The Medicine Forest My Parents Gave Me: How Exploring and Knowing Our Place in the Ecosystem Builds Resilience

Once I lost my son in the forest. We were heading home through ferns taller than his three-year-old self, he carrying a harvest of licorice ferns and I carrying his baby sister and some oyster mushrooms. He followed along behind me, and when I turned around, he was gone. I called repeatedly. I retraced my steps. I gripped by baby girl to my chest and started running, panicking, and-- there he was, nestled into a sword fern, chewing on a piece of licorice fern root. He looked up blandly at my stricken face and said "I'm just havin' some licorice root." His trance-like state may have been induced by the well-known calming medicine of licorice fern, or it may have been just his joyful state of mind after a couple of hours spent wandering the forest with his mother and sister.  

My kids and I spent part of most days of their childhood out in the forest, exploring. That's what I did as a mother because it's what I knew to do from my own childhood, spent here in this same little west coast paradise. When my head hurts, I go outside. Maybe I chew an alder leaf like the wild aspirin that it is; maybe I just lift my face to the fresh air, sun or rain. When my heart hurts, I lie in the moss and let it soak up my tears. Licorice fern soothes me; so does the feeling of bark, or the creek water between my toes. When I'm hungry, I eat beans off the vine on my porch, or berries and other treats from the woods; when I'm hungry for adventure I go exploring in my medicine forest. I made up that word. Medicine Forest. It's like a permaculture food forest, but with emphasis on its healing power. My parents didn't purposely give me a medicine forest, but they did give it to me, and I'm passing it on to my children. Let me explain.

That's me with our chickens in the early 1980's, rabbit hutches on the right, and winter-covered veggie garden, behind.

I grew up in a pretty typical single family house - a modified double-wide mobile home, actually - on a five-acre piece of land that my parents purchased in 1980. This land was forest when they bought it. We used to come up here and have a picnic on the slope they hoped would one day be their building site. They let my brother and me free-range all over this place, climbing trees, damming creeks, digging great big holes and picking and using whatever plants we felt like, as they slowly cleared the land and built up what is now a developed property. We raised chickens, meat rabbits, and pigs (but only once because the experience was too heartbreaking for all of us to repeat). My parents grew food crops and allowed us to plant our own experimental gardens, while also insisting that we should help with the family food operations. My brother and I were never forced to kill or butcher animals, but because our parents nurtured our curiosity, we both knew how to clean a rabbit or chicken by the time we were twelve, and by the time we were fifteen we could cook a good family meal from the foods we'd grown or wildcrafted. We didn't even know the word wildcraft, though. We were just "picking nettles", or "finding a mushroom."

My son helping my mother pick nettles in the early 2000's.

Living in and with the forest our parents were busy turning into a home was just "life". We could pick indigenous trailing blackberries from the hillside, invasive Himalayan blackberries from the place Pappa was trying to get them out of the creek, or cultivated boysenberries from Mum's garden. Same difference. They all make good pie, if you don't eat them all before getting them home. And whether they make it home or not, your belly is full with the food, your heart is full of the joy, and your mind is full of knowing every detail of your home. That's a medicine forest. It's a place where everything is living and growing together -- humans included. It's a place you've grown so connected to that just living there heals you from the inside out.

My daughter reading in a tree she knows every inch of.

Somehow through my own teaching and parenting over the years I have come to recognize that, just like the best learning happens when we're inspired by connections to our own experience, the best living happens when we're connected to everything around us. Think of it this way: you care much more about your own backyard than someone else's. You have a lot more interest in your own little potted plant than in the weed at the edge of the pavement, or some tree in a forest far away. So somebody teaching you about a baobab tree might have a bit of a tough job keeping your interest. But what if that tree was yours? My friend went to Africa and really got to know baobab trees - and they became hers. When we connect personally with things, they matter, and mattering strengthens our neural pathways. That's great for learning, but how does this have to do with my medicine forest? Well, this place matters to me. It matters so much that I've spent about thirty years of my life exploring here, both as a child and now with my own nearly-grown children. I know exactly which part of which slope of which creek has the best clay for sculpting, and which part will still have a pool of water and some desperately-hungry trout in August. I know where the elusive white slugs live. I know how berries' flavours change with the weather and with the time of day. This deep understanding of my little wilderness is my connection, and it's why this place is my medicine.

On top of being important to my own health, my experience of exploring this place has made me resourceful and resilient. We all learn more from observing the people around us than from being taught conventionally, and I learned from watching my parents develop this land; their need to be resourceful when we had no electricity, no toilet, or no income. I learned from watching them not just survive here, but keep working even in the face of failure to find joy and wellness in whatever this land and life had to offer. The moss is not my weeping pillow because I'm an idyllic child from a book about fairies; it's my pillow because sometimes I was just plain too sad, as a child, and the moss was what I found to comfort me. My kids don't harvest nettles for brownie points or allowance; they don gloves and harvest them just because that's what we do for Easter. They get stung and they complain at me, but they also delight in testing their brawn by picking them bare-fingered or by eating them raw. They're building resilience, just like I once did. We're in this ecosystem for better and worse and every day that falls in between. Like the plants, we'll thrive or die as part of this, so we're doing our best to thrive.

My kids at fifteen and eighteen processing wild burdock root for tea.

The business of gardening and developing the physical ecosystem is nowhere near as idyllic as I imagine it sounds. There are brutal realities in nature that hurt like hell. Our crops fail, our chickens get sick and I have to put them down; sometimes we fight and resent each other's impact in the ecosystem. Sometimes money is short, time runs out, and family or world tragedy makes us doubt we can succeed. But experiencing these things, feeling them and accepting them is part of the whole picture. My medicine forest is the ecological basket that holds our family, and the love and knowledge we cultivate here, among the weeds and the crops and the chickens, the weather and the water and our own bodies living. When I leave this place, my medicine forest is carried in the knowledge of my body and mind, to nourish and grow with other ecosystems. It's a conscious choice I make to see my surroundings and live in health with them, as a part of them. 

In a monoculture garden, one invasion of a particularly voracious insect can wipe out a whole crop, with nothing remaining to re-seed. The earth itself becomes a barren place, unable to nurture new-fallen seeds without significant help from humans. In a food forest, insects may devour a plant here or there, but the diversity of the community will discourage any one plant or insect from taking over, and thus ensure that enough remains to keep the community thriving. The dead plants along with the dead insects and the droppings of all those who foraged in the forest will feed the earth, ensuring that all the fallen seeds have at least a chance to grow. In fact, the richness of the soil even means the earth will hold more water, making everything thrive more easily.

My parents have asked me how I came to know all these things, and I said "from you", because it was their willingness to let me explore that gave me the gift of knowing my ecosystem. It was their willingness to let me grow my own experimental gardens, and now to rent us a piece of their land and still let me grow my own experimental gardens that gave me the gift of my medicine forest. Sometimes they don't like the look of my unkempt yard, my son's experimental tree fort project, or the weed piles I leave laying around. But they let me and their grandchildren keep living and exploring here, because they're watching the growth of our medicine forest. And sometimes - just once in a long while - we discover things we can teach them, too. Explorative parenting is like that. It's looking at the whole family as a forest instead of one plant seeding another. Our family is like a forest of possibility, where everybody lives in community, exploring and discovering and balancing and sharing, as we all put our roots further and further down, and our branches further and further to the sky.


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Celebrating My Daughter Quitting School!


My smart, motivated, academically capable daughter just quit school -- and we're celebrating! Yep. Last year I wrote about our son, who, after a lifetime of eclectic and meandering unschooling, decided to graduate and pulled a high school grad with honours out of a hat in just two months at the end of his grade eleven year. You can do that. He did. Now I'm writing to tell you that our fifteen-year-old daughter Rhiannon, who has been mastering the distributed learning system towards what we thought was going to be a much more straightforward high school grad, has quit. She's decided to register as a homeschooler, not attempt high school graduation, and work on her own pursuits, instead. And I think it's the best decision of her academic career so far.

For those not familiar with the basic options available to kids in our province (British Columbia), let me briefly explain. We have five legal options: 

  • Public School: (mainstream "brick and mortar" school run by a school district)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person, generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • publicly-funded
  • Independent School: (private school - non-district-affiliated)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled" 
    • attend in-person (usually), generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum, sometimes with a little more flexibility
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Public OL: (public online learning school run by a school district) 
    • formerly called DL, the new name OL is an absolute misnomer, because a number of the now "online learning" options are in fact in-person.
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week, OR partially or completely online
    • some PDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome
    • publicly funded
  • Independent OL: (independent online learning school, not district-affiliated) 
    • formerly called DL, the new name OL is an absolute misnomer, because components of many of programs are in fact in-person. 
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week OR partially or completely online
    • some IDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome 
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Registered homeschooling: 
    • terminology: child is "registered" as a "homeschooler" under section 12 or 13 of the provincial education act
    • no official teacher oversight or support, although some families hire teachers, tutors, or mentors, and children may attend supervised programs outside of the public system
    • this is the most freedom available in our province, legally, and allows families to live, grow and educate in near-complete freedom
    • no curriculum is provided, but many families purchase or create their own curricula
    • no graduation diploma
    • registered homeschoolers in grades 10, 11 or 12 may enroll in distributed learning courses
  • Unschooling: Unschooling is not a registration/enrollment option. It's a lifestyle and learning-style choice, which can be accomplished in any setting to larger or smaller degrees. Generally, unschooling means following one's interests in life and learning from all experiences. For parents of unschoolers, it means also following personal interests, while supporting and nurturing children who are busy following their own. Registering as a homeschooler gives BC residents the freedom to be unencumbered by regulations and expectations, therefore allowing more time for exploration of personal interests, and it's therefore the easiest way to follow an unschooling pedagogy.

Now back to our family...

Rhiannon hand-binding the children's book she wrote in 2018.
Rhiannon is an academic queen - especially when she can blend school with her passions of teaching young children, musical theatre, and middle grade fiction. She loves to work in a structure, she loves to create neatly-packaged projects and turn them in. She loves to evaluate her progress and climb the ladder of education, just like she's slowly climbing the becoming-an-author ladder. In fact, she loves all these things so much that school held her back. 

When she had free time in her earlier years, she edited and published two magazines for children, wrote a few short books, played endlessly with her dolls and pets and imagined worlds, taught herself to play guitar, created a few complex board games, researched, wrote reports on, and attended online university courses on subjects she was interested in (usually relating to early childhood education), and developed her singing and acting skills. Then through her teens, as she attended public and distributed learning schools to be with her peers, she ran out of time for most of those things. She's been keeping up as well as she can, managing to write a few stories and papers over the years, attending various theatre programs, and usually writing a book or taking an online course in her free time from school. She's developed a children's and YA book review website, written a middle grade novel, and is currently working on a second novel. But her time is always broken by the demands of school, and often those demands have felt like aimless make-work projects just to get through specific hoops to somebody else's goal. Somebody else's goal is graduation. Hers is "to have a nice life", and highschool graduation doesn't seem to be necessary for that.

She does find it important to attend the Reggio Emilia early childhood education program at Capilano University. Not some other school. Not some other pedagogy, because she's known since she researched these things in her own childhood that Reggio is the philosophy best suited to her beliefs. She's been researching careers and schools and entrance requirements for years, and now at fifteen she's in conversation with staff at the university she wants to attend about how to prepare a homeschooler's application. She figures she's got a couple of years to accomplish her pre-university goals, and she'd like to be unencumbered by school, in the meantime. 

This morning she told me, "I feel like everybody thinks that graduating from high school is the big teenage achievement, but if I don’t go to school then I can have other achievements that are even better, like getting a book published."

Knowing that she has managed to write a book and send it to publishers during her otherwise busy grade ten year, I asked her what she expects will be so different about homeschooling.

She leaned against my feet where I sat, and mused, "It used to be stressful because I had so much work to do and it’s now it's stressful because I don’t know how it will all work. It used to be a relief to know what I had to do, and now it’s a relief to know that I can do what I want. Now I can focus on writing books, managing my youTube channel and website, making music, and getting a job, which I find much more exciting than school."

And that, I think, is the key. It's why we've been unschooling all along: Because life should be exciting! Why would we drag through school just to get a diploma, only to get into university, if we can live an exciting life, and then still go to university... arriving full of passion and experience? Or, as my son seems to be leaning towards, potentially unschooling ourselves right through university and into the rest of our lives, dispensing entirely of the education system, and building our lives, piecemeal, according to our passions and opportunities?

This isn't so crazy as it sounds. Most of us are trying to follow our passions and opportunities, often at the same time or combined with our trek through the prescribed journey of life and education. With increasing instability in our economy, climate, and social structure, the gig economy is increasingly accepted as normal, and people of all ages are necessarily becoming more flexible. We're learning that not every year will be the same in our gardens; not every job will be long-term; not every passion needs to remain our focal point. Personally, I've begun blending and re-mixing my diverse careers of parent, explorative learning facilitator and artist, and finding that a whole plethora of new potential titles come out of the mix. Through this pandemic I find myself to be a learning consultant, an artist, a farmer and a YouTuber! Last year that would have sounded ridiculous. My daughter's choice to buck the norm and head to university without a high school graduation looks to me like a very good strategic plan for her, but also a great way to keep herself open and flexible in this constantly-changing world we inhabit.

We were recently celebrating the fact that our son graduated with honours... feeling weird but proud to wear this badge sported by so many conventional parents. And now I wonder if my daughter will feel let down by not having her family celebrate a graduation. Can we celebrate something else, instead? Hell, yes! I'm celebrating her embarking on the path she desires! I'm celebrating the very thoughtful human who is looking critically and creatively at a life in very undesirable pandemic-induced constraints, pulling enormous courage out of a hat and turning her dreams into reality, on her own terms. I encourage all of us to look at our children's accomplishments the same way -- to celebrate their personal choices instead of just the moments they stepped through expected hoops. I can't wait to read my daughter's next book.


More information for people looking into homeschooling legalities in British Columbia:

The photo at the top is my daughter Rhiannon's promotional portrait taken by her brother, Taliesin.


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Unschooling Screen Time!

Probably the biggest source of stress in our unschooling home as been screen-time. I just can't stand seeing my kids sit in front of their screens all the time! I literally ran an outdoor exploration program since they were babies, and brought them outside to play and gallivant in the woods every single day until they were too old to be easily led outside. And slowly, as they grew into teens and now older teens, computers have seeped into every aspect of their lives. As our culture moved more online, even I became a constant screen-user, and with this pandemic, well... screens have won. 

My inner voice screams at me, "bad parent! You're ruining your children! Where's the outdoor time?!"  And at way-too-frequent intervals over the years, my inner voice invaded my throat and I bullied and badgered my kids, tried to bargain with them, tried to limit their screen-time, even took away computers and other devices, once resulting in a physical conflict with my son as I tried to walk out of his room with his laptop and he righteously tried to stop me. None of these actions align with my own moral, parenting, or unschooling values. My kids are supposed to be self-directing! They're supposed to be free-range! They're supposed to be unencumbered by my parental fears and judgments! Definitely free from me stealing their stuff. And yet my deep shame over screen-time has caused me to break all those values so many times.

It's a struggle, for sure, and I know it's the same in so many homes around the world. But I'm writing this to share the one thing I think really helped us in this situation. Did you notice I said I was "stealing" my son's laptop? That's because it's his. He owns it. And that's the big deal, here.

My kids at 11 and 14 with their first personal laptop.
I remember a Mad Magazine comic from my childhood in which Webster (I think?) gets sent to his room, and is delighted to go up there and be with his big TV and whatever other electronics he had. I remember thinking what a good child I was to own none of those things - not even as a family, at that point in my 10-year-old life. And I think that pride set the stage for my rampant shame over screen-time.

Then I had my kids in the early 2000's. In their first few years we had one family desktop computer which my husband used for telecommuting two days a week and the kids and I shared for online adventures like videos, games, Google earth expeditions (WOOOOOT!!) and word or image processing on other days. It was pretty ideal. I felt like we were graciously treading the waters of screen-time.

Then we went to an unschooling conference where we discovered entire families of people gleefully wrapped up in creating a Minecraft version of the hotel where the conference was taking place. COOL!! I discovered that it's really OK to enjoy video-gaming with our kids, and in fact it can be a creative family experience. Enter Minecraft in my life. And with so many more amazing resources becoming available around 2010, enter so many more amazing times spent on screens. I didn't feel really bad about getting a family laptop. It meant the kids and I could use a computer even when their father was working from home on the main computer! 

I saw our slow slide into more screen-time, and the conflicts became more frequent. Also, conflicts between the two kids became more frequent as their screen-time needs and values diverged.

Around that time, my kids became old enough to earn their own money, and we have always maintained that while they don't earn money for chores at home (because we don't earn money for this either; it's just a part of living in a home), any money they earn for themselves is theirs to spend as they'd like. This is basically our unschooling way of teaching them to manage their money. And they managed it differently from each other, one saving and saving, while doling out tiny bits for necessary items like gifts and dates with friends, and the other saving exclusively until making larger passionate buys. And guess what! The first big purchase each of them made at around twelve and fifteen years of age was a refurbished laptop. Now at fifteen and eighteen they're migrating to more powerful desktops as their studies and interests have pushed them into daily computer use. My daughter has recently been given a free desktop and financed her own accessories, and my son built himself a powerful machine for his rendering and digital music composition. 

My son's new fancy set-up, complete with a rolling stand that he built to hold it.

Why is this so great? Learning. Self-discovery. Money-management. And personal health choices. The best part of all of this is that they always financed their computer owning on their own. This gave them the independence to provide for themselves in a limited but very important way. It made them feel powerful. It means I can't freak out about screen-time, because they truly own their computers, and they worked a long long time to get to this point -- on their own terms. 

Of course, I still freak out about screen-time once in a while, to my great shame, including that time I tried to steal my son's laptop from his desk, but I'm getting better over time, and so are they. The fact that they own their own devices helps remind me that their lives are not mine to control. The basic tenets of the unschooling life we aspire to mean that I will do better by loving them and leading by example than by trying to control them. Just seeing their fancy self-designed set-ups on their desks reminds me of that. Life and living in community is always a complex challenge, and my own growth as an intentionally laid-back parent is always slowly improving as well.

Most wonderfully and surprisingly, having complete ownership of their own devices seems to mean that my kids are also pretty responsible with screen-time. The pandemic has meant a lot more computer time, and I've noticed both of them intentionally scheduling outdoor, off-screen, or exercise time into their lives. I won't say I'm always calm and accepting, nor that there aren't days they rarely see the light of the sky outside, but despite all my fears over the years, I think we've done all right in navigating this one. 

I'd like to thank the massive support network of unschooling families all over the place who have kept reminding us that it will be OK. It truly is. May we all keep swimming up like good little Minecraft players before all our bubbles pop, and then run around on the land exploring and being creative!


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The Apocalypse Is Trickling In, and Unschooling Accidentally Prepared Us for It

dragonfly coming out of its larval skin - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer

I went in this morning to look at my eighteen-year-old son while he slept. He looked so peaceful. I wanted to wrap him up in my arms and cherish that peaceful face, now so much longer and with stubble around the chin, as I used to when it was round and soft and chubby, and the whole world seemed so much safer. It's not safe anymore. His whole future is in question, as is my daughter's, and how will we get from here to there? From pandemics to fascism to economic and social collapse to apocalyptic storms and other disasters wrought by climate change, holy this is a crazy time we're living in. Back in the 90's people were talking about this. 2020 was a year that I heard spoken of as a turning point. Would society as we know it even make it to 2020, we asked? Would it be worth having children if in fact things would be as dire as predicted?

Well we did have children. And climate change is pretty much as predicted. Turns out (also as predicted) that the rise in climate change disasters really did trigger global anxiety and a tightening of the screws of power. We're watching in real time as fascism rises, power is abused by corporations and government, the gulf between rich and poor widens, and communities are just beginning to be wiped out by floods, fires, storms, and now rioting. Social collapse is increasingly looking likely. Three years ago, Rachel Nuwer wrote on BBC Future that "Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?" Well guess what--pandemics are here too. This doesn't bode well for our children's future, or even our own. Our family is now home in isolation for the foreseeable future, and learning to grow what crops we can, hoping to develop survival skills. Pretty extreme, right? But for an increasing number of us, this is the new reality. And unexpectedly, unschooling prepared us for this.

We didn't even want to call it unschooling, in the beginning. I valiantly tried to use the terms "life-learning" or "self-directed education", because they seemed so much less confrontational. But as the wave of unschoolers grew across the world, my pacified terms increasingly met with blank stares, and we relented. We unschooled our kids because it seemed like a natural extension of attachment-parenting and the non-coercive learning environment my mother created in her preschool program. We unschooled because it made our kids happy. We continued unschooling because, as time went on, we saw that they were thriving, and that their developing interests, skills, and personal values were increasingly supported by our way of life. Now, in this time of global pandemic and societal upheaval, we are aware that the basic benefits of unschooling are what are keeping our whole family sane and together.

First, we're comfortable being maverick. This seems not like something we'd strive for, and it definitely wasn't. It just came of always being the family with the weird lifestyle. But here we are, accustomed to gently explaining our choices to people and carrying on despite the criticism. This is a very useful skill when our autoimmune-afflicted family is choosing to wear masks during a pandemic when so many others seem to find this practice ridiculous or even offensive. It's a useful skill when isolating ourselves even as the rest of our community returns to normal. Feeling comfortable with being maverick is a useful skill when staying home as a family raising chickens and vegetables and doing "farm things" that many of our kids' city friends find bizarre. My daughter and her friends like to joke that she sleeps in a pile of hay. She updated her zoom background accordingly with a hay pile, and rode the wave of her maverick.

Speaking of being home as a family and farming together (truly we can hardly call it a farm; it's 1/4 acre, but we're doing our best!), we're happy as a family. That is pretty amazing, and like any relationship, it's always a struggle and a rollicking adventure to keep the harmony alive. Especially during this pandemic when we're now having to look at all four of each other's faces most of every hour, every day. But unschooling prepared us for this. Once when my daughter was about six or seven, and we were out on adventure with a wilderness program I led, she came to me with a confused look on her face. She explained that a woman had stopped her on the trail and asked if she's sick of having to be with her mother all the time instead of going to school. She didn't understand why she would be! That is the gift of unschooling, or of any situation that leads to more family togetherness: we have to work out the kinks and create a harmonious living situation. It's not that there aren't times we're frustrated, hurt, or angry; where our various needs or values clash. Of course there are! And plenty of them. However, like in any democratic society, we have to work those issues out with as much respect and listening as possible, if we want to maintain the harmony. Yes of course there have been many times when as parents we put our feet down, because sometimes kids just really don't understand the risks of their actions. But we explain our demands, and we try very hard (not always successfully) to give our kids freedom within the structure of a family all living together. In this way we have all managed to find happiness in each other's company.

Like all democracy, sorting out ongoing life and relationships is always a struggle, and we keep persevering. Jeff Goodell says in Rolling Stone that "the other big takeaway from [the 2018 IPCC] report is that it’s time to get serious about adapting to a rapidly changing world. If we don’t, a good percentage of civilization as we know it today won’t survive." Unschooling has helped us in this by providing endless opportunities for adaptation. A kid with lots of free time and options necessarily learns to manage those options herself, to solve problems herself, to research and find solutions when nobody is presenting any. She learns to compromise and to stay strong when needed; she learns the difference between wants and needs. These are things we all learn as adults, but unschooling, in removing kids from the pre-ordained structure of school, gives them an opportunity to learn these things sooner. They gain confidence in making life-choices for themselves, confidence in standing up for their needs and values, and confidence in their ability to adapt to new situations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unschooling has taught us resilience. I suppose resilience is a confluence of all the things I've talked about already. It's being a person who is able to stand strong when faced with a challenge, adapt to the moment, and persevere. It's about having a positive outlook even when circumstances are dire, and using that outlook to chart a path to a happy outcome. My Dad had Parkinson's for most of my adult life, and when people asked him how he was doing, he sometimes responded "better than I look". And he managed to have a fulfilling and active life for more than a decade beyond what the doctors predicted. In the last few years of his life, when his disease made him severely disabled, he said his cup was not half full, but "overflowing". Life is always, always going to give us challenges, and some of them are going to seem insurmountable. Some of them actually will be insurmountable, and eventually we'll lose loved ones, and die. But we can go down feeling bad, or we can go down with our hearts full, knowing we lived the best life we could. That is what I hope for my weird little unschooling family.

Last night our family put the chickens to bed, made some popcorn, and went out to the beach to look at comet Neowise. We brought our telescope and my son brought all the cameras to capture the gorgeousness of our night sky. After much standing around looking at eyepieces and setting up lenses and tripods, the sky darkened enough that we saw Neowise above the northwestern horizon. My daughter in her hedgehog onesie that feels like a mop leaned into me as we stood in the warm breeze. Eventually her brother's and father's arms wrapped around us both as we watched bats flit by against the starry sky. Soon we all found ourselves lying on the pebbly beach, comfortable being in each other's company, gazing at the amazingly vast collection of stars, meteors, clouds, satellites and black-blue space. Maybe the apocalypse is trickling in. We're as ready as we'll ever be, because our cup is overflowing.

comet Neowise - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer


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COVID-19: How to Unschool During Isolation

Here we all are (hopefully) busy flattening the curve by staying home for a few months... and keeping our kids home from school, which causes some legitimate concerns for parents who either can't stay home or worry about finances, their children's welfare, or academic success. For some people this is an opportunity to unschool, as evidenced by the handful of people who have already asked me about how to jump onto this path, during isolation. We're all trying to figure out how we can support each other while keeping isolated, so I'm very happy to provide coaching for free during this time (as much as I can manage, time-wise). I'm also happy to provide a supportive ear, if you just need to talk. But here, to get you started, are some basic guidelines that answer the questions people most commonly ask me. This is going to be an interesting time, and if we work through it thoughtfully we may emerge a much more successful civilization than we were when we entered it.

With thanks to my auntie Lidia Patriasz for this poignant piece of art.
What is Unschooling?
"Unschooling is a generic term for a form of homeschooling in which, loosely speaking, education happens without the use of a schedule, curriculum, testing and grades. It's an approach which is used in varying degrees by different families. Unschooling is child-led education, so if the child chooses to go to school, they are still unschooled, as they were not coerced or persuaded to go there, but chose to do so of their own free will. Unschooling is the rejection of an imposed education. Other synonyms are natural or non-coercive learning, auto-didactic, self-learning, free range organic education."

Why Unschool?
Each of us has our own unique set of reasons for unschooling. We went into unschooling for different reasons than we continued it over the years. I can say that for me and my own circumstances (and personal ways of thinking), unschooling was less stressful than homeschooling or schooling. It was like improvising a meal with the ingredients at hand rather than shopping for the ingredients to a specific recipe. It gave me the emotional freedom to do what I and my children thought was right, and to problem-solve along the way, instead of sticking to somebody else's plan that may not always have been right for us. It also gave me and my children the flexibility to identify and solve issues for ourselves, thus becoming more adept at doing so. It makes us stronger, more self-reliant and confident people.

The first thing that happens when we stop going to school is de-schooling. In fact, any children who don't continue with tutoring and summer courses do this every summer, so it's not as alien a concept as it might seem. De-schooling is simply the transition period between schooling and not schooling. It's the time where our minds slowly release themselves from the constraints of one system and begin to sort out the constraints of another. It can be an incredibly difficult time, as we're accustomed to the way things were, and usually uncertain about the way things are becoming. Many unschoolers report a euphoric time of peace and contentment with life after an arduous, tumultuous period of de-schooling.

The difference between school and un-school is all about determination (control) and responsibility. At school, children are set on a path that is largely out of their control. There's a defined set of goals for them to achieve, and a defined set of methods for achieving it. This lack of self-determination drives some kids crazy, but for others it's comforting. For all kids, it can be terrifying to be suddenly handed the reins to their own destiny - every moment and for the long haul. But that's unschooling.

De-schooling will probably take longer than you expect. For some families it takes years. I think the shortest de-schooling periods we've had were those in which I didn't push. I remained patient and expected nothing, and usually just ignored my kids and got busy with my own things. The times when I nagged them to get active or start projects have always been the longest-lasting, most fraught times.

I've gone through periods of de-schooling a few times with my kids, as they tried out school programs and then de-schooled over the breaks, or when they returned to full-time home-based unschooling. It was never easy. But some support and encouragement goes a long way to helping us get through. The best advice I can give other parents on this front is to find an unschooling community (online, during the pandemic) and get involved. Share your experiences and ask all your questions. Listen to others. Unschoolers are here for each other and there are thousands of other parents out there who will understand your trials and offer support.

What to do While De-schooling?
Like everything else about unschooling, that's up to you and your kids! Some people just sit back and do nothing. Let the kids play video games until they're blue in the face. Let them read the same book over and over and over until you think you've lost them. Let them really just do nothing. There's nothing wrong with that; their brains are doing something. They are processing. De-schooling is a process, leading both kids and parents to discover their own boredom. Boredom is like a swear word to so many of us; we're accustomed to filling every spare second of our time with activity. But space of time and mind is needed to embark on a new adventure, and boredom is that space. Silence is a good space too. Let it be.

De-schooling isn't about what you're doing as much as it's about what you're not doing. Make a lot of big bored silent space, just asking to be filled. This will cultivate the desire to do something, later. And unschooling is all about finding and following our hearts' desires.

Wait -- Who Makes the Rules?! What About Safety?
I don't see unschooling as mayhem with the kids ruling the roost. I see it has a contract between all the household members to work for the happiness of everyone. We're all responsible. This means lots of conversation; lots of vulnerability. Total honesty. If I made the food too spicy just because I like it that way, but one of the kids is suffering, then maybe I need to serve the spices separately. If you don't like the way I do your laundry, you can learn to do it yourself. This isn't a punishment; it's a fabulous learning opportunity and a pathway to self-reliance. If you don't want me to show you how to do the laundry, figure it out yourself. If I, as a parent, am hiding in my room because my kid is watching horribly violent movies and it's too much for me, then maybe it's too much for the whole family. My needs matter too. If my kid is hanging off a cliff and it terrifies me, perhaps I need to explain the reasons for my fear. Kids can handle the truth better than they usually navigate a blurry field of unexplained rules.

Safety in our family means lots of talking, and sometimes taking risks that I don't approve of. However frightening it is, I know that my children learn how to be safe from risk-taking, and I have to stand back, cover my eyes, and let it happen. I try to model calculated risk-taking, myself. My hope is that if they follow my lead, the accidents will be fewer and smaller, and so far this has proven to be true. Children learn far more from what we do than from what we tell them.

But Screens!!!
It turns out most kids will eventually grow bored of sitting in front of their screens and find something else to do. And it seems that almost always takes more time than we parents have patience for. It's really hard to watch our kids drowning in activities we see as useless or detrimental. Many of my family's struggles have been related to screen-time, and I almost always lose an argument when trying to convince them to cut back their screen-time. I've laid down the law quite a few times, and this kind of coercion has been detrimental to their own feelings of taking responsibility. The times I've been more successful, I've had more patience. Reminding ourselves that more time is needed, and seeking encouragement from other parents is helpful in this regard.

What to Do; What to Learn
One of the wonderful things about unschooling is the opportunity for kids and parents to learn life skills that otherwise may have gone by the wayside, in lieu of time spent doing homework or extra-curricular activities. Unschooling is about living life to the fullest, and this includes taking care of ourselves, along the way. In doing so we're bound to learn how life works, how our bodies work, how our home and family works, how to live well in community. These are the essentials of life. All the facts and figures learned in school make their way into what we learn from life, but in real and tangible ways. It astounded me that when my son finally went to school in grade seven, he not only understood math at grade level, but understood why it worked. His twelve years of exploring the workings of the world without formal math instruction had fully prepared him to understand the functions and relationships of numbers.

Unschooling is about exploration and experimentation, so what to do is anything that you find engaging!

Maybe you need some inspiration. Here are some things we love to do:
  • Go on family adventures (mostly brief, local, and low-cost, as these usually seem to be the least stressful and most rewarding). 
  • Make some new recipes - experiment in the kitchen! In times of isolation we may have to get creative with fewer ingredients, anyway. Try old recipes with new ingredients or try making things you may have purchased ready-made before.
  • Start reading those books that have been beckoning from the shelf for years. 
  • Sign up and follow one of the many free online courses available from universities around the world. 
  • Learn a new language with Duolingo
  • Wilderness camping or hikes are probably a fairly safe activity for virus-isolated families, as long as you stick to the less-travelled wilderness areas. If nobody else has been there for at least a week, you're probably safe. And bonus: it's a welcome distraction from screens, as well as being one of the best possible activities for health, happiness, and education. 
  • Those fortunate enough to own a vehicle can go on road-trips (as long as you stay in your car through towns and villages; don't go into shops or other populated areas). 
  • If you have access to land, or even a balcony, plant a garden! I once had a three-foot-wide balcony in the city, where I grew beans for shade and privacy, a pumpkin that failed to make fruit, a bunch of lettuce and basil, spinach, and a tiny two-by-two-foot lawn!
Do you hear the excitement in my typing? That's because I'm listing the things I love doing, myself. Even if our kids don't want to be involved, modelling fun, healthy activities is the best possible education we can give them. My kids get up to all kinds of other things like fort-building (both with lumber and with sticks in the forest), geocaching, making videos to share online, performing with their self-taught instruments, and just simply hanging out with friends (online during coronavirus). I'm sure your kids will have their own ideas. Mine frequently surprise me, as they did with this cardboard vending machine which they built and spent two days entertaining our community with! But don't follow my ideas. Your own and your children's will be far more interesting. Obviously, during isolation season, geocaching, busking, cardboard vending machine operation, and any other activity that involves touching things that are also touched by other people, are out of the question. This definitely poses some problems, but sometimes the internet solves these problems. Get creative!

What About Academics?
Our kids will be fine. They learned to crawl and to walk and eventually to speak without formal instruction, and when they're similarly inspired they'll learn to read, write, and calculate. They may not do these things at the times school-going children do, but they'll do it at the time that is right for them. I've known a few unschoolers who didn't take an interest in reading until they were ten or more years old, and within a year or two of developing an interest, they were reading at or beyond what many would call "grade-level".

Of course there's always a chance that kids will struggle with academics at some point, but in my experience it's no more likely for unschoolers than for kids who've spent a lifetime in the school system. In fact, unschooling often gives struggling kids a chance to succeed on their own terms, while not being compared to classmates. Just don't worry. Children sense their parents' fears and then they battle those fears too. The best thing you can do to support your children is support yourself, so that your fears don't become theirs.

Some kids just love structure. All of us can benefit from it in some ways. I have no problem with structure, but I've usually tried to let my kids define it for themselves. My daughter seemed to be born passionate about planning, and has often had schedules and other plans for herself, even when I wasn't so organized. She had lists in books before she could write (only she knew what they said, but they were very important to her). My son didn't find planning very important at all until he decided to quickly earn his graduation diploma, and suddenly found himself scheduling all his time down to the minute, as he raced to finish an impossible-seeming number of courses he wasn't quite prepared for. He made it by some miracle, and now has an appreciation and aptitude for planning.

So let them create the structure they need, and create your own. In our family, it's me who generally has a master plan, and my challenge is to learn to adapt when it doesn't suit the needs of others.

Loneliness and Support
Skype charades
Lastly, and most importantly, build a support network. Social interaction really can be difficult for families staying at home without a wider community. We struggled quite a bit with this during times when there were few other homeschoolers, and all our children's friends were busy with school and extra-curriculars. We had some lonely times, which were always the reasons my kids tried out school programs. During this pandemic, isolation will be an even greater challenge, despite our great efforts to achieve it. We'll have to find ways to connect, and the Internet is likely to be our best friend. Skype, Zoom, and other visual platforms can be great for kids. When they were much younger, mine had a few Skype visits with their friends who were living aboard a sailboat. It was amazing to me to watch them have costume parties, make crafts, play music jams, and sword-fight each other over Skype.

I personally prefer my old-fashioned phone, and am happy to make myself a cup of tea, snuggle in with my rotary, and have a long-distance tea-date with a friend. I get my parent-support by participating in online unschooling forums. Facebook has quite a few, often linked with other homeschooling groups, and also often local.
I wish you well in your unschooling and life explorations. It's an adventurous path to take, and I've never regretted our personal journey. I hope yours is fabulous! I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite radio shows: Stay calm, be brave; wait for the signs!


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Why Art is Essential for Learning

Have you ever seen Saturn's rings? I mean in person? I have. Once when my science-obsessed son was passionate about astronomy (and the technology for studying it!), we went out to share the moment of Saturn's proximity to the earth with some other enthusiasts and an enormous telescope. It took what felt like far too long to set that telescope up - over an hour, as I recall - as I stood with my young kids in the freezing winter field, assuring them over and over again that that one particular bright point of light we could see was, in fact, Saturn. I knew it was. My research on the Internet and some of the other people gathered that night had confirmed it. And I had faith in science to be right. I knew this was an exciting event because everybody told me so. But it was also cold, frustrating, and as the time dragged on, and the thing they said was Saturn kept marching across the sky, ever out of the continually readjusted telescope, I was losing my faith. 

Finally the telescope was properly set up, and we awaited our turns to look. By the time my turn arrived, Saturn had drifted out of view again and the telescope had to be adjusted. Again. Then I looked. It was like someone was showing me a cartoon. There was Saturn with it's rings (I could even see the dark gap between them), and three of its moons clearly visible. I struggled to link the tiny white image I was seeing, which looked so rudimentary, with the immaculate photos and renderings I'd seen in colour in movies and books, and with reality. I looked from the eyepiece of the telescope back up to the point of light in the sky. I looked along the length of the telescope and confirmed that it was, in fact, pointed at that same point of light, and that by all reason I was truly seeing the same point, magnified by a series of lenses. I gazed into the eyepiece, and after a few moments realized that I could see the three-dimensionality of it. I could see a slight shadow from the planet on its own rings. the little logo-like image drifted to the edge of my view again, and I realized that, not only was I looking at a real planet dancing unfathomably far away from our own, but also that our own was slowly turning away in its own different but intrinsically connected part of the dance of our solar system.

I would have said Mind. Blown. But that wasn't a thing yet back then, or my kids weren't old enough to have taught it to me. My previously-limited mind opened in that freezing cold moment, and the solar system became interesting to me. Gravity became interesting to me. Telescopes and people who use them became interesting to me. So much that I had never even wondered about who we are as humans in this beyond-huge infinity of the universe began to preoccupy my thoughts, until I found I looked at earth, and humanity, and my children, and me, differently than I had, before.

Then we all began to freeze in earnest, and we went home to our fires.

Art is like that telescope, that night. It's what brings us to the world and helps us understand it. Art is about learning to see. So often this basic truth goes unnoticed as we imagine that art is for artists; that art is a frivolous pass-time, or that art should take a backseat to more essential activities like learning to read, solving equations, and developing the ability to recite stories from human history. Many of us have heard, by now, that music enhances math education, and that children who learn through music and dance retain information better than those who only learn through verbal instruction. But how often do schools offer visual art as an essential learning tool for all students? We all suffer the consequences of blindness as a result of not learning to see. 

As someone who sees breakthroughs of discovery and understanding on a regular basis when I teach art, I want to take some space to explain, a little. The examples I'm going to talk about aren't the end of the equation; there are so many ways we can learn to see. These are just a few of an infinite variety of ways that our species opens our minds through visual art. I believe very strongly that gaining visual and creative literacy is an essential part of learning and retaining all that information that our culture values so deeply.

Line Drawing
Fundamentally, line-drawing requires a mental translation from an understood three-dimensional concept to a two-dimensional surface. We know what we know more than we are conscious of what we see. Line drawing requires and promotes development of conscious observation. Have you ever seen a child draw a picture of a house with all four sides visible, as if the four walls were unfolded onto the plane? We can't see the back of the house, but the child knows it's there, so draws it. Similarly, they often draw the sky as a blue line, because they understand the concept of there being a sky above, but they don't conceptualize the idea that it's unending, and therefore, in a line-drawing, invisible. All of these things require observation to discover, and training and practice of observation and line-drawing promotes this discovery.

There are so many ways to translate observation into line, from the rather mathematical calculation of perspective to the deep inquiry needed to document tiny things we might otherwise not examine (like the texture of a leaf), to the intuitive, emotional research needed for blind contour drawing of people we know. All of these things allow us to look and see in new ways, and then we take these new ways of seeing into other activities. Learning to draw a street with linear perspective, for example, not only helps us understand observation, relative size, and laws of physics, but also helps us understand the vastness of our world, and opens our eyes to see more consciously when we're out in the world. So in the end it gives us a deeper understanding of everything.

Technical and Psychological Colour Theory
My daughter still talks about the time she learned from her very clever friend at preschool that mixing red and white would make pink. So she tried it, but used red and yellow... and it turned out orange! She was painting a sculpture of broccoli, and decided that while pink would have been an acceptable colour for her broccoli, orange was definitely not. She was three at the time, and at fifteen this memory still comes back to her at regular intervals, because it had a huge impact on her. Not only did she make some discoveries about colour-mixing (technical colour theory), but she also discovered something about which colours jive with the concept of broccoli in her mind (psychological colour theory).

Tie-dyeing is a great experimental colour theory activity.
We are influenced by colour every second of our lives, from the clothing we choose, to the hues emitted by our light bulbs, to the design and advertising of commercial entities. We can grow up blind to this, or we can learn to recognize how we respond to colour and, using this knowledge, make wiser choices. For example, turning on the night screen mode of your devices can have a noticeable impact on your mental and physical health, since the blue light emitted by our screens changes our brain chemistry, affecting our sleep and various body systems. I also just recently discovered that blue light actually triggers our retinas to kill off photoreceptor cells, eventually leading to macular degeneration. Literally, blindness. Light really does have a physical effect on our bodies, and colour is light. Having an understanding of not only how we are affected by colour, but how we can manage it, mix it, and use it in our worlds gives us agency in our own lives and health.

An understanding of colour can open our eyes to the rest of the world, as well. If we start noticing colour in all its capacities in our lives, we notice things we didn't before. As with all of these visual discoveries, we learn to see, consciously.

Three-Dimensional Form
How often do you look at the wall of your house and wonder how it was put together? All the layers, all the varied materials and their unique functions -- do you wonder what kind of insulation is in there, and why? Do you look at a couch or an upholstered chair and wonder what's under the fabric? Do you flip through a hardcover book and then peek down inside the spine to see how it's constructed? I teach bookmaking because it opens our minds to three-dimensional form and material use. Building a hand-bound hardcover book requires a slightly complex series of construction steps, including folding and tearing or cutting pages, sewing them together, creating a sturdy, flexible spine for them with starched cheesecloth and glue, then building a hard cover out of board and paper or fabric, then embellishments, then attaching the book to its cover with perfectly-fitted endpapers. And then suddenly there you are holding a real, honest-to-goodness book, and understanding not only what all the parts are, but why they're there.

Our world is full of constructed objects, and understanding how and why things are built the way they are allows us to see everything more deeply, and also gives us the insight needed to repair and build things, ourselves. Learning how to knit a sweater, construct a pie or a complex cake, fix a bike or cobble a fix on a broken backpack are all essential in the same way: Instead of replacing broken goods, we can repair them; instead of relying on others to provide for us, we can be self-reliant. Understanding how things are made gives us confidence and courage to take charge of our own lives.

I can't write about learning without mentioning how important it is that experimentation is a part of the process. Remember that orange broccoli? My daughter's experimentation in grabbing yellow instead of white, and the consequential discovery that different parts make a different whole, is probably the reason she remembers the incident at all. When somebody tells us something, we may take it or leave it, but there's not much emotional pay-off in just following instructions. There's a huge emotional pay-off in discovering something ourselves!

The other day I took my son's snowboard in to a local ski and board shop, hoping to replace a lost toe ramp. Apparently the bindings are an older model, and the toe ramp is not something we can just order and replace. And no way on earth can I afford new bindings. So this amazing person at North Shore Ski and Board examined the remaining toe ramp on the other binding, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with some handfuls of padding, boot inserts, and double-sided tape paper. He gleefully experimented for a few minutes with different materials and placements, until he came up with a solution that most closely matched the other toe ramp. Then he started measuring, cutting and gluing, and in less than an hour, total, he had repaired my son's snowboard. He charged me for the parts and time, which was far less than any binding replacement part would have cost, if I had been able to buy one. And then he posted about his awesome customer service on social media, and showed off his handiwork to his boss. His pride was glorious for me to witness.

Like Icarus' experiment, this one didn't go as expected, either. He learned many things, that day!
Art leads to experimentation, and humans need to experiment. It's how we learn and evolve. Trying new things, failing, and trying again is how we learn to keep trying; how we develop resilience and courage and grit. All of the important skills that art gives us are made more accessible through experimentation. It's not enough to teach someone how to draw a street scene with accurate perspective; we need to allow children to make perspective drawing part of their personal experimentation, without criticism, direction, or correction, so that they make discoveries and carry that learning on into the next things they play. We need to give them time and space to make a big mess; to scratch up clay from the creek and see if they can build something of it; to take apart their toys because what's inside is more interesting than what's outside. We need to give them resources and time and encouragement, and then stand back and just allow them to experiment. That is how they will grow up to see the world around them as a great big fascinating opportunity for growth. That is how our children will grow.


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Respect Yourself: Unschooling Reading

On our journey as an unschooling family, the very first struggle we had was with our own presumptions about reading. It seemed like one of the most important parenting tasks we had was to make sure our kids were reading-ready before Kindergarten. According to things I'd read at the time, this amounted to my kid having a firm grasp of the alphabet, and a strong love of looking through books and being read to. This was the bare minimum, since other parents we talked to already had their preschoolers reading short sentences, and studying phonics. The stakes were high.

From age two to four, our son was passionate about reading and language. He spoke clearly and carefully, expressing his feelings and ponderings and discoveries, and when he didn't know how to put these things into words, he drew or described, and requested the correct words for his needs. He trusted us to supply him with whatever new words he needed when he needed them. Without reading a word, in the conventional sense, he "read" to his baby sister every day, as he enthusiastically entertained her with great stories and descriptions of the books he presented her. He sang, too - long story-songs full of angst and emotion. He drew diagrams of his complex inventions, and instructed me to label them for him so I would understand all the important details. Sometimes he tried labeling, himself.

By the time my son was four, I began to worry that all this expression wasn't enough for Kindergarten, and I began tracing my finger along as I read to him, to let him see which words I was reading. My hand got in the way of not only the pictures in the books, but even of the words he was looking at. So I began reading more slowly, and giving him time to look at the picture after. He complained that I was ruining the story. Do you see what's happening, here? Because I didn't. But I do now. This was the long series of moments I stopped respecting my son. I listened to the voice of my own fears instead of his voice. This was the moment that our beautiful story times stopped being about enjoyment of stories and words and togetherness, and began to be a kind of manipulation. He stopped reading to his sister, and read only silently to himself, on the bedroom floor. I knew he was capable of figuring out the words, so I tried to get him to read me some. He refused, so I bought a new book. Jake Bakes a Cake. My son is 17 now and as far as I know he's never read that book. You know why? Because that innocent book was the last straw. After I sat him down with Jake Bakes a Cake, he didn't read another book for nine months.

Nine months later, he was in Kindergarten, fighting his own rebellion against the teacher who wanted him to respond to stories in his journal. I had finally given up completely and decided I'd trust the system to teach him, since I had clearly failed. Then we went on a road trip. Somewhere along the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo, we stopped at an intersection, and our boy whispered tentatively from the back seat: "S -- TA -- AW -- PUH". We waited. "S -- TAW-P". I remember being afraid to carry on driving, but we did. The sign was gone, and in a moment he said, "did that sign say 'stop'?" Well if I know one thing about my son it's that my enthusiasm about his discovery would kill it for him, so I put my hand on my husband's leg, and said "yes", like it didn't matter at all.

By the time we got home he had read a handful of signs, quietly to himself. And then, as we parked outside the bank: "Mama, what does 'par-kinje' mean?" It might sound like I learned to respect him at that point, but I didn't. I still thought we were on the right track to learning to read. I still thought he was measuring up. I failed to see his innate curiosity for what it was, and to nurture it without judgment. I told him that i-n-g makes the sound 'ing', and celebrated quietly when he carefully pronounced 'parking'. I failed to see soon enough that my kid had his own interests, needs and life-path, separate from those arranged for him by me and the school system. But this idea began to grow on me, and we pulled him out of school the next spring. The world of unschooling opened our minds. I began to explore the idea of respecting my kids, in order to foster self-respect in them. My son did grow to love reading again, but I will never know what might have been his life if we'd been a little wiser to begin with.

So I also need to stop judging myself. Self-respect is learned partly by modelling, and unfortunately I'm not a terribly good model for my children. Like every other parent, I am fumbling along, making mistakes and trying to learn from them. Who knows what kind of life we'd have if I'd sent my kids to school? Or if I'd been unschooled, myself? Who knows what would have happened if I had pushed Jake Bakes a Cake on my son, or had shown too much enthusiasm when he read the word 'stop'.

My son now likes to read fiction: sci-fi and a little fantasy. Exciting but not cruel. His spelling is not always accurate, but he uses spell-check when he feels it matters. His writing reads like speech; he uses punctuation so that I hear his voice in it. He's not much into poetry or song lyrics, and although at age nine he read an incredible amount of advanced physics research, he now reads more how-to manuals and science humour. He drops in to read over my shoulder if he hears me laughing. My daughter, who benefited from and earlier start to unschooling, is a voracious and passionate reader and reviewer of youth and historical fiction, and has memorized the scripts of countless musical theatre productions. Interestingly, she was also into advanced books at age nine, reading as much as she could from Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics because she fervently wanted to create a free economy. But eventually that interest waned, and now she spends almost as much time reading and writing SIMS manuals as she does writing her first novel. Her spelling is usually immaculate, but she hates ending sentences, and often forgets to put a period at the end of a paragraph. My kids are individuals, like we all are, using reading like the simple tool it is in whatever way suits their needs.

Reading is as individual a pursuit as wearing clothes. Society expects us to do it most of the time, and there will be people critical of our choices no matter what we do, but how we enjoy it is entirely up to us. Today I am respecting myself by wearing pajama bottoms and my partner's sweater. Tomorrow I'll dress up fancy for going to town. Sometimes I like to wear black with band t-shirts and sometimes I like to wear multiple big flowery skirts. Sometimes I wear those things together, and I really really hate blazers. Some days I'm a novelist and some days I'm a poet. Some days I write about parenting.

Reading is something that happens to us, because it's all around us. As long as our kids live in a world full of written words, they'll learn to read. The more we can foster self-respect in them, the more they will be empowered to make sound choices about what, when, and how they want to use this tool. The more we respect those choices, the better they will become at making them.
(A little something to remind us of summer.....)
The Novelist and the Poet go for lunch
Novelist : ​I want them to turn the pages.
Poet : ​I want them to linger.
Novelist: ​That’s not a good plot.
Poet: ​There is no plot.
Novelist: ​How interesting is that?
Poet: ​ It's all about what's happening now.
Novelist ​: But where does it go?
Poet​: Here.
Novelist:​ What is here?
Poet:​ Everything.
Novelist: ​ I can't follow.
Poet: ​ Just be here and listen
Novelist :​ To what?
Poet : ​ The stone in the rain. The walls of the house. The bridge in the dark.
Everything has something to say.
Novelist: ​What does the bridge say?
Poet : ​Don't jump.
Novelist:​ The bridge has no voice. The readers don't want fairy tales.
Poet : ​The bridge has many disguises.
Novelist :​ There was a bridge and thousands of cars drove over it and once in awhile someone jumped from it and died. An old story.
Poet: ​Some bridges transport cars. Some connect souls. Others fill in the gaps. Some rise out of the mist.
Novelist: ​ Why mention the mist?
Poet: ​Because visibility was limited.
Novelist: ​Is that why she jumped?
Poet: ​That's why she waited.
Novelist: ​ This is too slow.
Poet: ​I want them to know her.
Novelist: ​All they want to know is whether she jumped or not.
Poet:​ Maybe they want the real story.
Novelist: ​ That's what I have been saying. They want to know if she jumped. They don't want to hear her musings on the mist.
Poet : ​ Maybe they want to know what stopped her from jumping.
Novelist :​ Someone comes along and saves her?
Poet: ​Maybe she remembers something.
Novelist: ​That it's a long way down and the water is cold?
Poet: ​She remembers summer
Novelist: ​ This isn’t going anywhere.
Poet: ​ Butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, hummingbirds, robins' eggs,
bare feet on fresh cut grass, sweet corn, peaches, plums.
Novelist: ​All those things might make the reader just close the book and go outside and play in the sun and not bother reading to the end
Poet: Yes.

used with permission from:
lisa shatzky
from The Bells that Ring,
published by Black Moss Press, 2017
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 *Hello! If you're new here, this is my unschooling blog. Eighteen years ago, just before my first baby was born, I'd never heard of unschooling, and hadn't given my kids' education any thought. Now that we've traveled a few meandering paths, and have two children who have made very different life and education choices, I'm writing a little series about some of the things we've worried about, struggled with and overcome, on this journey. This isn't intended as advice because, as we've learned most assuredly, one person's experience cannot ever be another's. But if you're a new unschooler or unschooling parent, I hope to reassure you. In many ways, unschooling is just like schooling: We're all different, and most of us manage to find our ways through whichever systems we choose, especially when we listen to our (or our kids') hearts, and respect ourselves. This series is called Respect Yourself - it's as much about respecting ourselves as parents as it is about giving our children the space to respect themselves.*


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