Home Education Magazine
May-June/97 - Articles
Dealing With Doubts - Janet Keip
Choosing any unconventional path carries with it periods of uncertainty and doubt. The choice to homeschool is an unconventional choice; the choice to unschool is even more unconventional. Like most unschoolers, we are convicted of the wisdom of our education choice yet there are times when doubts assail us. Sometimes the source of those doubts is from a quarter from which we least anticipate.
Last week we had a parent's networking meeting, gathering to discuss homeschooling issues and concerns while our children played. My eleven year old daughter, Jaime, a veteran-never-been-to-school unschooler was one of those playing children. As usual, following the meeting, we gathered in clusters to talk and catch up with the latest news of our family's respective comings and goings. I was already feeling a little alienated, having spent two hours listening to others compare curriculum and other pre-programmed learning tools. I am familiar with all the methods of homeschooling, the various materials and can speak intelligently of such matters, yet was left with a lingering sense of "not fitting in" even with this group of homeschoolers whom I know so well. Our unschooling path was leading us even further away from the mainstream of homeschoolers.
The real uncertainty came as Jaime and I headed out the door. Few questions can erode a new unschooler's confidence more than "What grade are you in?" or "What curriculum are you using this year?" There is nothing quite like seeing your child's eyes rolling frantically in your direction to make your heart turn over and cause you to question everything you believe and hold true.
"Hi, Jaime. What grade are you in this year?" The well-meaning question suddenly pins her, mute and helpless. Jaime fastens her apprehensive eyes on my face.
"We, ummm . . . we don't use grades.", I manage to intervene.
"Oh, realllly." our friend replies. "How do you know where she is at and how she is doing?" Warning bells clang in response to her suddenly cool, steely tone.
"Well", (a long pause as I take a deep breath to ground myself),"She seems to be doing just fine, learning and moving forward at her own pace. She is a very happy and contented kid."
"Ohhhh, I see. Well, how do you know she is -- like, is she at grade level?" (At this point, she leans forward conspiratorially, as if to say our little family secret is safe with her.)
"We trust.", I say. "We trust that she knows what to learn to take her where she is going."
"Well, doesn't she have to take tests or something?", the speaker finally blurts out incredulously.
"Mmmmm, not really", I reply, evasively, my willingness to share our philosophy of learning evaporating.
Jaime is tugging on my shirt sleeve, whispering, "Can we go, now?
I'm left with the sour aftertaste of a conversation gone wrong, lingering doubts and slight, smoldering anger at a fellow homeschooler's lack of understanding.
How could I have handled this better? Just what sort of defenses have we against such erosions of our confidence? What tools could I have used?
Perhaps it is easier to be an unschooler in places where there are many unschoolers but where we live, we are the only unschoolers amongst a large homeschooling group. Among the general population, most people have heard of homeschooling but few have heard of unschooling. Many homeschoolers have never heard of unschooling, or as our homeschooling friend demonstrated, cannot yet grasp the concept of child-directed learning through living. I suspect there are others like us out there in our community who would like to unschool (or who are unschooling already)but who feel hesitant and shaky against the perceived pressure to stay to the conventional path.
Time is the First Tool
When we first began homeschooling six years ago, I felt a raw defensiveness when someone challenged or questioned my choice to homeschool. Now I feel that same surge of defensiveness when someone questions unschooling. In the beginning, my conviction of the rightness of homeschooling for us and our daughter was firm. However, homeschooling was still too new and too fresh for me to easily articulate our philosophy. Today, I confidently speak to anyone about homeschooling, no matter how uninformed or hostile they might be. Unschooling, a more recent shift for us, is still too fresh to for me to have developed an assured, confident response. Given time, I trust I will acquire the same ease of speaking about our choices to unschool.
The Second Tool: Support Networks
Building a support network by talking on the Internet and on-line service forums bolsters my confidence and feeds my need to connect with others living a similar lifestyle. It has also helped me to understand that unschooling is still relatively unique among all homeschoolers. Feeling unique is not a result of living in a fairly remote and isolated area but an understandable response to an unconventional choice. It has been important for me to build a supportive community with other unschoolers no matter how far afield I must reach.
Reading is the Third Tool
Staying informed and knowledgeable through reading about other unschoolers continues to be my best form of defense. The more I learn about and share of the experiences of other unschoolers, the better I understand and can articulate my thoughts. My bookshelves bulge with practically every book and most magazines ever published on the topic of unschooling! Every month the list of titles grows. HEM and Growing Without Schooling are consumed as soon as they arrive. Books such as The Art of Education, by Linda Dobson, Deschooling Our Lives, by Matt Hern, and Real Lives, by Grace Llewellyn have fueled my resolve to unschool in spite of periodic doubts.
I have noticed that talking to schooling parents about homeschooling sometimes generates a defensive prickliness in them. Institutions like this, I remind myself to be gentle. I must also be aware that mainstream homeschoolers may feel a similar sense of defensiveness in their choice to follow a more structured and conventional path than unschoolers. I can remain sensitive to their feelings while reminding myself to be gracious, understanding and tolerant. Learning new ways takes time. © 1997Janet Keip
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