Un-Schooling Another Generation: The Interview, Part 1

As promised, this post focuses on the dialogue I have been having with my husband, comparing our very different experiences growing up as an unschooler and a traditional schooler. Forgive me for the original cliff-hanger! And now, I’ve split the conversation into two parts.

Of course, what is difficult about this dialogue is how completely personal it is.  When my parents were discussing education, they were very much talking about ideas. They were talking about understanding child development, learning, and the assumptions and structures of the education system.

For my husband and me, we are excavating ideas, but we are also looking at each other, and our opposite origin stories. We are looking very, very closely at our families. Wondering where our successes and strengths can be credited, and where our insecurities and shortcomings can be blamed. It’s really confusing!

This conversation is us looking across a divide, and seeing each other and ourselves: good but imperfect.

Without dwelling on it, I want to say, too, that my husband came from an unstable home life growing up. I have to address it because it shadows our conversation about being parents, and family is so hard to separate from his sense of his education. School was always a struggle for him, because he wasn’t navigating the system with positive support, but homeschooling was also not an option, either in reality or in his imagination. He can’t fathom the home he grew up in being the center of his education. School, although difficult, was also a life-line. It provided him an escape and contact with a diversity of other adults to look to. Despite how much he struggled in school, he doesn’t want to walk away from schools. He remains committed to the idea that we need strong institutions and communities to support our kids, and to support parents, too.

I can’t imagine us opting for full time public schools for our kids, but I don’t think we’ll be full-time unschoolers for life, either. I think we’ll do our best to cherry pick our way through education, taking what works for our family in different moments, from as many different places as we can. And of course, we’re both too opinionated for it not to be loads of fun along the way!

josh_me_tilden

Lindsey:  How did your understanding of homeschooling come into focus or evolve as you got to know my family? 

Josh: Well… I feel that I only thought about homeschooling in the context of you and your sisters. I didn’t think about homeschooling as an idea in general, but as something that was part of your lives, and affected your family.  I was only thinking about it through your mom’s approach, which I don’t always agree with.  It wasn’t the model of homeschooling itself that I thought about.

Lindsey:  So, when you met me, Whitney [my younger sister] was just starting Independent Study at a public high school in order to join the dance team. I think my mom was probably very vocal, and “anti-establishment” about the work Whitney was bringing home. Maybe it seemed a little shocking to you?

Josh: It wasn’t that. It was the conversations about what to do next that I remember. Whether or not your sister would go to college… Your mom didn’t feel that she needed to pursue a traditional approach. You know, I guess I felt that your mom’s opinions and vision of breaking the mold impacted you guys. 

LindseyMy mom was surprised when I wanted to go to college. We were looking at all kinds of other things to do next when I was 17 years old, including traveling and working abroad. But I decided I wanted the college experience, and my mom kind of questioned that. She wanted to make sure I really wanted to go that route.

Josh:  I think homeschooling as an alternative approach makes sense, but I feel concerned about how anti-institutional your mom can be. And how that affects what she encourages and doesn’t encourage.

In order to give a background on his perspective, I have to describe the chapters of Josh’s education, and the schools that he attended. He started in a public elementary school, in an affluent neighborhood. I ask him about his memory of those early years:

Josh: I don’t know, I think it might have started out ok… I mean, for me, school was complicated because of all the problems I had at home. That always affected me in a lot of ways. I had trouble with school work, and with other kids… There was a lot of stress and distraction.

Lindsey: I think of you now, as an adult, as a very hands on person, very kinesthetic. You teach yourself things by doing things actively. Was activity and focus an issue in school?

Josh: They tested me for learning disabilities, and they threw around the ADHD label for a while. But they decided it was mostly just stress.

Lindsey: In one of his lectures, Sir Ken Robinson asked, why would we expect kids to have focus on what’s essentially low-grade clerical work? I thought that was pretty funny… I guess I can hear you being a little hard on yourself for not succeeding in the system, and also focusing mostly on your family experience as the reason you struggled in school. But I wonder what your thoughts are about the educational environment itself?

Josh: It’s hard for me to analyze. I think there were times when things were better, and I would engage in the work, and I was interested in it. I want to think that if things had been different, I would have done well in the system. I don’t know… I feel that I’m not a good example, because my parents weren’t around to help or know anything about what I was doing in school. But, I do remember at one point, in middle school, I had a summer reading list. I was visiting my mom in Paris, where she was living at the time, and we read one of the books together. And that was really great. I had to write reports about the books that I read… Reading with her gave me a lot of interest in it. If there had been more of that, I think school would have worked well for me.

Lindsey: So, on the one hand, the adults you had contact with in school were really important. But then again, the institutions you went to couldn’t ultimately take the place of having guidance at home. How do we improve that in our society?

Josh:  I don’t know, it’s really hard. And maybe there’s only so much that schools can do? But I think it’s important to try.

josh_biking

Josh attended a progressive private middle school that had three grades from 7th-9th. It was a program that stands out for him, and introduced him to long distance cycling, which continues to be a passion of his to this day. He describes these formative cycling trips as teaching him about overcoming challenges, inspiring a love the environment, and ecology. He took electives like bike mechanics and drama. After middle school, he attended a boarding school. It was rugged and remote. The students chopped firewood to heat their cabins. It was an academically rigorous program, and he struggled with grades and motivation. After 10th grade, he decided to move to Seattle, where his older sisters were living, to complete 11th and 12th grade at a public high school. It was a big adjustment, in a new state. The school was rough, poor, and urban, with a big drug culture.

Josh says at that point he had no sense of education relating to his future or goals. It was only about getting to the finnish line. Graduating meant the freedom of being able to be on his own. After high school, he spent some time in Oregon, where he found a supportive group of friends in the art department of a community college; from there he transfered to the four-year school where we met.

Today, knowing him, his story, and his present life. I see someone who looks at his childhood and adolescence and wonders what else was possible for him. He loves working in the field he chose, as a builder and designer, but he wonders what other doors would have been open with more support?  Besides the public high school in Seattle, the schools that Josh attended growing up were places of privilege and potential.

And through parenting, he feels an opportunity for a do-over, to navigate all of that potential with everything he knows now. And on that point, I kind of relate.

As an unschooler who was never told explicitly what to study, focus on, and pursue, I have a sense of wistfulness about all the different things I could have chosen. What might my full potential have been in different imaginable trajectories? I pursued the arts, which I remain passionate about, but I have struggled at times to understand the role of that passion in my life and community. I sometimes wonder, with more structure, and more encouragement to push outside of my comfort zone, what would have felt important to me?

Josh: You know, I went to two private schools that were really great, and even though it didn’t work out perfectly for me… I think I value the idea of those places. But I know, for us, those same schools would be very expensive.

Lindsey: As an adult, looking back, what are the educational priorities you have for your kids?

Josh: I think you have to be exposed to a lot of things, and encouraged to try things, to try everything. If you start something, and if you struggle with it, and give up before getting over the learning hurdle… You know, I think kids need to be encouraged to get over the bumps. I don’t know if you were pushed to do that enough. But, I also understand a problem with schools is that they usually teach things in just one way.

Lindsey: What do you think is the best of our two experiences? If you could cherry pick and combine?

Josh: I like your self-direction, and interactive experiences. That you’re not learning in a classroom. I always liked going on field trips. That’s what I liked about the bike trips we did in middle school. We applied things that we were learning about. We would be riding by cliffs, and use string and protractors to see how high the cliffs were. That kind of thing really worked for me. But I like the organization and community of schools. It can provide a lot of perspectives that you might not get at home.

Lindsey: What makes you uncomfortable about the word “unschooling” – I know you dislike that word.

Josh: I don’t really like the “un” …it feels negative to me. It sounds like a reaction.

Reactions…hmmm, well, there’s more to come.

(To be continued…)