Interview with a Veteran Unschooler
My sister recently interviewed my friend Sandy, who is the mother of two grown unschooled boys. (She also plays a wicked violin!)
Q: How did you first become interested in homeschooling?
Sandy: That goes back a long way. I was working in Toronto in the 70’s and I read this book called “And the children played” by Patricia Loudry, she’s from England, she’s a comic and a playwright. She was living in England and she was raising her kids and she decided she would make a little school in their house in the country anyway the kids just played. It was an inspiring book. And I thought well it’s a great idea, but? … they had this manor in the country with theatre and interesting people visiting, all very rich, cultural, stuff going on. And um a young woman who was student at a college in London…came to this daycare that I was working at the was a bit alternative and she was doing something about alternative education and she looked very familiar but I couldn’t place her and it turns out, this about two weeks after I just finished reading the book and it was still in the kitchen of the daycare, and so it turned out she was the second to youngest daughter of Patricia Loudry and I had seen her picture when she was 12 or 13 in the book. She was just so articulate and self-posed and aware and I thought okay the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So I actually met someone back in the late 70’s who had actually grown-up without school and seemed to be doing very fine thank-you very much. …. So that is sortive where it started. Way back when, even before I met Michael.
Q: And was he interested in it is well?
Sandy: Well he just hated school. He was one of those people who were just bored to death all the time. He thought it was such a tremendous waste of time and he could have been doing things that were so much more interesting to him, you know. He would get in trouble for reading history books in class because it wasn’t the right book and things like that. So he wasn’t all that keen in school. So we talked about things like homebirth and home schooling before …you know I thought , I’m not going to have to convince this guy! I’d better marry him [laugh]! Anyway that’s where it all started. We had no idea how we were going to do it, how long we were going to do it. Well we had our first kid in 1995 .. but I mean it was obvious he was learning just fine and umm I couldn’t see why it would change when he turned five. So we just kept doing it and really never expected to do it all the way through. But really he went to school for the first time in his 20’s. He took a sound engineering course and graduated at the top of his class because it was something he was keen on and interested in. He won an internship at a studio and has been freelancing since. He’s alright.
Q: And that’s your 1st Son?
Sandy: My 2nd son is in his first year of University.
Q: Was it different homeschooling each of them?
Sandy: We’re very much … kind of organic learners. So we didn’t do a lot of structured stuff, well I guess we did but the structure looked a lot different than it would in school. We used very few test books and no curriculum to speak of. We made heavy use of the library, with both kids. I mean that was on a weekly basis. And they were read to from the time they were born. Umm I guess it looked different with both of them because their interests were different. …But umm…they were both late readers and late readers. The oldest one started reading on his own at around ten. He would read a bit before that … the youngest one could decode single words when he was six…he could break down and sound out words but he couldn’t figure out what he’d read because it was he was concentrating on the words. So he just backed off because it wasn’t doing him any good. What’s the point of reading if I don’t know what I’ve read. They both just waited until they could get what they wanted out of doing it, which was information.
… The other thing was that with the older one … he was a really kinetic kid and he started dictating stories when he was three or four years old. They were just wonderful, delightful stories with word play and everything. But he would be running back and forth across the room and doing somersaults over the couch and everything. And if you asked him to sit still … you know – Sit down I can’t write that fast – it was like all his energy had to go into being still and he couldn’t. It didn’t work. So if he was moving and talking these wonderful fluid things came out. So I think he may have had a very hard time it school. It would have looked very different.
Q: When you were saying it was structured in a different way … how would you say it was structured?
Sandy: Well it was structured around activities that they were interested in. We went skating on Monday. And we did that as a family. So Monday was skating. And for awhile, when he was maybe between 10 and 11, my older one took piano lessons. So that day of the week we knew we would be going into east van so we would find things to do there. And there were home schooling activities all the time. A bit different than they are now, they weren’t organized for us. We had to organize them ourselves. But umm that was before the days that the community centers discovered this whole target group out here who can use these empty spaces during the day while everybody else is at school. So the structure came around classes or group activities that were with other people and we did our own stuff in between.
Q: So was there a community here on when you started?
Sandy: Not on the North shore. There is now. But I think that’s how I discovered the entire lower mainland because we were always going to somebody else thing somewhere, with the greater Vancouver homeschoolers who were from all over the place because it was a smaller community when we were doing it. Though it was pretty big for you know the early 90’s when we started doing it as a group. Yes it was the early 90’s when we started going to meetings. Even in those days there was no shortage of families doing it.
Our approach changed from radical unschooling and just sort of following the kids interests to encouraging them, probably more strongly than I should have thinking back, to do things at certain times that they weren’t interested in. I mean everybody goes through the ‘oh my god, he doesn’t read yet, so you push a little bit and then back off.
Q: And in retrospect you think it would have been fine to just ..
Sandy: It probably would have been because they … For instance my older one could sort of print block letters. He had gotten that far and then decided he wasn’t interested anymore and had had enough. But he going to a writers circle and they would show their writing and he was writing a screenplay for a TV show or something on the computer when he was twelve. He still wasn’t using cursive or printing legibly. And it was a really kind of supportive group of homeschoolers and they would sometimes do exercises there. They would you know write while listening to music or the usual writing circle kind of games. And he was trying to read back something that he had written … he showed it to me when he got home. He had been trying to write fast enough, so he was trying to get all his thoughts down so he wasn’t leaving spaces between the words and punctuation. He said ‘It was really embarrassing, I couldn’t read it back, so I think it’s time I learn cursive’. And I said, ‘Okay, how do you want to do it’. He said, ‘Let’s, just do it’. And I said, ‘So let’s starts in blocks that are manageable, maybe do 20 minutes for awhile’. So the first day we sat down and we had gone over how to do the alphabet in Palmer’s script. I wish I had had a book of italics, that probably would have been easier, but I had learned Palmer’s so that is what I taught him. We did that for about twenty minutes and then the next day he sat there for maybe an hour. I had given him some of those sentences that contain all the letters of the alphabet. So he copied those out and it took him over an hour. And then the next day he did the same thing and it only took him twenty minutes. And then he said ‘Well, I think I’ll try writing something on my own.” And then he said “Okay I think I got it now and if I need anything more I’ll let you know” and he had never asked for anymore help. He started carrying around a notebook and started jotting down ideas for thought and poems.
Q: I think the idea that a kid could say ‘I want to learn something’ and then be able to say ‘okay, I’ve learned enough and I think I get it’, is a novel idea to many people.
Sandy: Well it’s also hard … we’ve bought into the whole system, we grew up with being taught things in a certain way and stretched out over years. And to think that someone could plan to do something well enough to get by with in three or four days, or not studying it at all. When Nick was seven, the only math book we had around here was a grade five text. And he thought it looked interesting so he flipped open to a few pages to see what kind of stuff they were covering. I guess he would have been grade one or two and he had never been taught any math other then he would keep score in his head or keep score of the strikes and balls in a ball game. And his dad had talked to him about learning batting averages – baseball has always been his passion – and he could do all the pages in the grade five text book – he could add and subtract. He didn’t know how he could do it but he could do it.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of home schooling for you … as an over-all experience?
Sandy: Well I think it’s getting to be part of your kid’s lives. That you don’t see the same kind of alienation with kids when they get out on their own. Our kids at 19 and 23, still enjoy doing things with us. They aren’t embarrassed to have us go to a poetry slam with them. In fact they are trying to get us to come out and hear people that they are interested in with them. So there us that kind of connection – the relationship stuff.
And I think because there was a lot more support for all of them when they were growing – it wasn’t like there weren’t problems or conflict within groups- but there were always people there to help them learn how to do conflict resolution, to learn how to deal respectively with differences. Whereas I think a lot of the kids in a public school are kind of thrown to the wolves. They have to fend for themselves. It wasn’t like interfering with running their lives. But there was always somebody there to come to if you needed help and encourage that. Like let’s all sit down and talk about this together and make sure everybody is heard. We even had a couple of good meetings. By this time the support group had gotten to be …well we would have about 20-30 kids in the yard and they would get into pine cone wars and various things and had trouble sorting out where limits were. So we had a meeting and had a speakers list and there were kids as young as three putting up their hands and waiting to say what they had to say about this whole situation. The kids themselves came up with what they saw as the problem and what they thought would be a solution as to how much adult support they wanted and what would be circumstances where they would feel like they couldn’t handle it and they would like someone to come help. …… So they sorted this stuff out. …… That sense of community and learning with a great deal of support, learning that kind of respectful interaction. ……
Q: On the other end of the spectrum, what had made it most difficult?
Sandy: I guess umm … not knowing how much to push. At a gut level believing … knowing that they are really bright kids and inquisitive and they had a hunger for learning and knowing that probably they were fine, but everyone in a while. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who has done this, especially unschooling, who didn’t go through periods of panicking about whether we’re doing some kind of awful social experiment with our kids and whether that was the right thing. Fortunately, there have been people ahead of us doing this. Although our kids are now in our mid twenties, the ones that we started out with, there is another group, a much smaller group who are now in their 30’s, who we can always phone up as say ‘tell me again how Ben didn’t read until he was twelve! And how he’s in England studying literature now’. So there were always people to turn to. I stressed more than my husband did. …. I don’t have a whole load of regrets. I think I would do it again……..Well I would do it again. If I was doing it again with different kids, it would depend on the kids too. When we did it, it worked okay with our kids. I think in hindsight with both of them I would have focused more on life-skills, like time management and setting goal and meeting them.
Q: Did you have any negative reactions to your decision to home school?
Sandy: Most of my family didn’t say much. My father said the usual stupid things that people say like ‘How are they ever going to learn anything? ‘ So I just turn it around to him and said, ‘You’re a professional photographer and the other thing you love most in life is playing music and where did you learn to do those two things? How much of your actual school experience is actually valuable to you? And that shut him up [laugh]. You’re doing what you are passionate about. And what you’re passionate about, you find ways to learn it.
…….Socialization. That one cracks me up because it is always the one that people speak of first and it is really the least of anybodies worries. Instead of arguing with people, I got to the point that I would just turn it back. What do you mean by socialization? There are several different ways that you can look at it. Most people you find if you ask them what they are talking about is that you’re depriving your kids of social contact and the opportunities to learn to interact with other kids. Well that is just a non issue. It just absolutely not an issue – even if you don’t do group things with other homeschoolers. There’s soccer, there’s art classes at the community center, there are all kinds of ways. Some people go to church and have church activities. We just didn’t have any trouble. In fact, it was standing joke in our group that we were going to make t-shirts for the parents that said ‘Just say no to sleepovers’. [laugh]. But really socialization to me is learning how to be a contributing member of your society. And I don’t necessarily think that being shut up in a room with 30 other kids exactly the same age as you – I didn’t want my eight year old learning social skills from other eight year olds because they don’t have them either – where they are in a group of kids with one authority figure as the only adult. Well our kids would come with us when we renegotiated the mortgage and they would just sit there and they were taking in all kinds of stuff – constantly interacting with people of all ages in the community – from babies in the park to elderly people in the bank or community center. So they are learning by being part of the society that they are supposed to eventually suppose to move into. So by asking people what their concerns were it generally turned out they were afraid we weren’t letting our kids socialize with other kids. …
More about the community. There was a funeral recently, as one of the mothers in our community died of brain cancer. I looked around the room, she’s got a 19 year-old son and a 23 year-old daughter, a lot of these kids that have homeschooled or have been in the Windsor house community. And I looked around and I thought this is amazing, these people are all still friends, they all still hang out together, they stay in touch and they’ve known each other since they were three or five years old. I don’t see that happening as much with public school kids. These kids have moved all over the place and they’re still friends.
Q: So would you say that you part of a homeschooling community?
Sandy: Oh absolutely. One of the best things about it was how much over the years my husband and I changed our approach to learning ourselves. Before I started the whole journey it never occurred to me that I could get a computer without first taking a class on how to use it. But you watch the kids they just sort of sit down and start exploring it. And if they get stuck they ask somebody and they carry on you know we’ve learning a lot about how you can learn from them. We got over the feeling that we had to have a teacher to learn something and we started looking at teachers in much different ways as resource people and classes as something that is there for us to use and not something that is being imposed on us. So any classes we took were definitely interest based. I at some point stopped being afraid to take on learning things that are hard. Like the violin at 52. But I think that that kind of thing finding stuff that is really satisfying to do and doing it, is good for anybody at any age, not just kids.
Q: How do think it changes how you spent your time?
Sandy: Well we sleep-in in the mornings. We still do. Nobody in this family is a morning person. So we didn’t have to revolve our lives around somebody else’s schedule. The most intriguing conversations around here used to happen, from the time the kids were little, they were always up late because they slept in too, from the time that they were quite young some of the most interesting conversations always happened at 10, 11 or midnight. That just seemed to be when everybody seemed to be the most into exploring ideas.
Q: It sounds like there was less of a separation. That they were more invovled in the community and involved in your life?
Sandy: And you’re involved in their life and it all worked out well for us. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean I imagine I would be one of those pain in the butt people who would always be at the school, volunteering to do this and volunteering to. Because, I’m interested in what my kids are doing and I want to be part of it.
….People have commented all through their lives how comfortable they seem with adults. The kids that love next store it’s like ‘I didn’t do anything, why are you talking to me?’ It’s like the only time an adult talks to them is if they’re in trouble. Our kids have always been quite comfortable with anyone of any age. And I think that that’s the difference. That there is not the separation – the age segregation – they don’t get suspicious if people outside of their little circle talks to them.
We started doing it for philosophical reasons but really we kept doing it because we just liked to wake up hearing our kids singing in the morning.