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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, September 27

Gapers Block

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We are all asked, all of our childhood lives, what we will be when we grow up. I never really settled on just one thing, so that question is hard enough to answer for myself, but when children are asked to answer it, the answers always seem so concrete: a marine biologist, a baseball player, a cashier. Some kids seem to grow up knowing what they want to be and where they want to head in life, and others, like myself, prefer to take it as it comes and make decisions, even great big important ones, on happenstance, coincidence and serendipity. Both ways seem to work, as far as I can tell.

We are "unschoolers." Unschooling is an educational philosophy best defined by each family, and within each family, each person. The nutshell is that you trust your children to learn, and are available to them to help them achieve their goals, that everyone is learning all of the time, that there is no season or hour of the day or place that defines learning. My intention is not to debate this decision, nor is it to either discourage or encourage others to do this; it is simply what our family has chosen to do, and what seems to be working quite well for all involved.

I've said it probably a thousand times over the course of the past six years, we are so lucky to be unschooling in Chicago. There are happy unschoolers all over the world in urban and rural environments who more than likely say the same thing about their necks of the woods, but of course I'm partial. Aside from having a large and diverse homeschooling community, there are a myriad of classes, workshops, resources and people with specialized interests who are generally very approachable about sharing their knowledge and time with interested kids, so much that if we had the time, money and inclination, we could take classes on anything we wanted — all day and all of the night.

Because of this choice that we've made, the question "what will you be when you grow up" has taken on a different meaning. One of the things that I've discovered is that our educational choice has allowed my kids to dive right into whatever it is that they want to do, without the waiting period.

If there is interest coming from a group of kids on a particular subject, the parents in my community join forces to create classes and experiences to further those interests. Over the years we've had an ongoing physics class, organized dodge ball, game clubs, book clubs, theater, Girl Scouts, Roots and Shoots, natural sciences classes, poetry writing, book-making, history clubs, several bands which have formed and disbanded, sewing classes... And plenty of playing, open-ended, uncontrolled playing. It has been through all of that playing that these interests were discovered, and it is through more playing that new ones will come to light. The playing field just keeps changing as they grow.

All of this trusting and leaping of faith eventually leads many unschooling parents to the hope that the kids will, at some point (hopefully sooner rather than later) get serious about something. The magic age seemed to be about 12 for a lot of people who've been through this with their now-grown kids. All of the amorphous reading and playing and drawing and exploring, taking a myriad of classes, and playing countless board, card and computer games will hopefully lead to something. Anything! It could be an interest in history, or cooking, or puppet making, or German choral singing, but you just want it to be something. Maybe it's just so when other people ask you what your kids are doing with their time you will be able to point to this one area of their life that they have chosen to direct their high beams and say things like "she's really focused on her ballet," or "he likes to take pond samples and test water quality, so we've invested in a high-powered microscope," but it's for more than that. It's even more important to me that the kids have a clear understanding that it is they themselves who must take responsibility for their lives.

They can choose what they want to study and how they choose to spend their time, and I am more than happy to facilitate that, whether it's by finding a class, or a particular book or computer program, excercises or just a fun method of learning something tedious. When a well developed sense of wonder and curiosity is respected and encouraged, the end result will, fingers crossed, be happy, self-motivated and productive adults.

One of our very favorite books is called The Wheel On The School, by Miendert Dejong. It's about of group of Dutch children in the early 1900s who begin to wonder about storks, mainly, why there are no storks nesting on the roofs of the buildings in their village. This simple question leads the children on an amazing journey of discovery about what they are capable of, their community is capable of, and about storks and seas and storms.

From the book:

Eelka thought awhile. "I'm like Lina, Teacher; I know little about storks. But if storks would come to Shora, then I think I would learn to know a lot about storks."

"Yes that is true," the teacher said. "But now what do you think would happen if we all began to think a lot about storks? School's almost out for today, but if, from now until tomorrow morning when you come back to school, you thought and thought about storks, do you think things would begin to happen?"

They all sat still and thought that over. Eelka raised his hand. "But I'm afraid I can't think much about storks when I don't know much about storks. I'd be through in a minute."

Everybody laughed, but the teacher's eyes weren't pleased. "True, true," he said. "That's right, Eelka. We can't think much when we don't know much. But we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school again, will you do that? Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don't come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the villages around? For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.

"If you'll do that — then school is out right now!"

This concept, of wondering why, or how, or whether, or not has taken the kids in my family and in our community a lot of places. One of the discoveries that we've made is that there is no point in underestimating what kids are capable of doing. There didn't seem to be any reason not to introduce the concepts of physics to a bunch of 7-year-olds, just as there didn't seem to be a good reason to withhold information about how the computer works from a 3-year-old. There was no point in stopping a 4-year-old from reading, or from allowing a 6-year-old to learn how to do a flip off of a trapeze. They take themselves seriously, and in turn, are taken seriously by adults who understand that when these kids want to take a class, it is not because they need to fill an hour or two of their day, it is because there is an underlying desire for the information and skills that they can obtain through the class.

Kids know what they want, and they will more often than not tell you or ask you. For example, I heard the phrase, "I want to take a bellydance class" from my daughter for quite a few months before we actually got around to figuring out where and when she could take one. Belly dance class is at 9:50am on a generally extremely busy Saturday morning, and off we go, no complaining, no lost dance bag, water bottle in hand. The three or four times she quit ballet after I kept insisting she give it another go was not, apparently, a clear enough signal that she didn't care for ballet. Karate is the same way for my son. I tried him out in all sorts of classes before he said he wanted to try karate. T-Ball (oh lordy), ceramics, swimming, and there was no way any of it was going to be happening. I took him to karate, at his request and he found his early life's calling. The vote is still out on the youngest. He says he wants to learn to play hockey. That seems fitting, and do-able, thanks to our friends at the Chicago Park District.

Last winter eight girls between the ages of 10 and 14 started into their third year of drama class, which has been a consistent favorite in our house and in our group. We've lucked into some really great drama teachers, Amy Eaton of Mudlark Theater and KellyAnn Corcoran. At the start of the session KellyAnn asked the girls what kind of play they wanted to work on, and the girls all agreed that they wanted to do something dark and intense, which led to a discussion of their favorite books. Someone suggested the book A Break With Charity, by Ann Rinaldi. Not one to ever underestimate what kids are capable of, KellyAnn set to work adapting the novel into a script, 45 pages of dense, character-heavy writing. They were all captured by the story, and set to work.

The girls rehearsed all spring, working towards a one-time performance in May. Everyone in the audience — all family — was fully prepared for a typically entertaining night of children's theater. There were two plays before A Break With Charity — the two sections of drama that KellyAnn taught for the younger kids each performed their peices as well. It wasn't that we had low expectations, as every performance by the kids in the three years prior had all been entertaining, and smart and well done, it's just that we weren't prepared for A Break With Charity.

The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. The characters are several young women in the town who are meeting with Tituba, a West Indian slave woman who tells fortunes and shows all of them, many for the first time, caring and attention. The main character, Suzanna English, is drawn to the village girls and to Tituba, and attempts to join their circle, but because she is not in the same class, she is shut out, and a chain of events is set into motion that we still mourn over today. That's the gist of the story, but also just the tip of the iceberg.

The performance was tight and astoundingly intense. Now, granted, I'm clearly no regular show-goer. I get out there, from time to time, relying mainly on luck to see what I see, but I know a thing or two about the dramatic arts, so I am not just saying it because it was my kid, even though I am fully aware that it absolutely seems like shameless adoration and parental pride. The end of the play had everyone in the audience stunned, slack jawed and silent.

After it was over, we all filed out of the theater and stared at one another, shaking our heads, and gave our daughters flowers.

Everyone connected to the play felt very strongly that this play needed to be seen again. Fortunately, the play was selected to be a part of the Rhinoceras Festival, and is currently in the middle of a six show run. By this column goes to press, there will be two remaining shows, on Saturday and Sunday the 29th and 30th, at 3pm at the Athenaeum Theater. If you download the Rhino Fest flyer and print it up and bring it to the show, tickets are two for $15.

The show is suitable for anyone old enough to sit and be able to take in a very intense play, my general recommendation is age 7 and up, but it depends on your kid. There is a lot of dialogue and subtle character changes, so I haven't brought my four year old, but my 8-year-old has been to see it, and is still digesting it after a second viewing. If you are reading The Crucible right now, with the rest of One Book One Chicago, or are planning to see the Steppenwolf production this fall, seeing A Break With Charity is a good way to round out the story.

One of the big worries is that by choosing to live the Unschooling life is that there is the possibility that we may be completely screwing up the kids. But I think it bears pointing out that that's a concern shared by everyone whose ever attempted to raise a kid, not just the subset of parents who've chosen to unschool their kids. So we all look for benchmarks. Are things progressing as planned? Are they floundering around lost, or are they finding a path to follow? Are they happy and curious and interested? If I consistently answered no to any of those questions, we would make immediate changes, but so far, so good. The kids I know well, particularly the older kids, schooled and unschooled, are really heading out there and finding themselves interested and exploring all sorts of things. Ballet, gymnastics, art, theater, writing, technology, sports, academics, spirituality, cultures — the same subjects and areas of study that humans have been wondering about and studying for millenia. I don't know what my kids will "be" or do as adults, anymore than anyone else does, but, based on my observations thus far, I believe that they will be pretty clear on what their directions are, and will set out, always wondering, ready and able to head off another way should they feel compelled to do so.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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