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Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger's hop

Speaking of Unschooling: A gifted homeschool blogger’s hop

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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


A Completely Uncontroversial Mommy Blogger Post About Dinner

I like to cook, Pseudonymous Kid likes my cooking (in fact, he prefers it to eating out and actively complains on the nights I say we’re getting takeout or going to a restaurant), and I’m pretty good at it. Somehow this year my cooking stepped up a couple of notches, too, and I can’t remember the last time I made something disappointing: I finally seem to have mastered a broad enough range of techniques and gotten a good command of flavor profiles, enough that I can reliably wander into the kitchen, decide what the backbone of the meal will be (pork chops? Pasta? Rice?) and just start gathering things and deciding how I want the end result to taste (North Africanish? Mediterranean? bright and tangy? complex and earthy?) and pull it off. I am proud of this.

The thing that got me started cooking many years ago, though, was baking. I really like baking. And a couple of years ago I got started with this Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day thing, and I am telling you: it is true, and it is a total game-changer.

Let me start by saying, you really should buy the book, and the follow-up, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which has a lot of whole-grain recipes. But I will tell you–from memory, because it is that easy–how to do the most basic, simple bread in the first book, which is what I use for our basic every day bread and, as one of my staple quick dinners, the dough for pizza.

Get a big tupperware-type container, one that holds like 4-5 quarts. Pour in three cups of warm water, add a tablespoon and a half of yeast and the same amount of salt. Measure out 6 1/2 cups of flour (I tend to be scant with the cups, because since you’re doing this by volume not weight, you’re better off with a dough that’s a little loose than one that’s too dense ime). Stir the whole thing up with a butter knife (which will cut through the thick dough more easily than a spoon).

That literally takes like five minutes. If you have a kid who wants to help in the kitchen, they can do this part, though they might spill some flour. But if you do it regularly, they can totally contribute to one of your staple family “chores” in a substantive way.

Then put the lid on loosely and leave the dough for a couple of hours. Like, if you’re doing this at dinner time, leave it out until bedtime, or if you’re doing it in the morning, leave it out til you go back into the kitchen at lunch. The dough will rise and then collapse a bit. At that point, snap the lid tight and put it in the fridge.

The next day, when you want some dough, get out a cookie sheet or some parchment paper. If you’re using a sheet, sprinkle either corn meal or oat bran or some other fairly gritty dry thing on the pan (this is so the bread will not stick to the pan, so sprinkle heavily; any leftover you can wipe back into the corn meal or oat bran container after the bread goes into the oven). Heavily flour your hands and the part of the dough you’re going to grab, and use another butter knife to cut off about 1/4th of the dough volume. Shape it into a ball-type shape and put it down on the cornmeal covered cookie sheet or the parchment paper. (I recommend a cookie sheet for bread, and parchment paper for pizza; you’ll see why in a minute.)

If you want it to be bread, slash the top of the ball a few times with a serrated knife (this is to help the bread expand as it bakes, and so it looks pretty), set the timer for 15 minutes and walk away.

If you want it to be pizza, flour the top again and roll it out with a rolling pin to about 12-15 inches. Pour some olive oil on the rolled-out dough and spread it around to coat the dough, using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon or your hands. (If you use your hands, you will obviously need to wash them afterwards, but that’s not difficult.) Then put your pizza toppings on the pizza: I’ll put some ideas below. Basically preparing the pizza takes about the same 15 minutes as letting the bread sit.

When the timer goes off (if it’s bread) or when you’re done prepping the pizza (if it’s pizza), turn the oven on to 400 degrees. You want the oven to contain another cookie sheet or, if you’re fancy, a baking stone so that the surface the bread will bake on will be HOT when you actually put the bread in. Otherwise the bread will stick, but a hot surface will cook the bottom immediately and the bread won’t stick. On the bottom of the oven you want a metal roasting pan, something with an edge on it so that you can pour water in to steam the bread later (you don’t need this for pizza, but mine lives on the bottom of the oven regardless b/c this whole process makes breadmaking so easy we make all our bread now). Don’t use glass, b/c a glass pan will break if you pour cold water into it when it’s hot! (For the same reason, if you decide to splurge and buy a baking stone? Make sure never to get it wet when it’s hot.)

Set the timer for another 15 minutes or so to let the oven heat up, and because 15/15/15/15 is easy to remember.

When the timer goes off a second time, it’s time to put the bread/pizza in the oven. If it’s bread, you’re going to use the cookie sheet the bread is on as a kind of big spatula; transfer it onto the hot sheet in the oven with a quick jerk, and assuming that you put enough corn meal under the bread, the transfer should be clean. If it’s not clean, your bread loaf will be a bit of a weird shape, but that’s not the end of the world. Mistakes happen.

If you’re doing pizza, though, in my experience it is impossible to do a clean jerk with a fully-laden pizza, so instead I just use the parchment paper the pizza is sitting on to pull it onto a clean cookie sheet, then use that sheet to transfer to the hot sheet in the oven parchment paper and all. Parchment paper is non-stick and thin enough that the hot sheet will still cook the bottom of the pizza quickly, so just let the pizza cook on the parchment paper in the oven. The paper will probably brown around the edges, which is no biggie.

Set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off for the third time, if you are making bread, fill some kind of pouring container (I use an empty wine bottle) with water, open the door real quick, pour the water into the roasting pan on the bottom of the oven, and close the door.  The steam will help the bread form a nice crispy “artisan” type crust. Try to do this as quickly as possible so that the oven temperature doesn’t drop. If you are making pizza, have a look at the pizza to make sure the cheese isn’t burning; if it is, maybe turn the oven down a bit.

Set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off, your pizza or bread is done.

This all sounds more complicated than it really is when you’ve done it a couple times, so here is the real short version:

Dough: 3 cups warm water, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast, 6 1/2 cups flour.Let it sit for a couple hours, til it rises and collapses a bit again, then put it in the fridge.

Bread: cover a baking sheet with oat bran or corn meal, flour your hands and the dough, cut off 1/4 of the dough volume, roll it into a ball, put it on the bran-or-meal-covered sheet. Slice the top.

Pizza: same thing, but put the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper instead of a baking sheet and instead of slicing, roll the dough out (use more flour so it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin). Spread olive oil on the top and then make pizza.

Baking: 15 minutes to rest (or prepare the pizza); 15 minutes to heat the oven (with baking sheet inside); 15 minutes to bake without steam; 15 minutes to bake with steam.

If you’re doing pizza, you can just set the timer for 30 minutes baking, obvs. 20 might be enough, but surprisingly I have found that even though the dough is thinner, it still requires the same baking time. Probably b/c stuff on it keeps it wetter longer.

Pizza “recipes”/ideas:

Sprinkling the olive oil with a seasoning mix–Italian, Greek, “pizza mix,” etc–can kick up the flavor, but is not necessary.

For tomato sauce, you can just use bottled marinara or pasta sauce, or plain bottled crushed tomatoes (in which case the seasoning mix really does help). Or you can not do sauce. Or you can use bottled alfredo-style sauce or make a white sauce, which is basically a roux with garlic to which you add milk, parmesan, and oregano or basil or whatever. There’s a recipe at the link if “roux with garlic and milk and parmesan” doesn’t make sense to you.

Toppings: my kid likes sliced salami; I really like mushrooms, which you can buy pre-sliced, thus making it super easy. Goat cheese is grand. Another family favorite is olives, preferably real ones (i.e., the greek kind–pitted and either cut in half or put on there whole). Sliced multi-color bell peppers look nice. Pre-grated mozzarella makes cheese toppings easy, and there’s even grated soy mozzarella for the non-dairy types like my husband.

Greek Pizza: greek seasoning, olives, crumbled feta and bell peppers.

Potato pizza: no sauce, rosemary sprinkled heavily over the olive oil, and thinly-sliced potatoes and red onions (use the slicing side of a box grater to do thin slices really quickly).

Chicken and garlic pizza: Crushed or thinly-sliced garlic on white sauce, and grill a chicken breast, then slice it and put it on top. (I often grill an extra breast or two if I’m cooking chicken, then slice the breasts and freeze the slices, which makes chicken pizza even easier.) Broccoli is yummy with chicken, too.

BBQ Chicken: use bbq sauce instead of white sauce, or use tomato sauce and mix the sliced chicken with a cup or so of bbq sauce before putting it on the pizza. This is also yummy with sliced or diced red onions and cilantro.

Basically one of the things I love about doing pizza is that a cup or so of pretty much any kind of leftover–random chicken breast? pepper starting to wizen? couple of meatballs? A carrot?-can be sliced up and made into a pizza. Interesting looking goodies at the grocery store–peppered goat cheese? a small jar of roasted peppers? artichoke hearts? capers? fresh mozarella–work great, too, and you don’t have to figure out a “recipe” for them.

And the clean up is super easy. Throw the parchment paper away or reuse it if it’s not too burned, wash a cookie sheet and the pizza slicer and maybe a knife, and you’re done.

But What If All The Kid Wants To Do Is Play Video Games?

This is like the cliched question about unschooling, right? And it’s been one of my big questions about homeschooling as well, inasmuch as Pseudonymous Kid does, in fact, want to do almost nothing but play video games, and I feel like 90% of my homeschooling energy goes into trying to figure out ways to actually get him to do anything else. It’s also a big parenting question (how do you get a kid to do his chores?) and a big question for formal education (how do you get kids to “buy in” or “apply themselves” or “do the work”?). It is, in a sense, the big question about raising kids, period, especially if you leave “video games” off the end of it. Though let’s be honest, in 21st-century America, video games is pretty much it.

The different answers pretty much depend on one’s educational/parenting philosophy, and run the spectrum from “make him” to “let him do it because after all he must be learning something.” I think it’s interesting that both the hard-ass authoritarian parents and the super-lefty hippie parents often wind up saying “don’t have video game consoles around,” but that’s by-the-by. The point is that whether you’re permissive, progressive, traditionalist, authoritarian, whatever, figuring out how to get kids to do stuff that you want them to do is kind of central. Come to think of it, it’s kind of central to our social lives as a species and to all relationships anywhere.

Anyhoo. I’ve figured out an answer, of sorts, and it feels like kind of a revelation. PK and I, as I said, struggle a fair bit over the video games issue and I’ve sloooowly realized that the real problem isn’t the games themselves: it’s that, one he starts playing them, he doesn’t want to stop. So that getting him to do anything else*–including things like “brushing his teeth” or “eating”–actually becomes really difficult.

But since gaming is so important to him, and because I really do not want to set up a dichotomy in which the thing he wants to do (gaming) is completely unvalued by the grownups whereas the things we want him to do (eating, personal hygiene, learning some math) are boring/areas of resentment/all Mama’s responsibility to ensure they happen–seriously, I do NOT want to spend major amounts of my time getting my 12-yo son to EAT, ffs–I’ve been trying heroically to figure out how to (1) get that other stuff to happen without having to be his externalized mind 24/7; and (2) how to explain why he needs to do other stuff in such a way as to get that “buy in”, i.e., so that he starts to understand, at least, why a certain amount of self-regulation is a good thing.

First I realized that yes; playing video games is FINE. I can see he values it; I don’t think he shouldn’t do it; I can see that he learns things from it, and so on. I do not want him to not play video games at all.

But I have realized that once he starts, it is very, very hard for him to stop. And that’s the real problem, so I think it’s a good idea to try to do some of the other things he needs to do–getting dressed, some math, eating breakfast–FIRST. And the final step, today’s big epiphany, was that the reason for this is not that those things are “more important”; it’s because it’s easier to STOP DOING THEM. Once he finishes breakfast, he’s done, and moving on to video games is easy for him. But getting him to stop a game in order to eat breakfast? is amazingly hard. At the end of a history lecture, I almost always ask if he wants to watch another, and he never does; he enjoys them, but once one is over, he also enjoys stopping (especially if it means he gets to play a video game now). At the end of a video game “scene” or battle or task, on the other hand, he never wants to stop, much as a kid who is an inveterate reader–as I was–will always want to read just “one more chapter”.

The revelation part is that this isn’t just an explanation designed to “get” him to do things my way; it’s actually TRUE. It is the reason why I want him to do what we call “the school stuff” first–in fact, it’s the reason why “school stuff” exists, period. It’s the reason kids have to be raised instead of just left to their own devices once they are physically coordinated to move and grab food and stuff it in their mouths. Hell, it’s the reason we have societies, period: because if we each of us do the things that we really, really love doing without anyone around to either remind us or help us do the stuff we don’t really love doing we would fairly quickly starve to death once the easily available food ran out. Or die of something silly and preventable, like not noticing that a predator was sneaking up on us or that washing our hands was a minor inconvenience that’s well worth taking the trouble.

This, then, is where I do depart from unschooling, at least of the radical variety. It’s why even though what we actually do on a day-to-day basis looks, as Pamela Price once jokingly said, “dangerously close to unschooling.” I think there is great value–especially, perhaps, for gifted kids*–in doing (and hence learning) things that don’t necessarily appeal to one’s interests. Because one’s interests, if one is really really interested in something, can actually be so consuming that they become impediments (think of the computer programmer who has a hygiene problem, or the writer who forgets to break for lunch, or the absentminded professor who constantly loses her keys–or for that matter, the devoted mother who realizes at the end of the day that she never got around to brushing her own teeth). There are things that are useful to learn that one might never get around to if one only followed one’s passions–and learning to do the things that are easier to quit first is a very useful life skill.

*This is maybe where the “gifted” thing comes in–he is driven enough by the things he’s interested in–in this case, video games!–that dragging his mind away from it is far, FAR more difficult than it seems like it should be. I won’t say more difficult than it would be with a “normal” kid, because I only have the one kid. I will say that I thought for a long time “he’s just spoiled, put your foot down” and tried that approach and it didn’t work for a lot of reasons: not having computers in the house is a non-option for us, because we are all computer people (ffs, I write and the husband is a computer programmer); massive huge fights every day, or several times a day, is also not an option and yes that is what it takes; and for better or worse, I have my own shit that I need/want to be able to do and do not want to have to be constantly monitoring to see if he is “sneaking” to play a video game every time I step outside to hang out a load of laundry; and most importantly, setting up a situation where our relationship revolved around my “making” him do things and “punishing” him for resisting made everything–his anxiety, our relationship, his ability to learn, our home life–worse instead of better.

Why do Some Kids “Underachieve”?

This was the topic of a talk I went to at yesterday’s CAG Conference, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was hoping to find out some research or information about how to help Pseudonymous Kid overcome his current aversion to all things “school”-related (which is lessening, thank god, but I am impatient and want More! Faster! strategies). One thing that the speaker said in passing really bothered me, and because I saw heads nodding all around the audience, I thought I’d write about it here since it seems to be a commonly-held belief: that Black students may underachieve because of pressure not to “act white” by doing well in school.

It just so happens that I read a recent article about this exact topic at The Root: Ivory A. Toldson’s article “The ‘Acting White Theory’ Doesn’t Add Up,” reprinted from the Journal of Negro Education. Her research shows not only that black students actually perceive that educational achievement is valued by their black peers, but that “white males are the most forthright about being apathetic toward educational values.”

Much as I enjoyed the conference, it really bugged me to see a featured speaker and several of the teachers in the audience unaware of this article, or more importantly–since obviously working teachers can’t really be expected to have read every recent article about education that exists*–that it seemed to be such an accepted truism that black underachievement is part of “black culture” rather than part of the culture of education or the broader American culture (which it surely is). In the context of gifted education, which also has a problem with underidentifying gifted black students, this strikes me as a doubly-pressing issue, and attributing it to the students’ attitudes seems like a kind of victim-blaming that lets educators and educational systems off the hook, or at least functions as an excuse for not doing better.

So I sent a very polite letter to the speaker and posted the article, along with a version of what I’m saying here, on a couple of FB pages including CAG’s own page. I’ve definitely noticed that my own educational background–formal scholing, yes! up the ying yang–means that over and over in discussion K-12 education (in or out of school), I want RESEARCH and SOURCES and EVIDENCE.

*Which, let’s be honest, is one of the biggest problems in K-12 education; that teachers are so seldom given access–and almost never given the time–to keep up with research in their field. Or rather, fields: education itself, and their subject matter (math, history, etc.).

Why Homeschoolers Should Be Wary of Online Degrees

A lot of homeschoolers are interested in online college courses, especially those of us with “gifted” kids who may be ready for college-level material in some subjects. PK, for instance, is currently about halfway through the first of these three courses on the Middle Ages, and so far so good, and a few lectures into this physics course–which is more challenging, not because of the material, but because the topic makes him think about questions like “does free will actually exist?” which is inherent to the subject matter but is an upsetting question for a 12-year old, so we don’t watch more than one episode a week. (It turns out that this “asynchronous development” thing is a real issue when a kid’s intellectual interests and capabilities far exceed his emotional ability to deal with the philosophical problems those intellectual interests raise.)

The courses I’m using, though, aren’t actual courses in the sense that one can “get credit” for them. We watch the lectures, and we learn stuff or not; there’s no test, no assignments. They’re the kind of courses people take simply because they’re interested in a subject rather than because they’re trying to get credit towards a certificate or a degree.

MOOCs, or “Massive Online Open Courses,” are a different thing. The idea with those is that anyone, anywhere, can sign up for an online course (“massive”) without being actually enrolled in the college or university offering them (“open”). So if you’re homeschooling, the thought is that, for a nominal fee, your kid can get some college credit, or maybe at least you’ll have some kind of documentation from somewhere that your kid did, in fact, complete a course and maybe a grade to go with it. Sounds like a good idea, no? Especially if your kid is 2e, with some issue (in PK’s case, anxiety and being only 12) that would make it difficult or impossible for him or her to take a regular in-person college course at, say, the local community college.

I’m a former college professor, though, as well as a homeschooling parent. So I’ve heard quite a bit about the concerns that my former academic colleagues have about these kinds of courses, and I want to point out some reasons why other homeschoolers might want to have a look at this horse’s teeth.

First, a couple of pretty basic problems with courses of this kind.

  • they’re easy to cheat in (how does the instructor know that the enrolled student is the one doing the work?). Even if you yourself don’t cheat, this means that the “credit” you’re getting from the course is compromised.
  • peer evaluation/interaction/discussion–which is a common way of trying to provide feedback to what can be thousands of students since obviously whoever is teaching the course cannot possibly interact with every student individually–is at best haphazard; if the course is truly “open” then there’s no guarantee that the other students taking the course, your peers, are anywhere near your own level of interest or ability in the course. Certainly they don’t have anything like the knowledge the instructor has.

There are more substantive problems, though. This blog post, The MOOC Bubble: Where Do We Go From Here?, gets at some of them:

  • the claim that MOOCs are a good idea for students with disabilities perpetuates “the frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is–exclusionary. The trade offs are vastly unequal: instead of school, here is an online link; instead of a professor, here is a video, instead of a place at the table, another table is set…. It desensitizes us, however perversely, to the very issue we should be more alert to in this drama: access and equal opportunity.”
  • the claim that MOOCs democratize education might very well lead to the opposite. After all, if you can provide what academics call “service” courses–introductory lectures and other core requirements–through MOOCs, that saves money (you don’t have to house these students or maintain huge lecture halls). Which means that you can stop offering those courses except online, making it harder rather than easier for general ed students to actually have the experience of meeting real professors and participating in campus life.

I guarantee you that that last one is the idea behind the University of Wisconsin’s recent announcement that it’s going to offer bachelor’s degrees to people who can pass a bunch of tests showing that they know a subject. Talk about a way to cut your state’s investment in higher ed–tell students that from here on out they can “complete their education independently” and then get their diplomas by taking a bunch of online tests. No need for instructors or even courses.

Which leads to my most fundamental problem with this whole idea of replacing physical schools with online ones: it blurs the distinction between education and credentialing. Which admittedly is a distinction that our society as a whole does a hard time of keeping clear, but it’s one that I think it’s really important that colleges and universities try to maintain rather than give up on.

See, the point of education isn’t just “to get a job”–even if many employers “require” a college degree. (In my experience, for jobs that don’t actually require such a thing, but that’s a whole separate issue.) And one of the things that makes college different than K-12 for the bright students, the geeks, the kids who had a hard time in school is that at college they’re finally surrounded by people who care about learning for its own sake. There are plenty of kids who are only interested in the grades and graduating, sure–but the culture of colleges and universities is that that instrumental idea of education is frowned upon.

Which is why MOOCs and online degrees are dangerous. The more states refuse to fund higher education, the harder it’s going to be for colleges and universities to keep going, and the more they’re going to need to do this kind of thing to try to stay afloat. That’s also why tuition and fees at colleges are so much higher than they used to be. It’s a real vicious cycle (and we’re seeing it in public K-12, too): less money, and the money that’s there is getting spent on things like sports teams to “improve the brand” or high-salaried administrators or buying and administering standardized tests and expensive fixed curriculums. Less money means compromised educations: in K-12 arts and music are luxuries, and in college core courses are increasingly taught by adjuncts, the college equivalent of temporary employees–instructors with degrees but no offices and no time or support to continue the research that would keep their knowledge fresh (K-12 teachers don’t get time or support to do anything but try to keep afloat, either). Compromised educations means more people–like many homeschoolers–dropping out of the system. But where we continue to want the diplomas and degrees–which are, after all, legally and/or socially mandatory–we end up being the audience for privatized courses. Including things like MOOCs and online degrees from institutions willing to sell them. Including legitimate universities and colleges that are trying to plug the revenue holes left by legislators (like Wisconsin’s governor) who think only of what something costs and nothing at all about what it’s worth.


I think this privatizing and monetizing of education is a cycle that homeschoolers really need to be aware of and vocal about. Not least because the more we treat education as just a series of diplomas or classes that one can buy, the harder it becomes for schools and colleges to justify things like “non-essential” or “non-core” courses, experimenting in the classroom, tenure, small discussion seminars, creative learning. The less of that there is, the less rewarding teaching or professorial jobs become; would you want to be a teacher nowadays? And if people who value inquiry and education and creativity don’t want to go into teaching or higher education, because there’s less and less space for those things, then there end up being far fewer people who can make a living by thinking or doing research or really teaching well. Because while the purpose of education isn’t to get a job, people who love education do need to make a living. And the less we recognize that education is fundamentally about people, the fewer opportunities there are for people who actually want to learn, explore, and think to find like-minded and knowledgeable folks who can help them do that.

Happy New Year

December was a tough month for me, mama-wise. The husband was gone at the beginning for a business trip and then took a couple of weeks off over the holidays (he goes back to work next week). It’s been fabulous having him home, but one effect has been a vacation-like atmosphere for us, with lots of sleeping late and little “school” stuff happening. L and I dropped the medieval history lectures we’ve been enjoying, we haven’t done any math, we’ve had no social engagements other than my mom and her brother coming over for Xmas.

All of which sounds (and has been) very nice. But it’s worried me, too, because as those who’ve been following this blog know, this is our first year of home schooling and we’re still in the process of finding out what works for us, content- and schedule-wise. So it hasn’t been clear to me if we’ve been “taking a vacation” or “backsliding.” Add in the fact that PK started Lexapro recently too and the horrible shootings in Newton CT and there’s been plenty for me to worry and chew over: is L’s video game habit “bad” for him–too much screen time!–or is it “good” on the grounds that he in fact thinks a lot about how game narratives are constructed, how games are designed, and uses Minecraft to build and design stuff? Is his gaming a symptom of ongoing depression or a sign that he’s enthusiastically pursuing real interests? Am I contributing to a “culture of violence” by getting him a nerf gun for Xmas or am I “following his lead” in providing him with toys that appeal to him in order to get him outside? Am I “enabling bad habits” by letting him stay up past midnight and sleep so late or am I being supportive by not forcing daily fights over his “natural” sleep schedule?

You get the idea.

But today was PK’s third appointment with his psychiatrist, and his first after reaching what the shrink said he thought would be the full dose of PK’s medication. PK reported that his mood has been great and his anxiety negligible, though I interrupted (PK hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he’s comfortable talking to the psychiatrist without me in the room) to mention a couple of recent anxiety problems that I’d suggested PK tell the psychiatrist about only to have him tell me that I should be the one to report them for some reason.

Anyway, so we then had a brief conversation about the difficulty of knowing how to distinguish between “anxiety” and “manipulation” (PK’s word!)–

PK: I don’t remember that. I think I just didn’t want to eat at that restaurant.ME, to PSYCH: Which is another problem. It can be really difficult to distinguish between what’s an anxiety attack and what’s just an argument.
PSYCH: Yes. It’s clear that PK is highly intelligent, and kids with high IQs like him can be very good at arguing with or outsmarting people…
PK, cutting to the chase: I can be very manipulative.
PSYCH, smiling: Right, that.

–which led me to my broader concern, i.e., what are we going to do about PK’s education.

“Basically,” I said to the shrink, “I’d like your input on the timeline here. Because at some point I’d like PK to go back to school in some form, whether within the district or simply by taking classes somewhere, maybe at the community college. Because as he enters high school, I really don’t think I have the ability to teach him the stuff he’s going to want and need to know to prepare him for college.” The psychiatrist knows that PK wants to be a scientist–and while that may change, of course, it’s certainly and obviously not a possibility I want foreclosed by homeschooling. (Probably more to the point is what I said above about my concerns with establishing a routine; obviously there are scientists who were homeschooled, but PK hasn’t been showing any interest in “doing” or reading science this year, though it used to be his preferred way to spend all his free time. Plus the difficulties with math.)

PK immediately started getting argumentative about the idea of taking classes or returning to school, which of course let me exchange glances with the psychiatrist–“see?” “yes, I see”–but the psychiatrist reassured both of us by saying, “keep in mind that we’re just starting to see PK recover from his illness, his depression. And he is clearly improving. I’d like to see you in a couple more months to see how he’s continuing with this medication; I expect to see continued improvement. Obviously long-term he’ll surely want to go back to school in some capacity–you do want to go to college, right PK?”–he does–“but I wouldn’t worry too much about that just yet.”

I asked for, and got, confirmation of what I’d just heard: don’t worry too much at this point about PK’s education. Keep in mind that he is recovering from an illness. Yes, a regular schedule is probably a good thing to strive for, and yes it’s good to work on getting him outside for exercise and doing some “school”ish stuff with him to the extent that he can handle it. But things are going well.

Which is something I really needed to hear; my own mood is so much lighter since this afternoon. A happy new year indeed.

One Truth About “Mama Blogging”

I am putting this update up front because I think it’s so important. Please read this piece by Savannah Nicole Breakstone, who writes a mental health advocacy blog called Cracked Mirror in Shalott. Her piece is about what it is like to have been “one of the scary kids,” and while expressing great sympathy for parents who live with kids who have problems, she explains what it feels like to learn that one’s mother was afraid of one as a child.

Her piece has also been linked in this blog post written under the pseudonym Twitchy Woman, who explains why one should be very careful in writing about one’s kid’s problems in very clear, non-blaming language:

parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children.

I think this is exactly right, and I stand corrected (though I would also say that all parents make mistakes, that parents under pressure are highly likely to do so, and that I think the most helpful thing onlookers can do in cases is to offer support rather than blame. And that support, properly understood, can and should include helping someone understand when they have made a mistake, as Twitchy Woman’s post does–s distinct from finger-pointing, which is almost never helpful.)

Those of you who read this blog know that I have talked about mental illness, mine and PK’s. This weekend, in the wake of the school shootings at Newtown, CT, another mama blogger who I had never read wrote her own post about her son’s mental illness, which was picked up by a local literary-type magazine and pretty soon by a lot of other places. Here is the magazine version. It was widely read. I shared it on my friends-only FB page, and also to the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum page that I belong to, because I thought and think that it speaks what folks in the “gifted community” call “twice exceptionality,” or “2e”: kids who are both “gifted” and have a learning disability or mental/emotional problems or are somewhere on the autism spectrum, etc. (We don’t know that much yet about the inner workings of the brain, obviously, but there seems to be some possibility that the “differentness” that leads to “giftedness,” aka a tendency to learn very quickly, might be linked to other “differences”–or it might just be that being “gifted” makes kids more prone to a feeling of “differentness” that can cause mental health problems.) In any case, it’s common enough that the last time I checked, the other GHF members were having positive, empathetic reactions to the post, as I was.

Not everyone did, though. One blogger, whose post also quickly made the rounds, went through the author’s blog and thought she saw a lot in there that was fucked-up, so she wrote her own post about it.

I hated that post. I have memories of people writing posts like that about me, when I wrote another blog, and frankly it really sucked even though the conclusions posts like that drew about me were always wrong. I wanted to comment about it, but comments seemed to have been closed on that post, or I couldn’t see the comment button. So instead I wrote the author an email, which I also posted on my FB page (which, again, is friends-only; I’m very locked-down on FB precisely because of this kind of thing).

People liked my letter, and one person asked me to post it somewhere public so she could link to it. It also occurs to me that it serves as a decent statement about why I write about this kind of stuff on this very blog. So here it is, edited slightly to remove the name of my old blog because I prefer to have this one (where I am not pseudonymous) separate from that one in the world of google, and also to clean up a couple of typos. But other than that, it’s exactly as written, including a few redundancies I wish I’d prettied up before hitting send.


You don’t know me. I used to write an academic blog. I now write, very occasionally, for Crooked Timber.

I’m writing to you because I’m really bothered by your post about Liza Long’s article and I am hoping that maybe I can explain why I think she wrote what she wrote.

As it happens, I suffer from depression, and my son suffers from anxiety and had a brief depressive period about a year ago. Like Liza Long, I have written quite a bit over the years, in various blogs, about my family, including about our mental health issues. I do so deliberately and I have thought it through pretty carefully. My own doctorate is in English Lit, and I believe strongly that one of the most important things women who write can do is write honestly about motherhood and parenting. I think writing honestly about private life is a feminist act, and I have chosen to do so in years partly because of this.

I have also done so, as an academic and a feminist, for much the same reasons that I blogged about such unpleasant things as the academic job market, some of the stresses of being on the tenure track (I left because of my depression and am no longer teaching), the decision to leave a t-t job, and so forth: because I know that I am not the only person who has dealt with these things, and I think it is helpful to read things about struggles one experiences in my own life. My blog’s popularity in its heyday, and the many, many friends I have made via the internet over the years, have confirmed my belief that this is true. I have had many graduate students, junior faculty, mothers, and folks from other walks of life tell me that the things I have written have “made me feel like I’m not alone” or “given me hope” and so forth. I think it is good for writing to do those things.

I would be lying if I did not say that I have also found support for some of my own difficulties with my writing, and that some of the things I have written were cathartic and, in many people’s estimations, a form of oversharing. It is difficult to write about private life without occasionally doing that, but I hope that what I have already said explains to some extent why I think it is a risk worth taking.

Of course, you don’t know me from adam. I could be a terrible parent; I could be lying myself. I can only ask you to believe me when I tell you that those things aren’t true. I have been married for over twenty years, my husband and I love each other, my son is bright and happy (now, on medication), we live a very Ozzie and Harriet-looking life in many ways.

Nonetheless, it would be very very easy for someone to comb through my blog and find “evidence” that these things aren’t true. When I was writing it, people sometimes did so, and wrote blog posts like yours. I can only tell you that most of what they concluded was wrong, and highly shaped by confirmation bias to fit prejudices that they already had: that educated women with children were bad mothers, that people with depression are self-involved, that my husband and I would be divorced within a year, that I was surely warping my son and should have him taken away from me. Again, none of those things were true; we are a very happy family. We have been through some hard times, and I have written about them–often with jocular (or not so jocular) exasperation, including statements like the ones you found in Liza’s blog.

It is very, very easy to pass judgment on what people write about their lives. It is very, very easy to pass judgment on parents, and especially mothers, in this culture. When one is a mother, that kind of judgment is ever-present. It makes parenting in public, let alone writing about it, difficult at times–especially when one is under stress, or when something in one’s life doesn’t fit the Ozzie and Harriet mold. Everyone has an opinion about mothering; everyone has an opinion about mental illness.

You’re an anthropologist; I appeal to your professional training. Surely you know that there are many, many ways to raise children in this world.

I have read your blog post, but I see nothing in it that does not sound like something many, many mothers would say about their kids. I do not think that in saying such things we damage our children or violate their privacy. My sense from reading Liza’s writing (I, too, have had a look at her blog) and the post you wrote isn’t that she’s lying; it’s that she is in a stressful situation, that she uses humor and hyperbole to talk about that stress, and that up until now she hasn’t written a lot about her son’s mental health–but that the shootings in Newtown prompted her to do so because they evoked a fear of hers that is very real. And that she decided to write the piece she wrote in order to tell the truth about what carrying that fear is like–precisely because so few people speak honestly about that kind of thing, precisely because speaking honestly about it opens people up to the kind of judgment that your blog post and tweets are passing on her. Judgement that, as I said, only makes it more difficult, only adds to the sense of isolation and pressure.

Even if you disagree, it seems to me that it is even more damaging to Liza’s children’s privacy for you to have written the blog post that you wrote. Surely you, who know nothing about her struggles, have far less reason to violate her children’s privacy than she might, and surely, as you don’t know her children, you are in a far weaker position to judge whether or not what she writes is actually damaging to them. But even if we assume that you are right–that she is a liar and a bad mother–how is your writing a blog post saying so in any way helpful? How does that not just shine a brighter spotlight on her family and children?

For what it’s worth, and as someone who has been in Liza’s shoes, I wish you would take your post down.



For the record, Sarah Kendzior did reply to me. I won’t post her email because I didn’t ask for permission, but the essence of it was a briefer version of this post from her blog. She and Liza also both posted this “joint statement”–I’m linking to Sarah’s post because my interaction with Liza’s was via a magazine article rather than her personal blog, and because I don’t think that she intended or invited the surveillance her blog has been getting.

Also for the record, I think it is enormously classy of Liza to have corresponded with Sarah and to sign on to that joint statement. I think that Sarah’s “brief response” on her blog, and to me via email, are less so.