“We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not grow flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves.” -John Holt

Today, I watched my pencil-phobic kid willingly make a list of supplies. He looked up possibilities and prices. When he couldn’t figure things out, he used the internet, books and contacted mentors. The project is his: turning his Raspberry Pi into a Minecraft-worthy device. The reason it developed was because of my strict rules about computers. The rule has been that he can’t have his own unless he buys it himself. Also, we only have Apple and Linux in this house — no Windows. This arbitrarily imposed constraint forced him to think resourcefully about what he really wants a device to do and alternative ways to get to that end goal. It’s exactly the sort of environmental control that I think is my greatest skill as a teacher. Set things up so they think the learning is their idea. Set things up so they can’t go anywhere except into the learning.

I’ve been afraid to call it unschooling. When I was a kid being unschooled, we had John Holt but not Non-Coercive Parenting. As a young parent I saw many folks come in to the unschooling scene with pro-videogame “unparenting” tactics and I saw their kids, a few years out, deciding to go to school because they had decided they weren’t self-disciplined enough to learn without someone forcing them to do so. I didn’t want anything to do with that and still don’t.

But I have periodically thought of Mary Hood‘s writing about relaxed homeschooling and wondered if we might go there. I look at Project-Based Homeschooling and think we do a lot of that and it is our best learning time.

I think, now, we are ready to go there. Everyone can read. I’m financially stable enough to provide the wild clutter project-doers accumulate. We’re in a big enough city, now, that there are people in our community who do pretty much everything. It’s time to go back to those unschooly roots of mine and let the kids figure out who they are.

I intend to push. When the children are feeling lazy, I will call them out and tell them they must finish what they started. I intend to pull. When they are not sure they want to do anything new, I will make them choose a challenge. I intend to coerce, conspire, conscript. I will strew, toss irresistable items into their daily paths. I will set aside project time, require reading before bed, have them journal their days, enlist them to do every task, chore, grueling act of labor I can.

My friend Marcy of The Homeschool Compass asked me if this is a philosophical decision or one made from necessity. I had to say neither. After reiterating that I still think parent-led homeschooling with lesson plans is perfectly awesome, I told her, “I can’t escape the blatant fact that when the kids are pursuing projects of their own choosing, they’re learning as much or more than when I’m dictating what lessons to do next. I try so hard to make sure our curriculum is efficient and focused but it’s just not as tight and powerful as the boys’ own passionate pursuit of projects. I also think I do better as a teacher if I’m responding more in the moment, focusing on one skill or knowledge area at a time. For example, right now I really want Verdi to start writing on his own. He’s tipping towards it — it’s become easy to put pen to paper and get his thoughts out– but the next step is for him to do it for pleasure or as part of his lifestyle. I can run him through [a writing curriculum], sure, but he learns more effectively and I teach more effectively if I’m bribing him to participate in poetry slams, getting beloved cousins to send him letters, showing him college apps and sample essays from accepted apps for the schools he is interested in, introducing him to kids who love to write fanfic about his favorite media, etc., making that my main goal for him, pulling in resources and tweaking as we go.”

Perhaps I just want to be more fluid than lesson plans allow. I want to be able to focus on what is in front of me then, adapt my goals minute-by-minute, and pull in resources from every which where, dropping the ones that don’t serve us as well as others. So we are going to set the bulk of the curriculum aside now.  In my heart I think I really already have gone here, and I am relieved and excited to be able to officially call us unschoolers. Maybe parent-led unschoolers. Yeah, I like that phrase.