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Unschooling as the CSA model of learning

Cooking With What’s in the Bag
Unschooling as the CSA Model of Learning

by Carrie Pomeroy

Recently, I was talking with a poet friend who belongs to the same community-supported (CSA) farm that my family and I participate in. Like us, my friend’s family invests an up-front share in the farm every year and commits to at least one day of harvest work. In return, we receive a weekly canvas bag bulging with fresh produce – everything from favorites like snap peas and cherry tomatoes to, well, not-so-favorites, like celeriac.

As my friend and I relaxed on her porch, catching up after a long time between visits, she asked if the kids and I “would take the summer off” from homeschooling.

I explained that there really wasn’t anything for us to stop doing, since we don’t use a curriculum or follow a set schedule. “So what do you do?” she asked. A community college professor with two children in school, my friend seemed genuinely curious. But whenever I try to answer that question, I always feel as if I’m picking my way across a stream on slippery, shifting rocks. Slowly, I tried to explain how we follow our interests and see where they take us.

“I don’t plan ahead what I want the kids to learn and when I want them to learn it,” I told my friend. “I just look at what they’re interested in and see what resources I can find to help them learn more.” I paused, wondering what she was thinking. Would she accuse me of lazy parenting? Conjure up the specter of educational gaps?

My friend nodded thoughtfully before replying. “It reminds me of cooking,” she said with a smile. “You can start out ahead of time with a recipe and go to the store to get the ingredients for what you’ve planned to make. Or there’s the CSA bag model, where you get your bag of vegetables from the farm, look in the bag, and go from there. Your kids are like the CSA bags, and you figure out what to make from what they give you.”

The more I thought about it, the more apt my friend’s analogy seemed. As a CSA member, I’ve learned that if all goes well on the farm, there will be spinach and garlic in my bag in June, tomatoes and cucumbers in July, squash and potatoes in October. I know that if I go on vacation in late June, I’m going to miss local strawberries. I wouldn’t think of expecting my farmers to be able to produce vegetables out of season or extend a vegetable past its natural availability. I’ve learned to value the foods that grow around here, when they actually grow around here, and to work with them while they’re fresh and available.

Similarly, as a life learner, I am learning to respect my children’s own natural timetables. I don’t try to force them to learn things before they’re ready (or at least, when I do, I usually regret it and back off); instead, I wait for my children’s own internal cues to tell them when they are ready to try, then stand back and watch them flourish in unexpectedly marvelous ways. So when my son lost interest in phonics readers at age six, I shelved the readers and just read good stuff to him – everything from Peter Pan to Tintin – then watched as he taught himself at age seven to read, thanks to his voracious appetite for Garfield comic books. Like a farmer giving seeds time to sprout underground, I try to respect that even when my kids don’t appear to be doing or learning much, there’s actually vital resting and growing going on beneath the surface.

For me, one especially growth-provoking aspect of belonging to our CSA is that it has forced me to try foods I’d never even heard of before. I’ve learned to roast celeriac, to sauté kale with garlic and red pepper flakes, to use pink-veined beet greens instead of chopping them off and throwing them away.

Similarly, my children have offered me countless opportunities to learn things I never would have learned otherwise. When my son was a truck-obsessed toddler, I spent hours hanging out near construction sites so he could soak in all the details of every front-end loader and crane. Playing math games with my kids and reading delightful books like The Number Devil with them, I’m gradually letting go of school-induced math phobia and discovering the beauty of numbers and their patterns.

After fourteen years of CSA participation, I’ve learned that farming setbacks are inevitable and that no year is “typical.” Some years are dry; some are so wet it’s difficult to get out in the fields. Sometimes a hail storm or an early freeze decimates acres of carefully tended vegetables. Unlike many small-scale farmers, CSA farmers have the built-in assurance that their members will stick with them through good times and bad.

In our homeschooling, I’m learning that a typical year includes its share of emotional storms, low periods, and health ups and downs. We make huge strides, then backtrack to cover ground I thought we’d left behind for good. If we were trying to keep up with a prescribed schedule for learning, I imagine I might feel more as if we were failing when our learning wasn’t progressing exactly as planned – as it is, I simply see our backtracking and our plateau periods as to-be-expected parts of our learning process, just as my farmers expect weird weather and deer with the munchies to be part of the growing season. If my family were on a schedule, I also imagine we might feel much more pressure to keep firing away on all cylinders and not take time to rest through our low times. I’m grateful our family rhythm lets us sleep more when we need the rest and to stay home reading on the couch when we need to reconnect.

The key element that sets community-supported agriculture apart is its community aspect (some people I know like to call CSAs “agriculture-supported communities”). CSA members agree to commit money and/or labor to help make farming less risky for farmers, and they agree to shoulder whatever losses might happen during the growing season. In exchange, they get to share in the bounty of fresh food, learn a tremendous amount, and meet many wonderful people.

I see our homeschooling as very much a community-supported endeavor, as well as a community-supporting endeavor. When my children help me prepare and present a storytime for our local library, we are both nurturing community and being nurtured by it. When my four-year-old daughter rushes to pick up scraps of plastic trash around our neighborhood so it won’t make its way into the ocean and be swallowed by a sea turtle mistaking it for a jellyfish, I know she is learning that her actions connect her to a larger world.

From the elderly volunteers at the Science Museum who have patiently shown my children animal skeletons and math puzzles, to the neighbors who have shared their milkweed plants to help us raise monarch caterpillars, to the librarians who set aside books for us that they think we might find interesting, there are many people out there supporting us, whether they fully realize it or not. On a group work day at the farm, it’s amazing how many tomato plants can be planted in a single day, how many potatoes can get dug up when a large number of people work together. As a homeschooler, when I let myself lean on the support of my community, my children and I learn so much more than we would if I thought I had to be their primary teacher.

Talking to my poet friend on her porch, I was braced for criticism, and instead, I received a gift – a metaphor that helps me more fully embrace the learning path my family has chosen. We may not have a recipe for what’s going to be on our table every day, but oh, do we feast.

Carrie Pomeroy is a writer and neighborhood activist who lives in St. Paul, MN with her husband and two children. Her writing has appeared in “Literary Mama,” “CALYX,” and the anthology “Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers.” Her passions include books and libraries, gardening, local food, bicycling, and getting to know her neighbors. She wishes to thank Kathryn Kysar for sparking the idea for this article. You can find more of Carrie’s writing online at her blog Skills for Tomorrow at

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