Unschooling Portraits: Cathy

Cathy, please introduce yourself:

I have a website at Christian-unschooling.com – you can read a lot about us there. Here I will just sum up by saying that I have five children, none of whom ever went to school. I dislike the institution of school, although I recognize that there are many wonderful people in that institution, doing a great job in difficult circumstances. We live on a small farm, in the English countryside, and we have one horse and six ponies, whom we love very much indeed.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ around here. I don’t know if this is because of my randomness, or because of unschooling. I have noticed a trend amongst unschoolers though – we don’t tend towards routine or ‘typicalness’ … again, is this because unschooling attracts more random sorts of people, or because unschooling causes one to reconsider the importance of routine? Interesting topics for research there …

Anyway, in our home, we have some sort of focal point, and other activities fit in around that. With the older three it was literature – we did a lot of reading together, and then a whole lot of other things. With my younger two the focal point is definitely our horses – we ‘do’ them first, and then a whole lot of other things. This did not happen by plan, but evolved naturally. There are three things that are routine… breakfast at 10, followed by Scripture reading, followed by chores. Other than that, anything could happen

What does the term “unschool” mean to you?

I LOVE the term unschooling. Over the years I have heard reasons why we should come up with a different word … while those reasons might make sense, I don’t want to change. I use the term unschooling first of all to honour John Holt, who coined the term way back in the sixties. He has been my hero and my mentor on this unschooling journey, and I remain forever grateful that he shared his insights so freely. They have truly changed how I see life and learning and education.

Have you always unschooled or did you, like many, gradually move from traditional homeschooling (or public school) towards unschooling? If so, where are you in the process and how did you get there?

We were never rigid curriculum followers. I am far too flexible in nature for that. I can see that for many home educators, it gives them the sense of security they need to keep their kids out of school. For me it would probably have become the reason why I would put my kids in school if I had to educate in such a restrictive way. (No, I don’t think anything would cause me to put my kids in school, but you know what I mean!)

We began homeschooling in South Africa, and we were amongst the ‘pioneers’ of homeschooling there. When my oldest child was three, and we began learning about homeschooling, and knew this was the way we should go, it was still illegal to do so in South Africa. The law changed in 1994, and I struggled a lot with fear before that day. So that is where we began – not knowing any other homeschoolers, not sure if there would be negative (very negative as in removal of children) consequences for doing so, and with a lot of opposition from friends and family who, quite frankly, thought we had gone stark raving mad. I am so grateful for a man named Leendert Van Oostrum, who founded the Pstalozzi Trust in South Africa – an organization that helps defend and protect the rights of home educating families in South Africa. He has always been a great encouragement to me, and I guess he is one of the reasons why we find ourselves where we are today.

So when we began homeschooling, we used an eclectic mix of things; I spent a lot of time finding things that would be fun and enjoyable to do; things I thought the kids would like to know or that I wanted them to know; things that would develop the budding interests I could see in them. We had a lot of fun together, and it was a good experience overall. However, it was definitely ‘teacher-led’ learning.

When my second daughter was 7 and 8 years old, a negative situation began to develop over Maths. I was using a curriculum that was interesting but challenging. If nothing else, Maths At Work awakened an interest in Maths in ME. But Kerrin really struggled with this Maths stuff, and it gradually became a struggle between us – me, with the best of intentions, insisting that she had to do one exercise per day. This task should not have taken more than 20 minutes … but it took longer and longer until that was the only thing she was doing in her ‘schooltime’, and that with a lot of negativity and resistance from her, and a lot of frustration and eventually anger from me. And I could see her shutting down and withdrawing from me … and not just from me, but also from life. It was awful. I didn’t know what to do. I was spending a lot of time in prayer, asking God what to do. It was a crisis time for me; I was questioning everything about what we were doing.

At that time I read Charlotte Mason’s six-volume series. Light began to dawn. That lady was full of godly wisdom. Read her “20 Principles” to see what I mean. Amongst the other nuggets of wisdom, I read: “Children are born persons. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but – these principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.”

Charlotte Mason was most certainly not an unschooler, and there are definite areas of philosophical and methodological difference between the PNEU approach and unschooling, but it was the reading of Charlotte Mason’s six-volume series, and particularly the reading of her sixth book, A Philosophy of Education, that paved the way for me into unschooling. An investigation of the 20 principles will serve to clarify why.

Remember that Miss Mason said that ideas are alive … so with these ideas buzzing around my head, I came across two very important books. They were How Children Fail and How Children Learn, by John Holt. I read these books with tears … tears of sorrow, tears of relief, tears of joy. Went on and read everything other book he wrote, thanks to my American aunt, who diligently hunted them down (most were out of print). In October 2001 I announced to my surprised family, that from now on, they could choose what we would learn, when and how … and we have never looked back. It has been tough at times, for various reasons, but mostly – I think – because it takes time and evidence to learn to trust in the innate capacity of humans TO learn. But there really is no other way.

Today the kids are 21, 19, 16, 14, and 9. I am still actively involved in facilitating life and learning for the younger two; the older three are off flying by their own wings as it were now. Jenni is at university, completing her second year of a degree in Dance, Choreography, & Journalism. Kerrin is training as a Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructor, building sailing qualifications along the way, and enjoying life. Jon is preparing for university where he hopes to study Art and Design. Meanwhile he is doing courses with the Open University, a distance learning institution, doing lots of art, drumming, Parkour, and other bits and pieces.

What interests do your kids have that you never would have guessed they would develop? 

Before I had children, I thought I would have many sons, and that our lives would be full of ‘boy’ things. Instead I have four daughters and just one son. My oldest daughter is a dancer; danced with a ballet company for two years and is still dancing, so she was pretty single-minded. The first ten years of her life revolved around dance, so that is what everyone else did too. I never dreamed of having a ballerina in my home, or of what it would mean. Jenni used to spend hours putting together these amazing concerts with her siblings … which we would then pay an entrance fee to watch in the lounge. And they were good!!!

I am very horse-oriented – I did hope to have kids who would love horses. Three of them do, and we have a great time sharing this passion. But one of those daughters is crazy about sailing. That was a surprise. It all sounds so exciting, but I don’t even like the movement of the boat in the harbour, so I certainly had nothing to do with the development of that interest!

Craig and I know our children pretty well, so it was not that hard to keep in step with them as they developed and grew interests. But it has also been very interesting seeing the nuances of application of the interest … it is like having a big parcel to unwrap – one that is in many layers of packaging. Sometimes you think you know what is in the package, but then you get a big surprise! One more example … my son was always interested in design and technology, so I automatically thought ‘engineer’ and treated him accordingly. Instead, he has the heart of an artist, and he is increasingly much more interested in the design side of things. We had to make some adjustments along the way and repent a lot (you treat an engineer differently to an artist). Increasingly I see that ‘sorry’ is the oil of family relationships.

What are some of the benefits of unschooling that you have seen?

Whew! The benefits are endless:

  • The freedom to discover and learn together, without any one person feeling like they need to ‘know’ in order to lead the others, as well as the freedom to learn from each other when it is obvious that one person ‘knows.’
  • Learning remains delightful, pleasurable – the joy of discovery remains intact.
  • Anything and everything may be interesting – or not… no one thing is more important than another (I don’t mean to the individual person, I mean in general, to the group. Thus there are no holy icons of learning – Maths and Science come to mind. In our home Art and Horsemanship are just as important).
  • People get to know themselves – what they love, where they like to contribute – without the loud voices of obligation to confuse and redirect them
  • Unschooling allows for mentoring relationships between us – I don’t have the pressure of being the perfect one (the one who knows everything and is ahead of everyone all the time); we learn and discover together… and the children are free to discount or disagree with the way I see things, but also, increasingly the children value my experience of life.. which is lovely and is the words of Prov 31 coming to pass, just as God said they would.

What are some of the negatives?

I think that, sometimes, more coercive methods get quicker results – on the surface. The kid looks ‘good,’ does well in ‘schooly’ tasks (the famous three Rs), gets various awards because of an environment that uses those awards to motivate … so the teacher/parent looks good because the child is performing well. Unschooled kids may take longer to ‘show’ who they are – a lot of stuff happens on the inside, and because they feel less need to perform, they don’t perform. This can be disconcerting for the parent, especially if you are unschooling in a critical environment. Maybe your kid doesn’t look that ‘good,’ is still learning to read, didn’t shine in any particular area…. It requires steadfastness on the part of the parent! More than that… I think we are supposed to provide shelter for our kids from all that stuff. (Have you read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards?)

A while ago I made a comment about someone’s kids – they were very attentive and respectful towards their parents, and I said it was great and how could we get more of that around here (we had had a week of uppity teens and clashing ‘conversations’). My daughter looked at me in bewilderment and said: “But Mum, you haven’t seen them when their parents are not around! With us, you know that we are the same, whether you are around or not.” I thought about it, and decided that was a compliment – of sorts 😉 I don’t want my kids to put on an act to please me. I want them to be their authentic selves … and then we challenge each other to grow and change where we need to.

Tell us about your best day (or your worst).

Best days are days when there is ‘flow’ – no silly ‘discussions’ about duties … everyone just gets them out the way and then gets on with what they would really like to do, and no one gets in anyone else’s way and people are happy inside themselves … those days are utopia. Sadly, they don’t happen all the time – life is not perfect, and people aren’t either. Good days are days in which, no matter what happened, we manage to love each other anyway, and end the day in step with each other. Bad days are days when we fight and irritate each other and don’t like being together and know that love is a choice. All those days make up our unschooling life. It is great when we realise it, accept it … no longer panic and think the world is ending. When we get there, we realise that all our days together are ‘best’ days … and that is something we consciously celebrate – we don’t know how long we will have together. These days kids grow up and are scattered to the far corners of the earth. In our extended family alone we have members living in South Africa, America, England, Holland, Australia, and potentially Canada.

Favorite definition of unschooling:

Unschooling is the freedom to learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, how you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and for your own reasons.

Thank you Cathy for this Unschooling Portrait!

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