unschooling in the media

What are your thoughts about the Good Morning America report on unschooling?  I don’t watch t.v., but of course the link was posted to several of my online homeschool groups.  At first I only had time to quickly read the written accompaniment to the video, and I still haven’t read the comments yet, but I felt neutral about it.  I still feel moderate: it’s not a fabulous report, nor is it awful.

Based on my first visit to Monday’s synopsis of the first part of the report, I wasn’ t very concerned.  I’m inclined to think (I might have naive tendencies) that most people would acknowledge there is a lack of substance in this Good Morning America episode.  There has been a lot of discussion about it at the AlwaysLearning yahoogroup.  Someone in that group said her daughter wondered why they only talked about what the kids didn’t do, not what they do do.  Exactly.  So there are probably closed minded people who watched it and got a negative impression, but they probably wouldn’t have opened their minds no matter how well GMA reported anyway.  But now maybe there are a lot of other people wondering, “So what DO they do?” and they go on to learn more about it, now that the idea has been planted.

While some people think the family didn’t represent unschooling accurately in the report, others say that they did well considering the restraints of the interviewing process and editing.  I finally took some time to watch the episodes just before I began this writing (last night) and I thought they did as well as they could in the situation too.  A 7 minute news report is not enough time to do justice to an idea, especially when it’s such a new idea to most people.  I have been unschooling with my kids practically from the start, having learned about it at the same time I was researching homeschooling in general, when my oldest was a toddler 7 years ago.  I still have not completely shed my schooly tendencies.  That isn’t surprising if you think about how long I was in that institution, from K through a 3 semester post-graduate teaching credential program.

Last night I also watched Tuesday’s GMA follow-up report, and that was even better as far as getting an opportunity, albeit an extremely brief opportunity, to listen to the parents’ unedited comments.  Plus they had Pat Farenga of HOLT Associates, a homeschool organization to give “official” support.  I think the mom summarized the concept of unschooling lifestyle well:

“There’s a huge difference between having no rules and having arbitrary rules,” Yablonski said. “We live in a world of principles. The principles of trust, honesty and respect. That’s how we make all of our decisions. It’s not anything goes. We are instilling proper values, good values in our children.”

There’s an excellent rebuttal to the GMA report at The Huffington Post, written by Lee Stranahan, who has a nearly adult unschooled son.  I have read a few comments following it, and I’m amazed at how angry some people seem to be when they write against the idea.  New things are so scary to some people.  Think of how tough Galileo had it.  (My unschooled kids have been engrossed in The Story of the World lately, and last Friday we happened to be listening to the story of Galileo as we pulled into the parking lot at the Richmond Science Museum!)  When we don’t understand something, we ought to find out more about it.  Or at the very least hold judgement as long as we don’t understand it.  And learning more about what we don’t understand can teach us more about ourselves.

That’s how I came to grasp unschooling.  It has been a back and forth process.  I would read something that sounds wonderful and or sensible about unschooling.  I would live with my children.  I’ would get frustrated.  I would waver.  I would read more.  I would think more.  I would think while living with my children.  I would read or see something else and be inspired again.  I’m talking about months and years of this!  It turns out for us that this lifestyle is more often stress free and full of joy that I’m glad I didn’t disregard the idea early on or give up on it.

We visited an alpaca farm with our homeschool group earlier this month.

Now I want to say something about labels, because some people focus too much on them, and I think this is one of the problems with a report such as this GMA one.  Little reports like this can only be an introduction; they fail to represent everyone they seem to intend to.  And that upsets some people.   I think we need not worry so much about labels, which are just convenient communication shortcuts but meaningless otherwise.  I say labels are meaningless because there are all kinds of ways to be while calling it the same thing, and just calling yourself something doesn’t make it so.  What we do is more important than what we call ourselves.

If I’m talking to someone who doesn’t even homeschool, the concept of homeschooling will probably be strange enough to them without bringing up the even less common idea of unschooling.  So I save the term for situations where it has some more meaning.  If I am talking to another homeschooler who is probably at least vaguely familiar with the concept of unschooling, that’s a good time to use the word unschooler, because in one word it makes clear some basic facts about us.  But if you visited twenty households that claim to be unschoolers, you will see many differences.  It’s not that any of them shouldn’t claim the label.  They probably do all share the basic idea that children learn better without being forced, as well as other overlapping beliefs.  I think that’s why the term “radical unschooling” came to be, to differentiate between families that unschool only academics and those who apply the principles to their entire life.  But that’s not the only way unschoolers differ.   You will find some families where variations are working for them that wouldn’t work in other families.

There are arguments over at MDC occasionally about what it takes to be an unschooler, and I’ve decided they’re silly.  MDC has a forum just for unschoolers, by the way.  Occasionally someone will post,  “What if I do X?  Can I still be an unschooler?”  I would ask, Is the label more important to you, or is finding out whether X works for your family more important?  Yes, read about unschooling and consider the ideas thoughtfully.  Even return to the ideas when they don’t work at first, because it’s really hard to change a lifetime of schooly training.  But focus on the children you’re with and find out what works for your family. What really works.  For everyone.

I’m not taking it personally that GMA aired an unresearched closed-minded piece.  The media screws up reports on all kinds of topics all the time.  I do wonder what everyone is saying about it though, and welcome to opportunity to discuss the topic.

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