The kids and I have been having an interesting time over the last few weeks. Now that everybody’s back from summer holidays, we’ve been spending time with the lovely, small homeschooling community in Bahrain that we’ve only recently come to know.
As we’ve got to know each other, we’ve got to know a bit more about how we home educate our kids. And it’s very obvious that whilst I deeply believe in the unschooling philosophy I am following, I am very insecure about its results, especially unschooling in the Arabian Gulf which just doesn’t afford as many educationally-enriching opportunities as elsewhere in the world, especially if you’re not THE most imaginative unschooling parent or if your kids are not THE most curious-about-everything ‘Sid the Science Kid’ type but a kid who’s more interested in their own personal fantasy worlds or ‘just’ playing with friends. What really surprised me was finding out that some of the other Mums, who are taking a more ‘school at home’ approach, seem to think my educational approach is great and have reassured me that they’re sure it will result in the kinds of things I feel are most important educationally, including being literate and numerate.
I say this with ALL RESPECT to them, they are the loveliest Mums, but why don’t they do it then? Having said that, I don’t feel that I’m a good advert for unschooling given my obvious insecurities about it, so I can hardly criticise them, in any way, for not having the courage to do it too, if they wanted to. I might have the courage to do it, but I don’t yet have the courage to do it without obvious fear and trepidation! Also, it’s easier to have the courage to do something when it’s a bit forced on you! Their kids seem happy with a more ‘school at home’, structured, curriculum-based approach but Edward resists almost everything in the way of pedagogical efforts on my behalf. Many homeschoolers come to unschooling after they’ve had a miserable time with a ‘school at home’ approach. I learned from their pain and I decided from the start that I wouldn’t do that. I knew it wouldn’t suit Edward and I wouldn’t have that fight with him; putting him off learning more than school had already done. Instead, we’d go straight to finding out if he could ever learn to love learning. But still, I was surprised, however welcome it was, to hear their reassurance. It seemed genuine. They really didn’t just seem to be trying to make me feel better. They truly seemed to see a lot of merit in our unschooling approach, and not just for Edward but for possibly for any kid, including their own.
To my amazement, one Mum said she felt guilty that she wasn’t doing with her son, what I was doing with Edward. I asked what she meant and she said, “All the conversations you have. All the things you talk about”. Another Mum had echoed this sentiment just a couple of days before, when I had expressed some worries about, I think Edward’s writing skills, or almost total lack of them. She strongly urged me not to worry because, she said, “You guys talk all the time. The talking is what’s important, the discussing, the opportunity you’re giving him to frame arguments, take positions, to learn from questioning.” She said that if he could speak it, he could write it. I found this utterly fascinating, a huge eye opener and incredibly reassuring. But I did wonder, if they thought what I was doing was so great, why they weren’t doing it more themselves but then I’m quite sure they wonder why I don’t do more book work, to reassure myself at least!
I had always thought that these Mums were so sure of their approach and they definitely are compared to me about mine, in part because they are both teachers so schooling, one way or another, comes much more easily to them. But I get the impression, and I might be totally wrong, that one of the main reasons they aren’t doing it a different way, taking a more ‘unschooling’ approach, is that they don’t quite have the courage to do it and to a lesser extent, they aren’t sure it would suit THEM even more than their kids. Again, this is not a criticism, whatsoever, given my own lack of courage!
Perhaps this is because of their teaching background? Perhaps this limits them in some respects? Perhaps the fact ‘school at home’ comes easily to them means they find other approaches even harder, even scarier, to try than someone like me for who educating my kids is a totally new phenomenon. As a mother with no teaching background or even any experience of other people homeschooling, I had to build our homeschooling adventure from the ground up with foundations laid upon the wise words of ‘experts’ in the field including John Holt, who’s had a massive influence on me, and Mickey and David Colfax. With young children, even Charlotte Mason would seem to lean towards a more unschooling approach as does the Thomas Jefferson educational model developed by the DeMilles. Reading and believing in all these experts, I really ought to be more relaxed. Having said that, I do adhere to the philosophy that parents have been facilitating their kids’ learning since they were born, so I shouldn’t be as freaked out as I am about unschooling because presumably I just carry on doing what I’ve always been doing. But it feels like I’m not doing my job properly, now that the kids aren’t babies anymore. As babies my kids were much more obviously self-directing their learning than they are now they’re older. They taught themselves to speak more readily than reading or writing now.
I always had high expectations of the schools and teachers my son had so it’s not surprising that I feel daunted that those expectations have shifted to my shoulders, now that I am solely responsible for my kids’ learning. Despite being in our eighth month of homeschooling, I find that responsibility still utterly terrifying. What’s interesting is that if I was a confident unschooler I wouldn’t so much feel comfortable with the responsibility, I wouldn’t feel responsible at all. I would see the responsibility for my child’s education to be their own, with my responsibility being to simply offer myself up as a resource whenever they felt they needed it. I can’t do it though. It’s too scary, especially when they’re young and just seem to play all day if given the chance. Those days when I feel I haven’t done anything to ‘properly’ facilitate their learning, I get anxious. And yet, my gut is telling me to ‘LEAVE THEM ALONE!’
I didn’t listen to my gut enough when my son was at school. I didn’t listen right from the start, when he was so tiny and everyone said he must go to playschool to be ‘socialized’ including teacher friends who I thought could do no wrong. I caved in. I thought my gut was telling me to keep him home for selfish reasons, but it wasn’t of course. It was telling me how be to mother him, how best to mother my particular son with his particular needs, which were to be closely attached to me, not sent off to spend time with a bunch of strangers. I had no idea he could teach himself with my guidance, at least as well, anything he learned at school. And then as the years passed, I followed the academically ambitious crowd thinking that the route to my son’s happiness was success at school, at the most academically challenging school we could find. Sigh. I feel I did my son a desperate injustice which I won’t repeat with my daughter but hopefully I pulled him out of school early enough that there will be no lasting deep damage.
Yet knowing all this I still worry, I still feel guilty everyday that I’m not ‘properly’ homeschooling or even unschooling. If I saw my kids becoming independent avid learners, I’d feel that mantle of heavy responsibility falling from my shoulders with great relief but until then, I feel weighed down by guilt most mornings when they aren’t doing anything ‘schoolish’ and yet I don’t feel they should be burdened by worksheets either. I feel there’s a balance I haven’t yet found. Or else, maybe the balance has been found, the balance is zero worksheets, which is what we’re doing now, and I just have to STOP FEELING GUILTY. EVERYDAY. And just go with it. I would have ten times more energy if I could get rid of that guilt and be a better, possibly even a more creative homeschooler, for it.
I just need more moments like these for some of those worries to melt away….
In the midst of this new and very welcome reassurance from other homeschooling Mums, I experienced a golden unschooling moment. The wonderful, small Bahraini homeschooling group runs a monthly homeschooling meeting called ‘YAC’ – Young Authors’ Club. The idea is for the kids to write something, anything, and then read it out to the assembled Mums and kids. My son hasn’t written a word since we started homeschooling in February. It’s been one of my main worries but I didn’t want to push it. Nor did he read for the first few months but then suddenly took it up and considers himself, at least, quite the reader, even if I would love to see him reading more, more often and for longer. At least, I love what he reads and don’t have to face up to a boy who just reads comics or something, which of course, I’d have had to learn to accept, but it would be hard.
I had mentioned the upcoming meeting to Edward a couple of times and suggested that perhaps he could write something, anything, for it. He tried to wriggle out of it but I asked him to consider my request. One night, shortly after he’d gone to bed, he said he wanted to start writing his story. I was annoyed because he should have been in bed and this should be my precious kid-free time, but I quickly hid it; I don’t look gift horses in the mouth and promptly relinquished my computer. He started typing up a story. His typing, although using all the correct fingers, is incredibly laborious because he hasn’t practised his newly learned skill. Also, he stopped every couple of words to ask me how to spell. He wouldn’t agree to ‘just writing’, he wanted his piece to be correctly spelled as he went along. We had a few companionable evenings like that. I read nearby whilst Edward tapped….tapped…tapped out the first few paragraphs of his story. I was thrilled but figured that the thing that induced him to start was when he gave himself the option of bed or writing. When the daytime choice was play or write, he wanted to play but ultimately he did want to write his story and so he did, until quite late at night.
After a few days though, he started staying in bed at night. I don’t know if he was suddenly more tired or if he’d lost interest so I asked him if he could continue it during the day. He said he didn’t have any more ideas for it. This is a boy never lost for ideas, never short of imagination so I suspected the laborious typing and spelling stops wasn’t helping his enjoyment of the writing process so I offered to type whilst he spoke. He was reluctant at first but then he was off, like a racehorse out of the starting gate. In two days, he dictated, hardly pausing for breath, in two, I think half hour long sessions, an 8 page story – a totally lucid, interesting story without a single word being edited or revised. I found it stressful not to try and improve it, especially as a writer, but I felt strongly this had to be totally his own work. Not that it needed much improving but every writer could do with finessing their work but I felt this could come across as discouraging and that was the last thing I wanted! A rhyming, coherent poem, a song, even came out in the middle of the story, obviously inspired by ‘The Hobbit’, which he’d been reading. It even had a clever cliffhanger at the end of one chapter. As I typed, it felt like I was witnessing a miracle. This boy could write and write well! He just needed an incentive of interest to him. The YAC meeting was the incentive but perhaps the time was also right and he was off! He then thoroughly enjoyed, although he admitted to being nervous, reading it out to everyone at the YAC meeting, which was another challenge, another achievement to add to the writing one.
I just hope this continues. He hasn’t written more of his story yet, but we’ll see what happens this week. My plea to the homeschooling God is – Please, please may I see more evidence that unschooling works for literacy and numeracy, despite limited educational opportunities outside home, despite me being not the most imaginative unschooler in the world. It certainly works in terms of having happy, confident, creative, imaginative kids. It certainly works in terms of Edward becoming a boy who enjoys reading, they way he does it at least. It certainly works in terms of him learning in a natural organic way whatever he does learn; he’s learned a lot geography by just asking where places are, because they’ve popped up in conversation, and looking them up on the map on the wall. I think Petra will find learning fun and natural if we carry on this way. But I think I would freak out if, as I’ve hard, she doesn’t know how to write her name at age 10 because it’s never been something she’s been bothered to learn and the unschooling family therefore didn’t teach it. If I was more spiritual, I would recognize that homeschooling is a calling and that includes the approach and to trust more. Trust more. Must work on that!
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IF YOU’RE NEW TO HOMESCHOOLINGMIDDLEEAST, welcome! I highly recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. The fastest way to access this is to look for ‘Archives’ on the right hand side of the home page, click on ‘February 2012’ and scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens. If you want a quick first visit, you could type a term e.g. ‘socialization’ or ‘university’, into the ‘Search’ box or of course you could just read my latest posts without doing anything!
Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this is an adventure into homeschooling that is not yet 3 months old and the journey has been a rollercoaster – philosophically and emotionally, catalogued daily for the first couple of months. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience you share with me, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you!