Natural Life Magazine

Finding My Unschooling Path
by Stacey Clarke

A 15-year-old describes her unschooling experiences.
“This is for all my friends who still hunger to know what it is I do all day and why.”

ice skatingWhen I was six years old, I went to grade one in a rural village in eastern Ontario, Canada. I hated it. Everything was unnatural to me and the reality of my life in that place made me sick. I had no idea it could be so bad. I was sick to my stomach every morning getting on a bus that took me to hell. Sitting in an ominous classroom of dead air and even more dead children. The dim fluorescent lights pouring their gloom all over us. And Mrs. Brown would speak. She would write a diary entry on the chart board and we would dutifully copy it into our own diaries. Her dull words became ours. Sitting for hours and hours bent over ridiculous questions from Dick and Jane. I filled out page after page to prove I could count to one hundred – something I learned when I was four. But there was no way of communicating that to Mrs. Brown. I was only one of the herd.

The next year I homeschooled but the effects of the powerless herd lasted well into that year. Even though I was in my home and I was able to go outside when the sun was shining and pee when I wanted to (what a novel idea), there was still something wrong. I'd demand that my mother play the teacher role and mark my work so that I could continue my completely dependent learning style. I tried to make her into Mrs. Brown and then I would rebel against the structure I'd created. I was horrible. I insulted her and took ages to complete tasks. The game went on and on, pushing and pulling.

The following year my mother eased up on the curriculum. I had workbooks to play around with on my own, books to read, art supplies and the occasional lesson from mom.

My life began to be my own again. I'd daydream and draw pictures and spend hours playing with my little brother. I'd work in the gardens alongside my parents and watch the farmers take hay off the fields. I went to ballet, skating, swimming, gymnastics and Brownies. I went on nature hikes with the local homeschooling group and picked up most of the names of the trees and plants. I loved birds and took special interest in training them. My winter chickadees would come when called, eat out of my hand, land on my head and follow me around when I was exploring the winter wonderland. Surely this was a relevant education for a young human being.

I've learned that nothing happens in my life until I take charge. I've decided to take my dreams very seriously.

Over the years, we ended up with no curriculum whatsoever. We did projects with another homeschooling family – yes, the parents did them too. It was as much a learning experience for them as it was for us. Our specialty was native cultures. As far as math went, I could add and subtract money (decimals) and double cooking recipes (fractions). I didn't realize how much of my most disliked subject I was learning.

Yes, I did have times of doubt when I thought, “Am I learning enough?” I became slightly panic-stricken during my preteen years and ran back to my workbooks. However, math on paper leaves a lot to be desired and I soon gave it up. I told myself I would come back to it when I felt I needed it.

More and more of my life was spent at the arena, preparing for my debut in competitive figure skating. At home I wrote letters to a growing number of penpals around the world. I also started some short stories. They were never finished and reeked of the Sweet Valley High books I read by the stack. Over time, my writing (and my reading material) improved immensely.

In the past year, I have found a mentor for my writing. I share my work and she guides me toward places where I can publish it. I taught myself to speak some Spanish and Japanese, which I use whenever I have the chance. I recently started singing lessons and started to do public speaking as well. I am also completely dedicated to my competitive skating and coaching. You could call all of these things my non-curriculum.

I've learned that nothing happens in my life until I take charge. I've decided to take my dreams very seriously. Within myself I keep finding things I want to know. There are reasons to go to the library to find out how and why, and to read the great literature of our time. No one quizzes me with trick questions to see if I'm meeting the “requirements” for my grade. I am not an egg. I know what I'm learning and that's a personal journey for me. It's holistic and spiritual because I'm exploring many areas of knowledge. Most of what I learn, schools would never even think to call education.

What you see here is an unschooler. I practice self-directed learning. I sometimes have teachers, but I choose them for the knowledge I want. I call them mentors.

This allows me to have control over my life and to create my own “career plan. ” I bring the word career into this now because many people would never imagine an unschooler getting the chance to have one. As I pursue all of these different interests – coaching, skating , writing, speaking, singing, languages – I am trying to piece together ways I could support myself.

If I wish to go to university at some point, I won't require a grade twelve, believe it or not. I can take entrance exams or GEDs or follow many other routes. So you ask, “Why are there so few people unschooling?” Perhaps it's because it seems daring and foolish. Our society is so institutionalized that people begin to think there is only one “right way” of doing things.

Now, you may be thinking, “Am I too old to start this? Did I miss my chance?” No one is ever too old. You can start anytime and you don't even have to homeschool. It's a philosophy and a way of life, rather than a location. For instance, if you want to learn science, go to the library, talk to people who are scientists and find out if it is something you want to pursue. Maybe take on some type of an apprenticeship somewhere you think you'd like to work. Then you can clearly see what information you need to get where you want to go.

If there are things in school that can help you, then go check it out. But remember that you direct your own learning. This is your path. Don't assume that the schools are qualified to steer you in the right direction. Ask yourself, what is the meaning of life? What are we supposed to do here? To share our gifts? Maybe. Don't ignore your passions, for they make life worth living.

This article was published in 1996.


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