PAM:Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca. And today I’m here with Joan Concilio. Hi Joan.
JOAN: Hey how’s it going?
PAM: It’s going wonderful, thanks. Just as a bit of background, Joan and I connected online a few years ago and I really enjoyed glimpses of her family’s unschooling stories from afar. So, I am so excited that she agreed to come on the podcast and share a closer look with us.
To get us started, can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
JOAN: Sure. So, there are four of us in my house right now. We live in Pennsylvania. So, there is myself, I am 36. I just recently completed a master’s degree in Public Health. I work full time as a web developer. I study taekwondo. I just got my second-degree black belt last year. I like scrapbooking. I stay busy, obviously. Like that’s a thing. And I do a lot of writing. I’m a freelance writer. I used to be a newspaper editor and writer so I kept in that business even after I left. So, I just do a lot of things like that. A lot of online stuff. My husband, his name is Dan. He is 32. He and I have been together for about five years and we just got married earlier this year and he is also a web developer. Besides doing our full-time web development business, we have a freelance web development business as well. So, we like that. That’s a lot of fun. He starts his master’s degree later, well in June. So, he starts that very soon. Now he’ll feel what it’s been like for me to be in school the last three years, so fun.
We have. So, I have one child. My child is Ashar who is 19. Those of you who maybe have read our blog Unschool Rules may have been familiar with Ashar as Sarah. Ashar came out as a transgender guy this year. And so that’s been a big, well it’s funny, it was a surprise to actually no one who knew Ashar. It was like, “So?” But it’s a lot of stuff around, so we have our blog which is called Unschool Rules and I’m going back through and changing all the references to Ashar. Things like that and things like paperwork and when you go to the doctor and say, “Can you please call me Ashar?” And just like stuff like that. He does a lot of that on his own. But there’s a lot where that’s just a hard situation and we’ll talk a little bit about Ashar being on the autism spectrum, Ashar has ADHD. Ashar has OCD issues, anxiety and he’s not those things. But when you get in a situation like this which is a little stressful and you don’t quite know what to do, those things don’t matter most of the time in our life. But they do matter in situations like that. So, our family is really trying to provide a little extra support in that space because this is a hard thing to do for any one.
So, then the other person in our house is actually Ashar’s dad who is my husband Chris. We are still super close friends. He’s friends with my husband and I and we all lived together when we got divorced. Mike said we were going to keep cohabiting because we are friends and because of Ashar because change has always been hard for Ash which is one thing. And then Chris he works about an hour away from where we live. Dan and I also work about an hour from where we live in a different direction. And so just in terms of who would see who when and when we do stuff, when we do stuff together. The four of us do stuff as a family pretty often but when could do that if we were all over the place, that would be pretty rough.
So, it’s a little unusual but really works for us. Up until earlier this year my 84 year old mother also lived with us. She did pass away in April which has been a little rough. We were used to being a five person family, that was just awesome. We really liked it. So, now we’re kind of adjusting to the new paradigm of it’s just the four of us and it’s just very different. So, we’re getting used to that.
We also have five cats. They are stupid and weird but we love them. We used to have a dog and there’s a campaign to get another dog and I can’t deal with it. So, beautiful dog, he was a golden doodle, we had him for 14 years. He grew up with Ashar. He was the best dog in the entire world. There’s a golden doodle in our neighborhood that we like hanging out and pet. They will say, “We can do this!” and you know, I just can’t.
So, that’s where we are on the dog front. Well that’s us. Yeah, Chris my ex-husband is a newspaper editor. I should mention that’s what he does. He also is somebody who is interested in old books and paper. So, ephemera is like paper things, like menus, receipts, postcards, most people won’t keep the ephemeral. And so, he actually has a side project where he finds and writes about these things. So, he will find a photo at a yard sale of a family from the 1800s and figure out who they are and write a blog post about their genealogy and stuff like that. And his favorite thing to do is to reunite people with their stuff. So, he’ll give that to their great grandkids or something.
It’s a super fun project and it’s interesting because things like that. I’ll talk a little about unschooling but we are all people and we all have interests. And so that’s really been a big part of our unschooling journey is we’re doing this stuff and you know I just kind of works together.
The other thing is that as a group, our other big side project is we run a nonprofit where we give away stuffed penguins and it’s called Penguins for Everyone and that’s pretty fun. And again, that’s something thing we kind of all do together as a family. We have a Board of Directors, we are a registered 501-c3. So, we went through that process and we have a process for how we choose people to get penguins and we have requests from all over the world. We ship things and we maintain social media presence for that. Ash is a big part of all those things, so it’s just another fun thing that we all do together. So. That’s a good summary of us. Whew! (laughing)
PAM: Oh thanks so much for going into that detail. That’s amazing Joan. I love how you guys are just making this work best for you guys.
PAM: It doesn’t matter what it looks like to other people. I mean it looks, amazing!
JOAN: Like most people, it’s funny cause we weren’t really nervous exactly because we’ve never been people who care what other people think very much, obviously. So, for those of you, if you’re not watching this on video, I have green hair. But you know Pam can see that. But we’ve never been people who’ve been like, “Oh, this is so non-traditional what will people think?” We’re kind of like, “We are just over here doing our thing and if you don’t like it well sorry, not sorry.”
PAM: Yeah, “Sorry, not sorry.” Well yeah. I love the way that you guys deciding to all be together in the same house doing things together because that supports Ashar as well. And also, I love that you brought up that it’s a stressful time now. When you have some challenges they come in waves too, don’t they sometimes? And when one thing gets stressful other things get exacerbated and being extra cognizant of that but supportive of that and just having that being part of how your life flows. I thought that was amazing. So, thanks for mentioning that. So, let’s get to the unschooling.
How did you discover schooling and what did your family’s move to unschooling look like?
JOAN: So, the cool part of our story is that I discovered unschooling before I knew what unschooling was. I was homeschooled. Fifth, sixth and seventh grade. I started homeschooling in fifth grade. I was a really weird kid. I was gifted, which is one thing, but I was also just different. I just had a very different personality. I was younger, I had started school early and then accelerated a grade. And so, by the time I was in third grade I was 6 years old. So, that’s not going to earn you a lot of friends. The desk was too big for me so I like sat on my feet because I couldn’t see, just weird stuff right. So, when I was in fifth grade my parents started homeschooling me.
And at that time 1989/1990ish. Very different situation. We have so many online resources today. There are so many more curricula that you can buy, if you’re into curriculum. There is a lot of stuff out there. Oh my gosh. My mother would have died if we had this but so we didn’t have those things. And so, my mom would go cobble together things like, “OK you’re really interested in math so let’s find that.” And she didn’t care what the fifth grade math looked like. She’s like, “What do you want to do?” And I was accountable. I love Algebra. She said, “You’re weird.” (laughing)
So, they kind of found things and they found me resources. I was really into math and computer science at the time and computer science at the time was make big mainframes that take up a whole room. And this is using things like big floppies and sometimes punch cards and stuff. They found me a guy that my dad knew who essentially ran a computer set up for a large company and he would take me with him to this gigantic server room and show me how stuff worked. He’d teach me those things. It never occurred to me it but we live in Pennsylvania and I’ll talk about that a little later but Pennsylvania has some documentation requirements, and my mom was documenting all this stuff and I got really irritated because she would document everything I did as school and she’s like this is school and that is school, this counts as school. And I was like, just let me do a thing without it having to be school. But as a homeschooling parent, I see she was on it, man.
I had this background where I, first of all was able to pursue the things I was interested in. I had parents who were actively putting things that I might be interested in in my path. So, a bit of strewing, right? And fundamentally I had the say to make a lot of choices in my own education. And one of those was, my father passed away when I was in seventh grade, and so my mother had divested math to dad. So, my mother was 47 when I was born. I was adopted and so she graduated high school at a time when women had business math at best. She had had no algebra, no geometry. She was an amazing bookkeeper, an accountant, super smart lady. But she had no background in any of that and she knew that’s what I wanted to study. My undergrad degree is actually in math and she knew that’s what I wanted to do. And so, she put it to me. And she’s like look, “We can do this. I will get you a tutor. We will figure out with a correspondence school. We will do whatever you want, if you want to stay at home. I feel like I’m going to hold you back. Do you want to go to public school, go to high school and get the things that they can do there?” We understood college scholarships, we understood advanced placement. She’s like, I just can’t. There are tons of options now if that comes up for a homeschooled school student now, but there weren’t then.
She didn’t say, you have to do this or you have to do that. She’s like, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Give school a try.” So, that’s a really long way of saying, I was exposed to those concepts and I guess you would say warm or predisposed to them. When Ashar started school, and so Ashar did not have my same experiences in the educational space. Ashar always had a hard time. Hated School, he was smart, super smart but just could not do the things that were expected at school. Absolutely could know something forwards and backwards and be given a test on it and literally not be able to write an answer to a question that if you’d ask verbally, he would be able to talk to you for a half hour about it. He just couldn’t do that. And for what it’s worth we tried lots of different things. We started in a private religious school, we are not a particularly religious family. We go up and down different levels of spirituality, I should say. But it was a nice, small school. Good people. And so, we were like, “Well let’s try this first.”.
It was really good for kindergarten. And then in first grade, Ash had a terrible teacher and it was just really bad. And so halfway through first grade we pulled him out and put him in a local public school that seemed okay, at first. And then we got to second grade and it was weird. And then by third grade, we were in the school every week because it’s like all this happened, that happened. He’s not getting this. He’s not doing this. And he had these super nice teachers who I think were really well-meaning people who would say, “If we just try this or he’ll catch up or he’ll get more mature or we’re going to do like math support or remedy read support, etc.” And everybody sort of saw the same stuff but nobody was able to look at it and say, no one was able to look at the big picture.
And so, we started piling stuff on. So, first it was I think third or fourth grade it was he needs glasses. That’s really going to make a difference. So, we did that and it helped. Obviously not being able to see makes it hard to do anything. So that helped. So, they started with the basics. They had him tested for a hearing problem because he had trouble with verbal instructions and so we thought well maybe it’s a hearing thing. That wasn’t the case, then the teacher was like, he’s really moving a lot. And again, I just want to be clear about this just because I think it matters. At this time, Ashar is presenting as Sarah, presenting as female. Teachers are perceiving Ash as a female. And it’s very hard I think in a public school setting, you hear a lot about young boys being diagnosed with ADHD. Girls can present very differently with that. And so, it was very, it was very interesting when the teacher was like we really think ADHD is the thing.
We had evaluation and it’s like they count, so someone comes and sits and watches your kid for, I don’t know like two hours. They are looking for what percentage of the time they were on task. It’s the fourth grade. So like the good, I don’t want to say good but the kids without attention problems, it’s about 50 to 60 percent, right. Like this is not a high bar. And they tell us that it’s about 18% of the time that Ash was even close to being on task. I was like, “Oh.” Let’s think.
So, obviously the thing that people want to do is medications. We tried that. Ashar’s a super tiny person. I think in the fourth grade he weighed like 60 pounds or something like that. The stimulant medication that he was on totally killed his appetite. So, he didn’t eat this. He was having to eat lunch in the nurse’s office because they were concerned that he wasn’t eating. They didn’t see kids with an eating disorder or things like that. So, then he hated that, hated being different. He hated having to take meds at school. Just stuff kept building on itself. And then every year we thought they’re probably going to hold him back this year. And you think, maybe that would be better because maybe he would feel more in line with his peers, instead of feeling behind or whatever.
I hated it because during homework time was he was crying. I was crying. He was saying, I’m so stupid. I can’t get this. And I knew that wasn’t true. And in fact, in my having grown up within a gifted program and things like that. My perception was that this is a kid who’s actually pretty gifted and has a different way of learning but super at making connections and synthesizing information and absolutely factually deep in these areas that he was passionate about. But it just wasn’t lining up, it wasn’t working at school. And we were spending some times like four or five hours a night on homework. And I was working full time at this time.
So, I’m coming home from work to do this. I’m going back to work so that I can finish work because I left early to come home and do homework. So, he goes to bed. I go back to our work. We are killing ourselves on this. He’s miserable, I’m miserable, everybody around me is miserable because I’m miserable. I thought, ‘If I’m going to spend hours day educating this child. Good grief at least I want to have some say in what he’s reading because this book is stupid and I don’t want to read it.” So, that’s where we started thinking and you know Chris and I at the time, we were together and we’re talking about well maybe we should start thinking about homeschooling. We’re looking at the seventh grade and well, let’s give middle school a try. It’s a little different in our district Middle School starts at sixth grade and we thought, ‘Let’s see what we might do.”.
So, middle school starts and it is a disaster. Everything about it is a train wreck. We are all crying, we’re at a psychiatrist office and it’s at this point that they start saying, “We’re pretty sure you’re on the autism spectrum.” So, sort of like that trans thing was a surprise to totally no one. It ended up coming with a lot of work. Right. It ended up coming with, ‘Now we have to do an IEP for a school an Individualized Education Plan,’ which is the thing we do here in the States. If you have a certain kinds of documented learning differences. Then we need to do a certain kind of therapy for this and then we need occupational therapy and speech therapy and language therapy and just all this stuff. Then it was, “We need to put him in special classes.” He wasn’t with his friends and unfortunately and this is I think the case in a lot of public school settings.
The reality is you can’t easily be what I call twice exceptional. So twice exceptional is gifted with learning disabilities or differences. Ash couldn’t get into the gifted program because he couldn’t pass the test because he couldn’t take any test successfully. So, he is in remedial everything even things that he had super deep subject knowledge and interest in but it was, “OK. But here we are.” And this is where you go, this is your trap.
And so he was really good in some classes and usually getting one hundred and geography. He loves cultures, world cultures and geography and stuff like that. And then over here in English he was carrying a really, really great 44 percent. And that was probably pretty generous. And so, we are looking at all this. And he. His anxiety is through the roof at this point. He won’t leave his room. He’s crying all the time. Just a mess. And we were like, “We aren’t waiting through 7th grade. We are going to take him out now.”.
It’s funny. I remember that day because it was February 29. It was Leap Day. And that was it, the Leap Day leap. This is what we’re doing, we’re homeschooling. And so, like I said I had kind of a warm predisposition towards what you called interest led learning. Definitely toward totally democratic learning. So, we had kind of at this point been in a Democratic parenting place. So, it wasn’t like, “Hey you have to go do this thing.” More like, “We are a family and we’re doing this thing but where are you in this process? Is this what is important to you?”.
So, we had the pieces. If that makes sense and we were sort of totally unschooling public school because I’d be like, “We’re not doing this homework, this is stupid.” So, I would write notes that he’s not doing that. And so, we came into unschooling sort of through the back door, because we were doing all this stuff and then here we are and we’re homeschoolers. And you know we actually went to the curriculum fair that year and it was like, “This is just not for us. We’re not doing this!” This is exactly what was not working. So, I guess you would say we came into it from, “Well we know we don’t want to do X, so let’s do something else.” And I would say we started, I think the way a lot of unschoolers start and I’m not saying this was the best way. But we sort of were like, ‘OK no more school, we’re going to do whatever we want.’ And I’m learning as I’ve gone through the unschooling journey, that’s really rough and it’s especially really rough on a kid who has anxiety, who has trouble making decisions and who has had all their decisions made for them for a decade.
That’s a really hard leap to make. And so, we sort of I don’t want to say floundered because we did stuff and it was cool. We went on trips and we looked at robots and we read a lot of books from the library and you know there was some cool stuff going on but there wasn’t a lot of purposeful stuff on my part. Let’s just do whatever. And then if Ash got up one day and just wasn’t interested in anything and just wanted to kind of like lay around and play with Legos, I was looking at that and I was like, “Well now I don’t know what to do. Does that count? Does that not count?”.
And I hadn’t read or learned much about the unschooling philosophy and so I had a lot of things that looked like unschooling. What I didn’t have on my end was the understanding of what my role was or what I could be doing or how I could be helping Ash with stuff. So, we we’re in that place for a while.
We’ll talk about Pennsylvania I think a little bit later but we have portfolios that we have to keep for our students and they want to see progress areas. So, I was like well let’s do a couple of math worksheets every week because like we need to show something. So that’ll do. And of course, math was one of Ash’s worst areas. He ended up being diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia too. Which sounds, at this point we were very frustrated because we felt like what we had was a collection of diagnoses and nobody looking at this as a person.
And so, a thing that we did along with all this other stuff is we sort of started to unschool those things too. So, what I mean by that is we quit most of the therapies. They were not… so to be really careful about this. There are a lot of people especially people on the autism spectrum who really benefit from certain things, there is cognitive behavioral therapy, there are a couple other types of therapy that happen a lot for kids on the autism spectrum. Some of which are super effective for some kids. They weren’t working for us. We knew they weren’t working. They were making Ash feel bad, making us feel bad. And fundamentally, I think a lot of our problem was we started at the wrong time. Ash was old enough to understand that he was different but not different enough to want to be different and not care that he was different. And so, you’re at an age like the middle school age is not when kids want to be different. You know, it’s not when they want to be, their friends are out playing sports and they have to go to a Brain training center for stuff four days a week. That’s not a good time for that.
If you grow up doing those things, then maybe but then that’s your normal. But that was really kind of hard to take. So, we pulled out of a lot of those things.
I’ve got a lot of criticism for that actually. More than homeschooling, you know a lot of people have faced criticism homeschooling kids on the autism spectrum because people say they need socialization, they need to do these things. We didn’t get as much criticism for that but we definitely did for dropping the therapy. We stopped the ADHD medicine.
We started to think differently about those things and to give Ash a voice in them too. To be like, “You’re telling us this isn’t working for you and we need to listen.” So, we kind of pulled in. We just sort of were, we were our family like we just did stuff together lived, learned, enjoyed things. And so, from there that’s when I started reading about unschooling and sort of started turning that into something that was a little more, purposeful is kind of the right word. Maybe not. But on my part where I was like, “Okay, I’m doing a thing.” I’m not just NOT doing this other thing. You know, I’m not just a school. I’m not a school at home. I’m doing this other thing.
So, it was developing what is that thing and finding out that is a whole thing. There’s a philosophy. People know what they’re doing in the space. And then to look back at my experiences and say, ‘Oh, this is totally what my parents did.’ They just don’t have a name for it. And in our case, it was interesting because one of the biggest challenges that I faced when I first started learning about unschooling was this idea of, I missed the part where it’s not about the tools or the resources. It’s about what your learner needs, wants, enjoys and things like that. And I had this idea that it’s not unschooling if it’s a textbook or something.
So, when I was a kid, I like text books. I went to book sales and bought textbooks. I mean this is the kid I was. So, I want to be really careful when I say my parents unschooled me. We got a box of curriculum once a year but I wanted that. I loved it. I took tests for fun. I would pass the spelling tests at the beginning of the week and I would ask for more spelling words so I could do them at the end of the week. I was weird. I get that but I wanted those things. And I wanted that. I knew I wanted to go to college. I wanted a transcript, you know what I mean? So, I was doing things that were based on where I saw myself going and things I wanted to do. Ash is the same way. The weirdest thing was when we started like looking around at stuff after we pulled him out of public school, libraries book sales, stuff like that. “Get whatever you’re interested in.” And he picks up this science textbook. It’s like in Abeka science textbook from the 80s or something and as I said we’re not super, super religious. And again this was from the 80s and I was like, “I don’t really know if I feel like the science in this is what we are going for,” with our math and science background. But he was strong with it and so we went through and he’s like, “Read me a chapter from you this book.” I was like, okay.
So, that was our bedtime story reading like “Understanding God’s World” or whatever it was. He was thrilled. And then I was reading about unschooling and saying we need to get rid of the textbooks. I was missing the forest for the trees and the phone and textbooks. “But I liked this book.” So, he would sleep with this book. So, it was very odd. He’s a very cool kid. So, I was like OK this is neat.
But we started to find that for different reasons, we ended up not liking some of the textbook approach for him because it was very structured and he would get really into a piece of it and then it would move off into another thing. And so, what we found was they meet the jumping off points to read something and be like you know what, “Tell me more about this. I want to know more about this.” And then would be over here in this. We really liked those DK books, the Encyclopedia of World History and the Encyclopedia of Animals and the Eyewitness books and all that. And so, we would use them to like dive deeper into one particular topic. And then as we went, we worked in a lot more Internet resources, gaming, things like that. We started mostly with books because my ex-husband and I are book people. We like books, we’re always surrounded by books. He and I ran a business for a while buying and selling used books so we’re always places with books. But there again, as I discovered unschooling, I really started to separate myself from the idea that books are how you learn.
We read aloud to Ashar a lot, which was really good. But we realized pretty quickly that he did not get stuff out of reading because he struggled so hard to do it. He just wasn’t getting things from that and we were like, “Oh, you like videos. You like watching. You like being read to.” So, we read aloud to him well into high school which was super cool.
But as we started to look through unschooling, we started to break down our ideas of some of the arbitrary media distinctions that we make maybe as parents or just as people.
You know, if you see a kid playing it, again I think we’ll talk more about videogames later. But if you see kid reading a book. Your response is kind of net positive. Oh look, that kid’s reading. But if they’re kids watching YouTube videos on their phone or playing video games, ‘That kid’s just sitting on his butt, on this phone or device or whatever.’.
So, we started to break down our own thoughts on that and to think differently. I think, for us, that was the biggest part of unschooling and then also to be, what most would consider radical unschoolers, which is that we took that and we wholeheartedly apply those concepts to the rest of our life. We’re like, “You know it doesn’t really matter if you go to bed at 9:00.” That’s super arbitrary and that doesn’t have anything to do with life. The rest of us were not. I was working overnights at this time. People were like, “Oh, kids go to bed at 9:00. If you let them stay up till midnight and sleep until 9:00 they’re never going to have a job.”.
I was like I go to bed at midnight and get up at 9:00. I have a job. What’s wrong with you? People who knew me and knew that. What were they thinking? You start unpacking things. At the time I was in a job that I had really liked, in newspapers. Newspapers are struggling. When I got into newspapers, I loved it. I was a manager, I didn’t love having to lay people off. I didn’t love the people who were left having to work 60 hours a week to do the work because the work hadn’t changed even though we had 20 percent less people. I started realizing I didn’t like that and I had the idea of well I have to do that. That’s what I know how to do. That’s what I’ve always done.
And you suddenly start to unschool yourself, “Do I have to do that? Or is that kind of arbitrary?”
And then I started to look at the skills that I had built and the skill set I had. What I was doing at the papers was leading their websites. So, this job for a web developer came up and I realized I know how to do all of the things in this. There was even a developer position through a communications team and I was like, “This is great. This is everything that I wanted.”
I would never have applied for that if I hadn’t worked through some of the unschooling stuff where I realized you don’t have to do it that way, you don’t have to stay at your company for 30 years. You don’t have to stay in a job you don’t like, you don’t have to stay in your lane because this is the kind of work you’ve always done.
And so I think those things help Ashar too because he started to see ways to ask questions about the old ways, to say, “Is this is kind of arbitrary and weird or is this like a for real thing?” Actually, a lot of things that we say you have to do, you really don’t have to do. You have to face the consequences. That was our big and it’s again a way to highlight the radical unschooling philosophy with this, our big philosophy with parenting is you can do anything you want. You need to face the consequences of it and the consequences are not, you know you stayed up till 3:00 a.m. And now you’re grounded. The consequences are you still till 3:00 a.m. and you knew we had a doctor’s appointment at 8:00, so you got five hours of sleep and you really feel like crap. And we did try to tell you that but we’re not saying you can’t do that, that you have to go to bed at 9 or whatever.
So, that was our biggest change was when we realized that the philosophy was you need to think about what you want to do. You need to think about your decisions, you need to own them. We want you to make them. But we also want you to be like, “If I do this, X is going to happen.” So, and again for us it was neat for us to take that step back. So, I talk a lot. (laughing)
PAM: I did not want to interrupt because that was beautiful Joan. I really love how you noticed the transition piece. I experienced the same thing as well.
You’re stepping away from something, right? I’m not doing this. And there is a vacuum, there can be a vacuum for a while as you realize, ‘Oh, we need something to replace that with.’ So, that’s why I’m always talking about continuing to learn about unschooling. Because you learn about unschooling at first you think of it as—well, it’s not school. So, we’re not doing school. But it is creating a whole different environment, a whole different learning environment. As parents, we’re doing something different.
Yeah, we’re not helping with homework for those hours but for those hours we are actively supporting our child and helping them and hanging out with them and connecting with them and building that different kind of environment for learning. So, it’s not like learning in a vacuum but it’s creating.
JOAN: I feel like we struggled because I think we didn’t get to unparenting but we were closer than I realized I would like and it was like, I don’t want to be hands off. I don’t want to just say here go do some things. Yeah. It was that discovery process.
PAM:Yeah. Yeah. And I went through that too. Yeah. Exactly the same. And your school stories are very familiar to me as well. That was the whole thing, that was the process it got to a point where, ‘No, this isn’t working.’ We can try something else.
PAM:Yeah exactly. And then I love hearing what you were sharing about ways to support him and how you were learning. It’s so funny because you think you’re doing it for your child. We’re doing this for our child. But then it becomes so much bigger doesn’t it. If we are opening that one question then it opens everything.
JOAN: Oh, it’s all on the table now.
PAM:Yeah I know. I love that. So, you did a beautiful job of working all the way through that. So, I am so happy. We talked about it at school and the challenges with school. Unschooling for kids with learning differences. I mean you went into that when you talked about how you know reading for him wasn’t a helpful tool for picking up the kinds of information that he was looking for. I found that a lot with later readers you’d think Oh they’re gonna be behind in gathering information but they’re not. They have just different ways. And outside of school they can use all these other ways.
Was there anything you wanted to add about unschooling for kids with learning differences?
JOAN: So, I think the one big thing I would say is don’t discount the emotional value. So, like I said, Ash had a lot of anxiety, a lot of bad feelings about himself. Low self-esteem and was like, “I can’t do this.” “I’m in remedial math.” I’m whatever. So, he had this perception of himself as somebody who was slow or stupid or who couldn’t get it.
Because the school was playing to his weaknesses, not his strengths. And if you’re too interested that’s a problem. So, that’s the thing, we want you to pay attention, we want you to focus, we want you to be interested. But, by the way, also you can’t be too interested because in 90 minutes you have to go get up and go somewhere else. And no matter how good you’re doing here, how interested you are, you have to switch gears entirely and go do this other thing.
And so think one of the things that we realized pretty early on was at home and I want to be careful how I say you know I talk a lot, which I said, but I want to be careful about some things I say because there are a lot of people in these situations and it can be really stressful as a parent to try to deal with some of these challenges and you feel like you’re never doing the right thing, whatever you do it’s the wrong thing. So, I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m saying, “Oh this thing over here is just wrong.” We just found some stuff didn’t work for us. But I think one of the big things at home was we had a lot of people with the therapy, with IEP and school when we came home with the idea of how are we going to. . . I don’t think this was the phrase we thought of but it’s probably how it appeared to Ash. How are we going to fix the autism? How are we going to make you seem not autistic? How are we going to redirect you so that you don’t spend four hours talking to somebody about tanks in World War II. He was super into tanks and World War II or the Titanic or the Donner Party or like whatever the thing is.
So, I think for a lot of people that stuff comes down to spending your time on the weaknesses and saying OK here’s one thing that’s a problem. How do I help you read better? How do I help you do math better? How do I help you understand social situations better? And those are not bad things to do. Those are good things to do but I think they’re good things to do naturally and in moderation, not as the focus.
I should say that for us, that was the case. What we ended up doing was realizing that for us, yes school is important, learning is important but for us, Ashar being an okay person was the priority, and how he relates to others. The suicide rates for kids are going through the roof. Kids with learning differences, especially kids who are on the LGBTQ spectrum. Which again we knew from a pretty early age was a thing with Ash, all of that stuff you look at that and as a parent to look at that and see the suicide rate in kids especially with differences like that kids who are being bullied at school, kids who are struggling.
I took a step back and I was like, what I care about the most is not whether you do your math worksheet, it is whether you are okay as a person and I don’t have to worry every day when I’m at work that I find something terrible has happened. That is a really blunt way of saying it but that’s where we were.
And so, I felt, for us, it was kind of a confidence thing, I am tired of focusing on all this stuff that people think is wrong. I am tired of focusing on these labels and these diagnoses and you need to do this as therapy and I was like I want to focus on what are you good at. What do you really like? I have never met a kid who could tell you more facts about things, so let’s work with that. Right. Let’s take that and let’s learn to synthesize those facts. That’s a cool thing to be able to do. And then let’s build your toolbox of coping skills but let’s do that in a way that’s doesn’t have you going to therapy six times a week. Let’s look at situations that come up and say, “Hey, look this is a rough spot. What are we going to want to do about this?” And work on that together rather than being forced to go into a room and say here’s a social story. What are you going to do when so-and-so says they don’t like your shirt?
I am going to say this again. I don’t want to say that doesn’t work for some people but it was not consistent with Ash and how he saw the world and that was making him feel worse about himself. I can’t even get this right. I can’t do this. This is another test I’m failing, essentially. So, for us, that’s what I would say about the advantages, if you have a kid with an unconventional learning style. And that can be autism, that can be dyslexia, that can be just somebody who is less of a reader and more of a listener or a video watcher or a hands-on learner.
We have some friends whose kids are absolutely physical doers. They need to be working with their hands. They need to be doing something physically. And that’s how they learn. And that’s how they learn everything from science, to math, to engineering, to working cars, that’s their thing. So, if you have things like that, you can play to those strengths. Kids are going to feel a lot better and you’re not going to feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.
I read somewhere that if you work with kids with autism, that is how it was referred to but I think it’s true for anything, if you have somebody who’s struggling with communication if you have somebody who’s struggling with how to read, how to write, how to say the things that they want to say, throwing more words at them is not the thing that’s going to help with that. You have to find something else. And so that was really eye opening to me because I’m all about words. I love to read books, right? I love to talk. I am just words, words, words all the time. And here’s Ashar who’s sensorally like, “Please stop. I’m just overloaded. Let me watch this video but watch this video with the sound off. Let me just see what’s going on. Stop talking to me.” And that was really kind of eye opening too.
So yeah, I would just say anything with learning differences. Figure out how you can take those things and make them a strength. If you’re realistic about it … so self-improvement is great, lots of people spend time and I do too trying to improve myself trying to make myself better but my job, I would never get a job that was surrounded by my weaknesses. There are tons of things I am not good at. I have no physical skills whatsoever. I walk into walls. I tripped over the floor. You know, so I’m never going to get a job that requires that kind of skill, or manual dexterity or anything like that. I could but I would be miserable. And so, as an adult you sort of you get the leeway in life to do that. And so, I just really hope people give that to kids.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That focus on their strengths. I mean not only from the emotional side but yeah exactly. Like for their whole life. You don’t want to go out there and choose a job where you’re going to be miserable. And along with that, well you’re focusing on your strengths and following interests that match with your strengths, you’re going to come across opportunities where you need to use the things that you’re less naturally inclined to do. You know there’s some skills in paying for things and you know all the regular life things and that’ll still give you opportunities to work on those. But they don’t need to be the focus right. Right?
You mentioned video games earlier. I thought you could share a bit about your experience with video games.
JOAN: So, I guess I would say and I’m trying to think of the best way to kind of get into this. Our family has always been into gaming. Now it wasn’t always video gaming. I was a classic Nintendo person growing up, I love that. I have capped out at 2D though. I remember going and playing some video game in the arcade where you have to walk diagonally over a bridge in 3D to go into the building to kill zombies. I died every time because I fell off the bridge. I didn’t get to the zombies because again no physical sense to me. So, I was like, ‘OK that’s not for me.’ Still love classic Mario on my phone, it’s great but so we were a gaming family for a long time. We did Wii sports together. I definitely was early adopter for cell phones so I was using them at work a lot. You know we just were into things like that. I was doing computer things. I was working primarily online at one point I had a full-time work for a while. So that stuff was always just around us as part of what we did. We play board games too.
So, for us to sort of look at those things and say, “What are the things around this that are arbitrary?” And that was kind of a step as we started to kind of unpack things because we definitely were all into them. And I think we even realized pretty early on that these were totally learning tools. We were learning things. I was learning things. Well, I think early on we still had some really arbitrary restrictions like, “Well, you can’t play a game for more than an hour on the Wii.” Then it was, “Well, you can’t play any games that have shooting in them.” And what we ended up with there was we really started to unpack these ideas and we’re like, “What is it that we’re trying to get out of it? What was our goal there?” And our goal was, “Well we want you to be doing things that we feel are productive.” It’s like, “Well. Wait a minute.” So, it’s OK for me to sit around and play Candy Crush on my phone for a half hour in the morning instead of getting out of bed. But what I want you to be doing something productive 24/7.
And also, who am I to judge what’s productive or not? So, you start to ask yourself this question.
And it was weird things that kind of came up out of videogames naturally, stuff that just evolved for us that made us sort of not just feel OK with it, not just feeling like arbitrary restrictions were wrong or that we were just pretty OK with most games. It wasn’t just stuff like that.
It was when we started to realize that these were not just a thing that we allowed but there was an actual tangible benefit in our family.
I will say the biggest thing that tripped us on that in terms of like a light bulb going on. Ashar really got into the Assassin’s Creed series which is, you’re an assassin and you travel through time and you get to save people and kill people and you explore these places. And there were things that would come up like you explain this thing and this kid in the game basically turns to the other kid they’re like looking at a display in a museum and it’s like a helmet with horns and the one kids says, “Oh it’s a Viking helmet.” And then the other kid turns to the game and says Vikings didn’t wear helmets like that, that’s such myth. And we went and looked that up and it totally was like a two-day thing of us finding out. But most Vikings didn’t wear helmets with horns on them. I grew up thinking that. That’s what you see. Those are Vikings. We spent so much time going from that to what did Vikings wear? Who were the Vikings? Where did they come from? What’s that culture like? You start go down these rabbit trails and it’s not the game by itself right?
The game by itself was just this the entry point into that.
There are games that are designed to be educational but I always said math with robots is still math. You have a kid who really hates math and then you gussied up with some robots. You know it’s not going to do it for them. But there are cool games that are legitimately by themselves educational. There’s the dragon box app which is actually algebra. There is an algebra version and geometry version but it absolutely plays like a game and it’s it doesn’t beat you over the head with now look you’ve done distributive property in an algebra.
So, things like that are good and they help but they’re part of a context. What did you see here? What is that? What can we explore? One of the newer Assassin’s Creed has this mode that you don’t even go through and kill people or anything. It’s an exploratory thing. You can walk inside actual replicas of the Sphinx and the great pyramids in Egypt and it tells you all this stuff like this is where the tomb was and this river. Excuse me, I need to grab a drink.
Thank you. So, you get to see these things and again the benefit to that. So, that’s cool on its own but where we really got benefit from that was not just we’re going to park Ash in front of the TV for eight hours and be like, “Here, go at it, we don’t care.” It was engaging with him and saying look I see you’re really interested in this, tell me about what you’re doing here. He would be like, “I’m exploring this house because I need to find this person. But the house is full of artifacts from different archeological expeditions and this is what’s here and what does that say about that suit of armor? He’d go read it and we’d talk about it and so it was really a chance for us to have something that he really enjoyed.
There’s a chance for us to connect and to just put some topics in his path. This is a really cool thing to dive into more. But that only happens with that connection.
If you are just kind of ignoring your kids and your just hands off and you’re saying no to whatever. That’s not the same thing. And we eventually realized that many of the things that are considered school subjects we were seeing them being covered through videogames down to Wii sports. Ashar was doing more activity through Wiii sports than any of the family had done for months.
PAM: Yeah. I love that piece because that is the big piece. I think that’s the paradigm shift when it comes to video games. I think that helps for a lot of people. I mean you don’t want to say for everyone or anything like that but I know it was for me and I’ve heard so many stories that way. It’s that connection piece right. If you stay at, “Oh they’re playing video games.” or “Oh they’re watching videos and they’re sitting there for hours.” But it’s that deschooling that understanding piece that we were talking about before. If you’re just letting them do that, you’re not understanding what they’re getting out of it. It’s like we’re not doing school. We are letting them play video games. But you don’t understand what they’re doing with it what they’re getting out of it and that’s where those connection pieces are in the relationship and then that’s how you can have conversations with them and things can grow. That’s where you find the rabbit trails.
JOAN: Exactly. Just a place to start.
PAM: Exactly, exactly.
They’re just a tool. It could be a book. It could be a video. It could be a video game. It could be a board game. It’s just more pieces of the world to explore, play with, have fun with. When you’re there and connected with them or having conversations with them about it.
“What was fun about it today?” or “What did you accomplish or what was cool?” Whatever kind of language works in your relationship because now you know each other better. You start to learn what it is that they’re enjoying about the game. So, your questions are going to be phrased in such a way that says, ‘I see you.’ It’s not like, “Oh, how was your video game?” Know what game they were playing. You can use the video game name, you can ask about the levels. Really understand what it is that they’re doing and then it’s a window. It’s a window to the world.
JOAN: And I think the other thing too is I want to just mention this in passing. I know one of the things that you had said we might talk about a little bit is unschooling with older kids. So, you know a lot of people with older kids and teens are say looking at video games and saying, well, that one has swearing, that one has killing. Here’s Grand Theft Auto and we have just gone and taken a car. Where there’s a prostitute. Yeah. And so, you start to see these things and people get really nervous about stuff like that. And there again, I feel like a lot of times there’s a double standard about video games. If you see that on the news, if you see that in a movie or a TV show, you might read it in a book. I don’t think they get as worried about that maybe as they do that’s in a video game. “They’re going to think that’s an okay thing to do.” My kid does not think it’s okay to go out and kill people. We’re totally like, we’re not a gun family. That is not our thing.
He’s not going to do that. He’s is not going to go jack a car like that is not his thing. And part of that again is this overt conversation that we’ve had which is why music is another good example of this too. He for a long time was really into Eminem and stuff like that. And we didn’t use that as a just go listen to whatever you want. How this stuff might end with Eminem would come of the parties talking about this, that or the other thing and I was like, “Well, what do you think about that? Why is he saying that? Do you think he really feels that way about women? Do you think it’s really okay to you know to hit your partner?” And it really becomes a chance to connect and not just in a factual way which is a rabbit trail thing but to talk about those tough issues, they’re going to come up. So, we watch hard shows and movies. We watch the Thirteen Reasons Why series you know Ash played games like Grand Theft Auto and there’s like Red Dead Redemption and there’s stuff that’s pretty graphic in and realistically. We didn’t look at that as like, “Oh, that’s bad.” We looked at that as, we’ll talk about that.
You’re going to see that, you’re going to see that either with me or you’re going to see that somewhere because I guarantee you you’re going to go to your friend’s house and he’s playing this game or you’re going to go to the movies. He’s 19. So, he can go to whatever movie now but I don’t want that to be the first time that he understands, this is a hard example but I don’t want him to go to a movie and for the first time realize that rape is a thing that happens.
I want that to be a conversation and it has been in our house. I want those things to be conversations. I don’t want to shy away from them because they’re tough or difficult. I really want to be into those and media in general so books, movies, tv, games, music, whatever it is. That’s a big place for that for us. So, when you start talking about the value of them, it’s about some of those different issues and where are you on those because maybe it’s that they make you uncomfortable. I don’t want that because something makes me uncomfortable, I don’t want to have to make Ashar just avoid it. I want to be in those spaces where it’s harder.
PAM: Yeah, that’s such a great point because our media it brings pieces of our culture to us, of the society that we’re living in. And it’s great fodder for conversation. I remember when we kind of were the first couple of years unschooling and Simpsons was a big thing and they were watching the Simpsons. And at the time it was like, ‘Oh don’t ever let your kids watch the Simpsons.’ It’s always something.
Oh my gosh, we did, we watch it together and we all enjoyed it together. We laughed, we laughed at different things because we have different levels of experiences and some jokes went over their heads but the conversations that came out of it were fascinating and interesting. And they’re just little doorways, right? And so, the nice thing too about we’re unschooling for years right. Our kids are growing up. Some things will just pass right by them. And then other things that they’ll start asking about or we can bring up the conversation and they’re just not interested it’s just not something on their radar at the moment. There’s going to be another time and another time. Right. But not if your disconnected not if you’re just letting them go do their thing.
I feel like I need to say that we’re not forcing ourselves on them but when you have that kind of connected relationship, that you’re just interested in what they’re doing, you’re sharing what you’re doing, you’re interested in what they’re doing. It’s just the way we live together. And then those things come up.
I live in a place where all we need to do for home schooling is send in a letter each year that says, “Yes, I’m homeschooling my child.” I take it you have a little bit more in the reporting requirements.I thought you could share a little bit for people who may find themselves in that situation.
JOAN: So, there are states that are more or less highly regulated in the US. There are countries that have obviously very different rules. The thing that I would say is that documentation, in general, there are places that require it in some format. If you know the rules and you are thinking ahead, I have not found it to be hard to unschool.
So, I think we’re talking about a lot with unschooling older kids, teens. I have a full transcript for Ashar that has like 30 credits on it that did get him accepted into our local college. He’s not going but he applied and got accepted and all. It’s very much focused on knowing how to describe the things you’re doing and the way people expect to see them or read them and it’s not a worry because I feel like it sounds like I’m saying look you should lie. No. When you read a resumé for a job you might have a set of x 5 different skills or whatever. If the job is really heavy and one, you’re going to write that resume and focus on talking to those skills, talking about what you did that’s like what you’d be expected in that job. Right.
So, your transcript, your documentation, all of that is your chance to say we did all these things. I understand what the state, the school, whatever, you know if it’s an umbrella school, I understand what this group wants to see. And I’m going to take the things that we did that are going to make the most sense to those people. And I’m going to display them in a way that makes sense to those people.
And so just as an example, in Pennsylvania and actually the requirements got a lot better in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago. It used to be that you, so you file stuff at the beginning of the year including learning objectives but the learning objectives again if you read the law and you know it, learning chapters can be things like student will continue to make progress in their understanding of the political systems of the world. It does not say student is going to read a government textbook. It does not say a student is going to write six papers on the differences between democracy and socialism or whatever. That’s not it. It’s what is your hope for your kids, what are they going to understand? And so, in a lot of cases, I know that because I read the law. I didn’t just assume.
I worry because people listen to what other homeschoolers tell them. And here I am telling you things, I want you to listen to me. But I also want people to go to the source on stuff like this. If somebody in your community says unschooling is not legal, I want you to go, really go look at your states homeschool law. People will tell you that not legal to do that. Pennsylvanians know it’s illegal in Pennsylvania not to file your documentation but you can file your documentation as a unschooler. It doesn’t mean you’re off the grid and saying well you know I didn’t register my kid for a social security number and I’m never going to report to the school system. It’s not that, it’s figuring out how to do that. The educationese.
And so we would do portfolios you have to do a portfolio every year as well. And you have to meet with what’s called an evaluator. An evaluator is usually a psychologist or a teacher. Occasionally there are people with other credentials but those are the generally accepted ones by the state and that person has to assess whether your child has made what they call sustained progress over the year. One thing that is not true in Pennsylvania, is that your child has to do things in a certain grade. Just because the public school teaches Pennsylvania history in fourth grade, doesn’t mean that your child has to have Pennsylvania history in fourth grade. The absolute only thing that the state of Pennsylvania says that you have to have is fire safety education every year. That is the one thing that you have to show that you’ve had fire safety education every year.
So, most people either truck their kids over to the fire station and touch a truck day. We have family fire drills. We talk about fire safety. You know like we have a fire extinguisher we check it regularly. That’s the one thing that the state gets super hung up on. It’s great. I want to be safe from fires. It’s just really weird. That’s the one that they picked but everything else it says over the course of your education your child to be exposed to these topics. As an example, for secondary school in Pennsylvania, it says that to graduate your child will have had education that includes things like algebra, geometry, social studies, whatever. It does not say, your child needs to complete a year textbook of algebra. It just says your education should include that in some way. And so, what we did was just as an example of this we put together what we called tips of algebra. And it was not that I made a lesson plan I was like, “Oh, we’re going to learn the concepts of algebra.” It was that I was like you know this is going to be a thing. I know there are places where we use algebra every day. We go to the grocery store price per unit of algebra right. It would cost this for six rolls of toilet paper plus this for 10 rolls of toilet paper, which is the better deal. Algebra is what that is. And so, trying to put those things together and say OK I know I’m supposed to be paying attention for this. How can I put these things together and write something in a transcript, put something in a portfolio that is going to show people that Ash understands that concept?
And so that’s a big deal, knowing as the parent what’s expected. Looking for those things and not forcing them to happen because you don’t have to do that. There was nothing that we did where I was like, “Oh, I have to make something up.” In Pennsylvania a thing that happens a lot is that families are good at unschooling and then they get nervous at Portfolio time. They sit their kid down with a workbook like, “Quick do these six worksheets so you can put it in a portfolio.” That is not required. I have never had a problem with a portfolio. I did 7 of them. I never had a problem with a portfolio because I didn’t have math worksheet in it.
But people get nervous about. That and the thing I would say is pay attention to what you’re doing as you do it. I don’t think most people need to keep a daily log of “Today we learned this.” It can be really helpful for you, especially at first, to do that because you start to see those things add up in your column. I actually really did learn a lot today but usually what I did is look over the course of a week that kind of like in the back of my mind would think about the interesting things that happen this week. Did we take a big trip? Go down a particularly long rabbit trail? And I just sort of try to keep it my head, I had a planner actually and I would just write a couple notes on the calendar part of the planner. At the end of the month I would go back over that page and say, here are some of the themes. Then at the end of the year I could take those, I’m really quick and I could whip out a portfolio in like three hours. It was not a big deal and a lot of it too is like pictures, descriptions and stuff that was also produced product that was already generated.
So, Ash was very involved in 4H and in 4H, one of the requirements is that when you submit a project you have to write what’s called a project story. It’s basically a report, write 6 paragraphs about what you did. I was like, “Here we go, it’s going in the writing portfolio because you wrote it.” So, to take those things that happen and putting them in places and saying, “OK this is how it comes together.” The other thing I will say and this is really specific to Pennsylvania. But any place like Pennsylvania that has in-person evaluation or someone who sits down and talks to your kid, if you have a say in who that person is, which in Pennsylvania you pick any licensed evaluator, if you find a person who understands what you’re doing, you will not have problems with that.
So, we were very lucky, we found a woman who is an unschooler herself. She’s also a certified teacher and she does evaluations, it was no big deal. She totally got what we were doing, we weren’t fooling her or tricking her or trying to make ourselves look like something we weren’t. We were doing our own stuff and saying, “Here’s a way to look at what we’ve done and we can talk to you and tell you more about some things.” And she talked talk to Ashar and was like, “Oh my gosh, you’re doing all this stuff, that’s awesome. You acted in the Shakespeare play, you memorize the Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.” So, I thought it was cool that she would see these things that Ashar’s doing and saw them for the value that they had.
So, that’s kind of the thing about if you live in a highly regulated state if you know the law, if you find the places within the law where you have flexibility, that’s what matters. That’s how you make that work. And I will say you do the work because especially and Ash got older I tried to put some of the work on him too. Pennsylvania asks to you log the books you’ve read, and I was like, “Hey Ash, if you’re reading a book tell me about it.” It’s really part of your role to try to get that overview of it in your head, think about what they’re learning, think about what they’ve been doing. And that’s your chance to be purposeful to and to be connected. If a week could go by in my planner and I couldn’t write down things we did or rabbit trails we went down, I looked at that as, “Did I spend enough time connected with my kid?” Or was this kind of a week where everybody’s just off doing their own thing. Because I guarantee he learned something this week but I also guarantee that I wasn’t involved.
And again, as he got older there’s a little bit of a different paradigm. As he got older and that was really a big thing in middle school for us. And as he got older it was, “Did I check in with him this week? Do I know what he’s doing? Is there stuff that we can be doing together?” So, there are ways you can look at that kind of use it to your advantage or to look at it and say, “What can I learn from this?” You really, really can.
And I’ll say too, I think one of the other things that you said that you wanted to talk about was you know with teens and young adults. If there’s pressure to say you need to learn more traditionally? The thing I would say about that is there’s a lot of pressure to be able to convey what you’ve learned in the way people expect to hear it. That’s just transcriptase. Putting together something that is like Shakespearean history, Shakespearean history was Ash got involved in a bunch of Shakespeare plays with reading stuff and the directors were talking about why people were doing things in the culture of the time. I didn’t give him a textbook or give him a lecture or whatever. But you put those things down and you think everybody had to have Shakespeare in high school around here anyway. Ash has a better grasp on it than most high school students I know. He was doing it. He wasn’t just reading it. He was out there acting. He was using the original language. He was understanding, what does that word mean in the original language. Why is that phrase the way that it is? He didn’t write an essay about Shakespeare. He didn’t compare and contrast it with Juliet and the Merchant of Venice or something like that, but he gained an understanding of it.
My job there was to come up with a way in a transcript sense to say, he absolutely has the background and grounding in this. That a college would want to see he knows the things. And so, I have never seen a college ask for a copy of a report you wrote about William Shakespeare. You may go into freshman English one on one in college and be expected to be familiar with Shakespeare, to understand he wrote tragedies and comedies and histories, to know a couple of quotes from Shakespeare. That’s the expectation right. They’re not going to ask you to produce the term paper you wrote in high school for your Shakespeare study.
So, finding ways to convey those things and to assure people, this student knows what they need to know in this area. And again, work to the strengths because just as an example—we were really, really heavy in history and science classes and really, really light in math. We met the state standards for math. That was it, bare minimum. And a lot of that came from personal finance type math. But so, when you start looking at those things you think OK. But again, this kid is applying to college. What are they applying for? Are they applying for an engineering degree or are they applying for something like theater production? If they’re applying for theater production the fact that there’s 10 credits of theater performance. That’s great. You know what I mean, that’s not a bad thing.
You do want to be realistic and you want to say okay what does this person actually spending their time on? Yes, I think people have this misconception of wanting especially your teens to be well-rounded. And I would say, most adults are not well-rounded. I think as an adult you move into the things that you’re interested in and some people, I think some people are pretty well-rounded. I think people work towards that in a lot of cases. Obviously, you have these things again and where you’re like I’m really kind of focused over here and I’m not following politics super closely or world events but I’m really involved in my community or I’m a really good reader. But I totally don’t get any of the movie quotes, I’ve never seen Game of Thrones. I’ve no idea what people are talking about. I just have nothing on this. So, I’m not really rounded I guess, I can’t compete in that space. People are talking me and I’m like a search me.
But that’s okay for kids too. They need to meet the basics. Basically, I would like that every adult to be able to balance a checkbook. Not actually true but I would like that as a basic that every person has. But I don’t need everybody to be able to do algebra. I don’t need my veterinarian to be able to also bake a perfect three-layer cake. You’ve got to find those things and just work to those. And I think I would say too, you have to help. So, like I said we write the transcript or whatever you need to build to convey those things. You need to be able to help your kids be able to sell themselves too because when you talk about things like job interviews, when you talk about things like college applications, things like that, if that’s a direction your kids want to go. We talk about things like if a kid is entrepreneurial and wants to run their own business and they need to talk with clients, they have a retail job or they need help with customers, they need to figure out how to present themselves and what they know in a way that is that makes them look good. That makes them look like they have the skills they need.
And I’ll just give you an example of those, Ash is in the process of trying to get a job, his first job and one of the things that he is looking at is we have a nursing home in our neighborhood. And Ash spent a lot of time taking care of my mother when she lived with us. She needed some care. He did a lot of that. When he realized that can be a job said “But I didn’t go to school for this. I don’t have a personal care assistant training.” And I said, “No, but you need to convey to them why is this important to you.” Because I took care of my elderly grandmother and he wrote this on his application. “I took care of my elderly grandmother and I really appreciated being able to help and to hear her stories of her life and to really recognize who she was.” That’s what you’ve got to do. That’s how you sell yourself on that job. It’s not the degree you have or your diploma or anything. It’s understanding, “OK, what’s my life experience and how do I convince somebody that I’m a good fit for this?” And so that’s really what when you have older teens with unschooling, I really like that idea of focusing on what are your strengths, what do you think you want to do?
And some of it’s being realistic too. If you have a kid who knows they want to go to school for a science heavy thing and they need lab sciences, you can’t make that up. You need to figure out OK, if you want to do that, work with this kid. How are you going to get a lab science credit in high school so that you can enter college and do what you want? Or maybe you put none it. You absolutely can go to community college for two years after you graduate from high school and get those credits and then transfer into the university that you want. If that’s what you want to do and it’s showing them those options and saying this is available to you. I’m not going to make you do this. I’m not going to make you go to college. I’m not going to make you study a particular thing. You tell me where do you see yourself? Where do you want to go? And I can help you help you figure out what the options are to get there. And so that’s what we talk about.
You know there’s pressure, I think, with older kids to sort of nudge them toward something. Oh, you really should go take a class on this or whatever. You can put that forward as an option. I think that’s totally legit in unschooling. You know I’m not an unschooling expert but to me that’s a legit option to offer. There has to be a choice, you can’t be like “Well, you have to do this because you said you want this to be.” Maybe it’s a decision you can basically say, “You know, I said I wanted to be an engineer. I actually don’t want to go take that physics class. So, maybe I don’t want to be an engineer.” And I’m not saying let them, you know you throw everything out every time something is a little difficult or hard but if it gets to a point where they are saying, “I just really hate this,” hear that.
One of my sisters started cosmetology school. She thought that was really what she wanted to do with her life and she went all the way through. And then she ended up, you had to do so many live haircuts or whatever in front of your instructor and she got a really grouchy old man who’s hair she had to cut and she cried and cried and she was like, “That’s it. I can’t do this. This is not the job for me because if I ever have to feel like that, I’m going to be miserable.” And so, it’s kind of working with kids and saying ‘Hey, if you really want to do this job, can you put up with the stuff that sucks? Keep up with the stuff it’s hard?” It’s teaching them how to deal with hard things when they come up. It’s also like, “You know what, is that really what you want to do?” If that’s such a trade off or is it just, I know I want to do this. And so, I know I’m going to have to take physics at community college and I’m really not sure how I’m going to do it because I haven’t had a lot of formal math. But how can we make that work? What can I do? How can I prepare for that? So that’s really kind of where I’m at with most documentation and kids and older teens is there’s some work on you. There’s some work on the part of your kids and it really comes down to, “Can you sell yourself for where you want to end up?”
PAM: Yeah, I love that piece because it is all about the context and understanding the environment that you’re going into. And I think because we’ve been doing that with our kids as they’re growing up, when we’re unschooling with them, we’re having all these conversations about context. When we go any place, we’re talking about the place and if there’s any expectations there or you know how other people know what other people’s expectations are etc.
Even just going into the science center or going 4H or going to wherever. So, that it’s not an out of the blue conversation to say hey you’re going for a job interview, this is what that environment is going to be like. This is the kind of expectations, the things they are going to be looking for. Hey, this is how you can frame what you’ve done so that it meets what they’re looking for. Like we’ve been having those conversations so many times. Right? It’s just a different context.
JOAN: Right. Exactly that.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so cool. I love that. And again, I love that piece too when you’re talking about generalists and people who follow interests. I think that a lot of that is really a personal thing. Personalities, like some people have lots of interests and they like to spend time doing a bunch of different things and some people like to focus and really dive extra deep into one thing. So yes, let them discover that about themselves rather than trying and say, “OK, you’re getting older and we need you to do X”. And then worrying like, “Oh they did this and this and this.” Because if they’re deep to an interest or two it’s likely that any work or job or whatever they’d like to move into, it’s going to be related too, it’s not going to be a 90-degree change without any kind of warning.
So, there’s not a real downside to letting them continue learning and engaging with the world the way they already do it just because they’re getting a bit older. Yeah. Okay. Our last question Joan.
What has surprised you most so far about how unschooling has unfolded in your lives?
JOAN: All the things that I learned that I had never known before. So that’s learning about unschooling obviously and unpacking some things and my personal philosophy but I was not a history lover. History was not my thing. I don’t care, can’t follow the dates but Ashar’s really into history. That’s one of his big areas and world cultures and things like that. And he helped me learn that history is not dates and places, it’s people. It’s not people like, here’s Napoleon. It’s people like, what was life like during the French Revolution? Why were people upset? What did they want? Where were they as a culture? In that context, I love people, I love telling stories and so when I learned that history could be stories, that history could be so much more. I love medicine. I have my Masters in Public Health like I said I’m the kind of person who picks up books about nasty viruses and reads them at breakfast and is talking about this person who is bleeding from eyeballs and I’m eating my cereal. That’s what I love.
It never occurred to me, I’m reading histories of when diseases were discovered whether it was smallpox way back when or Ebola. It never occurred to me that that was history or that it counted. You know what I mean. There was, “I hate history.” And so, I sort of changed how I framed that to people because I never did well in history in school. But actually, turns out I really like history. I just like it in this different way that I didn’t know was a thing. And I learned that totally because of Ash because he says that because he had never had to have that experience of high school history where you go through a book from America from seventeen hundred to present and you turn your way through all the dates and it’s like no I don’t know. I still can’t tell you much about the reconstruction after the Civil War. Just no. That’s not where I am but I do understand context a lot better, I think. And I have at least a good, decent bird’s eye view.
That was the funniest thing, when we started homeschooling when Dan and I got together, Dan was a history major and something came up and Dan said something about the Revolutionary War and Ashar was kind of like, “The north won.” And Dan just looked at us and he was like you are a big fat fail. And I was like it literally just never came up, we’d never talked about the American Revolution. I’m surprised that he pulled out that there was a war in the United States. The North won. Good for him. The worst part was I certainly knew that wasn’t true but it didn’t immediately occur to me when Ash said that to be like, “Wait, no that’s not right.”.
You learn with your kids and all that stuff that. I never would have known if it hadn’t been for him doing that because certainly if he had gone through high school and was going through a textbook and writing assignments every night, I wouldn’t have been reading that with him, I wouldn’t have seen those things or I would have seen it as just more of the history I had been exposed to which is just boring old white guys, not my jam.
So, that’s kind of the most fun and the most exciting and honestly the most surprising because I think I thought of myself as a super well learned person. “Yeah, I know I have a good idea of everything.” And I’m like, “No, you have no idea what you don’t know.” So, it was fun.
PAM: I know I love that because it was definitely surprising and so fun.
I had no clue how many cool things I would learn through my children. Through their interests and seeing them in action. It completely changed how I think of learning. You come to see that you have lots of judgments about the things. Not only that we’re good at and that we like or like these things there aren’t worthy because we don’t like them, yet they’re not worthy to us but then we see our kids finding and really enjoying so many different things and then we get a taste of them it’s like, ‘Oh wow, that’s so cool isn’t it?”
JOAN: Yeah exactly.
PAM: Well, thank you so much Joan for taking the time to speak to me today I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.
JOAN: You’re welcome. Thank you for letting me ramble on.
PAM: It was it was wonderful. And before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
JOAN: So, if you go to unschoolrules.com that’s our family’s Web site.
It’s not updated super much anymore like I said because Ashar has officially graduated we haven’t done as much but my hope is actually to get back into that a little bit to show people that unschooling doesn’t randomly stop at 18.
We’re still living, our life is not different than it was the day before he graduated by state law. So, we kind of want to talk about some of those things. We do want to talk about some things around unschooling and gender because that’s kind of a newer public conversation for us even though it’s been in our family for ages. So, we want to talk about some of those issues there.
But the other thing there is I have things like copies of the transcript that we did through high school for Ash. I have a big look at homeschooling in Pennsylvania in particular and what that looks like for documentation. I have a big series on real world math, I have a big series on unschooling and video games. And I think especially for people who are coming out of the public school system or coming out of another homeschooling philosophy. Some of those things can be helpful because they really are kind of like a first person look at our journey into, “Okay how do we decide that there was value in video games? And kind of walks through our thought process. So, hopefully people will find that exciting. And you’ll also find me on Facebook Joan Concilio.
You can look for the green hair and you’ll know it’s me. It was you know that’s a good way to connect with me. At Linked In and obviously people can just email me. Joan@unschoolrules.com. So that’s another way.
PAM: That’s awesome. Well yeah. And I will say I love your website. I spent ages diving around in there. I don’t even live anywhere near Pennsylvania. But it was fascinating really, really cool. All right. Have a lovely day. Thanks so much again.
JOAN: You too. Thanks Pam.