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Talking About Life Learning
Sandra Rakovac talks to Life Learning editor Wendy Priesnitz

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. Also a journalist, broadcaster, poet, author, former leader of the Green Party, and home business consultant, she has been a passionate advocate for life learning since the 1970s. She and her husband and business partner Rolf are the parents of daughters born in 1972 and 1973 who learned without schooling and who continue to inspire her own life learning. This interview took place and was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007.

Q: How did you decide to unschool?

A: I taught elementary school for a short time before I met my husband Rolf. I was 20 years old and teacher’s college had been just a one-year course right after high school. I’d been a successful student (meaning I’d received good marks without much work, and the teachers generally liked me.) I had virtually no encouragement to think about a suitable career other than the fact that my mother wanted me to be a teacher.

So there I was, trying to manage a classroom of young children who clearly didn’t want to be there, even though I’d excelled at curriculum planning, lesson plan writing, bulletin board decorating and other such esoteric classroom management courses. I was spending my time keeping the kids from jumping out the windows and retreating to the staff room every possible chance I had, often in tears.

So I resigned. Then I did what I should have done at teacher’s college: I immersed myself in reading about child development, learning theory, and alternative education. Some of it intuitively made sense and some of it seemed like academic drivel! I also spent some time working in daycare centers observing very young children and how they were learning. That’s how I began to formulate my own theories about how people learn and about what hinders their learning. It became very clear to me that the archaic and hierarchical model of schooling with standardized curriculum, grading, testing, and so on, has little to do with children learning and lots to do with adult arrogance and taxpayer accountability.

Q: Was this a joint decision with your partner?

A: Shortly after I quit teaching, I met and married Rolf, whose school experiences had not been good (and who answered a couple of these questions with me.) In contrast to my lack of direction, he had been explicitly told by guidance counselors that he’d be lucky to finish a two-year high school program that was then in place for so-called non-academically oriented students. So, they said, his plan of enrolling in the university-stream program was doomed. He was horrified, stubbornly ignored them and graduated from the five-year arts and technology program, went on to a career in the construction trades, and then became Director of Apprenticeship at a community college and one of the country’s foremost proponents of the apprenticeship model of learning (not to mention the Publisher of our magazines.)

Given that neither of us had much respect for schooling and its trappings, it is not surprising that we decided not to send our children to school before they’d even been conceived!

In my experience, the willingness (and financial ability) of a father to join his partner to stay at home with his children was relatively uncommon then (and still is now, when many people frown upon the idea of either parent looking after their own children). But Rolf’s commitment to the idea of home-based learning for his future children was a definite attraction for me when we met. And I suppose my subsequent development as a life learning advocate was nurtured by his parallel trust in and respect for children.

Although I know that many single moms do an excellent job of parenting and unschooling, I have often thought about how wonderful it was for our daughters that they got to know their father so well and had the influence of both parents much of the time. I didn’t have that luxury when I was growing up in the 1950s, when my much-loved father went off to work in the morning to a job that I knew nothing about and often came home too exhausted to spend time with me.

Q: Describe how you unschooled.

A: I have trouble with the terminology around this, as many Life Learning Magazine readers will know by now. Our family’s lifestyle would be called “radical unschooling” today, but I prefer to say that our daughters simply lived their lives and incidentally didn’t attend school. The idea that we unschooled them is foreign to me because it connotes something being done to them.

Inevitably, our daughters learned many things in the course of their everyday activities; perhaps they learned more than some other children might have because they hadn’t learned to depend upon others for the agenda. What they learned was certainly different in content! They didn’t memorize the facts on the school curriculum but they retained their ability to learn.

In those days (1970s), before John Holt’s term “unschooling” came into popular usage, homeschooling for most families looked like unschooling (or, as I prefer to call it, “life learning”) does today. In order to make a living and allow us both be at home with our daughters, Rolf quit his construction job and we launched our home-based publishing business.

The first decade or so was very busy, with the business growing, employees coming and going, a number of moves happening. The children were integrated into our life and our business; we were often occupied with publishing deadlines, financial issues, and other constraints, but there was always time to read a child a book or answer a question. In fact, our daughters were always present when prospective employees were interviewed and they had to approve of the chosen candidate. Likewise, anyone we hired had to enjoy children and be willing to take time out from their work to help a child spell a word or to play a game with them.

As Rolf and I worked and played, so did the girls. They accompanied us as we did business and personal chores, they played by themselves inside the house and explored the neighborhood, they started their own little businesses, they wrote their own magazines and used the photocopier to reproduce them, they took dance lessons (by their own request) then bartered more advanced lessons for their help to teach younger students, they wrote and performed plays in the community, they played with neighborhood friends who went to school and with the few other non-schoolers we knew, they made LEGO extravaganzas, they baked bread, they sat and read, and later they volunteered in the community. Rolf and I never planned their activities or their learning experiences (although we sometimes inspired them...and vice versa), and they never used text books or a formal curriculum. They were never tested or graded.

Q: How did your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers react to your decision to life learn with your daughters?

A: The grandparents were understandably skeptical at first: “When are you going to get a real job and send them to school?” But they soon became supportive, realizing that their granddaughters were flourishing. Friends – except for the rare ones who were homeschooling too – tended to ignore the topic. Our oldest friends, a childless couple who became “family,” marveled at how “well-behaved,” articulate, etc., the girls were, but just thought it was some freak of nature and didn’t connect it to their mode of education or how they were parented. Neither Rolf nor I care much about what other people think of us, so other people’s reactions weren’t about to influence us.

Unfortunately, one employee of our publishing business turned out not to be in favor of the idea and, when we laid her off, got her revenge by complaining about our homeschooling to the school board. That became a bit messy for awhile. Because homeschooling was so uncommon in the 1970s, we had to educate the school folks about the legalities…and homeschooling without curriculum, tests, grades, and so on was even harder to explain. But we survived the process intact, a well-thumbed copy of the legislation in hand, and I quickly realized I’d better become a vocal advocate and activist in order for such things not to happen to others.

Q: What has made an impact? For example: understanding learning styles, decompressing, etc.

A: I’m glad that Rolf and I were able to sustain our trust in our children’s ability to learn without being taught and our belief that they had/have the right to their own feelings, values, opinions, needs, and goals…as well as respecting their ability to express (or keep private) those things.

Q: If you have read about the topic of homeschooling/unschooling, has one particular author or work or event influenced you the most?

A: Most of what I’ve done, spoken about, and written about on this topic over the last 35 years has come from my own experience and thinking. But I discovered John Holt’s writing after Rolf and I had decided not to send our future children to school and his early books, such as How Children Fail and How Children Learn, were quite affirming. Better Late Than Early by the Moores also reinforced my own experience watching Heidi and Melanie learn. Books like Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society helped keep me focused on the big picture of non-school-based life and learning.

Q: What do you remember most about your own childhood education – in school or elsewhere?

A: Most of what I remember has little to do with academics. I attended elementary school in the 1950s, before the second wave of feminism. I remember the teachers, who were all women for the first six years, treating the girls differently than the boys, which I felt from an early age wasn’t fair. I had a strong awareness of injustice and it was evoked often. I always thought memorizing lists of facts was a dumb time-waster, but I did it more or less successfully in order to please my teachers and parents by getting good marks. Never did master the times tables though.

I also remember worrying that they weren’t teaching me how to think in school, and that I’d be a failure as an adult if I couldn’t think, in spite of all the dates and poetry and mathematical shortcuts that I’d had to memorize.

Then I was lucky enough to have a teacher who convinced me that I could think and who valued that rather than my ability to memorize. He also awakened in me – and encouraged – whatever talent I have for writing and speaking. From then on, those were my passions. Too bad it never occurred to me until much later to use those passions to make a living!

Q: How has this shaped unschooling with your children?

A: Oddly enough, it’s only been recently, while a PhD candidate began writing my life history as a homeschooling advocate, that I’ve linked my early childhood experiences, and the context of the era in which they happened, with my determination to provide something better than school for our daughters. Before that, I considered school teaching as the main influence.

Q: If you had to start again, or taken in the context of grandchildren, would you do anything differently?

A: Ah, hindsight is wonderful, isn’t it? I don’t really think I’d change much, except that I might dismiss more promptly and confidently any fleeting doubts that occasionally would make me buy workbooks (which, fortunately, the girls regularly and wisely hid under their beds, eyes rolling.)

I might also spend even more time playing with my daughters than I did. But I am also realistic about my personality and about how passionate I was about my work. And I know that they inevitably were influenced by and benefitted from living in a family that was achieving important things in the world. I have no regrets.

Q: Any advice or caution you would like to offer to others?

A: Remember that your children will learn what they need to know (both academically and otherwise) when they need to learn it – with your help or in spite of it.

Seek inspiration, comfort, advice, or reassurance from others (including this magazine) when you need it. But know that you and your children are the best and, in fact, the only authorities when it comes to knowing how to live your lives. So trust yourself and your children!

Relax and enjoy exploring life with your kids. They’ll grow up and move away all too soon.

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