Monday, December 7, 2015

Wait, I thought you were unschooling??

A reader asked me an interesting question a few weeks ago. A question I didn’t really want to answer at first because I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. It is much easier to avoid hard questions sometimes (I am pretty good at that!). However, this was such an interesting series of questions that it got me thinking. Here’s the comment and an attempt at answering the questions.

Making a sundial in the desert

Comment/Question: You seem much more relaxed about homeschooling since your exploration of unschooling. Do you have any words of wisdom to share on what you have learnt in the past few years since taking a break from Waldorf and now coming back to it? I find myself always feeling torn between loving the curriculum yet also experiencing it as a source of stress - trying to keep up, pushing my child to go at a certain pace so we can do that, overwhelmed (or resentful) with all the planning - and the inner conflict/guilt I feel about not being fully present as a result. Homeschooling is wonderful, Waldorf is wonderful, but sometimes I feel the price is too high. I just don't seem to crack the life/work(homeschool) balance. Every year I make changes and it feels like we get better at this, yet I still feel it has taken over my life. I know this is probably true of many homeschoolers but Waldorf in particular is so demanding of the parent. I know that what works for one might not work for another, but I'm very eager to learn from other homeschoolers' experiences and insights. I wonder if it is that you trust your girls more now? What have you learnt about yourself? What has changed?

Sculpting clay 

My answer: I have come full circle: to full on Waldorf from day 1 until grade 2 to full on unschooling for 3 years after that and finally back to a relaxed eclectic Waldorf-inspired roadschooling approach.
Our first year of unschooling was the year we spent in Costa Rica (from November 2011 to April 2012).

Aisha and Mara learned to read by themselves and they mostly draw, wrote stories and played all day. It worked really well and everybody was happy. Then, we left for our first year on the road and again, unschooling worked very well for the first 6 months of the trip. By then, the girls started saying they were bored (even if we did lots of fun activities together, provided plenty of things to nourish their passions, played endless hours of board games, etc.). Something was off. Their play was stagnating, as well as their drawing. They started fighting and arguing more… 

We came back home in Quebec some time after that (we still had a house there) and spend a year at home. As soon as we got back, they asked me to “do school” again. To my surprise, I felt myself resisting. I was such a convinced unschooler, that I tried to read into that request without “doing school”. I wrote more about this here and here

Exploring Josua Tree's amazing boulders
Here are a few excerpt from these posts:

Since we came back (and even a couple of months prior), our girls clearly indicated to us that they needed more structure in their days and weeks (it could be because this is what they were used to as younger children or simply a temperament thing). When we moved back home, I resisted creating a schedule. It was summer and who wanted to have a schedule anyways. Not me! But even with the vast amount of projects I brought forwards, the new board games and library cards, something was off (of course, the "re-entry" as it's called in traveler's lingo was hard on all of us... ). Mathilde kept asking to "do school" and I thought that all the artsy projects and games I was offering "should" have been enough.

Playing with seaweed on a beach near Santa Cruz, CA

"Mama, I'd like to do school", Mathilde said the other day. As an unschooling mom,  I was a bit startled... School? But we live as if school does not exist! How can my child want to "do school"? I paused and wondered what she really was after. More structured days? Inspiration? Connexion?

I am trying to go with it. One day at a time. Realizing even more everyday how impossible it is to draw a line and follow it forever. It is easy to feel like we have failed where we truly only adjusted instead of going against what seemed obvious.

I am still an unschooler at heart, as for me it means partnering with my girls to listen to what they feel is best for them at every given moment. When I remember that, the internal conflict dies down and I feel peace and harmony filling my soul and heart. Because in the end, this is all that matters. Peace, harmony, love and joy, not the labels we think describe us best.

Hiking in the Redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park

A bit reluctantly, I picked up the second grade curriculum we never finished two years ago and started using it, doing more formal school periods during the week as per the girls requests. They loved it. They were disappointed when we were not having a lesson in the morning... I was flabbergasted! I kept thinking it was the newness of it, but so far, they are truly loving it (and needing this very strong rythm or so it seems). Maybe it is simply a transition thing, maybe it is just what they need right now.But since we are in this for the long run (unless one of them feels like she wants to go to school, which isn't the case so far), I do not worry about keeping them at grade level. I have never believed in a one size fit all education program.

For me, unschooling is supporting our children in making their own choices. It is helping them follow their interests and passions. It is being present and listening to and even behind what they are saying. It is, I believe, the more involved type of education or parenting there is. I am involved all day, everyday with my girls. Their education and most importantly, their happiness, are at the forefront of my mind everyday.

Oh and if you think I felt like I have to save my girls from boredom, it's not the case!

So this is my very long answer as for why... now what has changed for me after coming full circle... Yes, I do trust my girls much more. I have also relaxed a ton. If you knew me in my Waldorf past life, you know how much of a perfectionist I was. Now, this year, I have worked hard to lay out a 6th grade curriculum that is very Waldorf-based, but I do not worry about them using the computer for a few hours after our main lesson to supplement their learning (and give me some time to work on my contracts). I want them to be more autonomous in their learning, to go at their own speed and to know how to learn. They are ready for online learning this year and with all the amazing online ressources, it's a win-win.

The other reason why I provide them with more academic grade-level learning is that at least one of them is very clear that she wants to pursue higher studies. And we can say what we want, catching up on maths when you unschooled all your life is no easy peasy task! As translators, we both want them to master their mother tongue (French) very well as they live mostly in English now.

But since we are in this for the long run (unless one of them feels like she wants to go to school, which isn't the case so far), I do not worry about keeping them at grade level. I have never believed in a one size fits all education program.
I have learned not to listen to the voice of fear that creeps in when I let societal norms and beliefs get to me. I have learned that I have much less influence on what my girls will become that I like to think (or used to think). I also realized that even if we want to believe as unschoolers that children know what they need, it is not the case for all of them. Mathilde was a great example of that.

So, as for most everything in life, I went from one side to the other and came back somewhere in the middle, where it feels just right for all of us right now. But I know quite well that this will keep changing and we will keep discussing and adjusting according to everybody's needs. And that is the beauty of homeschooling.

Please do not hesitate to ask any questions you have in the comments! Also, if you know of a great online curriculum in FRENCH, I would love to know about it!


Catherine said...

Catherine, thank you so much for reflecting on my questions and taking the time to write an entire post about it. I took part in your "relaxed Waldorf" discussion all those years ago and I am still here trying to figure that out! What I realise is that it's just about me giving myself permission to do things differently. It seems I am able to do that about certain things - areas where I have my own rock-solid opinion - but where I am uncertain myself I experience such great conflict. Like you, logically I think it's mad to apply "grade levels" or feel I need to keep to a curriculum or what someone else (who has never even met my family!) determines is right for us. I have recently been considering taking 18 months or maybe even 2 years to cover each year's Waldorf curriculum, so that we can breathe more freely and so that we can mix in all the other things we'd like to do (well some of them, anyway!), yet I find it so hard to feel ok about that because I have really taken in all those "shoulds" and directions about how everything has to come at a certain "perfect" time.
It seems to me that you had the courage to step away - to completely stop all that - and learn that the world didn't end and instead your children were still happy and healthy and thriving. So now you can take what works for you and throw away the rest without feeling guilty or questioning yourself at every turn.
Perhaps we will always have those voices of doubt and fear etc., because we love our children so deeply, and long to make all the perfect moves so that everything will turn out perfectly for them. Yet the parenting journey is realising that there is no perfect and, as you say, we can never control that no matter how much we want to or how hard we might try. And every day I have to remember that once again and let it be.

Catherine said...

Yes, Cathy, letting go of what I thought perfection was is the route I chose. Instead, I looked at my girls and took my cues from them. Steiner, as much as I admire him, doesn't know them and has lived at a very different time. Yes, there will probably always be the voice of doubt and fear once in a while, but realizing that no matter which choice we make, we have no idea of the impact it will have on our children. As they grow older, I realize how little an impact I truly have on who they are, on who they become. I am just by their side, trying to guide them gently and give them what I see they need along the way. There are no guarantees, but it sure feels more right to start from them instead of any other ideal or philosophy, as beautiful and rich it is. We are imperfect and it is OK to be. Once I made peace with that, a big burden lifted off my shoulders.

Catherine said...

Yes, that responsibility does feel heavy and it's wonderful that you've found peace around it all. Thanks again for writing about this and sharing your story.