What is Unschooling? Reprise.

What is Unschooling? Reprise.

This is my basic statement about unschooling.  “Reprise” because the original version was posted on our old family unschooling website Desert Trails years ago.  I’ve made a few changes since then, but I suppose you could say the unschooling remains. Strangely, Desert Trails has come full circle. Full spiral might be more accurate, since I don’t think we ever walk the same path twice. In the 1990s, Desert Trails Farm and website nurtured the start of a vision for a local, farm-based learning center with a bioregional flavor for home/unschooling families to meet and learn together.  After all, everything is learning, isn’t it? Being together on the farm would always allow learning to emerge in many ways. In the days since we left our old farm (and chronicled our leavings and comings and goings on the old website), we have spent time in the city, time renting someone else’s house in the desert, and now we are back on a small piece of land in the southern Mojave Desert, similar to and not far from the old farm.  We are once again building a very small-scale ecological farm. I am in the process of seeing what happens as I gently fan the flames of that old fire for a learning center. The vision is not the same – how could it be?  I spent two years trying to recreate something lovely I had in the past – before I learned that isn’t necessarily a healthy impulse.  So now I’m taking smaller steps, stepping back into reflection, and waiting to see what emerges on this piece of land.  The land took two long years to teach me (I learn slowly sometimes) that trying to force old patterns from it is not an ecological practice.  It wasn’t a particularly rational practice, either. As I began to listen to the land, I began to understand what to do next, and after that, and, again, after that. This is what someone I know calls “composing a landscape.”  I call it working with the desert, not against it. Ecological farming is a relationship with the land and its various inhabitants. Alternating cycles of activity and contemplation might have something to do with how we learn, as well. I am not the first to come to that conclusion, and certainly will not be the last.

So, the reprise.

We’re homeschoolers, unschoolers actually. Maybe we’re radical unschoolers; this may depend upon which family member you talk to or which unschoolers you compare us to.  Maybe we don’t want to go there – to do the comparison thingie.  That comparison component of current standardized, homogenized, big box schooling is one thing that has moved many of us into unschooling to begin with.

A problem: “Our institutions, to the extent that they address issues of learning explicitly, are largely based on the assumption that learning is an individual process, that it has a beginning and an end, that it is best separated from the rest of our activities, and that it is the result of teaching.”

One possible solution: “So what if we adopted a different perspective, one that placed learning in the context of our lived experience of participation in the world? What if we assumed that learning is as much a part of our human nature as eating or sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable, and that – given a chance – we are quite good at it.”

~ Etienne Wenger (1998, p. 3)

What is unschooling (the perennial question, isn’t it…)? I would call unschooling ways of learning customized to each child, mainly by that child. Parental contribution is there when it’s wanted. Unschooling is interest-driven learning. It’s chosen by the learner and deeply participative, not imposed. It’s processual, an on-going process, not locked into boxes of time between sounding bells. It’s a process that is deeply respectful of the learners. It’s using our relationships, our families and friends, our own passions, interests, hobbies, and vocations, our local community, our regional environment, the entire world, the entire universe, really, for someone’s education. In such a holistic learning environment, learning becomes life-long and joyful inquiry.  It’s allowing the time, space, and freedom to learn by doing the things that fascinate you, the things that you enjoy and love. It’s a lifestyle; it’s a lifelong process. Our family has been at this for nearly 25 years and we’ve found it a rich and wonderful way of life.

Stephen Sterling (2001), in working out a definition for “sustainable education,” draws very close to many elements of our educational philosophy.  He acknowledges that the current educational system isn’t working very well, that it’s unsustainable.  He refers to this model as transmissive as opposed to transformative education (Sterling’s idea of “transmissive” corresponds to Freire’s “banking” model of education). This is something that I think unschoolers have known since the days when John Holt coined the term “unschooling.” This is something that Illich knew when he wrote Deschooling society. These ideas about holistic, transformative learning are golden, even now.  Disciplines, or breaking learning up into “subjects,” are counter-productive.  Segregated education of all kinds inhibits learning. Local communities, outside of chain-linked compounds, can be great resource pools for learners. To pursue Freire a bit further, he suggested that the opposite of the banking model of education is to trust in people and their creative power. I suggest that all of the public educators who adore Freire’s ideas and ideals have not thought enough about these same principles applying to young people.  Having unschooled for 25 years and having met countless unschooling families, I suspect that unschooling families are working out practical applications of Freire’s principles with their own kids, whether they know or care who Paulo Freire was.  We have rejected the banking model; we see learning as transformational.  We know the line between teacher and learner is tenuous (it ought to be tenuous) and we know “teachers” may learn and “learners” may teach.  We have come to understand the importance of true dialogue in learning. We are engaged with the practice of freedom, critical thinking, reflection, and transformation.  We have come to understand the role that love plays in learning; we live daily with the realization that humility, faith in people, communication, critical thinking, and hope operating out of love and deep trust. This is incredibly revolutionary stuff. It can change lives. It does change lives.

What is the point of an education? Life skills and life-long joy of learning? Learning to make connections?  Solve for patterns? Participation not passivity? What do learners want to learn about? How can a learner come to trust that what s/he wants to learn is what is needful?  How can a parent/teacher come to the same trust?

David Orr (2004) once said, “all education is environmental education.”  Think about it. It’s a pretty profound statement. We all know that some forms and modes of education are not good, in fact some are quite destructive. Some environments are not healthy. Maybe part of learning is learning to operate in one’s whole environment as an ethical person. Maybe inquiry ought to be thought of as joyful, open-ended, cooperative, collaborative, reflexive, appreciative…students are not cognitive units, but whole people. Whole people are embedded in social and environmental context.  This is how we have evolved as human beings to learn very effectively. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t especially like the term “student” anymore (and, ha, I am a teacher by vocation, go figure). Learners are teachers and teachers are learners.  Always.  Freire said that and I think he was right. Learning happens.  Learning emerges. We jointly participate.

So. Our ideas about education, learning and teaching, and how people learn have changed and evolved over the years that we’ve been homeschooling and these ideas continue to evolve. When we began, we had two little boys and a baby girl on the way. Now we are parents to eight children, many grown. We still have three unschooled teens. We have some college students. We have four grandchildren. Some of our ideas are the same as when we began, many of them are different.  That’s a part of the process; it’s dynamic.

How Does It Work?

Our approach to education would most likely be termed interest-initiated learning and interest-driven education. For instance, if a child develops an interest in riding and maintaining dirt bikes, as one of ours has, that child is going to learn far more than dirt bike riding from spending time exploring his interest. Our dirt biker naturally read everything he could about dirt bikes; he wrote about them upon occasion; he learned some mechanics from others which involved mathematics and principles of the internal combustion engine. He had social gatherings revolving around bikes and he taught others how to ride, including his father and a brother. One year he built a dirt bike track complete with curves, jumps and naturally occurring sand traps, which all involved quite a bit of mathematical thinking, some aesthetics, and a certain amount of physics in a practical form. He decided to construct his track with minimal disturbance to the desert ecosystem.  This was the most difficult element of the construction (and, incidentally, the part that I did insist on being most involved with; he understood). He learned how to walk the land looking for floral and faunal components that might be endangered.  (We found that there weren’t any “officially” endangered species, although the concept of “endangerment” in a fragile ecosystem deserves to be discussed in depth, later.)  This son learned how to keep an open eye to the various comings and goings of the wildlife outside of his back door.  He learned the potential impact of human construction on a high desert ecosystem and learned to care. In fact, as a grown man, issues concerning the impacts of the built environment upon the natural world still concern and interest him.  This kind of building to accommodate a very human interest has been maintained as a life-long interest. It was hard physical work, too.  Hard physical work, outside, is valuable for people, I think. One advantage to it is that it brings us back to our bodies.  We, as learners, are not simply a mind residing in a peripheral body. We are embodied minds. I believe it is essential to recognize this on a visceral level for our own mental and physical health, to the extent that we each are able. Classroom and extensive indoor learning may take some of this knowledge away for us.  We forget.  We forget we have bodies sometimes; being outdoors, working or watching, reminds us.  The young person I’m talking about is a young married man today.  He’s a competent, sensitive, thoughtful, funny, bright, and hardworking person.  And he’s a go-to guy for all things surrounding auto mechanics. He has an abiding interest in the natural world. In the unschooling process he also had the time and abilities to learn ways of dealing with computers, inside and out.  Like many unschoolers, he developed websites and wrote about his interests.  His knowledge of the Internet grew alongside the Internet. He was one of the many young pioneers of the Web 2.0, though he might deny that (he may not particularly like the term “Web 2.0,” either).  In his mind, he did what he did and social networks developed.  The fact that he and his friends grew up with the Internet, knew how to program, and began to develop collaborative zones and communities of support seemed natural to him.  Moving among something akin to a collaborative commons may not seem as innovative to young people like him as it does to their parents.  From an unschooling perspective, his engagement in discussion with others, his writing and websites, helped him become confidently articulate without an institutional classroom. An artistic soul, he has always brought the spirit of art to his endeavors.

Another child had a love of reading and writing. This child freely chose a learning approach that might be seen as closer to a traditional school model. She enjoyed structuring her time and did sometimes use textbooks to study math and history. As a younger child, she liked me to manufacture or find math worksheets for her and she enjoyed reading all sorts of historical fiction, as well as first-person accounts and journals of times past. She learned a tremendous amount about the history of the United States and other parts of the world this way. She developed her writing skills online and in personal journals in addition to learning how to produce various e-mail newsletters. She learned how to set up appealing and artistic web pages on the Internet. Having the time, space, and freedom to really ponder issues that concerned her, she was a deeply critical thinker by the age of 12.  She operated as an effective young Internet journalist and she grew and learned through the practice. Although she chose to study according to a disciplinary model, her practice manifested in a variety of interdisciplinary ways. Her interests have now shifted, as they often do as we grow (no matter our age).  Her engagement with learning remained. She’s grown now, too, in her twenties, and deciding between grad school and med school.  Was she an unschooler even though her patterns were different from her brother’s? These choices were hers.  She owned her own learning.  What do you think?

These are not unusual stories among unschoolers. Many find deep learning, identity, and thrive-ability in the process. To answer some of the concerns that are frequently voiced about unschooling: yes, they can go to college (but may not want to, which is not a problem); yes, they will be motivated to learn and yes, they will be able to get up in the morning for college classes and work (sometimes both); no, you don’t have to be rich to home/unschool. I want to talk about the latter point more, later.  For the moment, let me reassure you that our working class family was deeply immersed in a stimulating unschooling life.  This may be important to talk about because there are misconceptions still abounding about who unschools/homeschools.

I’m not going to detail the unschooling trajectories of eight kids through the last 25 years; the pictures above can begin to set the stage for what unschooling looks like here at our place. Using the interest-driven approach to learning has given every one of our children the freedom, space, and time to explore and develop their own proclivities, giftings, and joys. Each child is unique; each one chooses different paths of learning. Each year, each month, each week is different – and different for each child. With eight children this has provided a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunity to learn from one another.

So What Do the Parents Do?

I don’t see myself as a teacher as much as a facilitator of my children’s’ lifelong learning adventure (and honestly, they of mine). This is not an irrational, unrealistic, unsubstantiated kind of learning; it is not abstract but quite concrete and often very practical.  We have not raised feral offspring.  It is extremely important to understand that unschooling is not unparenting and not unlearning. It is not neglect of learning.  It is learning that has removed many of the trappings of institutional education practices to good effect. It is the framework of learning that human beings were evolved within. It is the way people learned for most of the time we have been human on the earth.  I might add that it is the kind of learning exercised within the most sustainable societies earth has ever known.  I might also add that institutional, industrial education has been with us a fraction of a percent of the time we have been on this planet.  I probably don’t need to add that the latter has been exercised among the least sustainable human societies that have ever existed on the planet.

We, as unschooling parents, use our home and the wider world beyond its 2.5 acres of high desert as a holistic and fascinating course of study. We are all lifelong learners. We learn with and from each other as well as sometimes stepping aside into isolation to pursue a deeply personal interest. The children’s dad and I have been willing to act as a mentors to the kids in on any topic that we might be able — if a child wanted that. For instance I have worked with one daughter who wanted to learn to paint with watercolors; my husband has taught some of our kids and other local kids how to handle a guitar and how to read music. I have worked with a couple of my daughters on learning some basic French. I have taken some of the kids into the field and lab to experience the days of an archaeologist. Every parent in the world has knowledge or abilities that might fascinate and benefit one (or more) of their children. The list is endless.

Learning interests may generate local learning communities.  People play together in bands, orchestras, work in local theater groups, involve themselves with musical communities, gardening (home and community), and culinary arts.  People take part in local astronomy groups, attend star parties.  They may join with others interested in math and physics, taking on projects that intrigue them. People learn auto or bicycle mechanics together. This leads into the concept of re-skilling: learning vital skills together that have been lost in the modern era.  Unschooling families have a wealth of knowledge (as do their neighbors) that may remain untapped until people begin to talk to each other. Here is a short list of activities that local people I know might be able to work together to help one another learn:  how to garden and grow herbs; urban, suburban, exurban, and rural gardening; how to develop community gardening;  community organizing; sustainable agricultural practices; setting up a small-scale regionally adapted polycultures farm; obtaining and growing Native American heritage seed crops, long adapted to a particular region; ecological harvesting of wild edible foods and herbs; preparation of teas from native plants; seed saving (wild and cultivated); skills for raising backyard chickens, goats, and beekeeping; composting; carpentry and other construction; breadmaking; canning (“putting up”); soapmaking; knitting; home manufacture of plant-based fabric; fabric arts; a huge variety of other arts including music, dance, and cooking. In addition, people I know would be able to set up local workshops on the on some of the potentially most vital areas of study for the coming decade: food justice, water and land use, and environmental racism. This is my short list.  I could come up with more ideas for learning communities that might spring out of unschooling families making contact with each other and the communities around them.  You may have other ideas for your own families and regions. Not only is unschooling a vital form of education; it holds promise as a form of community building. I would be interested in talking with other unschooling families about how they may have participated in activities like this or what their vision is for doing so.

One advantage of homeschooling is that a family has time to be together to discover and explore common interests. Learning and going places together doesn’t have to be fragmented by the huge block of time that schooled students spend away from home.

Two of my kids have taught me to construct a webpage. With changing programs and platforms, that education is never-ending! Classes from people in the community are an option for anyone who wants them. We have learned some Spanish, how to build a chicken coop, CRP, and other skills this way. Many unschooled young people develop an interest in using the local community college to explore interests.  As a community college teacher, I sometimes have currently or formerly home/unschooled students enroll in my anthropology classes.  To answer the common concerns about socialization and classroom adjustment – yes, they have been able to fit in with their college classmates very well.

Reading, writing…

I see one of my main “jobs” in the unschooling of our children as a resource person. For instance, as each child is ready, we help each other navigate the world of words: we’ve read to the kids virtually from birth, we’ve read beautiful and classic books, we’ve read just-for-fun books, we’ve read silly books, we’ve read poetry, we’ve read science, history, art, books about religion and spirituality, even books about math, etc.  We’ve also looked at picture books, and picture books with words.  We habitually read any book that they brought to us, we read from magazines, we read cereal boxes if they wanted. We played with words, helped them write words. Eventually they learned to read and to write. In their own time, in their own way. Eventually, they each have taken time to read to one another. One son learned to read by having older siblings read the story lines of video games (Zelda, Harvest Moon) to him as they played.  Computer programs may help kids learn to read and write. This depends upon the child. We’ve found many of the “educational” programs for reading and writing to be a wash.  Still, there are some that interest certain kids. Years ago one child loved the old Reader Rabbit series and gained many reading and writing skills from these. Video games can be an untapped resource for learning to read and write (more on this in another article).  Honestly, some kids just take to printed books and spiral (or fancier) notebooks with pens and pencils. Any of these types of resources do not have to be purchased: all are available at one’s local public library, and much is on the Internet. All of this is to say unschooled kids with parental interaction (sometimes, more – sometimes less – one of my kids pretty much helped another learn to read…using video games).

Story (including personal narrative, traditional story-telling, dance, song and music, as well as film and visual arts) – whether conveyed through text or orally – is vitally important in human society and deeply connected to the ways we learn. Reading and writing are essential skills, but orality is equally important.  I have often had to remind myself that orality preceded textual expression and learning by eons in human evolution (not to mention in individual human development) and not to worry too much about the ages at which my kids acquire the use of the newer technologies of reading and writing.  In my large family, these ages have varied widely.

The Arts?

The arts are important to us. Music, writing, and graphic and design arts are all expressive outlets that we wouldn’t want to do without.

We have musical instruments. Electric guitars and some very nice (vintage, even) acoustic guitars, a piano, electronic keyboards, mandolins, a beautiful hand-crafted mountain dulcimer, a few recorders. Every kind of music can be heard here, homemade and recorded. My husband is a musician, who can read music and play guitar as well as clarinet, who can sing and harmonize, and who is ready and willing to pass on what he knows to the next generation. One son plays keyboard and piano, two play guitar, everyone sings. I’ve been learning to play mountain dulcimer for too long. Someday I will get there. One project that we haven’t tackled, but have talked about is building of some instruments of our own.

Art supplies abound. Art-making is important, vital to some of us. We’ve worked in watercolors, oils and acrylics, charcoal and pastels, Prismacolor pencils, and plain old (fun) colored markers and pencil. And crayons. Cameras. Photoshop and other art-making computer programs. When most of the kids were younger, we had a small-scale ecological farm in the high desert. “Composing a landscape” (see Janke, 2002), as someone I know puts the work of ecological farming is an art form.  Growing a garden is participating in art with the natural world.  When we left the farm and lived a more urban life, we continued to compose urban landscapes with flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables.  Edible landscaping is a form of art-making. Now, we are back out in the desert and once again engaged in the composition of another working landscape.  It is heartening, as I begin again as a drylands farmer, to have a new and younger group of my kids participate in this ecological work of art. Someone I know, a renaissance woman is an innovative and inspiring artist of things cultural and agricultural (http://chartruz.wordpress.com/). In addition she is a farmer and a scholar.  Any of her ideas could be done off the farm, in the city, anywhere.
Some of us love poetry. Some of us write, some illustrate what we’ve written or what someone else has written. Three daughters have developed skills as illustrators.  Two are interested in photography and have helped me with projects I have had to photograph for various presentations.  They each have an artistic eye that manifests itself in their photography.

Film is a wonderful learning medium. We’ve DVR-ed television shows and films.  We’ve found that many DVDs are deeply informative on many levels, along with being beautiful or deeply evocative.  Unschooling families that I know are among the most media-literate people I know.  In today’s world of corporate hard-sell, media literacy is an extremely valuable critical thinking skill. In light of the importance I believe Story plays in human learning, I would place media literacy near the top of the list of capabilities to be developed in learning situations.  In addition – it’s fun!

What about the “Hard Stuff”?

What’s hard stuff would be different for every person. For some it’s algebra or differential equations. For others it’s literature or history. So what do we do when a child wants to study something that we just don’t think we can handle?  Someone told me the other night that she has been a well-paid tutor in math to a variety of homeschooling families because the parents “can’t teach math beyond a sixth grade level.” Now I was with her on the tutor part (sometimes a learner does want a tutor/mentor – some of my kids did for Spanish and we all did for CRP), but I’m not so sure about that second part. Maybe this was true in her experience.  The homeschooling/unschooling parents I’ve known have sometimes helped teach each other’s kids, if it was algebra or calculus someone wanted to learn. Some parents have found that brushing up their own math skills was possible and even enjoyable.  Honestly.  But no, not everyone. So, read on.

Here are some things that we’ve done or that friends of ours have done. Occasionally one parent will be familiar with a subject/activity that the other detests or feels less than competent in. I love music and like to sing but don’t do it very well. I can play chords on a guitar (when I’m in practice) but I can’t read music. My husband can do all of those things well. He has never enjoyed teaching math but I actually like to and have more than the proverbial sixth grade grasp. If someone wants help with it, I’ll help. The kids can bounce back and forth between us for help and insight into different subjects. I’ve taken geology hikes with my kids and others; Michael has taught basic guitar to other homeschooled kids, as well as our own. This operates outside of a family setting as well.  Other homeschooling parents and kids are, in my experience, wonderful resource people. Mostly, I haven’t seen anyone ask to be paid other than midwives (who may provide a wealth of information to young people and often have, in my experience, while walking me through the birth of a child), piano/music and swimming teachers.  I don’t have any inherent objection to unschoolers paying for math tutoring if this is an agreeable situation to all parties. Do you get what you pay for?  I suppose we all have to figure that one out on our own.  Unschoolers sometimes organize learning co-ops, to mentor and be mentored.  These learning groups can be as tightly or loosely structured as people want. Usually there is a reasonable fee attached to renting a learning space. Several of us began learning Spanish at a homeschoolers’ co-op, my husband taught a group of teens to play beginning guitar at the same co-op, one son was mentored in dirt bike mechanics by a local person, and local students have taken various math classes from volunteers. Community colleges are also a wonderful resource. I have a long term vision for establishing a learning space on my own small farm, where local people might come and participate in “learning ecologies.”  In my mind, learning ecologies are un-curricula that foster ecological awareness.  I believe that the most holistic view of the word “ecology” involves the whole ecosphere, it involves human beings and their cultures, including their built environment. So my vision for a farm-based learning center would include not just agricultural literacy and ecological literacy, but a wide range of social and cultural literacies as well. This may be more than a farm school, more than a cultural center.  I sense that unschooling families might be very willing to participate in a learning space like this. The possibilities for any of us are endless.

One thing I’ve learned about the “hard stuff” is that to a child who is interested it’s not going to be “the hard stuff,” it’s going to be the fun stuff, the intriguing stuff, the challenging stuff. Their passion for it may rub off on their parents! There is always a source of help for someone who is stuck and needs to talk with and learn from a more knowledgeable person. The trick is to think creatively and find that source of help. It might be the person next door, it might be a friend or relative, it might be in a class somewhere, or on the Internet. It might be a paid tutor, even.  But, please, if the money to pay for a tutor is not there, don’t lose heart. To this day, very often, when I need help thinking creatively for that elusive solution, I turn to my former and current homeschooling friends (kids and parents!) who are among the most creative and imaginative people I know.

Nature As Teacher

Outside our door is a vast world to explore. For us, one step outside and we are in the immense and fascinating southern Mojave Desert. For someone else, it is another fascinating world. In the city, there is a different kind of environment to learn from. For several years, between the time we lived on our first farm and when we moved to this land, we lived in urban and exurban areas.  These environments offered many new experiences. It was exciting for all of the kids to experience these changes.  In fact, even now, we miss some of the opportunities we have left behind in moving back out to the countryside.

Our children have a respect and love for the natural world because they have been fortunate enough to be able to spend many hours living in it, camping out in it, working in it, with no worry about school bells interrupting their learning. We’ve studied high desert native plants, we’ve observed and collected the rocks that wash down the hillsides from the San Gabriel Mountains, we’ve climbed in the mountains, we’ve slept outside and watched meteor showers (and one time a rare display of the aurora borealis in southern California!), and we’ve watched the birds, the small animals, and the reptiles. We’ve trekked around local cinder cones, ancient sites of volcanic activity. We’ve seen coyotes loping across our yard in the evening. We’ve watched in awe as a Bald Eagle has swooped low across our chicken pen and flown off. We’ve raised many kinds of animals: chickens, ducks, geese, goats, rabbits, cats. Inside we’ve raised iguanas, snakes, geckos, fish, toads, and turtles. We have a companion tortoise. We’ve watched animals raise their own offspring. What a joy for a young (or older!) child to venture out in the new morning and discover that the hen who’d been sitting on eggs is leading forth a parade of 15 baby chicks. Our kids know how to find where the sparrows or the cactus wrens build their nests and have watched daily in amazement as the parents raise tiny fledglings.

Climate and weather are subjects that thrust themselves upon desert dwellers. Our children are fascinated with these subjects — perhaps because they cannot be ignored in the desert. Winds, rolling thunderstorms, hail, flash floods, lightening, summertime electrical storms, heat, dust devils, winter freezes, snows, ice, it’s all there and more. Sometimes it’s all there in a day’s time. Our children have loved to learn about weather. Learning about weather and the climate may be done anywhere on planet earth.  Weather is there for everyone to observe and to learn from.  City, country, suburbs… changing climate and climate change may become highlights for learning. People everywhere are situated in environments and involved in relationship with their environments. While we may forget this due to our enculturation, our formal schooling, our other human relationships, even our religious training, it remains to be rediscovered by any of us.  Maybe this is something healing that unschooling families can offer: ways of renewing and fostering a sense of relationship with our environing world?  We might foster both ecological and social intelligences in this time of unprecedented ecological and social crisis by taking steps to bring the learning process closer to the natural world and infuse the learning environment with more natural beauty.

In addition to helping generate a familiarity with and deep respect for the natural world and the many “other than human” entities inhabiting an environment, unschoolers can work toward “a genuinely multicultural self and a global society without racism” (Anthony, 1995, p. 264).  We have the potential through our interactions to develop a mutually healing focus on environmental justice and ecological rescue. We might take note of Dana Lanza (2005), founder of Literacy for Environmental Justice, who has illustrated this kind of work in San Francisco. She presents a life-saving approach to involving urban children in environmental restoration.  Lanza (2005) had the vision to recognize untapped potential in children as agents of change in their communities. Lanza (2005) has diversified environmental education by bringing youth of color, low-income youth, and their neighbors and relatives into the movement to revitalize a city neighborhood, eliminate some sources of environmental danger, and begin rebuilding ecological resources.  As Lanza (2005) discovered, children are naturally interested in their neighborhoods, whether urban, suburban, periurban, exurban, or rural. Collaboration between interested people from different neighborhoods and different regions might help produce a vision for sustainability and environmental resilience that is inclusive, compassionate, and knowledgeable (see Berg, 2005).  It is also fun.  While these particular ideas have been generated within groups associated with public schools, there is no reason that similar movement cannot be enacted among unschooling families.  Or home/unschoolers, public and private school families, and the communities around us.  We are uniquely positioned to generate and bring into action these modes of community revival.

The History of the Place We’re In

Some of my kids have studied the history of our region. They’ve wanted to learn about the Native Americans who lived here before any European settlers arrived. We’ve gone to museums and we’ve read about our local history. We’ve visited places that have local historical and prehistoric significance. We’ve talked to Native American people who know some interesting things about this desert. We’ve participated in activities at our county museum. Since I work as an archaeologist, I have been able to give my kids an opportunity to learn about the high desert from that perspective.  One son and I designed over a year of learning around archaeology, which was his passion for that time. He became skilled as an archaeological field tech as a teen and since turning 18 has sometimes earned some money doing that kind of work.  It is no longer his path; he does other work now, but were he to decide to return to it, those early teen years would likely prove valuable to him.

It’s easy to stand in the quiet vastness of the high desert or in the coolness of the Mojave River bed with its seasonal waters and know that “this” that’s here and now isn’t all there ever was here. There’s a sadness to it that causes me to want to learn more about those who were here before and to work on preserving any of their knowledge that remains. As unschoolers we have unique opportunities plus the time and space to contemplate time and change wherever we are.

Whatever passions, interests, and skills a parent has may also absorb his or her child for a time or even for a lifetime, although it’s certainly fine if they are NOT attracted to our interests. One daughter of mine will likely never want to join me in an excavation, digging into the dirt of ages past does not intrigue her; her explorations lie elsewhere!  A lovely thing about teachers being learners and learners being teachers – integrative unschooling – is that our kids may bring a new interest into our lives or revive a former interest. It happens all of the time.

So there you have it –this is how it goes with us right now. Space, time, and freedom to learn are still the keywords for this part of our continuing unschooling journey.


Here’s a list of books that I consider worthwhile; you may enjoy some of them.  A few specifically address ecological literacies and one is a collection of articles on sustainable agriculture. As always, I highly recommend John Holt to home/unschoolers.

Anthony, Carl. (1995). Ecopsychology and the deconstruction of whiteness. In Theodore Roszak,  Mary E. Gomez, and Allen D. Kanner (Eds.). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth,  healing the mind, 263-278. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Berg, Peter. (2005). Finding your own bioregion. In Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow  (Eds.). Ecological literacy: Educating our children for a sustainable  world, 126- 131.     San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Freire, Paolo. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (30th Anniversary Edition). London:  Continuum.

Illich, Ivan. (1971). Deschooling society.  London & New York: Marion Boyars.

Holt, John Caldwell. Anything.  Really, read ‘em all. Start anywhere.  Learning all the time is a    good place to start. Teach your ownInstead of educationFreedom and beyondWhat   do I do Monday? When my oldest child was very little, I checked out from our public library every John Holt book I could find.  More than once. His reassuring, compelling books helped me get a grip and get on with it. After all of this time, I still can’t stop recommending his books.

Janke, Rhonda R. (2002). Composing a landscape. In Dana L. Jackson & Laura L. Jackson. (Eds.). The farm as natural habitat: Reconnecting food systems with    ecosystems, pp. 209-219. Washington: Island Press.

Lanza, Dana. (2005). Tapping the well of urban youth activism; literacy for environmental   justice. In Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (Eds.). Ecological literacy: Educating           our children for a sustainable world, 213-226. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Orr, David W. (2004). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect.   Washington/Covelo/London: Island Press.

Sterling, Stephen. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, UK: Green Books.

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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