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Advice for Navigating At-Home Education

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©DREAMSTIME.COM | AHMAD SAFARUDIN
  • ©dreamstime.com | Ahmad Safarudin

Families who unschool or homeschool — at least 2 million kids in the U.S. — usually reach this decision after much deliberation and after weighing innumerable factors: available time and energy, capacity, desire, and finances. Now, overnight, we have hundreds of thousands of young people with no school to go to — compulsory unschooling. While many families will manage to cope (those with resources for alternative childcare, those who can work from home, those with good internet access and lots of available books and materials), many more are making painful choices. Do I leave the kids home alone? How will they keep up with their schoolwork? Will they graduate? Others are dealing with even more grave issues. How will I pay my rent? How will my child get their meals? How can I keep them safe?

Like the proverbial butterfly wings in chaos theory, which flap over the Amazon and create a cyclone in China, an invisible molecular particle encircled by a crown emerged in China and created a global firestorm. It has thrown our multiple and interlocking global and local systems into chaos. If there is anyone out there who was not aware of the fragile interdependence of our lives before, they are now. The cracks in our system have been revealed as gaping caverns; as is the case in many crises, the people who will suffer the most are low income, food and/or housing insecure, or dependent on low-wage jobs that demand their physical presence (waitstaff, cleaners, clerks), and emergency responders and health care workers. Stay home? Not possible for the half million homeless people, including more than 100,000 schoolchildren in New York City alone who are in shelters or temporary, transient housing. Take sick days? More than 34 million nationwide with no paid leave for illness. Seek medical treatment? Another 34 million with no health insurance. Keep your distance from other people? 2.2 million incarcerated people, crowded in cells, and innumerable refugees detained in horrific conditions along our southern border. At the very minimum, this crisis may demand that we work tirelessly to eradicate the deep inequalities that have come to represent our (United States) society.

It's hard to consider the big picture when personal crises demand immediate attention. For many families, the present crisis revolves around questions like, What will this mean for my child's academic future? and What in the world am I to do all day with the kids? If you are a parent of a suddenly unschooled young person, I offer here some words of hope, some rays of possibility to grasp, as we seek the collective meanings of our experiences.

Our family was far from privileged when we embarked on our five-year unschooling adventure. We lived in a 984-square-foot, Depression-era shack that we relocated onto 20 acres of land in rural Oklahoma. We had an uncertain income stream (which often slowed to a trickle) and no health insurance for our family of six. There was little cash to spend on fancy educational resources, but we did the best we could with what we had. Actually, duct tape might have been our largest single expenditure (that was the year my 8-year-old spent constructing cardboard and duct tape swords and shields to reenact his favorite myths with his younger brothers).

Despite these very real challenges, those five years were some of the best in our lives. With no lesson plans, no tests, no grades, no textbooks and no "do-nows," our four boys managed to learn a whole lot about the world. But I think I learned even more than they did.

1. Personalize learning. For the most part, conventionally schooled children and teenagers follow structured curricula with predetermined (often by testing companies) learning goals and anticipated outcomes. Their physical movement is limited, and there is an emphasis on "accountable" behavior (raising hands, lining up, staying on task, not talking out of turn, etc.). They are monitored, judged and assessed on every aspect of their experience — their academic achievement, their habits of mind, their behavior, etc. In Vermont, we have legislation guaranteeing that every child has the right to a personalized education, which has been a very promising development. The current enforced unschooling, which is challenging in so many ways, offers an opportunity to interrupt practices that depersonalize learning and give your child a jump-start on discovering the interests and curiosities that may encourage them to design their unique and amazing personalized learning plan.

2. If your child seems to crave the structure of completing their internet assignments or packets that their teachers have laboriously put together (bless their collective hearts for caring), by all means encourage them. Whatever gives young people a sense of security and continuity. But, as unschoolers have learned, the work required in most classrooms can be done in much less time than it generally takes to get an entire class rolling. They are likely to have time on their hands, even if they meet all their structured requirements.

3. Don't panic if your child complains, "I'm bored." Boredom can be productive. Children are by nature curious about the world and eager to learn new things. Pardon me for saying it, but schooling, with its curriculum mandates, lesson plans, pacing calendars, Carnegie units and assignments, tends to eradicate these healthy natural instincts. John Holt, the renowned scholar and educator who wrote the pivotal book on unschooling, Teach Your Own, suggested that children only become self-directed learners after they "detoxify" from the demands of schooling for a period of time. (If you want to learn more about self-directed learning, see the Alliance for Self-Directed Education at self-directed.org.)

4. Get outside. In our unschooling experience, the most profound moments of learning happened outdoors. Indigenous scholars and educators teach us that the land itself is the best teacher. If you have any access at all to the surrounding countryside or a body of water, go there. Right now. Listen for the birds, watch for signs of spring, feel the wind brush against your face, smell the forest floor. Learn to listen to the trees, and think about the amazing underground "Wood-Wide Web" through which these upright relations of ours communicate with each other. The world is facing multiple ecological crises, of which COVID-19 is only the most apparent at the moment. To survive and thrive, young people will need to become attuned to the deep interconnectedness of all species and the wisdom the land has to offer us.

5. Play is not just for preschoolers. Play is freely chosen. Play is pleasurable. Play is engaging, engrossing, spontaneous, imaginative, self-directed, experimental, improvisational, purposeful, absorbing and transformative. It is a negotiation between the inner world of the child and the environment. In play, we try on the world and see how it fits. Isn't this what learning should be all about?

6. Tell stories. Unhook from the screen for as much time each day as you can bear. Tell your children stories — stories of their grandparents and their great-grandparents, how they lived, the challenges they met. Tell them about your life before kids. What were your visions and your dreams? What do you care deeply about? Look at family pictures, laugh and remember. Relationship is probably the most significant aspect of learning.

7. Do things together. Peel vegetables, start a compost pile, make a cake, plant seeds in pots and put them in a sunny window (spring is coming), play board games, make board games. Our kids learned many of their basic math skills playing Yahtzee. Fold laundry. Teach your kids to sew on buttons. If you are alert to it, there's a lot of learning that can happen in everyday tasks. Vermont's esteemed philosopher John Dewey taught us that real life experiences should be at the heart of learning. It is only through the "doing" and the "making" that a kid's brain can easily connect to and retain more abstract knowledge. Dig deep and find those connections between life and academics.

8. Take things apart. Have an old alarm clock or typewriter? A broken toaster? Hopefully you have a few basic tools around — hammer, screwdrivers, etc. There's a lot to learn from looking at the innards of objects. Of course, you need to remove hazardous stuff like used batteries. Build stuff. Those toilet paper rolls are even more valuable than you thought. Make wind socks, castles, trains. Combined with other stuff you usually recycle or throw away, your kid can make amazing junk sculpture. Some of our greatest, most ecologically conscious artists nowadays are those using recyclable materials in novel and creative ways.

9. Read aloud. Our whole family once read Hamlet over a couple of weeks. Even the 2-year-old was captivated by it. Read alone — take some time to enjoy your own novel or catch up on that nonfiction you've been meaning to read. Seeing an adult enjoy reading is how young people become readers.

10) Value the learning process over the products. We are obsessed with the "results" of learning. But it is in the doing, the making, the questions, the exploration, the mistakes that learning actually happens. Let go of caring about the end result and focus on the learning itself. Observe your child as they go about exploring and making — you will be surprised at what you learn about who they are and how they think.

I could go on. But my best counsel is to take a deep breath and engage in the moment as mindfully as you can. Your child will be learning major life lessons from how you live in and through this crisis. What's the worst that might happen if your young person leaves behind the race to the top for a time? If they were to spend most of their days outdoors? Breathing fresh air? Looking at the sky, noticing the clouds? Spending unlimited amounts of time simply reading books of their choice? Daydreaming? And, OK, watching a few choice documentaries on TV. Young people are very resilient, and I am deeply grateful that this disease is proving to have little (physical) effect on them.

Chaos is destabilizing. But chaos theory teaches us that systems reorganize, often in surprising new ways. Our way of life has brought us to a tipping point, of which the coronavirus is only the most urgent evidence.

We will undoubtedly be faced with more crises in the future that require us to think in new ways about all aspects of our social life: How do we create strong communities? What do we collectively value? How can we build networks of support so that all are cared for?

And in terms of our youth, and their education: How do we create educational approaches that value human development, equity and joy over test scores and academic achievement? What is worth learning, and how can we best prepare young people for the actual future that is evolving before our eyes? What needs to be in place to match up learners with the right resources at the right time, so that they might become self-directed and fulfill their dreams?

And for us oldsters: How can we behave more responsibly toward the generations to come? What do we all need to learn about making our communities ecologically sustainable? How do we establish more harmonious relations with the rest of the natural world?

We are all of us, young and old, unschoolers now, and the curriculum for our complex times is emergent, nonlinear and unpredictable. Systems demand that we evolve and adapt. And remember that butterfly effect: Small actions can have big impacts. Our collective small actions, mindfully taken, could have important collective impacts, so let us proceed into this new experience as thoughtfully and compassionately as we can.

This column is excerpted from an essay that first appeared at kathleenkesson.com.

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