Welcome to Episode One of Fare of the Free Child!
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This week, my co-facilitator is Atlanta based activist, community organizer, and unschooling Mama, Tamika Middleton, who you heard at the beginning of this episode. Tamika addressed the FEAR of children leading themselves, which is precisely what unschooling addresses and over time, resolves. So, as with every episode of FOFC, we start with a FEAR and then we address the FARE (the cost) of that fear, what it’s costing us and our children when we don’t push back against that fear, and then we talk about what we can do to minimize that fear.
Tamika and her family (her husband, Demetrius, and their two children, Amani, their 9-year-old son and Asha, their nearly 3-year-old daughter) have been such an inspiration to me as a black unschooler, as a feminist, and as woman of color who prioritizes the liberation of her people. Tamika and I share the philosophy that self-directed, learner-centered education is one way to do something about the oppression and domination of people of color by the effects of systemic racism, particularly inside the school system.
Unschooling is both a learning-centered and learner-centered way of living with children
As unschoolers, we don’t see school as the primary place to learn and everywhere else as places to take breaks from learning. We don’t suffer from summer learning loss and those types of ideas.
Unschoolers use all resources available to explore and build upon anything of interest to them, so plenty of my time and my husband Kris’s time, is spend observing what our girls are really into, and helping them find resources to go deeper into whatever their interests are. Sometimes, it’s just listening. Like, when they find a language partner online who lives in Finland and wants to learn English in exchange for teaching Finnish, which happened with our 10-year-old, Sage. She was so excited, and wanted to tell us all about their first session, so we listened. And we asked questions, and she didn’t need our help at all. Our only job with that interest is to check the safety component (like looking in on the chat on occasion and hitting the translate button in the room to make sure we feel comfortable with the interaction). Our other job is to keep paying for internet access so she can continue her studies.
And in that space, we also get to offer guidance on life skills like discernment, because ultimately, that’s the only “teaching” that we do—we help our daughters understand and practice discernment as they discover and develop themselves. So, we give examples of what someone in a chat might say if they’re fishing for more than what you want to offer. We talk about safety stuff, like not giving anyone online your personal details outside of your email address and Skype handle. And they get help from their homies too.
I think one of the most widely understood ways of explaining it is that children who are unschooling learn the way most adults learn—out of a sense of curiosity and necessity. I was talking with someone the other day about how I learned WordPress and basic web design as an adult. I started a blog, it gained some traction, I wanted to build a better blog, and though my husband, Kris, is a graphics and web design guy, he wasn’t gonna be available to address every single change I had, or every single idea I wanted to test out. So, I went online, found tutorials, tested shit out, made mistakes, talked to folks, talked to my Kris, took some webinars, and figured it out.
I went to school, grade school and college, but nothing there could have prepared me for the particular interest in WordPress, for example, because it hadn’t been invented yet. And today, in many cases, so much of what our children learn in school will be outdated and highly irrelevant by the time they become adults. Not to mention that so much of what’s taught in school is mandated by the state, without much input from teachers, and stops teachers from using adaptive methods to facilitate learning in the classrooms.
And to be clear, my family is not anti-school, we are pro-learning, and for our daughters, like many children, school was not an enhancement to their learning journey, it was a limitation, because it put unnecessary boundaries and segmented blocks of time around their ability to explore and process the information they had gathered. It limited their resources to the person assigned to teaching them, who may not know anything about the things our daughters develop interests in. And on top of that, school gives a lot of busywork, but calls it necessary, whereas most of us as adults know good and well that so much of what we were forced to learn in school is not what we use to thrive today. …shit about your child or your interests or your culture.
All that to say that unschooling is about relevant, highly-customized learning experiences that become a normal part of living. So much like we adults when we start a new project or even at our jobs, have to be resourceful and we have to understand what specific things each project will need and how we in particular will need to approach it to maximize the chances of getting the outcome we want, unschoolers take the same approach.
Something feels relevant in their life, whether for personal reasons or to make money, or to be part of something, and they go down a path to get more versed about that thing. And children do that, just as adults do, because that’s not an adult thing, that’s a human thing. Children in particular are extremely curious beings, and they go after what they want to know. Babies do it—try to get a crawling baby to not go toward the shiny thing or the noisy thing—you’re gonna get a fight. Try to get a toddler to stop looking at something that piques their interest—you’re gonna get a fight. We, as humans, from infancy, are curious beings who want to engage in things around us, and who will inevitably, quite naturally, learn about the things we’re curious about, and in the process, learn about other things that we may not have even known existed, or that were connected to the original thing that caught our attention.
So, my very first statement was that unschooling is learning-centered and learner-centered.
When I say learning-centered, I mean that it focuses on how each child learns, instead of what to teach children, or instead of what adults believe children should be learning. It looks at a child’s approach to the world through her interactions with the people in her life, and also through her interactions with things-toys, animals, TV, radio, the computer, a phone — all of those things. So because unschooling is learning-centered, parents spend a lot of time observing their child and really getting to understand how they navigate the world around them, and how they tend to approach things.
Which leads to the other thing that unschooling is, which is learner-centered
All these observations help unschooling parents to partner with their child, instead of decide for their child, what learning will look like for them. So, it’s learner-centered because all that observations help parents to facilitate learning by offering resources for their child to pursue their interests and to follow their curiosity, without the restrictions of time limitations (the way school blocks off learning by subject matter in one-hour segments of time).
As an unschooling family, we believe that school is one example of how a healthy childhood can be spent – but that there are other options, and contrary to popular belief, children can (and will) still learn, engage, socialize, and be challenged while preparing for adulthood through various non-school experiences.
So for clarity sake—since I really want to five you an understanding of what unschooling is, our children are not in school and they are not homeschooled. This means there’s no curriculum that gauges our daughters’ progress or aptitude in specific topics. We don’t test, we don’t compare, we don’t set a standard based on a predefined idea of what they should be learning by age or stage or any of that.
And that’s really hard for a lot of people to understand, and I see completely get why.
Since most of us were brought up to believe that compulsory education is the path to achieving the goals of financial success and responsible adulthood, we’ve learned to rely on to the school system to arm us with the skills to attain those goals.
When teachers and students are removed from a child’s learning environment, adults get scared , in large part, because we’re not familiar with any other models for being with children and helping to facilitate learning.
But not all schooled children grow up to become successful, responsible adults.
And in many cases, children are unhappy or uncomfortable in their school settings because they don’t learn the way other children learn, or because they have unaddressed personal circumstances that stop them from focusing on learning. Or because, as Tamika and I discussed, we as people of color have been in and are still in very different circumstances than the people in power, so we need very different things in order to navigate ourselves and the system, so that we can learn how to thrive.