Thursday, August 02, 2007

Q&A Time

Homeschoolers get lots of questions, and they're usually the same ones over and over and over. We get well-versed in our 'elevator speech,' a one-minute-or-less summary of why we homeschool, how we homeschool, or how in the h*ll we can stand to be with our kids all day. But answering questions about homeschooling - and especially about unschooling - is really not that simple. The answer to the question depends, oddly enough, upon the questioner. Some questioners we're real fond of; others we see coming and start ducking our heads and zig-zagging through six lanes of traffic, screaming, "Come ON!" to our frightened children.

Let's dissect the types of questioners, shall we?

There are people who are curious but know nothing about it. We give rather average synopses to those folks - not too much nor too little information. Enough to satisfy the curiosity (yes, my kids read a lot) but not enough to make them twitchy (in their underwear). When people think doing 'school' at the kitchen table - or worse, in a room designated 'classroom' or 'schoolroom' - is the only way to homeschool, there isn't any reason to suggest otherwise and poke holes in their comfortable assumptions. They think I don my denim skirt and matching appliqued-apples-and-letter-blocks sweater and expect the kids to call me Ms. Laura from 8a-3p - and there's probably no telling them otherwise. Some people are curious enough to withstand my incessant 4-hour ramblings about homeschooling, but most folks don't want to hear anything about it beyond assurance that a) our kids are learning (they are), and b) they're learning the same things as their schooled peers, at the same time, and in the same ways (Um, sure. Yes. Of course. Of course!) 'B' might not be entirely true, but it's not within the realm of possibility for them, and I wouldn't want anyone to have to get uncomfortable about it. (I'm really nice like that.)

There are those who seek information because they've always considered it - or their grandchildren are doing it, or their child is having an especially bad time at school and they're worried. We'll go deeper with these folks, but the focus will be on why they can indeed homeschool (and won't be driven stark-raving-mad by their kids); or how fortunate their grandchildren are to be homeschooled; or why homeschooling could be a great alternative to their child's current situation of getting sucker punched at recess every day. And then these folks fall into a couple of sub-categories.

Some are discerning enough to know the educational system ain't all it's cracked up to be, and they see it could be done better. But they aren't always confident enough to stray from the herd. They worry about socialization (even though we all remember hearing "You are NOT here to socialize!" from a teacher or two - or twelve). They worry about making their kids do math, and teaching things they struggled with in school (like how to hide from bullies and make up good excuses to use the bathroom). They've opened the door a crack, but they haven't let in enough light. They're disenfranchised, yes, but opening the door nice and wide might mean they have to see some things they'd rather not examine. At least not yet. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't" is reason to stay in the system rather than take the daring leap into the unknown. Ultimately, these people rarely homeschool. But I always figure any time they think critically about their child's school experience, it's a good thing. I always encourage them to be a strong advocate for children. Like maybe if nothing is being done about the sucker-punching bully, they should offer to beat him up themselves. (Settle down - that's a joke.)

Others, however, are unhappy with a current situation but don't necessarily know a thing about alternative options like homeschooling. When they consider pulling their kids out of school, their biggest concerns are where they'll get the same textbooks, not how to heal their kids after time in the system. (Unschoolers recommend lots of ice cream and lots of screen time, preferrably together.) These are often the people who will pull their kids out of school, then frantically call one of us and demand to know where we got our textbooks and what our school schedule looks like. (Well let's see, we eat breakfast sometime between 7am and 1pm...) I listen to their stories and discern where they are in the transition and why they've chosen homeschooling. I try to calm them a bit, and explain
deschooling. I refer them to local support groups and online resources. These conversations are search and rescue, CPR for desperate parents. We see their arms splashing wildly and we grab our trusty life preserver and head out with determination. Homeschooling can be an amazing remedy to school-related trauma, but people have to remember to breathe and take a chill. Their kids are wanting lap time, and the parents are ordering seventeen curriculum brochures. Whoa, nelly.

And finally there are the people who ask questions in search of faults. They have already decided you're half-cracked for homeschooling your children, sealing their fate as deprived misfits. These folks can be spotted a mile away, in facial expressions if not tone of voice that they often try to disguise with sugary sweetness. They like to lure you into their trap, make you feel all cozy and warm, then pounce. "So... you're saying you're perfectly fine with not knowing how your kids measure up? Huh. Well isn't that interesting...." These people are no fun at all. A lot of lying by ommission happens with these people.

Once Brady called me on it. We were dishing our plates at a church potluck when an older woman started complaining to me about homeschoolers. She knew we homeschooled, but she was sure her concerns were falling on sympathetic ears. Apparently she knew some unschoolers and they riled her something fierce. I was trapped, stuck in the line, and smiled and nodded as she finished her little rant. Then she lowered the boom - she sought my agreement with a pointed statement... "But I'm sure YOU homeschool the proper way!"

Oh! Oh, um, yes, we do all sorts of interesting things.

We do all sorts of interesting things? Well, we do, but what did that have to do with her implied statement? A lame answer indeed, but it was all I could come up with at the moment. And thankfully she was too keyed up to even notice I'd blubbered jibberish. She nodded smugly and toddled off with her plate overflowing with unrecognizable casseroles, and Brady turned to me and said quite plainly, "you lied."

Not exactly, I replied, and we had a lengthy discussion about the futility of 'going there' with someone who was so obviously rooted in her opinion about unschooling. I talked about how difficult it would've been to try to convince her otherwise, and beyond that, why would I want to? I didn't really like her all that much. Er, I mean... She wasn't seeking information, she was seeking confirmation. I didn't agree with her, but it was easier to let her believe so. She wasn't open to understanding unschooling and frankly, that's ok.

I've given public talks about unschooling, but those people wanted to be there. It's great fun sharing information with people who come in with open minds. Not so fun being trapped in the grocery store aisle with a cart loaded with plastic water guns, getting drilled on why we're out and about at 10am on a school day with a cart full of plastic water guns. It's a reminder for me not to judge others based on what I think I know. ("So... you're perfectly fine with not knowing if your child will get sucker punched at recess today?") And while I don't know (or care) whether or not my children know the same exact things as their schooled peers or just a whole lot more (settle down - that's a joke too), I do know they're getting good at dodging speeding cars in six lanes of traffic. And that's the sort of practical knowledge we homeschoolers are reeeeal good about teachin'.

P.S. Have a question about unschooling? Ask nicely and ye shall receive.


Stephanie said...

You have my thanks for this post.
I have more of a "to hell with 'em" mentality. Unfortunately, I have a brand new neighbor who belongs to the last category. I believed until today (you can be I'll be writing about this one) she belonged in the first.
Seems to be a call for pretension, something that has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Your post has given me much to think about.
My thanks.
Stephanie in SLC

Silvia said...

Love this post! I'm gonna send people to it from my blog.

Laura said...

Stephanie - I'm lucky, my neighbors homeschool! They don't unschool, but have a live-and-let-live philosophy so it works. Will watch for your related post!

Silvia - cool, thanks!

Tammy Takahashi said...

I just checked a book out from the library called "I'm not crazy, I'm just not you." I haven't read it yet, but I love the title so much, I keep telling people about it.

I'm not crazy, I'm just not you. And when people start judging me or, well, I start judging them (hard to admit, but I do find myself doing that, especially in retaliation) I recite that line in my head. Neither of us are crazy, we just aren't each other.

That said, the lady at church is lucky I wasn't there with you. I'd pipe up and say, "Well, that's what we do. You got a problem with it?"

I've actually done that before. And you know the response? "Well, your kids are obviously bright, so it's OK for you guys to do it differently." Oh, how easy it must be to live in a world where everything and everyone is in a neat little category that we can turn our noses up on.

Oh, and P.S., Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books too. Have you read "Writing Down the Bones"?

Laura said...

I have that book! And it should be listed as another of my faves.

I, too, have struggled with the whole free-to-be-you-not-me thing. It's gotten easier with age and wisdom though, as I've learned to worry less about what others believe about my choices, and in turn, see how I need to respect their right to choose differently. It's a process. I remember when we first started unschooling and I couldn't understand the veteran homeschoolers, why they weren't mega-involved in every little thing or eager to greet the newcomers. Now I get it because I'm there. And that reminds me to try not to judge when I don't know what all is going on with someone, or why they make the decisions they make, and realize I may not even be able to understand yet.

Sometimes I wish I was more forward in situations like with the church lady, but frankly those kinds of things just make me tired. And I'm tired enough most days without inviting more! :)

Anonymous said...

Different people, different reasons for doing things differently. I like it that you accept people for who they are without laying judgement on them. Wish everyone could be that way. Traditional schooling works very well with some children while others do very well being "home/un schooled". It's about accepting other's choices and not judging. Ulitmately, those choices that are being made are the ones that parents must live with as their children reach adulthood whether they were right or wrong, so it's no one's business. Right?

Laura said...

Well, if there's one thing I've learned, it's as soon as I think I have something all figured out, someone or something comes along to set a wobble to my sturdy pedestal! Passing judgment really doesn't serve anyone in the end. Someone recently said something about meeting people where they are, and I think that's a helpful reminder.