Saying “Yes” to Unschooling

Plunging into the Unexpected

This past week I did something I did not expect to do until June.  I sent a letter to our local school superintendent with my intent to home-school my child – in the middle of the school year!  We had been home-schooling together from grades 1 through 6, but I enrolled her in middle-school in September of 2017.  The guidance counselor decided that it was best for her to start from the ground up, so she entered school as a sixth grader.

From that time until the present, I heard earfuls of grief about how miserable she was at school.  Some children have made the transition from home-schooling to public school learning with relative ease, but my child was not one of those.  She had supportive teachers, but that was not enough to keep her going.  On top of that, last month she fell and has since been recovering from a concussion.  That caused her to miss an extra week of school and to fall behind in her schoolwork.  I wasn’t sure if she would ever recover.  I was also done with the constant worry about her emotional well-being.  I missed home-schooling as much as she did and was ready to return.

Socialization

It wasn’t the schoolwork that she found hard, except for math.  Math has been her most challenging subject, but that can change with time.  She was doing well in all of her other subjects.  It was the social scene she didn’t like or trust.  She couldn’t figure out who was a potential friend because everybody was mean to everybody else and put each other down constantly, with few exceptions. They were also fickle.  They changed their allegiances at the drop of a pencil.  She was so bothered by the culture on the school bus that she asked me to drive her home every day instead of making her take the bus.

The one argument most people make in favor of formal schooling has been around socialization.  But, are our children learning things we may not want them to?  Are they emotionally and physically safe there?  Is the predominant culture all that healthy?  Unless there is an extreme case of bullying, I don’t think teachers or administrators notice if a child is feeling unsafe.  This type of thing builds up quietly until it is too late.  There is tremendous peer pressure to go along with the norm of what classmates think is funny, cool, etc., or be harmed by rumors, teasing, practical jokes, or worse.  If my daughter did not want to learn in the environment that she encountered at school every day, she wasn’t going to.  If a child is under tremendous stress, her receptivity to learning new things is diminished significantly by that stress.  A sense of safety is important to learning new things.  My daughter will learn more with her fellow home-schooling friends, travel, and random gatherings with other youth than if she kept attending public school.

The environment of most public schools is not one conducive to inspiring all children to become lifelong learners.  Sitting at desks does not engage their imaginations.  Their curiosity and wonder are crushed by long days with limited movement.  Perhaps not all children experience this because they somehow thrive in the academic environment and succeed, but that experience does not serve all students.  We have read many stories about what happens to the students who cannot fit in.

 

Cosette's Ivy.jpg
The bottom 3 sets of ivy around the right side our doorway was painted by my daughter.

Curiosity, Wonder and Unschooling

My philosophy about life is that we only have the chance to live ours once.  We need to do it right.  Why not make it the happiest life there is, and generate the fondest of memories to warm us on cold, dark, wintry nights?  I wanted to give my daughter back her happiness and to lighten her spirit.  I wanted her to love both life and learning again.

During our former years of home-schooling, I sat beside my daughter and worked with her to develop skills in observation, experimentation, and recording what she saw.  She learned how to draw what she observed, think about how two substances interacted together and wrote down questions she wanted to find answers to.  This time around, I know that she is old enough to take responsibility for her own education.  She will start by reading some books in each of the subjects that we already have at home, and then supplement those resources with library books, field trips and other fun activities.  She will use our local library’s web site as a free portal into the world of learning new languages, such as Spanish.  I will need to work while she reads, writes and explores, but will make time to listen to her share what she has learned.  She will also be responsible for keeping up-to-date records of her learning experiences – just enough information for me to write the progress report in June.

My daughter’s spirit and energy are returning to her, more quickly than she expected.  She has expressed curiosity about the content she is reading  and wonder about what she notices happening in the world around her.  That is because she is given the room to demonstrate agency when choosing her own curriculum at the highest level she is capable of learning.  She knows herself best.  She takes lots of initiative in beginning and completing projects, such as painting ivy around our back doorway (above).  She is also given time to exercise her body, because physical activity also feeds the brain.  I am excited to see how she works through the learning activities she sets up for herself, and  look forward to working with her on projects such as painting wall murals now and then.

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Finding Enchantment in our Modern World

Enchant

There are two definitions of the work Enchant, v. in the Webster’s New Riverside University Dictionary: 1. to cast a spell over;  2. to Charm and delight completely.

Have you every encountered a scene in nature that has enchanted you?  How about a person?  Or a pet?  Perhaps the place or person delights you and you have gathered some lovely memories around that place or person.  If you are enchanted by a pet, you probably love spending lots of time playing with your critter friend. No matter the source of your enchantment, memories of spending time with that source undoubtedly bring you joy and peace.

beautiful elsa eating a blackberry
Our late beloved pet hamster, Elsa, eating a blackberry

Gratitude and Well-Being

What are your sources of enchantment?  Take out a piece of paper and make a list.  How many are they?  Does writing about them and reading over your list lead to feelings of gratitude and well-being?  When you think about them, does time slow down or stop for you?  This happens to me when I write about aspects of my world that bring me a sense of enchantment.  Here are some of the things on my list:

  1. Working in my garden
  2. Reading an enthralling book
  3. Playing with my daughter
  4. Playing with our hamsters
  5. Walking around my neighborhood during an evening snowfall
  6. Spending time by the seashore
  7. Playing my musical instruments
  8. Walking a labyrinth

Please feel free to share some of your items as comments below.  I’d love to know about them.

tabletop-seaside-labyrinth
My tabletop seashore labyrinth, which I made for myself

Re-Enchanting Our World

I am reading a book by former priest and psychologist Thomas Moore, titled The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life.  He is very Jungian in his perspective about how people form relationships with the world and how the modern world distracts us from developing deeper connections with nature, places we visit, animals, other humans, and the food we eat.  The materials of the homes we live in affect our sense of peace when we are there.  There could be too much of one element in a home, such as wood, and not enough of another, such as stone.  There could be too little color or other types of creative stimulation in our work spaces. Such imbalances increase our levels of anxiety and affect our well-being.  They detract from our health.  If we give ourselves a chance to tune into what we need, we can create a more balanced home with a few adjustments, and begin our journey back to a greater sense of wholeness.

Once we can find enchantment daily in our homes, we have the freedom and openness to find enchantment in who we encounter there, such as family and pets.  After that, we will be able to find enchantment in the places we pass through regularly, or visit occasionally, such as parks, schools, farm stands or local shops.  Are there places in your town that you find enchanting?  Are there favorite places that your family loves to visit?  Our family loves to visit North Conway, New Hampshire and Acadia National Park in Mane.  We also love to walk the trails of our local conservation land to our town library.

cosette-holding-new-sheep-puppet
My daughter holding a sheep puppet that I knitted for her and she decorated

We Are Enough

When we look around us, do we find an enchanting place that warms our heart?  If not, we can change that and make it more comfortable, more us.  Our homes are meant to reflect what we love most, what makes us feel truly “at home” in the world.  From that place we can have greater energy to meet the challenges that the world hands us, and respond with resilience and hope, perhaps sprinkled with playfulness.  We can be a healing presence to others.  Who we are is enough to light up the world.  May we bless each other with our unique light!

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A Fond Farewell to Autumn Leaves

As Autumn wanes and we await winter’s cold and snow, I bid a fond farewell to the colorful leaves that have graced my days the past couple of months.

September escaped my grasp and I have nearly allowed October to run away from me, too, as I have spent these past couple of months walking wooded paths and enjoying the glory of Autumn in New England.

As September glided into October, my family and I spent a weekend exploring Acadia National Park in Maine, one of the first parks in our national system founded a hundred years ago.  The flora, fauna, and geological diversity at the site captured our interests and imagination.  We were also treated to an early foliage peaking as the state of Maine is very close to Canada, and very close to the top of our continent. Brrr.

During the month of October, we have enjoyed the peak foliage season closer to home.  I have reveled in the glow of warm colors in the leaves as I walked our wooded labyrinth, took an art class around drawing fallen leaves with colored pencils at our local botanical garden, and watched my daughter jump into fluffy, fragrant piles.  Together we love to throw armfuls of leaves into the air and stand in the middle of their showering over our heads.

We have seen more rain fall from the sky this fall than we had all summer. The first frost bit our pole bean bushes and snap pea vines.  I am grateful for the kale that still grows and the butternut squash continuing to ripen in our pantry.  The beets still have some time before they are full grown and are hardier, so I have left them in the bed for now, and planted garlic bulbs for next year’s summer harvest.

As more colorful leaves begin to carpet the grass than flutter from the branches of trees, I extend my best wishes to you for a cozy and productive winter.  The world is ready to rest.  I am ready to spend more time indoors than outdoors.  As Garrison Keillor used to say at the end of his Prairie Home Companion show every week ~ “be well, do good work and keep in touch.”

Pet Hamsters are like Little Buddhas

Chocolate Chip crossing the rainbow bridge
Our first hamster, Chocolate Chip, scampering across the rainbow bridge

Over the past two years we have loved and lost two pet hamsters ~ Chocolate Chip and Elsa.  They filled our lives with love and joy while they lived, and when they met the end of their lives our hearts were filled with grief.  The average life expectancy for most species of hamsters is 18 months, though we had hoped to keep Elsa living as long as two years.  If we continue our habit of adopting hamsters every year and a half, we must learn to approach their impact on our lives as preparation for letting go.

Attachment and Healing from Loss

Zen Buddhism is famous for promoting the concept of non-attachment.  In order to be an effective hamster parent, I believe that it is important to form a bond of attachment with our pets, but then readily let it go and heal from our grief when they die.  Each time we adopt a pet hamster, it is important for us to form a loving bond with the individual critter that communicates to our pet that he/she is cherished.  Such a bond is expressed through showing the animal appropriate measures of respect and affection, including consistent fulfillment of their physical needs: fresh water changed daily; a bowl full of food and chews, and a clean, stimulating cage environment.

When each hamster passed on, it was comforting for us to think about the concept of their little spirits crossing over a “Rainbow Bridge” to a special heavenly home.  We buried Chocolate Chip and Lucky (my daughter’s previous pet, a blue beta fish) under the weeping willow tree on our property.  We buried Elsa near our community labyrinth, with a little mausoleum of leaves, sticks and flowers built around her resting place.

Closeup of Elsa's mausoleum

We learned from the death of Chocolate Chip that in order for our hearts to heal, it was important for us to let go of our attachment to our former pet, then allow another hamster to fill our hearts.  It took us a month to adopt Elsa last year.  It has taken us five days to adopt Sammy Bear.  She is such a merry little hamster that she wrapped her little paws around our hearts as soon as we laid eyes on her.

Each hamster that we have loved has taught us how to care for him or her, and for hamsters in general.  We hope that this learning will keep each hamster we adopt strong and healthy for more months than the previous hamster.   We heartily thank our furry friends for being such loving, patient teachers and will always hold them dear in our hearts.

Spirit Hamster
Chocolate Chip
beautiful elsa eating a blackberry
Elsa
Climbing Sammy.jpg
Samantha Bear, our newly adopted merry little hamster

Rumi rolls along

Rumi Pippin, the youngest hamster addition to our family

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