Monday, November 10, 2008

Why I'm Not An Unschooler

A lot of the people in my homeschool support group are unschoolers. In general, this means they don't buy much curriculum, they don't do assignments, write exams, or set goals for each "semester." They don't have school-time during the day.

Unschooling seems to be a philosophy of life, and not just an educational approach. It’s very holistic, child-centered, and respectful. It seems to involve simply living as rich and full and happy a life as possible, and allowing learning to take place naturally, in the context of whatever activities your family chooses to pursue. Things like reading, writing, and arithmetic are such an integral part of everyday life for most people that children could hardly avoid learning the basics. Because unschooled children have the free time to explore their interests, they can often experience them in great depth and breadth.

I love knowing these unschoolers in my life. I love to see how totally free life can be, and how there is truly room in this world for all kinds of people. These are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. So, if unschooling is so great, how come I’m not doing it? Why do we have curriculum, “school time” and “free time” and why do I set the agenda most days? Good questions. I have talked about it at length with my husband, and I’ve come up with a handful of reasons why “pure” or “radical” unschooling just isn’t the right fit for our family.

1. There are a whole bunch of tasks that I make my kids do regularly: dress themselves, tidy their rooms, feed the dog, brush their teeth, sort laundry, sweep the floor, put stuff away, etc. I didn’t wait until they showed an interest in doing them. These are essential life skills, and they have to do them. Period. There are even more skills that I consider essential, that they will HAVE to learn to do in at least a basic, survival sort of way, like cooking, balancing a budget, riding a bicycle, and learning how to swim.

I see a lot of schooly stuff in the exact same category. Learning to read, write, and calculate are useful everyday tasks, and I don’t want to have to do it FOR them until they are 12 years old. Obviously, not all kids are ready to take on a new skill at the same time, but if my kids are capable of learning a new skill, then I’m going to do everything possible to help push them along.

2. I truly believe that there is value in discipline, in doing some things because you have to, in practicing every day until you see improvement, in struggling to achieve. Obviously, it’s best if the drive comes from inside yourself, but a lot of us don’t even realize what we are capable of until someone pushes us a little. I’m not a drill sergeant, but I encourage my kids to work hard, to put in an honest effort, to try things with a good attitude, to give that little bit extra to finish the page or complete the project. I think about some of the people who I respect and admire, like my children’s pediatrician, or my friend who is an engineer, or another friend who flies helicopters. Every single one of them has had to push themselves to learn things or do things that were hard, or that they didn’t really want to do.

3. My kids seem to do better with some structure. For example, sometimes I get busy and caught up in my own projects or problems, and I sort of ignore the kids for a while and let them do whatever they want. They always start out great, with all kinds of creative games, and lots of fun. At some point, after a week or two, or even three, they start to get whiney and irritable and lazy and totally get on my nerves. Maybe if I ignored them a little longer, it would pass, but what usually happens is that I SNAP and make them work their butts off for 2-3 days (a bit of yelling and a few tears often occur, unfortunately). It is like they are magically restored to their sweet, charming, happy selves.

4. I have noticed that time and time again, whenever I introduce a new topic, my daughter ends up incorporating the information into her games. We read a book once on pioneer life that became a year-long passion for her. I find that if I take the time to introduce new ideas, it feeds their minds and takes them in new directions.

Having said all that, I still love the idea of unschooling, and these are the ways that I temper my authoritarian tendencies:

1. Sometimes, we take a break from schooly stuff. Last April, I planned to take a break for about two weeks so that I could put in my garden. The break lasted for four months. During that time, the kids played outside, worked in the garden, visited the farm, went on vacation, went swimming, and read about a million books. My daughter’s spelling and handwriting improved almost by magic, and they both seemed to grow and develop physically and emotionally. Even though we did almost no academic work, I felt like it was time well spent.

2. I am not a slave to curriculum. I purchase materials that look interesting or useful for my kids, but I completely ignore the schedule that usually comes along with it. We just start reading or working through the material. If we really like a topic, I’ll get a bunch of extra materials out of the library to supplement it. If there is a really boring section, we just skip right over it and move on to something more engaging. After all, my kids are 6 and 8 years old. How much do you remember of the social studies topics you studied in grades 1, 2, and 3? Anything? In the case of math, I try to be slightly more methodical. However, if a concept is really too difficult for my child, or the book doesn’t explain it very well, I just don’t use that section of the book. We’ll learn the topic at the white board or on scraps of paper, or using manipulatives, or I’ll just wait a few months and them come back to it.

3. I try to make sure the kids have enough free time in the week to just play, dream, think, or generally pursue their own interests. It’s one of the main reasons why I homeschool in the first place. When my daughter went to school, her day was so long and so full that there was hardly time for her to do the things that she wanted to do. If I tried to add in swimming lessons or piano lessons, she was overwhelmed. At least with homeschooling, the structured part of the day is over by about noon, and they have the next 8-10 hours to take swimming or gymnastics, go to the library, play with friends, read books, go outside, or whatever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Small Towns

I spent a few days in a small town in Southern Alberta last month. I was there for my uncle’s funeral, but it was the first time I’d ever visited his town. I have always lived in the city and imagined life in a small town to be so boring. No movie theatres, no big auditoriums, concerts, sports centres, no fancy restaurants, just less stuff going on altogether. I went for a few walks in this town, and I realized that I could walk from one end to the other in about half an hour. The population was about 1000 people. Even though it was small, it had everything you might need right there on main street: grocery store, hardware store, post office, second-hand store, department store, cafĂ©, bookstore, library, funeral home, furniture store, accountants and lawyer’s office, and a senior’s centre. It was so nice, so quaint, so comfortable, so easy.

I suddenly realized that in many ways, it would be EASIER to live a low-impact lifestyle in a small farming community than it is in the city. I live in a really nice residential neighbourhood in the middle of the city, but there are practically NO services within walking distance. Obviously, we have all the services that you could possibly dream of, but I need a car to them. Sometimes, when I’m running errands, I try to imagine how I would go about doing it by bus. One or two hours of errands would be a full-day ordeal by bus or bicycle.

On the weekend, I went for a walk around my neighbourhood, and I realized that there are probably about 1000 homes in my community. The size of my neighbourhood is almost exactly the same size as my uncle’s small town. I bet that there is at least one teacher, doctor, nurse, veterinarian, accountant, restaurant owner, physiotherapist, lawyer, carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic, and every other type of service I could ever need right here in my own community.

My uncle knew hundreds of people in his town. I think he knew almost everyone. I hardly know anyone in my neighbourhood. I recognize about 2 dozen families from my children’s school or soccer or from the playground, but that is hardly the same as knowing them. My city is filled with these little neighbourhoods full of people who hardly know each other. Some areas are better than others, I suppose. Some places have very active community leagues while others are begging for volunteers.

I just wonder what it would be like if each neighbourhood was organized like a small town, and the people in it acted like we lived in a small town. What if we had a little “main street” with our own post office, drug store, grocery store, doctor’s office, etc. What if more of our friends lived within walking distance, instead of spread across the city?

Maybe the first step to living more lightly is to get to know your neighbours.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Work and Family

I'm quitting my job. I've been there for a whole year, and I decided last week that I am done. We don't desperately need the money, although it's hard to say no to a steady source of income, even if it's small. Our family is busy, as most families are, and my husband often has to work long hours. If I work at a part-time job on his days off, then it limits the time we have to spend all together.

The clincher was when I did our taxes last week. It looks like we'll be getting a substantial tax return. I figured that I could split that money up over about 6-8 months, and it would be the same as what I bring home from my part-time job.

When I pitched the idea to my husband, can you guess what he said? You'll be amazed. He said, "I've always been in favour of you quitting your job. You are far more valuable to our family than to someone else's business."

Wow. How did I get so lucky?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Happy and Positive

We spent last week skiing at Panorama. It was AWESOME!!! It has been an annual event in my family for almost 20 years. We miss the odd year here and there, but my husband and I are committed to making it a tradition for our kids, too.

Both kids are now officially skiers. My daughter, 8 years old, can ski any green or blue runs, plus a few black diamond runs, too. Her favourite thing is to go as fast as possible, and to find every bump and jump along the way. Thank God for helmets!!! She is completely fearless and blasts like a rocket all over the mountain. My son, age 5, took about 4 days to figure out how to ski. By the end of the fifth day, he was done with the bunny hill and took to the chairlifts. On the sixth day, we got him onto the big quad chair, which he rode 4 times and skied all the way down. He is a much calmer skier than his sister, and doesn’t seem to be addicted to speed the way she is (at least not yet). Most of the time, he likes to grab handfuls of snow and much thoughtfully while skiing down the hill. So cute! I am so proud of both of them.

I wonder about the environmental impact of skiing. We have to drive there, the chairlifts, chalets, the grooming equipment and the hot tubs all operate on electricity. My ski equipment is almost 20 years old and I really need to invest in new stuff soon. I am concerned about what to do with my existing equipment. It is so old that it can’t be traded to someone else. I also doubt that there are environmentally-sensitive ski boots out there. As much as I am trying to stop buying and using plastic, I don’t think there is any other kind of ski boot.

Despite all that, I am absolutely NOT willing to give up skiing. I LOVE skiing. I grew up skiing. My husband grew up skiing. We met each other on a ski trip. We decided to start a family while on a ski trip. I put my daughter on skis at age 3, and my son at age 4. We are a skiing family. I can seriously see myself becoming a ski instructor in retirement. To me, skiing means mountains, trees, fresh air, exercise, peacefulness, hanging out with friends, and having fun. It’s what life is really all about. It makes life worth living.

Speaking of life worth living, I am feeling much, much better than I was a few weeks ago. I have found myself getting excited about planting my garden, trying new recipes, getting a puppy this spring, and spring cleaning in the house. These are all very good signs. It is such a puzzle, though, how I can feel so good now, and remember how dark everything looked just a short time ago. It’s a reminder that what is going on externally isn’t really the “truth,” it’s simply a reflection of what is going on internally. I mean, the world didn’t radically change in the last 3 weeks, but something inside of me did, so the world looks completely different now.

I have a few more positive things to report in the sustainable-living department.

I am planning to get a dog this spring, but I have been worried about how best to handle his “droppings.” I don’t want to use plastic bags, and I don’t want to put them into the landfill. One website suggested using flushable plastic bags and flushing them, but I’m not crazy about fouling up our water system. (I’m still trying to talk my husband into trying a composting toilet for our own “droppings.” He’s not too keen.) Finally, I found some great information on how to compost your dog’s poop. The website is here:

It looks extremely simple. Just dig a hole, put a bottomless garbage can in there, line it with rocks, and toss the poop in. Every once in a while, sprinkle in some septic starter stuff, and let it naturally decompose. The only issue I can see is that the compost pile would get buried in snow in the wintertime. I’ll have to choose a corner of my yard that is fairly sheltered, and just keep it clear of snow. Oh, and when we go for walks, I can use compostable plastic bags (made of corn) to hold the stuff, and toss it right into the pile.

I have joined together with a local group of homeschoolers to purchase organic groceries in bulk. Most of the people in the group are looking for organic, local, and cheap. My personal emphasis is on local, but with all that I have learned about how the oceans are being altered by the use of fertilizers and other chemicals, the more I think that I need to focus on organic, even if it isn’t local. I am also trying to reduce packaging and avoid plastic, so it becomes incredibly difficult to buy ANYTHING. Since this is a case where I feel paralyzed with indecision, perhaps any improvement is a step in the right direction. If a product is local OR organic OR bulk OR plastic-free, it’s a good start. If I can get 2 or 3 of those criteria, then it's great.

I am very excited about starting my garden this year. My goal is to grow everything I need for making my own salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic. We purchase a large plastic container of salsa at the grocery store every month, so if I can make 24 large jars of salsa from my own garden this year, then that will be one major food item that is entirely, 100% local, with no plastic and no waste.

I will also plant some raspberry bushes, some sweet potatoes, carrots, and cucumbers. I’m not planting lettuce, because for some reason, I don’t like garden lettuce. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of lettuce at all. The only kind that I actually enjoy is iceberg lettuce, which isn’t really all that good for you anyway, and probably doesn't grow here.

This will be our fourth summer in this house. I’ve planted a garden every year, and it never did well. I have finally figured out that the garden location set up by the previous owners doesn’t get enough sun. The sunniest spot is taken up with a large rose garden, so I don’t want to destroy that. I really didn’t know what to do until I started reading about container gardens and self-watering containers. There are several places on my deck and on the south side of my house that get VERY warm that would be great for those heat-loving tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers, so I’m just going to put some self-watering containers there. I am also cutting down a couple of shrubs and putting in a new garden plot for the potatoes, carrots, and onions.

I am so excited! I want the snow to melt NOW so that I can start digging!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Update on Living Green

I am still working hard to maintain my low-impact changes from last year.

This winter, we kept the thermostat set below 70 most of the time. The main thermostat is an old-fashioned dial kind, so it’s not very precise. It was set to about 68F, which meant it was probably several degrees colder in other parts of the house. We installed a programmable thermostat upstairs by the bedrooms, which controls the second furnace (yes, we have 2 furnaces!). It is set to go down to 16 degrees Celsius most of the time. It warms up to 19 degrees for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours at bedtime.

The only problem with having the upstairs so cold is that cold air sinks, and we were getting a terrible draft coming down the stairs. I was turning up the heat on the main floor all the time just to feel comfortable. Well, before Christmas, I went to IKEA and purchased a curtain and rod and got my hubby to install it across the stairway. It works GREAT! No more draft, no more turning up the heat, energy saved. I was so proud of myself. If I wanted to be really, really eco-conscious, I would have found fabric and curtain rods at a second-hand store or on freecycle, and made the curtains myself. If I held myself to that standard, however, I never would have gotten around to it, and I would have broken my resolve and turned the heat up. I don’t feel too badly about the curtains and rod because I will use them for a long, long time. Even when I’m done with them, they will still be useful somewhere else.

I got a book about composting out of the library a little while ago. I can’t remember the name of it, because it was one of about 20 books on gardening that I got all at once. I like to go on these reading binges. I learned that I can compost lots and lots of things I didn’t know about. For instance, you can put your dryer lint, your floor sweepings, your vacuum bag dust, bits of paper, cardboard (like egg cartons), used tissues, paper towels, coffee grounds, tea bags, and most of your supper leftovers. I went out and bought one of those stainless steel garbage cans with a bucket inside it, and I am composting like crazy. Between recycling and composting, there isn’t much left going into the garbage.

Again, if I really wanted to be super-environmentally-conscious, I probably didn’t need to buy a new garbage can. I could have waited until I found one second-hand. However, I was getting really tired of having a bucket of scraps on my kitchen counter, and now I am composting almost everything instead of just a few things.

I have also been trying to purchase gifts that aren’t made entirely of plastic, or don’t come encased in that horrible plastic bubble stuff. I would say my results are hit and miss. I wanted to get the kids a treat for Valentine’s Day. I managed to find a heart-shaped tin of chocolates for each of them. I didn’t realize until after they opened them that the chocolates were individually wrapped in that plastic-foil stuff. I bought my son a cardboard puzzle as a little surprise, and I was very disappointed that inside the cardboard box was a plastic bag holding all the cardboard puzzle pieces. What is the point of that? Totally unnecessary, not to mention frustrating.

I went shopping with the kids for a gift for a 3-year-old girl. My daughter is starting to really understand about the plastic issue, so we found a very nice tea set with real porcelain dishes that came in a wicker picnic basket. We were thrilled! It did have a bit of plastic on the inside, in the shape of a frame to hold all the dishes in place, but we were pleased with what we found.

Again, though, I think of the truly environmental viewpoint, which is that I could simply skip Valentine’s Day, or bake cookies at home instead, and that I don’t need to buy all this stuff for my kids or other kids. Have I mentioned that I am a bit of a perfectionist? It doesn’t really matter how well I do, there is always that voice in my head reminding me of the higher standard. Mind you, with environmentalism, it can be hard to decide sometimes what the truly lowest-impact decision would be. If I think about it too hard, I figure that lowest-impact thing to do would be to just kill myself (see my previous post about death and crazy thoughts). Since I don’t really want to go there, I have to find some compromise.

Maybe someone will see that I’m far from perfect, so they might feel more comfortable trying to make a few changes themselves.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


My father-in-law passed away a month ago. This is my husband’s father, my children’s grandfather. It was totally unexpected, and very sudden. One minute he was alive, and then he wasn’t. No one even had a chance to say good-bye. I tried to write in my diary about it, but I couldn’t manage more than one sentence. I haven’t been able to post here, either.

In a way, I feel like it’s not really my loss to mourn. My sadness pales in comparison to my husband’s and his mother’s. I’m surprised, actually, by my response. I didn’t know how much I valued him. (Isn’t there a song about that, you don’t know what you had ‘til it’s gone? Joni Mitchell comes to mind.)

I have had a lot of crazy, strange thoughts lately. Seeing my mother-in-law suffering, it has occurred to me that it would probably be better not to get too attached to my husband, because he’ll probably die first. I feel like I don’t want to rely on him too much, because I’ll end up alone eventually, so why bother?

My husband went away on a conference for a few days, and I found myself playing a little game in my head, pretending that he was actually gone forever, and what would I do now. I went grocery shopping and thought about whether I would prepare different meals if I wasn’t cooking for him. I bought a new garbage can, and I chose one that didn’t have to be assembled or installed, because I didn’t want to have to rely on him to help me with it.

I have also spent some time wondering what is the point of living. What is the point of doing anything? I’m just going to die. What is the point of trying to live more sustainably and using fewer resources? Wouldn’t it be better for the environment if I just died now? What is the point of working on my marriage? We’re both just going to die. I have wondered at what point I am supposed to seek professional help. Is this type of thinking totally normal, or should I really talk to someone?

My poor, long-suffering husband. Not only does he have to deal with the loss of his father and try to comfort his grieving mother, he has to try to understand his slightly psychotic wife.

No matter how much I ask myself about the purpose of life and question what I am doing here, I wake up every morning and find that I am in fact still alive. It’s like a surprise every morning: “Oh look, I’m still here. Why am I still here?” It is a good thing I have children, because they have needs that must be met, so I get out of bed and feed them, and read to them, and play with them, and take them places.

Fortunately, the weather has warmed up considerably lately, and I am making an effort to get out into the sunshine and walk and feel alive instead of going through the motions. We are going skiing next week, and when I come back I will be starting all my seeds for my garden, which certainly represents spring, life, and renewal. Somehow, I suppose, life marches on, and after experiencing this death in my family, life is more of a mystery to me than it ever was before.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

I'm back!

It has been a long time since I have posted. I made a conscious
decision to stop because I was feeling overwhelmed. I was reading so
much about global warming, environmental destruction, and peak oil
that I became quite upset and depressed. I also found that I was
compulsively reading blogs and websites that upset me. I was getting
sucked into all the negativity.

I realized that it's important to be informed, to make conscious
choices, and to make changes in my life, but I won't be much help to
the world if I am paralyzed with depression or overwhelmed by the
enormity of it all. So, I took a break. I deleted all of my bookmarks
for anything related to the environment or to peak oil, and I stopped
posting on my blog.

After I got back to a more normal state of mind, I couldn't decide
what I want my blog to be FOR. Most people have some kind of a theme
that they post about, whether it's homeschooling, the environment, or
just a family diary of events. I'm still not sure, but I do feel like
writing again, so maybe this is going to be a blog of stuff I find
interesting. Talk about self-serving!