“Schools Are for Fish” and Other Musings from an Unschooling Conference

It is Memorial Day weekend 2015 and I am sitting among a growing number of campers at the Bayshore KOA/Sandusky. The day has been beautiful and is becoming chilly; I await the campfire and s’mores (or maybe popcorn tonight?) as I watch the parade of rigs.

Our purpose for camping in Sandusky at the KOA was not to visit Cedar Point — although I could use a good roller coaster scare — nor to camp necessarily. Instead, we came to attend the four-day-long, Eighth Annual Unschoolers’ Waterpark Gathering hosted at the Kalahari Waterpark. Approximately 2,000 people joined to commune about unschooling and the various takes on it. There were a lot of barefooted, pajama-wearing, blue-, purple- and green-haired babies, kids, tweens and teens. There were parents of every size, shape and design. Gay, straight, biracial, multicultural. Mingling, mixing, enthusiastic, parenting. Snacking, relaxing, playing, talking, singing, drawing, gaming, dancing, building, making. Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Vermont, Quebec, Ontario were among the many locales represented. It was a glorious snapshot of the what, where and how of unschooling.

One might argue that this unschooling scene could have mirrored any cross section of a gathering of schooled folks with all of the mixing and mingling going on. For a moment, I tried to imagine that it was or could be an image from that slice of life, one that Scot and I both lived as schooled kids, a life that most of our friends and family are living now. However, a few major pieces are missing from that image, which separates an unschooling life from a schooled life.

For starters, no one is talking about the presence or pressures of school, especially the pre-defined, structured system that is curriculum and the testing of absorption of that material and how it impacts schooled kids, their families, our society. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine what that says. It takes away the mutli-layered, perpetually ingrained feelings and attitudes created by the culture of school. Lacking are the judgments, confusion, shaming, social and academic positioning, disciplinary or grounding actions taken by schools and/or parents respectively, competition and one-track-mindedness that evolves from constant testing and its results, grade keeping, ready-or-not, pass/fail learning that the education system enforces. Instead, what flourishes is a relaxed atmosphere that is mind blowing. Chill. What flows is the ease of living and being, doing and acting in ways that come naturally to everyone involved.

That's So Gay
Snapshot of Wall Mural in the Teen Room.

Next, we observed that cliques don’t exist. The socialization stuff that is often a concern among those outside of unschooled/homeschooled circles really, truly is incorrect. Everyone socializes with everyone. Teens are great with kids and tweens. Parents are amazing with little ones. Girls, boys, everyone dances — dances well. The older kids are nurturing and patient, kind, helpful, openly willing to tend to the needs of others. Lacking in social class distinction, as well as those born from academic standing, athletic prowess, disability, gifted and talented programs, sexual preference, you name it. It was — it is — and an amalgamation of kindness, creativity, generosity, open-mindedness, peace, hope, love and a lot of laughing.

Another point is one that Scot made when he commented on how well-attended the conference was. It certainly was busy. Many, if not most, of the break-out sessions and talks seemed to be geared toward those that still might have reservations about continuing on, or how to continue onward, with unschooling. In other words, fears remain for some, but there is something that is calling them forth to do this thing called unschooling. I understand. There were a few moments of apprehension for me (my own deschooling) as we approached the reality that is our unschooling life, because ingrained in me — like it or not, consciously or not — was the insidious nature of my upbringing in America, that in order to be x, one must be or do y, and, no matter how you feel about school or unschooling, you know there is truth in that (partial) equation. That didn’t last long, however, because we were destined to do things differently with Luna. We just followed our hearts and put our family relationship first. So I believe that it says a lot when an unschooling conference devoted this year to addressing fears and offering insight on a peaceful future — strengthened by faith, love, hope and respect — was well-attended by folks that need to know a little bit more. Their hearts do not lie to them, to us.

It also says a lot when one brilliant teenage unschooled kid creates and maintains a Minecraft server specifically for over 6,000 unschoolers around the world. There were few gaming devices; there were hundreds of laptops shared by parents and children helping and playing with each other with utter joy and enthusiasm, utilizing mods and command blocks to play safely and creatively. Energetic adults gathered around children and supported them with snacks and supplies, cables and cords, and managed battery life. Gaming skeptics would be turned on their heads after witnessing the brain swelling that comes from such an event. Luna’s world grew exponentially.

A Moment of Minecrafting in the Dark. Following the Sparks of Life.
A Moment of Minecrafting in the Dark. Following the Sparks of Life.

Something else that I noticed is the diversity in naming what we all were doing in practice and in theory — that is this segment of homeschooling called unschooling. It has been said — and I guess that it is true — that the term “unschooling” evolved at a time when there was ambiguity in naming the practice of staying-at-home/natural learning and 7-Up coined its soft drink “The Uncola.” Even then, folks were calling it “child-led learning” and “eclectic” homeschooling. There are radical unschoolers, which probably defines us as there is no curriculum whatsoever in our “education model.” At the conference we heard “home-taught,” “natural learners,” “life learners,” “creative learners.” Admittedly, Scot dislikes the term “unschooling,” because “it feels heavier than it needs to be” and he is “not against school,” although I challenged him on that, determining instead that he doesn’t dislike the idea of school. He would add that “school didn’t work for [him] nor was the best way for [him] to learn.”

As for or me, we just are, we are just being in the world, doing what comes naturally, maintaining full faith that all things will work out as they should, college-bound or not, allowing all three of us the freedom to pursue what brings us joy and/or is of interest to all of us, especially Luna, on our own time, uniterrupted. We are not in charge of her path. We are here to walk along with her on it, offering love and support and conversation about it all the way.

For school (or college) does not guarantee success in life.

And, besides, unschooling has nothing to do with school … or school buses, rising before dawn, homework, tardiness, permission to use the bathroom, mainstreaming, SATs …

For “unschooling” is an idea and a practice. To some it is “not-doing.” To others it is “un-doing.” Sometimes all of those bases are covered as we break out of and move into a way of being. Along that path comes “deschooling,” especially for the parents whose roots are difficult to pry from their deeply-reaching old school grasp and are still worried about and y. But it still has nothing to do with school.

So we really don’t call ourselves anything, but sometimes we say that we are natural learners, or creative learners or unschooling. Mostly, we’re just chillin’. Sometimes, we just let others call us homeschoolers, because it makes them feel better, or because it doesn’t matter: they don’t care what we are doing and we don’t care what they are thinking.

Or maybe we’re just existentialists.

Despite our subscription to the practice of unschooling, Scot and I are not really joiners, so we did not attend the conference to rally or proselytize. Nor was there a need for us to attend many of the sessions, which were more directed toward those still in limbo about living an unschooling life, because we have been living this lifestyle since before Luna would have started school and so is very natural to us. What did lure us to attend the gathering literally was to hang around other like-minded people in a casual setting, meeting new and old friends, the playing, discussing, considering, bonding and emphasizing of the paradigm shift that we are living as unschoolers. It was well worth the trip.

Luna Minecrafting UWG
Luna Minecrafting #UWG

What we know is that we are quite naturally unschoolers. When you do it, you just do it. It just happens, and then it is happening all of the time, just like learning, which, to unschoolers, doesn’t have an on/off switch or a timer, thus no bating or coercion or shame or tests. We also know that we support those that need school, especially if that is the only option. There are many reasons that school is the only option for so many people. School offers mentoring, food, daycare, structure, the only choice for working parents, what is expected and much more. The women teachers in my life were often my emotional and intellectual saviors. I can name all of them.

But we question school, because, in part, school is a system based on a lot of assumptions, power, money, inequality and standardized testing. It fully perpetuates socio-economic disparity in our country. I would argue that it is the perpetuating factor, especially as it lasts so long. The difference between a poor kid and a middle class or rich kid in school for fifteen to eighteen years of his or her early life completely shapes a child’s future. Add the layers of race, ethnicity, or even sex, and the gap widens even more. How can that not influence someone’s future?

We question school like we question that meat should be the center of our meal. We question school like we question modern medicine, that pills and shots are the best or only options. We question school like most vegetarians question their calcium sources; calcium comes from more than cow’s milk. We question school like we question the steadfast practices of religion, that there is only one way to God. We question school like teachers and students and some administrators do, that the system sucks and lacks flow and creativity, or that tests really aren’t fair or helpful for retention or self-esteem, putting. I’m sure my school friends, especially the teachers, have more to say on that. I know that the many students hate it (school). Just read a Twitter feed or two to know how kids feel about school. But to school they must go. They have no choice.

It is my opinion that, if possible, children should stay at home for a while, until they begin to form their own thoughts and opinions and can identify their passions and how to pursue them, without the influence of school and its culture, because we forget how to truly think for ourselves when it is driven into us that we must think according to the way society thinks that we should. When I say “a while,” I mean well past kindergarten or grade school. Then, school can come when and if needed to help them along their way. I know that isn’t reality, not just because most people (have to) choose school and most parents (have to) work, but that the role of the stay-at-home parent is devalued and not respected, not interesting, not supported generally. It seems lazy to some, lacking in direction to others. It also tugs heavily at the ego of those that have to choose their own paths or their child’s path. School is something that not many really like in our culture anymore. If that were true, it would cease to exist as a political topic, or at least it would weigh less. Teachers love their students, but generally strongly dislike the rules and the powers that be. Students like certain aspects of school — sports, their teachers, activities, friends — but it is something that they have to do. When we do things that we have to do, they lose value and diminish in purpose. They lose light and energy, and then we are stuck. That’s why — or at least one reason why — alternatives exist, alternatives to the status quo. People are questioning hierarchies, dead or dying things, things that aren’t working so well, and they are doing something else, because it’s on their own terms.

It is up to parents. They have the power to make things happen differently.

So, at the conference I heard a few folks vocalize strong positions on schooling. One friend — a new friend, a woman I really like, who thinks a lot and is interesting and considerate — said that she believes that no one should go to college. I cannot tell you how much I loved that. I know how it will be completely off-putting to many. I know that many others will actually be offended by reading it. But I get it. The race for college acceptance and the pressures it creates begin so early in life. Personally, I don’t care if college is an option if it is up to the individual and it is fair and right. But college, even now, still, is wholly unattainable by the majority of students, young people mostly, that would like to go and assume that they should, but simply cannot afford it, and is only part of the discussion of life. Not all of us should go to college, or need to or have to do so.

Once upon a time, learning was granted only to the upper class. Once upon a time, work one was crafting required an apprenticeship. If the paradigm shift includes that learning eventually and truly will no longer be only attainable to those who can afford it, nor will consist solely of the four-year university, then I support the shift, the questioning, the alternatives to what is expected of everyone. Even if the paradigm shift doesn’t happen, I still believe in the child and the justice in helping that child find his or her path on his or her own terms. I believe that it is possible to learn without stress and with joy, without shame and with verve, without pressure and with respect, without constraints and with hope, without fear and with love. It is happening already and all of the time among the unschooling community. I think folks could learn a lot from them. It could happen in schools. Maybe.

It would help if we stop calling it a “college fund,” and instead all it a “life experience fund.” It certainly would create a whole new way of thinking about a child’s future.

“Schools are for fish” was seen on a bumper sticker on a car at the Unschoolers’ Gathering. I thought it was funny, especially as I knew that it would draw many reactions, obviously and especially mine. Schools are for fish, but schools currently are for children, too, and exist as fervently as unschoolers do in their home environments or at an unschooling conference. But I like what it puts out there, that folks are saying, “No, this is not for me, nor do I think it should be for you. Think differently.” Unschooling is about families in ways that school is not. I think that school — and college — is divisive, even if accidentally, for the individual, within the family and in our society, and it is a linear race in nature. That is what I liked about the Unschoolers’ Gathering the most: its Whole-Heartedness of the encouragement of the path of the family. That, and its inherently non-linear, non-competitive, untethered way of being.

Scot and I are not sure if we will attend this conference again or another one. It may not land on our trip path; we are confident in our path, sure of what we are doing, and we sure are glad that we came. We have new friends, we have new playmates, we have solid ideas, warmth and love, we danced a lot, we were exhausted from joy and gathering. What fun. Such a gift and pleasure to be around such spirits. And we camped the whole time. A divine experience of untethering, indeed.

Liza Beth Rumery

Liza likes to do a lot of things. Currently, she like to make food, ride bikes, study languages and hang out with her family.

2 comments on ““Schools Are for Fish” and Other Musings from an Unschooling Conference

  1. You’re writing is exquisite and I enjoy reading what you write. I agree we should be open to new ideas and I appreciate that you made it clear that this option isn’t for everyone, or even most. Of course, my unschooler/homeschooler friends say it could be if we have our priorities right, i.e. less stuff, one parent at home, living frugally, etc. But all of these things are choices, and what should be stressed is not the choice one makes, but the thought that goes into the choice. Many people have accepted that school, for example, is something you must do. Others argue you mustn’t as your new friend says about college. My concern is with being dogmatic, exclusionary, and judgmental of other’s choices. We considered some path of homeschooling very seriously. I won’t go into everything we considered, but suffice it to say, we made a choice based on what we have seen as being best for our family. Balance was key to that decision. We have been incredibly lucky that our jobs allow us the freedom to work and still have incredible amounts of free time with family. We work about 8 months out of the year, and have the other 4 to ourselves. Of course, we cannot deny that education, both our own and our profession as educators, contributes to that. I wonder how many uneducated people can make these choices. I wonder what role traditional education played in teaching us to question the very institutions that we are now questioning. I wonder if the new paradigm doesn’t owe its soul to the old, and if we are forgetting ourselves in distancing ourselves from our pasts. And I really wonder if freedom of choice or dogma is really ever the true objective of any system, new or old, enlightened or unenlightened, traditional or modern. Keep writing.

    • Amanda,

      I love every bit of this. Thank you for reading, thank you for the compliment, thank you for responding, thank you for this wonderful, insightful addition to the conversation of being, well, untethered. I would say — at least for me — that I’ve been remembering myself more actually as we have continued along this path, rather than forgetting myself or distancing myself from my past. I cannot speak for others about it, though. I do believe what you say, that the old and new are connected, and that in all corners of the world — in debate, in philosophy, in practice — there can be dogma, including within and from the homeschooling community. Kind of like — dare I go here? — original thought. Is there really such a thing? Doesn’t the new owe it to the old? And so on, and so forth.

      Yes, working in education allows for freedoms that many others do not have. I also suspect that some folks without higher education feel freer from the trappings that come with more degrees and more income and often enjoy life more. And it is quite likely that unhappiness exists on the flipsides of those worlds. Nevertheless, there are so many choices AND we all must do what works for us and work outwardly, hopefully with respect and non-judgement. Only once at this conference did I hear an opinion move into a stance or position. I was a little surprised by the slight politicking, but I suppose that happens anywhere, no?

      Thanks for reading my musings. 🙂

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