As soon as I heard the title of this book, I knew that I needed to read it. While I identify increasingly with unschooling, it has only been in the past year that I have really understood that it is not my children that need unschooling, it is me. My children have never been to school, I’m the one who spent 13 years there, and that’s not counting college and graduate school.
Alison’s writing style is soft-spoken, gentle and thoughtful, and her book is an absolute gem. In it, she chronicles the story of her family, beginning with her son’s preschool years and her and her husband’s initial decision-making process regarding homeschooling, and progressing all the way through their two children’s teen years. While homeschooling her own children, Alison also worked part-time as a teacher for children with visual impairments, and throughout the book she compares and contrasts the experiences of her own children with her observations and thoughts about the learning experiences of the children she is working with, and their classmates, in school.
In one story titled Exploring Egypt, Alison paints a vivid picture for us. After a trip to the library, her own 8-year-old daughter became fascinated with ancient Egypt. She joyously immersed herself (and her family!) for many hours on the topic, reading books and watching videos about Egypt, learning about Egyptian culture and hieroglyphics, and building a scale model of an Egyptian city. Shortly after that experience, Alison was working in a public school and her team-taught class had a unit on ancient Egypt. Initially, Alison was excited to share in this experience but she soon found that studying Egypt for the school children meant that they were given worksheets and assigned words to memorize for an upcoming multiple-choice test. An interesting topic was made “deadly dull”, and the memorized terms were forgotten when the class moved on to a different topic two weeks later.
Alison homeschooled her children in Wisconsin beginning just before a favorable law was passed here protecting homeschoolers’ rights, and she includes some brief but insightful history in her book. She also gives some helpful, concise background about the teachings of John Holt and A.S. Neill (Summerhill). Holt and Neill “believed that children are the best directors of their education and, given a helping hand, without coercion, would naturally develop into well-adjusted and competent adults.” This became known as ‘unschooling’. Other terms for unschooling are ‘interest-initiated learning’ and ‘self-directed learning’.
Unschooling means different things to different families. I felt a kinship with Alison, and I think one of the reasons is because, like in my home, she and her husband had high expectations that their children would use their time well, and they supported them in making wise decisions. Alison’s son did volunteer work for a community radio station and by age 13 he had become a radio engineer. He immersed himself in fly-tying and fly fishing (while simultaneously learning entomology, ichthyology, physics and more) and this interest was not only personally fulfilling and enriching, it eventually led to a paid job. When he became motivated to learn higher math so that he could do well on college entrance exams, he immersed himself in self-directed study and learned higher-level math in 4 months! Likewise, their daughter swam competitively, did volunteer work, and excelled at topics like math when she was ready and in her own way. Both children held jobs (paper route, child care) and participated in their local children’s choir, among other activities and learning experiences.
I will leave you with a final quote from the Introduction: “Our family….. chose homeschooling because it offered us the opportunity to let our children continue to be the creative and enthusiastic children they were from the start. We believed that our children wanted to live as they had in their preschool years: free of someone else’s notions of what was important to learn, and when to learn it.” (And, I would add, how to learn it). “For this reason, we turned to homeschooling as the only means by which we might preserve, for our son, Christian, and our daughter, Georgina, the natural gift that they and all children are born with: an insatiable appetite for learning.”
Unfortunately, this book is out of print. It is my hope that Alison’s experiences and words will not be lost to future homeschoolers. You may be able to find it through your local library system or WisCat (a Wisconsin resource). If not, it is available from online used-book sellers. I did find new copies of it at this site: fun-books.com.