. I can't help but wonder, when this happens (sometimes several times in a single day, sometimes not for a week or two - organic learning is not a steady forward affair - it has huge leaps and long plateaus, sometimes...), whether there would be so many moments like this, if a large part of their energy were devoted to school and school-things. It seems that these things happen during times when we've had a surge of activities, new experiences, and a general shaking-up of our routine followed by a tranquil, restful day or two where little seems to happen besides hanging around the TV, or another screen, or simple outside play....then, WHAM!!! A flurry of creation, very unique and individual, will ensue. Sometimes there's a clear connection to something we've recently done or seen, and sometimes it's a combination of ideas and memories...other times, it's something completely their own - some amazing idea they made real...
Some Moms get teary talking about their children's first day of school - or days, if the adjustment is hard. I understand that , because I get teary talking about my kids' projects. If they were in school, I wouldn't witness so many of the myriad ways they express what is within them. There is magic in what they make. In the truest sense, they are creators...their minds are wholly their own, unmolded by others' direction. Their inner creativity is alive and has the freedom of time and space to Be, because there is seldom anything more asked of them than to learn to be themselves as best they can.
Recess can be anywhere, any time, for any reason...Annalise is very outwardly playful; Jeremiah tends to be more inward-oriented, so there aren't as many cute pictures...his amusements are just more static these days.
Annalise engaged in a community service project - "I'm riding a horse on the army!"
With all this creating going on, rest is essential! There's the freedom, here, to take a break and chill out when needed...recharging for the next round....more next time....