Category Archives: unschooling

Unschooling the Intensely Gifted: A Cautionary Tale

So you’re supposed to “follow your child’s interests.” Which for gifted kids can include “overexcitabilities” (aka “intensities,” which is a better descriptor imo) like “intellectual intensity” (the need to explore an idea RIGHT NOW) and “psychomotor intensity” (the need to do something physical) and “emotional intensity.”

Here is what that looked like today.

I took PK out for a walk on the beach, because he and I have both observed that if he gets some fairly strenuous exercise every day, he is less anxious and argumentative. But because of his Intellectual and Emotional Intensities, he refuses to just, say, take a martial arts class; he has no patience for formal instruction or putting up with other people and is especially stressed and shy about doing anything in a group right now. We are still dealing with the fallout from middle school. So because I am a 45-year old woman, the compromise position is long nature walks rather than, say, sparring or footraces or some other shit like that that I am not going to do. Mostly this works pretty well.

After our exercise/p.e. regimen, we sat down to do a little bit of math. PK is working on finishing the Portfolio Assignment for the first chapter of IMP book one, which is as far as we have gotten this year; by way of Not Letting Him Off The Hook I am insisting that he finish the portfolio before we can call the un/homeschool year “over.” It asks him to collect some written work, write a cover letter showing that he gets the point of the first chapter (i.e., math is largely about figuring out patterns in things) and describe his own “learning” over the course of the unit, which mostly so far means him saying things like “math itself does not suck but schools make it suck and I used to love math but now I hate it.”

Needless to say, working on this triggered some of his Emotional Oversensitivites and he became pretty upset and angry, and we had a loooong talk about why I make him do math even though he now hates it. (The answer I gave him: because I am hoping to help him rediscover his enjoyment of it, because I want him to learn not to give up, and frankly because being able to do basic algebra is kind of a requirement for high school and college and although I cannot make him go to college or even finish high school I am still hoping that he will at least have those options available to him.)

This discussion, by the way, triggered my own Emotional Overexcitabilities, but luckily once he’d written a bit for the portfolio–which actually means he dictated it and I typed it up because he has some Motor Difficulties which make writing difficult for him (he is seeing an Occupational Therapist for this but for the time being I act as his scribe)–we were done with “school stuff” for the day. We were also done with his “non-computer-based free time” because it took us about an hour to process the ensuing discussion about why he hates school, how unhappy he is, etc., while I took the laundry off the line outside and he paced about, venting.

Since in addition to refusing formal classes of any type, he also refuses to do talk therapy for the time being (we have an appointment with his psychiatrist on Wednesday to talk about adjusting his meds, by the way), I am more or less also serving as his therapist. I am perhaps slightly less unqualified for this than one might expect, given that I’ve been in therapy myself for years (yeah, yeah, that might also make me even more unqualified, hardehar) and that I have been basically drinking this gifted/child psychology stuff from a firehose for the past year. At least I hope I am slightly less unqualified than one might expect, since it’s the only kind of semi-therapy the kid is getting these days other than the medication. In any case, I am pleased that he is starting to talk about not only how much he resents his middle school experience but also about his hopes to overcome and get past it–including, in this case, his hopes that some day he will enjoy math again. I am calling this progress.

In any case. So after p.e., math, and an informal nonofficial “therapy” session, kid was allowed to get on his laptop with the caveat that he would get off it and clean the kitchen when it was time for me to make dinner. I went out for a well-deserved beer on the porch, and did some more reading about Gifted Adolescents and their Overintensities for about half an hour, until he came to me with a request.

“Mama, I have two questions for you. The first is, will you give me permission to do something? The second is, will you supervise me so that it will be safe?”

“What is it you want to do?”

“Make and throw a Molotov cocktail.”

Now, before you think DUH THE ANSWER IS NO, you also need to know that because of his Psychomotor Intensities he has been getting in a lot of trouble lately for destroying things–breaking up terra cotta pots that held plants in the back yard, smashing pieces of scrap wood that his father had designs on, etc–and that I made him a deal that if he feels the need to destroy something, would he PLEASE come tell me and I will do what I can to accommodate that need in a way that is safe and will not get him in trouble. So instead of just saying HELL NO, I put down my book.

“Well, that could be pretty dangerous. Where do you want to do it?”

“I thought the driveway seemed the safest place. I don’t intend to really throw it hard, more like just a gentle toss.”

“The problem with the driveway is we’re going to end up with a lot of broken glass and possibly some fire. What if we went somewhere like a big empty parking lot? We could put the push broom and a dust pan into the back of the car…”

“No, I don’t want to have to go anywhere. I want to just do it in the driveway. I promise I’ll clean up.”

“Okay, well, if you do it on our half of the driveway,” (we share part of the drive with the neighbor, who you will not be surprised to find thinks PK is an absolute spoiled brat and therefore I try really hard to rein him in when it comes to our shared space), and you don’t throw it near anything flammable, I suppose it might be okay. I will have to move the car, and we’ll have to make sure we have the cleanup stuff and safety gear ready to go.” Yes I realize that I am not being, perhaps, as firm as I might be about Safety, but a parent only has so much energy. So either hang on to your judgment and fuck off now, or suspend it and keep reading.

“Great!” he says, and starts to run off.

“Hang on!” He stops as I stand up. “We need to do this carefully, which means that we need to talk our way through each step. You can’t just go off and get started until I know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve prepared. How do you intend to make this thing?”

“I’m going to put some rum into a bottle and light it on fire.”

“Okay, first of all, you are not allowed to use the expensive rum. Let’s see if we can find some cheap alcohol.” We dig around in the bar and I come up with some Captain Morgan coconut rum that someone must have left after a party. “We can use this. Let me go get the shop vac out of the closet. You will have to help me carry it down stairs and into the back yard, but first let me move the car.”

When I’ve finished moving the car and return to the house, he is holding an empty ginger beer bottle filled with coconut rum, with a dishtowel stuffed into the neck.

“PK. I do not want you lighting one of my good dish towels. We will have to use paper for that,” I say, taking the bottle away from him and pulling the towel out. It is soaked with rum, of course, so I set it in the sink. “Now let’s get the shop vac.”

PK, meanwhile, is grabbing some printer paper. “HANG ON,” I say. “I’m not sure printer paper is going to work; if you twist it up it won’t have that much oxygen in the neck, and it’ll probably go out. Though it’ll be soaked with alcohol so maybe not. We can give it a try, I guess. BUT FIRST,” I raise my voice as he starts twisting the paper into the bottle’s neck, “you need to help me get this vacuum cleaner outside. We need to get everything set up beforehand.”

He sets the bottle and paper down and helps me with the vacuum cleaner. We get it back to the driveway and I instruct him to pull the cord towards the house to see if it will reach. It doesn’t, of course.

“Okay, now we need an extension cord.”

“There’s one right here!” he exclaims, and reaches down, unplugging the back yard freezer and starting to pull the extension cord it’s attached to–which the husband carefully ran up and over the door frame to reach between the freezer and the outlet–off its hooks.

“No, STOP. You just unplugged the freezer. We need a different extension cord.”

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry.” He plugs it back in.

“Let’s go see if we can find the blue outdoor cord,” I say. We look around in the house and fail to find it. “It’s probably in the garage. Let me find my keys,” I say. The garage, you see, is now locked in order to keep PK from getting into the tools unsupervised and smashing up more things like potted plants or, god forbid, windows.

I can’t find my keys in the house, so I tell PK I am going to go see if I left them in the car when I moved it out of the driveway. I’ve locked the car, since it’s now on the street, so I am peering through the windows trying to make sure the keys aren’t in it when I hear PK shouting for me from the house. Once I’ve figured out that the keys aren’t in the car, I walk up to the front door.

“WHAT, Pseudonymous Kid?” I probably sound a little exasperated.

“Mama, never mind. This is turning into way too much work,” he says.

So it’s true: unschooling will eventually teach your kid the lessons you want him to learn. Lessons that no matter how many times I have explained to him–“No, that will be way too much work,” I have said–he has never really internalized.

That said? I’m really not sure it was worth it.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Might Have to Trick Him into Drinking For His Own Damn Good

This post is part of the

Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop: Stealth Schooling

Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop: Stealth Schooling

It is a truth universally acknowledged that education = jargon. There’s the jargon of education as profession (“differentiated curriculum,” “learning outcomes,” “Maslow’s hierarchy”), the jargon of the educated (lawyers, doctors, various academic disciplines), and of course the jargon of “giftedness” (including the word “gifted” itself).

You might think that homeschoolers, being an independent lot, would eschew this kind of thing. BUT NO; there’s jargon in homeschooling, too. Do you homeschool or unschool? Do you use Charlotte Mason? Unit studies? Are you a “radical” unschooler?

Part of what’s behind homeschooling jargon is territory marking, same as any other group: WE use THIS approach, we’re not like those crazy uptight people who use THAT approach. But I think most of it is more just an attempt to explain (to ourselves, even) what we’re doing–again, same as any other group.

I’m not setting Pseudonymous Kid down at a table for six hours a day; there’s no recess or lunch “bell”, we only have one (math) textbook, which PK has only dipped his toes into–so what are we doing? How do we ensure that PK is getting “instruction in the several branches of study required to be taught in the public schools,” as the law requires in my state (even for homeschoolers)?

You might think that home educating a kid who is very bright, enjoys reading, likes building things, and never met a narrative or an argument he didn’t want to analyze and take apart would be easy: take the kid to the library, get him some books in the various required “branches of study,” and let him go. I suppose some homeschooling works that way: at least, that’s often how people seem to talk about it when you’re first getting started.

In our case, though? That is so very not how it works. SO VERY NOT.

Now, whether it doesn’t work that way because PK had a bad school experience, because we didn’t start homeschooling from the very beginning, because we’re doing homeschooling “wrong,” because PK is an anxious freak, because I’m a lazy-ass homeschooling teacher/mama, because we’re in “the deschooling phase,” or any other reason one might come up with, I can’t say. Maybe it doesn’t work that way for anyone and the people who say it does are lying. I dunno.

Here’s how it has worked this year.

  1. Trial-and-error. I propose something–a book, a schedule, a topic–and PK refuses it, or resists outright (directly or with that irritating passive dawdling/avoidance thing); or else he sorta kinda goes along with it a little bit but gets more and more resistant over time while I cajole or command, until finally I give up; or else it actually works. Mostly the only thing that’s actually worked is a series of video lectures on medieval history. The reason these worked is
  2. Observation. I pay attention to what PK is willing to do. Watching video documentaries turned out to be something he’d go along with, so I spent some money on video lectures to cover medieval history, which is what he’d be doing this year if he were in public school. He likes videos, so sometimes I show him youtube videos of, say, some scientific phenomenon. He reads a lot of stuff on, which is actually surprisingly educational, and I’ve run across a couple pieces there about medieval history and shown those to him. He plays a lot of video games and likes to tell me ALL ABOUT THEM, so I’ve listened to his monologues and asked questions that ensure that he “provides evidence” of his various claims about why some game is great and another sucks, that he “develops his argument” by explaining more about his reasoning, and so forth. In other words, I’ve relied a lot on
  3. Manipulation. AKA “stealth schooling,” because no one is going to say “I manipulate my kid”–especially in unschooling circles, which are all about self-directed learning. In addition to manipulating him into turning his video game explanations into exercises in exposition and argument, I’ve subscribed to a couple of magazines (Smithsonian and Scientific American)–and the subscriptions are in MY name, so he doesn’t think I’m trying to “make” him read them. When they come I sit down and read them, occasionally saying something like “huh, this is interesting, did you know ___?” or “oh, this is a neat chart, check it out”–and within five minutes he’s taken the magazine away from me and is reading the article himself. I’ve played dumb over math so that he would figure it out for the joy of being able to tease me about my slowness. PK’s papa has explained math and science things over dinner because I was “confused about them,” and then turned to PK and asked him to figure out “for fun” what would happen if ___. I’ve wondered aloud while cooking why eggs turn white and solid when they’re heated or why dishwashing detergent helps pans be less greasy, and let him explain the chemistry behind those things to me. I’ve used walks to the grocery store and back as “P.E.,” and I’ve started proposing to PK that we “play hooky from school stuff” by driving to a nearby forest and going for a long hike–on which he’s explained to me why there’s a river at the bottom of this canyon and I’ve pointed out to him the way the plants change as we get higher into the mountains. I’ve encouraged him to practice typing by rewriting the typing exercise sentences so that they’re silly or irreverent or profane. This morning I showed him this video and then said, I wonder what other kinds of things one could use that technology for.

Basically I’ve learned that if I tell him to do something, he’s almost certainly going to resist it. But if I offer it as an alternative to “school stuff,” or post it as a question that either allows him to tell me something or else riff on a bunch of ideas, then bingo.

Of course, this means I’m basically teaching PK 24/7, since I have to take my opportunities where I find them, or create opportunities as I can. In a lot of ways it would be much, much easier to just say “read the damn textbook and do the problems on page 47.” But in other ways–ways that matter more to me–the textbook approach is much, much harder, because it requires me to nag and supervise and insist and argue and there is just no. freaking. way.

You might say PK has manipulated me into manipulating him. To which I’d say hey, whatever it takes.

Other posts on this topic:

Wenda Sherard, “Stealth Schooling: A Tale of Two Teachers.”

Building Wingspan, “Stealth Schooling.”

Cedar Life Academy, “My Experience With Stealth Schooling.”

A Voracious Mind, “Stealth Schooling.”

Mommy Bares All, “Stealth Schooling: One of the Reasons I Love to Homeschool My Kids.

Thea Sullivan, “Stealth Schooling: Just Don’t Call it ‘Educational.'”

Chasing Hollyfeld, “The Gentle Way.”

Little Stars Learning, “Stealth Schooling–Bait, Hook, Reel, Release.”

Sprite’s Site, “Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Bloggers Group Blog Hop: Stealth Schooling.”

How to Work and Homeschool, “Simple Stealth-Schooling Strategies.”



This post is part of

Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger's hop

Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger’s hop

Click for the whole list, or see individual links at the bottom of the post.

A major part of the last fifteen months with PK at home has been about me observing how he acts and what he does when he’s learning something new. When he is trying to do something that’s a bit of a stretch, he gets anxious. If the anxiety is minor, he can handle it by being jumpy and physical: he’ll get up and pace around, or crawl on the back of the couch and look over my shoulder while I show him how to work a problem or something. If the anxiety is major–or if he isn’t allowed to do the wiggling, like if I say “come back here and sit down!” rather than *very gently* saying, “sweetie, I need you to look at this, come back” and then letting him crawl on the back of the sofa rather than pacing around the room–then he starts arguing and trying to physically get away, and it looks like refusal. (Though interestingly, sometimes after refusing and leaving he’ll come back a few minutes later to say “I figured it out in my head.”)

Needless to say, this is a BIG FUCKING CLUE as to why middle school–where he was finally starting to have to push himself *and* where, unlike his hippie (public) elementary school, they weren’t even going to consider letting him move around the room for a bit–totally, totally didn’t work for him, and why the math teacher in particular thought it all boiled down to a battle of the wills. He says that he mostly didn’t even try to move around, because it was so clear that that was not how things were done, and in elementary school we had done a LOT of work on teaching him not to shout or act out when he was frustrated, so I imagine that his attempts to restrain himself sent him fairly quickly into the refusal mode and would just shut down (and feel anxious, which is pretty much the recipe for causing depression). His first grade classroom was also a “traditional” school, and one that was very proud of its “good test scores” and mostly attended by the children of the kind of affluent (or hoping to become so) parents who “value education” in the sense of wanting their kids to go to the “good” school, so there, too, he was pushed to sit still and complete his work, which led to nightly crying jags and homework avoidance. Which is why I put him into the hippie school.

I’ve also come to recognize that when he’s doing something new that’s physical? He deals with that discomfort–including the excitement of the new–by talking. Which his PE teacher loathed (“stop talking to me and go run laps”) and which honestly drives me nuts b/c whenever he’s got a new video game, same thing: he has to tell me all about it at top speed any time he takes a break.

There’s some of that with new learning of ideas, too. He stops video lectures like seventeen times every half hour to comment on them, and when he was in elementary school I used to try SO HARD to get him to just write down questions/comments instead of interrupting. Most of his 2-5 teachers did a good job of setting up some kind of “hold on, ask/tell me later” signal with him, bless them. The first grade teacher and most of the middle school teachers, though, just tried to shut him down. Result? Frustration, anger, anxiety.

Which has led me to a broader realization or, at least, a hypothesis. It seems to me that everything about and around education, in the U.S. right now, is under enormous pressure. I used to be firmly of the “send your kid to public school, it’ll be fine” school in part because I saw people of my socioeconomic class worrying about whether public schools were “dangerous” or “good enough” as unnecessary anxiety, and I still do, where that anxiety is focused on whether kids will be exposed to “gang violence” or whether the standards of public schools are up to snuff. Which I still think are concerns that are motivated (consciously or no) out of racism, primarily. But what I didn’t realize is how much public schools themselves have become the focus of those pressures. In fact, it seems to me that homeschooling, too, is affected by the broader social pressure and anxiety around the entire category of “education” these days.

“Unschooling,” maybe, can be seen as an attempt to open up the pressure valve and let some of that build up out of everything associated with education. I’m not comfortable with the term for reasons that I think led me (and lead a lot of other people) to misunderstand it as *anti*-schooling (and indeed, there is some anti-schooling prejudice in both un- and homeschool circles, as well as among people who send their kids to private school; and I think that all of that has  roots in historic racism, but that’s a different topic). When people start making blanket statements about schools as “factories” or how they “oppress children,” it gets my back up. And I continue to not understand how people who care about education enough to actually decide not to just follow the beaten path with regard to their own children’s education can be hostile to free, public schools as a fundamental institution in a modern society.

But that said, I am starting to understand where people are coming from when they talk about actually experiencing school as oppressive or inimical to education, because I am starting to see exactly how the amount of pressure in the system right now does function to undermine one of the most basic requirements for learning and teaching, which is the ability to be patient, and to listen.

I got this off FB and can't read the copyright--if anyone knows where it's from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.

I got this off FB and can’t read the copyright–if anyone knows where it’s from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.

People under pressure don’t listen well, and they tend to be a lot less patient than they otherwise would; and psychological stress tends to be “catching.” (Which might also suggest, by the way, why mass shooters sometimes attack schools even if their grudge isn’t “against” the school or they have no association with it? As well as why school shootings, more than any other kind of mass shooting, push all of our buttons. Yes, obviously the fact that school shootings affect kids is a big part of that last one, and it’s certainly a sufficient explanation in itself; but might there also be something going on with shootings that happen in an arena about which we all already feel enormous pressure and anxiety just ratcheting it up that much further?)

Or, as this school principal puts it,

Teachers are engaged in practices like these because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Their principals are pressured and nervous about their own scores and the school’s scores. Guaranteed, every child in the class feels that pressure and trepidation as well.

Surely, this is not a good atmosphere for learning, or working, or teaching, or collaboration of any kind.

One of the things they say about unschooling is that if your kid has been in school, there’s a “deschooling” period of about a year–during which the kid (and the parents) need to “unlearn” the entire mindset of school: that work is opposed to play, that learning is something grownups have to make kids do, that what kids want to do on their own is almost certainly neither educational nor healthy. That certainly proved true in our case (it took a little longer than a year). What we’re doing is not quite unschooling, I don’t think–we have a formal math curriculum (which I love), we have a formal series of history lectures (which are in accordance with the historical period his grade peers are doing in this state–and which he loves), I am “making” him learn to type (which initially he had a panic about but is growing to really enjoy), I “make” him get some kind of exercise, which we call P.E., every day. For language arts stuff I rely on my own expertise to be able to determine how his skills in exposition, persuasion, marshaling evidence, forming theses, etc. are coming along simply via our talks about things (he’s very good at this stuff), since writing is still a sore spot for him. I am arranging occupational therapy for him at the suggestion of a psychologist, and in the hopes that it will help him with the writing (which is also what the typing is for, obviously).

However, this “curriculum” of ours has taken shape very, very slowly, and only within the last couple of weeks has it really started to be an everyday thing. For the most part, we’ve been “deschooling”–giving PK time to get past the anxiety (with the help of medication) that is probably his birthright, but which I think was also made much worse by the current atmosphere in public education.

And while I’m pretty happy with how we seem to be doing for now, I can’t stop thinking of all the kids and teachers who are still swimming in that pool. I’m glad to know that lots of folks are starting to resist, challenge, and organize against those who want education to mean pressure, stress, distrust. I wish for public education that it be an institution where we don’t need to “un”school kids in order for them to enjoy learning.

And for all the kids and teachers, I wish them a nice long period of un”schooling” from the way we currently think “school” is supposed to be. Because that shit isn’t healthy for anyone.

More unschooling posts:

Red White and Grew: Reflections on Unschooling

Building Wingspan: I’m Not an Unschooler … But …

Thea Sullivan: How Unschooling Saved Us, Sort of

Cedar Life Academy: Everyone Deserves A Childhood

Wenda Sheard: A True Story: Unschooling and the Superintendants

Life with Intensity: We Unschool (Well, Sorta), What’s Your Superpower?

Laughing at Chaos, Between Homeschooling and Unschooling

Chasing Hollyfeld: I am Not a Teacher

Sui Generis: Unschooling and the Benefits of Unstructured Time

A Voracious Mind: Unschooling 101