3.19.2012

Myth challenging interview with radical unschooler

Ilana and Maia, then 8
Let me introduce almost-eight-year-old Maia, a Seattle area resident whose family practices "radical unschooling."

No Assignments. Lots of learning activities.

Maia has never attended school. That means her almost eight years have been filled with nothing but play (video games and junk food), right? Which means that she probably can't read or add two numbers together (not to mention her unavoidable social awkwardness from so little interaction), right? I asked her to comment on this.

"Um, actually, no," Maia said. "I'm very friendly. Sometimes my dance instructor asks me to stop talking so much, because we need to focus. Our recital--this is my third one--is next Saturday. Over the summer, I'm going to make friendship bracelets for all the girls in my class."

Maia has been taking structured classes, including dance and art, since she was five. She also participates in clubs and events with two local homeschooling groups, one all-inclusive and one specifically for unschoolers. At home, she likes to "do whatever I want," which includes worksheets, science projects, crafts, and a host of explicitly educational activities.

Maia started reading at age five. "I'm reading Book 2 in the Avalon series," she said. "I finished the first one when I was six." Those are 200-page books targeted at 9-12 year olds. "I read a lot," Maia said. "Sometimes I read the Civipedia for hours, because I'm interested in rulers and ancient times and mythology." Her favorite skill is math.

Video games? Yes, those, too. "I love video games and online virtual worlds," Maia said. "I just started playing Planet Orange to learn about financial literacy." Video games and websites provided Maia's most significant motivation for learning to read. Some days she spends several hours on the Internet. Other days she likes to work in her garden, dig in the mud, and observe the natural world.

Social interactions? Maia plays with her two sisters every day, her eight-year-old neighbor (as soon as he finishes his homework) most afternoons, and her play group which meets at the river beach every Friday after art class. She also knows and exchanges pleasantries with the staff people at the post office, grocery store, library, and various other places her family goes often for routine errands.

When she grows up, Maia wants to work as "a marine biologist for the first half of the day and a paleontologist for the second half of the day." She's preparing for that work now. In an essay she wrote: "I watch documentaries and read websites about my interests so I will be more prepared and know more when I grow up."

What about college? She plans to pursue a degree in marine biology. But before that, she has her sights set on camps, workshops, and a teen volunteer position at the Seattle Aquarium.

No rules. Lots of guidance.

I've known Maia all her life, because I'm her mother. Some examples from Maia's learning endeavors are featured in my book, Unschooling: A Lifestyle of Learning.

My relationship with Maia is a partnership and a friendship. I don't tell her what to do and I don't expect her to respect or obey me. I strive to be a person she will respect. I offer experiences and help her make choices. She looks to me as a "natural authority," because I have decades of life experience that can help her understand things and reach her goals.

I share with Maia (and my other children) the principles behind common rules so she can think more deeply about life. We have an ongoing conversation about all aspects of life, emotions, social customs, etc. I see Maia as a whole person now rather an incomplete adult or an adult-in-training. Her interests and pursuits now have value and meaning beyond how they might serve her in the future.

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