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Working on the Omelet:
Thoughts on Cooking and Life Learning

by Ellen Rowland

working on the omelet: thoughts on cooking and unschooling
Photo © Kitch Bain/Shutterstock

My mother was an excellent cook and, although she had shelves full of cookbooks, she rarely consulted them. Instead, she let our small garden be her inspiration, creating meals around what was ripe for the picking that day. I used to sit at the kitchen counter and watch her pull ingredients together: a dash of this, a snip of that, a dollop of something or other; chopping, whisking, kneading, sautéing, browning, simmering, and passing the wooden spoon coated with goodness over the counter for me to taste. Her knowledge and passion for food were contagious. Without realizing it, I learned a great deal about cooking and food alchemy just by watching her.

My mother was also an incredibly chaotic cook. A far cry from the “clean as you go” type, her creativity left the kitchen a daunting path of destruction for whoever had dish duty that night. As an adult, I share both her passion for food and her penchant for a messy kitchen.

I clearly remember two things she used to say to me and my brother and sister:

“Anyone can follow a recipe, but you’ll know you’re a really good cook when you can create a meal based on instinct with what you have on hand.” 

And, “If the kitchen’s a mess, that means you made a great meal.”

These bits of remembered wisdom and the lessons I learned in my mother’s kitchen have not only helped me with my own cooking, but have served as great metaphors to guide our family on the path to life learning – a messy, creative, mistake-laden path. I’d like to share a few:

1. You don’t have to follow a recipe.

We took our children out of school for a variety of reasons, but the clincher was a parent-teacher meeting during which we were told our daughter showed a “lack of maturity.” She was four.

I Googled homeschooling. I cleared out a room, hung a blackboard, bought textbooks, worksheets, notebooks, pens, pencils and art supplies, and lots of little smiley face stickers for encouragement. And I patted myself on the back for having made the decision to teach my own children (four and five at the time) what I believed they needed to know. It lasted two weeks. I had started out as the Julia Child of homeschooling and quickly morphed into something resembling Gordon Ramsay from “Hell’s Kitchen.” I had followed a “recipe” for homeschooling, purchased all the right “ingredients,” and yet my efforts were a complete disaster— a fallen souffle and two children who were disgusted, but still hungry to learn. Why hadn’t it worked? I told myself I just wasn’t cut out to be a teacher.

So we hired one. A lovely woman, a seasoned pro, who came to our house every morning with an age-tailored curriculum, an arsenal of catchy songs, and lots of visual aids. It went well at first. They seemed to be learning. Maybe this was the right recipe. And yet there was no enthusiasm. Then . . . the epiphany happened.

2. Let the garden of life be your children’s inspiration.

One morning, my children woke up early and got so busy on their own projects that they didn’t want to stop for breakfast. My son was building an elaborate LEGO village complete with wind turbine, and my daughter was surrounded by yards of fabric and was busy cutting out a pattern for a dress she had drawn herself. There was absorption and concentration and determination. Mostly there was joy because they were doing what they loved, what naturally fed their spirits. And they had chosen to do these things on their own, without any prodding or suggestion. Wow.

Then came the knock at the door. The teacher. Time to learn. Time to put those projects aside in order to be taught something more important, like cursive letters and unities of ten and what to call that lopsided triangle. The looks on their faces as they trudged toward the “classroom” said it all. It hit me on the head like a stale baguette. We had made a huge, colossal mistake. We hadn’t removed our children from school. We had simply changed the location . . . minus all the other kids. Why couldn’t they just do what they loved? Wasn’t that learning too? At the time, I didn’t have a name for the magic that had taken place in my kids room that morning. All I knew was that I wanted to give it back to them. But how? They still needed to know certain things, right? How could I be sure they were learning the right things? How could I measure, test, verify?

3. Follow your instincts. All the time. In whatever you do.

An accident, or serendipity, led me to discover the principles of unschooling at the precise moment that I needed an answer. I was trying to find a home for an article I had written on the experience of building our earth house and I came across Natural Life Magazine. I contacted the editor, Wendy Priesnitz, and she agreed to publish it.

Browsing other articles on their website, I noticed a link to Life Learning Magazine. Hmm. One click and I spent the next three days reading the archives and sharing these revelations with my husband, who nodded his head like I was the last one to get the punch line. He was self-taught. I, on the other hand, was educated within the system. This capacity for children to learn on their own was astonishing to me at the time. I had never considered it and yet it was all around me. Like learning for the first time that I could separate an egg with nothing more than my bare fingers, I just had to trust my instincts. I now understood that this was what my children had shown me on that oh-so-important morning. This was the magic.

So we got rid of all the recipes that didn’t work, all the ingredients that were weighing us down and slowly, carefully and lovingly let our children be. It was hard. Really, really hard. More than once, I wanted to pull out those banished recipes for guidance, unsure that we were doing the right thing.

My son was having trouble learning to read and write, meaning he refused to try. It had started when he was in school. He wrote his letters backwards, confused b and d, p and q and was continually chastised and corrected. All he wanted to do was learn about the world. So we let him. We showed him how to get to Google Earth on the computer. Once.

What happened next was truly amazing. He began navigating the site and pulling up pictures of landscapes, monuments, natural wonders, native plants and animals. He learned the capitals of almost every country, how many inhabitants, the main industry, the climate, language, and types of architecture. And then he began to draw what he saw. Pages and pages of landscapes and architectural drawings. He asked my husband to show him the basics of Sketch-up design software. He shared what he learned with anyone who would listen, animatedly talking about population statistics, natural land boundaries, continents, means of travel, and religious conflicts. He had learned to read and type in order to get where he wanted to go. Geography, for which he had expressed an interest to his teachers, had not been on the curriculum.

4. Messy is good.

Life is messy. Creating is messy. Trying is messy. And so is failing. Accomplishment can be messy. Painting is messy. Cooking is messy. Building with earth is messy. So are fashion shows, wood carving, face painting, and most “experiments.” School is not messy. It’s not allowed.

5. You don’t need fancy “ingredients.”

Sometimes, less is more when it comes to cooking. You’d be surprised what you can create with what you have on hand. You just need to be inspired. It’s the same with interest-led learning.

Sometimes, a simple walk on the beach can lead to a discussion about overfishing, what shells are made of, or why the water in the ocean is salty. And because we adults don’t always know everything, the answers to the questions need to be looked up back home in a book or online. And we forget to wash the sand off our feet because the day gave us an opportunity to learn. These learning “gifts” as I like to call them are never scheduled or planned and never, ever purchased. They are spontaneous wonders born from curiosity.

6. Don’t apologize or make excuses for your choices.

Julia Child, although a master of French cuisine, struggled with omelets. During one of her televised shows, she tried to show how to flip an omelet and ended up with a goopy pile of eggs in the pan. She took a spatula and smoothed it all out, slid it onto a plate and stuck a sprig of parsley on top. Then she told her audience to never apologize or make excuses, that it all comes together in the end. My mother never forgot that episode and used to tell it to us again and again.

Whatever we choose to call it and however the components of life learning come together for our children is different for each family and indeed for each child, even within the same family. And it may change over time as interests evolve and new passions emerge. So it’s often difficult to define or give parameters to those who want a precise understanding of unschooling and how it works. As a nascent life learner, I think the best we can do is share stories and information, positive and negative, and encourage one another as parents and adults accompanying our children on their journey.

I find myself talking about life learning most often in the grocery store, when my children are with me during “school hours.” Perfect strangers will stop us and ask my children, “No school today?” I usually just say, “They’re homeschooled,” and leave it at that. Most people will make an excuse about a sale on potato chips in Aisle 4 and that will be that. The subject is either no longer of interest or threatening on some level. But sometimes, the genuinely curious parent or fervent school supporter will dig a little further. Sometimes, these are pleasant conversations. Sometimes not. But I never apologize or make excuses and I don’t judge other’s choices and neither do my children.

Recently, on one such day, a man asked about our approach to learning while weighing onions. He listened for a minute, then said, “Aren’t you afraid they’ll be flipping burgers in ten years?” To which my daughter (now eight) replied, “I already know how to flip a burger! It’s easy. And so are pancakes. But I’m still working on the omelet. That’s a tough one.”

I’m not worried—I have faith that it will all come together. And it will be delicious.

Ellen Rowland is an American living abroad. Among her adventures was building an off-the-grid earth house with her husband and two homeschooled children. She is a writer of sustainable issues, fiction, humor, and poetry. She is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning and parenting outside the status quo.

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