Our Journey to Unschooling: Cindy Foster’s Story

Our Journey to Unschooling: Cindy Foster’s Story

HA note: Cindy’s story was originally published on her blog Baptist Taliban and Beyond. It is reprinted with her permission.

I was expecting my fifth child when I had to make the decision to either send my two school-aged children to school or to home school. They had been attending a tiny A.C.E. school where I worked as a supervisor/monitor two days a week to help pay their tuition, but it was closing, and I would no longer be able to work in another school in exchange for tuition since I would be caring for a newborn. This presented a dilemma.

There was an evangelist who had eight children, seven with which he traveled the country, preaching and singing at revival services and other special meetings. They were a home schooling family who testified of the merits of educating children in this way everywhere they went. Their children, several who were teen-agers, were impressive examples to the effectiveness of this strange, new alternative to conventional schooling. This was my very first exposure to the home schooling concept. It was a strange idea to us, but our life was already venturing a few steps *outside- the-box* of our earlier existence anyway, so this seemed the most valid option.

Neither my husband nor I had much confidence in public school since much of our own school experiences were negative. We could not afford to send the kiddos to a Christian school; public school was out of the question, so home schooling seemed to be the perfect solution. We took the plunge and started the very next semester.

I was charmed by the whole notion of a little one-room school in our home—complete with little school desks, teacher’s desk and school-room ambiance. I determined that I would give my student-children a one-on-one, tutoring-style education which I believed to be the very best method. Full of idealistic zeal and energy, I felt I was embarking on an exciting new adventure—one that included the challenges of a new career as well as the comfort and satisfaction of being at home, nurturing all my little charges to their full potential.

It was a new purpose beyond the youth ministry of the church, beyond just being a wife and mother—one that involved more of an intellectual pursuit. I liked the whole idea of being a ‘home educator’. Besides the many benefits this would provide for my children, it would also give me a greater sense of importance and significance.

And as for the kids?

What was there not to like for them? What kid would rather not have to get up at the crack of dawn, rush to eat, rush to get dressed, spend endless hours listening to boring lectures, do work at school, then come home only to do homework, day after day, month after month, year after year for twelve plus years of their youth?

Certainly not my kids.

Since their dad and I didn’t enjoy those things, they surely wouldn’t either. Surely, they would rather stay up later at night, wake up when they were ready to wake up, take their time getting dressed and eating, finishing all their work early making more time for fun things and not having to put up with bullies, mean teachers and all the rules. Surely, they would love being home schooled!

Well, I doubt they really loved it, but they didn’t seem to mind—at least not until they were older.

At the beginning of her teen years, my oldest began to wish that she, like some of her friends at the church, could go to “real” school. By this time, we were far too inflexible in our beliefs to even consider allowing that. We made it clear, early on, that “school of any kind” was a non-negotiable, so she did the only thing she could do—she complied.

Through all my years of home schooling, I read many books on the subject. As each child grew into their “school” age years it became obvious that my cozy, relaxed-but-efficient “school-at-home” vision was just not materializing. Imagine that!  There were hungry babies, noisy toddlers, a constantly ringing phone, and children who would rather eat worms than fill out workbooks or listen to me read from textbooks. I so wished that I could find some way to make learning as desirable to them as eating or playing.

All the books that I read gave glowing reviews of revolutionary materials and methods which promised to make hungry learners out of even the most disinterested children. So, I tried nearly everything. The girls would work pretty well on their own in the workbooks. But those little boys! There were four of them as well as four quieter, more compliant sisters and they ALL had a dedicated aversion to sitting in a chair for any reason!  I have memories of drilling spelling words and multiplication facts to the beat of bouncing balls, floor surfing, and headstands. Now, imagine trying to chisel “structure” out of that!

Thankfully, I never had to school all eight at the same time. My first two were ready to graduate by the time my last three were old enough to start, but I did have five to teach at the same time and three younger ones who needed attention also. We muddled through, somehow. A relaxed home schooling family we were indeed! ‘Relaxed’ was the only reality for me.

A little over a year after we left the Baptist Taliban, we sold the house that we built and lived in for eighteen years and relocated to another town forty minutes away. Our lives seemed to be spinning out of control, and we were constantly coping with issues resulting from the fall-out of being forced to leave everything and everyone associated with that life behind. Needless to say, that was a difficult time to maintain some semblance of school, but we hobbled along.

None of the five I was trying to teach had temperaments compatible with school-work, so, I was getting a bit disillusioned with the whole “school-at-home” model for educating them. I tried several different approaches—the literature approach (the boys hated reading), the video approach, the hands-on approach, the little of everything approach, hoping something would take hold. I tried sending them to home school co-op classes. I sent one to Christian school (which didn’t work), and even sent one to public school (didn’t work either) relaxing the expectations more and more with each failure.

Finally, I stumbled on the book, “the unschooling handbook-How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom,” by Mary Griffith which led to much more research on the subject and eventually renovated my whole pattern of thinking and feeling about everything educational—especially as it pertained to my seemingly UNeducable kids.

Gradually, I felt myself letting go of the school-at-home paradigm and accepting a different set of ideals—ones that would free us all from societal expectations that were not a good fit for us and free us to embrace the intellectual freedom that life-led learning offered. Finally, an approach to learning that we could all be enthusiastic about; especially me! Somehow, they actually liked viewing every aspect of their lives as opportunities to learn!

Truth is, I had no other choice — unless you believe that mother/teachers should adopt the drill sergeant persona during school hours and force the little “maggots” to learn. Call me weak, call me negligent, call me a sissy parent or even a non-parent, but I didn’t want to trade in my nurturing mommy hat for the drill sergeant/teacher uniform no matter how many completed work-sheets that would accomplish.

Giving my younger (by now growing older) kids the responsibility for their own education back to them where it belongs was the best thing I ever did. It is a bit uncomfortable at times as it always is when you operate outside the norms and it may not be evident to outsiders that anything profitable has been gained by this, but my family has noticed very positive results.

They are:

• much improved relationships
• a return of natural curiosity
• livelier conversations
• opportunity for self regulation instead of parental controls
• choices not motivated by resistance to arbitrary rules and pressures to perform
• capacity to think much improved when focus on filling brain with facts for a test is removed
• value as a person not based on how one compares to *the ideal* student or even the *normal* one
• increased opportunities to discover one’s own unique gifts
• increased opportunities to specialize in areas of interest and ability as opposed to acquiring only surface knowledge in many areas
• sense of self respect and image not destroyed by the prejudices of unkind peers

And this….only to name a few.

Now, I am at the end of my 22 year career as home educator. As I look back and consider what I would change since retrospect always reveals what should have and could have been done better, I would do these things differently:

• Allow those who wanted to go to school, to go
• Trust my instincts concerning what is best for my kids instead of conforming to the consensus of my peers
• Trust my kids more to make choices about what they learn
• Spent much more time going, doing and playing with my kids to learn with them instead of trying to teach them from books and schedules
• Expecting them to do right instead of suspecting they are doing wrong
• Looking for the causes for their restlessness instead of making hasty judgments
• Being more available to them to support them mentally and emotionally instead of just physically and spiritually
• Really listening to their complaints and being willing to change what needed to be changed
• Encouraging and supporting their dreams and aspirations, even if different from what I dreamed for them
• Recognizing and respecting their need to try new things
• Allowing them to make mistakes without judging them
• Letting them go when appropriate in order for them to grow

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does summarize the predominate deficiencies.

It has been a long, winding road that led me away from educating to facilitating their learning. I do wish I had taken that route from the beginning, but I am so thankful that it is never too late to change. It has been a source of deep satisfaction to see my resistant-to-book-learning-kids return to the intense curiosity that they were born with so much that they are now seeking out the opportunities to learn themselves.

With that, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

3 comments

  • This is a great, encouraging article. Thank you! I hope to unschool my kids (the first of which will, Lord willing, be born this fall.) Is there anything you would recommend by way of preparation? Books to read or buy… building up a library? I’m also curious about the use of the internet in learning & kids doing their own research & stuff… it’s such a great resource (especially for people way out in the boonies like me) & at the same time there’s so much shallowly addictive non-learning stuff there just a click away… what’s been your experience with its usefulness?

  • Hi Heather!

    Thank you for reading and commenting!

    To answer some of your questions I will give you a link to a page on my blog of resources I found helpful. There is so much more, but once you get started on these, they will take you to links to other blogs, books, forums etc.

    You should seek out a support group in your area that is relaxed or unschool friendly because they do need to develop friendships outside the family and church.

    As for using the internet as a resource, it depends much on their ages, but if you have a desktop that is in the living areas of your home there shouldn’t be any problem with the ‘shallowy, addictive’ stuff. Also, you will find from your research and I can bear this out with my own personal experience that there is not really anything that can be considered ‘non-learning’. At the very heart of unschooling is the fact that children are born with the intense desire to learn. They don’t need a teacher so much as a facilitator who will provide opportunities for them to explore their interests. They will develop interests according to the gifts and talents they are born with. Those interests will drive their learning because they will naturally learn what they are interested in and what becomes meaningful and useful to them.

    Read books by John Holt, Sandra Dodd and others listed on the book list. You will find more on their blogs.

    My experience with my kids and the use of the internet has been extremely positive. They have literally developed so many interest as a direct result of their internet access. They also developed a sincere love for documentaries. We did not really regulate the use of video games except for the obviously violent and offensive ones and we were surprised to discover that they didn’t abuse this at all. I believe that since we granted a lot of discretion and self-regulation in this area, they didn’t develop compulsions. There were phases where they’d play a lot, then they would tire of them and move on to something else. To this day, they rarely even play video games. All media is invaluable as learning resources, especially for the book resistant, so it is important that parents honor the ways each individual child learns best.

    One caution, though, is that part of allowing children to choose what, how, when and where they learn is also allowing them the option to go to school. If they have the desire to go, much more damage will likely come to them in many areas, if they are denied that choice. Trust me. I learned the hard way on this one.

    Unschooling is a learning process for the parents as well as the children. Just keep reading and enjoy the trip!

    Cindy Foster

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