Thursday, September 30, 2010

School = Life

I think it's natural for us, as people, to always try to put experiences in neat little labeled boxes that can be stacked on the shelf to be referred to later.

Such is with our schooling experience. As unschoolers, we're always challenged to come up with a few words that describe what it is that we do, and always, I'm left foundering at my attempts to define, concisely, our experiences, because it's not concise and simple and an A + B = C kind of simplistic message. Our unschooling is the whole breadth of our experiences as human beings on this plane of existence. It's not just about education. It's our life, and we don't compartmentalize our experiences as "this is school" and "this is *not* school." It's all school, and none of it is.

My girls are taking a French class at a local, not-for-profit educational facility. Our choice of language was either French or German, and we limited it to one of the two, because those are the two that Deus Ex Machina and I can already speak a little of, which means that we would be able to bring the language home and reinforce the lessons they learn in the class. *Note: later in life, if our girls are interested in exploring other languages, they can on their own, but the idea is to give them a foundation on which to build.

Their teacher, Madame Caroline, is a native French speaker. She's originally from Quebec, but has also been to France. It is so amazing to hear French spoken by someone who learned to speak it as a way of communicating and not simply as a vocational choice. I love how she can switch, effortlessly, from English to French and back, so that the children hear her say the words in both languages. It seems a more natural way to acquire a language, than by doing rote exercises on a page.

But even more, it's incredible to learn French, and not just the language, but also the cultural why's from someone who knows the culture, because she lived it, and not simply because she read about it in a book (the way I have).

Today, we visited a locally-owned specialty foods shop to learn about cheese ... er, fromage ... et j'aime la fromage, tres beaucoup!. Mme. Caroline suggested this particular store, because they have a "cheese cave", a temperature controlled room where the cheese is aged until it is ready to eat, which is very much the way it's done in France. For me, the best part was that most of the cheese they sell in this shop is from our region (New England). Local cheese sold in a locally owned shop? Win=WIN!

What an amazing experience! Mme. Caroline talked about eating fresh food. She talked about how the French patronize local establishments and build a rapport with the vendors, and the relationship between the customer (not "consumer" as we are here in the United States) and the seller becomes symbiotic - they get to know each other. My girls smiled in recognition, because that's what we've done with many of the places we spend time - like the Farmer's Market and our local library. They know us, and it feels nice.

Listening to her was fun, for me, because I heard so many of my own words coming out of her mouth. It was nice to have someone else tell my children what I have been droning on and on about, ad nauseum, so that they know it's real and good information, and not just some crazy idea dreamed up by their radical Mama to keep them from being able to enjoy the kinds of foods most of their peers get to enjoy.

The Europeans do not eat high fructose corn syrup (it's illegal in some countries). Raw milk and raw cheese are the norm, and pasteurization is unusual. She mentioned that cheese is eaten at the end of a meal to aid in digestion (who knew?). She also said, and this is a very important point, especially for Americans, most European countries do not have problems with obesity, diet-related illnesses, and diet-related allergies.

Some unschoolers claim that anyone who takes classes can not call themselves "unschoolers", because the whole point of unschooling is that it be "child-led." I think defining unschooling as simply child-led is too narrow a definition. Additionally, my children didn't really request the French classes. I saw the classes as an opportunity to expand our horizons. I mean, face it, here in Maine, with the exception of the summer tourist season, our lives are pretty sheltered.

French class, music lessons, dance class, Life of Fred ... these are things that are a part of our lives - things we do as a family that are fun and important to us, and not just things we do as education, which is what is "unschooling."

It's life, lived and in which learning takes place, because that's what humans do - they learn.

And, occasionally, we get to eat some amazing fromage on baguettes while we chat about French culture, which makes life good indeed, 'cause there's nothing bad about sitting in a quaint little shop, munching on yummy cheese and chatting about life.


  1. Great idea! Keep up the French. The French I learned in the 3rd Grade, I still remember. The French I "tried" to learn in High School, I don't remember any of it.

  2. It all sounds great! I would like to say that I know my opinion is not terribly popular in some unschooler circles, but I do believe that some learning should be parent led, with child input. I think we do our children a disservice when we do not help guide them to learn things they will need to get into college (for example) or just to be well-rounded academically.

    I think it is good to strike a nice balance between some child-led learning and parent-guided-with-child-input learning. I also believe that there's nothing wrong with taking classes (even in public schools!). I like to think that unschooling is more about a state of mind that says that you are not following the cookie-cutter education format of "mainstream" kids. Your child's education is unique to them, with the flexibility to use real books, real experiences, home curriculum and classes in combination or as needed/desired to fascilitate the child's full learning experiences.

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Felicitations, mon amie, vos filles sont enrichies par votre passion.

    Love from a bilingual Irma.

  4. I can't see how those entirely opposed to classes of any kind would manage to expose their children in meaningful ways to various subjects - unless they could afford to spend a lot of money and travel. Pottery? You need a kiln, and a wheel sure is useful. So lots of money, or a class. Languages? You need a competent instructor or immersion - plus some sustained effort over a period of time. That's either travel or a structured class, unless the child happens to be born to parents with more than one language between them. I suppose apprenticeships could work for many skills, but classes allow a a child to survey many subjects before entering a commitment so formal as an apprentice-master relationship, if you could even find one of those these days.

  5. I have stepped away from the term unschooling for exactly the reason you suggest- that many people try and define it in too narrow a way or try and suggest they are better unschoolers because everything their child does is child-led. I prefer the term natural learning, which allows a child to learn in the way best suited for them and is very different for each person. We are all natural learners...learning every day as we go through life. Sometimes we choose to take a class to learn, other times we choose to read a book to discover something new.

  6. Darcy - I like that - "natural learner", and you're right. We're all natural learners.

    Kate - I agree. We tried for years to learn a bit of French and a bit of German, but since I'm not fluent in either, it was just too easy to switch back to English and just say what I needed them to know. Now, though, since they're studying French with a teacher, it's easy for me to reinforce what they're learning by speaking to them in the little bit of French that I know.

    And Graffiti - I'm amazed (and very pleased) at how easily I'm able to recall the French I learned in college. I was just shy of a French minor, and if I had had someone with whom to practice at home, I think I could have been (mostly) fluent by the time I graduated. In fact, the other day, at the cheese store, a man was chatting with the girls' teacher, and he asked where we were from, and I said, J'habite .... It was very cool that it just came back.