Making it Real

He looks great in clothes, but has no interest in modeling. He loves costuming and has an enormous imagination, but has no interest in acting. The characters and costumes give him opportunities to explore both aspects of himself he is discovering (style, humor, depth, ego), and traits he wishes he had more of, but doesn’t naturally feel (confidence, mysteriousness, strength). As lifeschoolers we tap into things like storylines, character development, personalities, motivation and storytelling.  When he was little, going out into the world as a firefighter, an FBI agent or a super-soldier was no big deal. It was child’s-play.  But as a young teen, there is less understanding of that continued need/desire. So?

Well,  I play with photography. I can costume.  I was an actress for an earlier portion of my life. So how could I provide an outlet for him where I could benefit too?

Enter: the TV/Movie project. We decided to embark on a photography project where I’d get practice, and he’d get to don cool clothes and costumes in the real world. Taking his favorite characters from TV, movies, and video games, we head out into the world for some reenactment photo shoots. The characters are the thing, and he’d live in many of them all the time if he could, so this is the closest we can come. For one afternoon he’s a con-man/art forger, another he’s the Dark Knight, another maybe a comic book agent/protector of Inhumans, or maybe a video game techno-vigilante, or ancient assassin….as long as we can find the gear, he can be the person. At least for a little while.

And together we learn a bit (what makes a con man?  how do you pick a lock? how much does Batman’s gear cost? how often do cyber attacks occur across the world?), live in our imaginations for a while, have a little fun and, hopefully, make some really cool memories.

Where will it lead? I don’t know. But I don’t know that about most things and it doesn’t matter. The images speak to the worth of the project, and the fun that he has. That’s enough. You can see the ongoing projects HERE.

*note: if you want to get updates on this project and other photos, just subscribe to the site on the homepage!

Yay! This is the way it’s supposed to work!

A friend sent me a message today — a proud mama, she called herself, as her son tested into community college, and tested in the 91st percentile. That’s a “yay” in anyone’s book, but it’s a little sweeter in this one.

This is a family who has homeschooled from the beginning, embracing what is called “unschooling”, which is an acknowledgement that life, itself, is a teacher and that a child’s natural curiosity — if fostered, embraced and facilitated — will inevitably lead to learning. There is often little-to-no formal classwork, but rather, learning happens during the course of life — astrophysics and philosophy are explored and discussed after watching Interstellar, or social constructs and morality and race are investigated and questioned after watching the news. Numbers are learned because someone wants to buy some video games and needs to figure out how long it will take to save, and which merchant has the better deal, and what about shipping?

It lets a child embrace their childhood and live in it for as long as they feel the desire to, and to chase the passions that arise for them naturally…from Lego, to hula-hooping, to archaeology and art. It is not thrust upon them, but rather, the adults in their lives remain open to their inquiries, their musings, and facilitate their exploration as deeply as the child wants to go.

It usually means these kids come to some ‘traditional’ knowledge ‘late’ whether it’s writing, math, reading (lots of quotes used here, but it’s because these terms/mile-markers are constructs that are created to serve a system and needed for that system to run. They are not necessarily natural timetables for each individual). But other forms of knowledge tend to form very early — theoretical, social, philosophical. And we, as their facilitators must trust in their process.

So — this particular young man, for instance, experienced in his early teens, being in a group who knew well division and other math concepts and facts. He had no idea yet. He hadn’t covered it. It hadn’t presented itself as necessary in any meaningful way. So he couldn’t do it. This would be shocking and deemed a failure in traditional education. But, we aren’t talking about traditional education.

He was busy being a kid, still, making friends, creating stuff, hanging out, sleeping in, doing nothing, doing everything and generally just becoming who he would be. When the day came that he started to have an idea of a direction he’d like to go, things he’d like to do, what came with that was realizing there were things he’d need to learn in order to move forward. So what did he do? He learned them. Never having taken tests, never having sat in a math class, or a grammar class, etc., he took it upon himself to find what he needed and learn  it.

And what happened? He did it. He did it well enough to take an entrance exam (first real test, ever) and score in the 91st percentile (and able to skip the basic math requirement). So yeah, that’s a “Yay!” For him and his mom. He got to have his childhood, to have it as he wanted it for as long as he wanted it (as did his mom!) and now is getting to pursue the things he’s decided he loves. He didn’t suffer for any of it. He didn’t lose out because he didn’t spend twelve years in classrooms.

That’s why we make this choice. Because it can work. Because when kids are allowed to be kids, to have their gaming, their sleep, their passions, their joys, their choices, their pursuits — when the time comes to get something done because of something they truly want — they do it. Because they want to. Not because the have to. It is their choice. From their passions and their bliss. It can happen.

And that is how it’s done.


What Engaged Hackschool Learning Looks Like

Lex embarked on a mega LEGO design/build challenge recently. Something he’s been planning for a while now, but didn’t feel capable of undertaking. It’s the build we’ve been asked to chronicle on a LEGO engineering website. It made me think about unschooling and learning, and what it all means.

People often fear their kids will not take ownership of their learning when they choose homeschooling. Especially if they are interested in unschooling, the most child-directed, child/interest-led approach there is. There is an enormous amount of trust involved, and — I admit — I sometimes waffle on my ability to fully surrender to it. But this project is proving a perfect example of what can happen.

Since this began, Lex has taken the lead in every way, including ensuring he has time to work on it. It struck me this morning when he got up and went right to his laptop (where I found him when I went to see if he was, in fact, awake) and was looking up videos of the various types of cranes that are like what he’s aiming to build. Leaving him to it, I heard the tell-tale sign of LEGO bricks being shoved around bins, meaning he was busy at the process of building. Over an hour went by with him up in his room, sifting, moving bins, the wheels of his desk chair rolling from closet to table and back again. All signs of a focused, engaged creator.


Shortly after I got called, “Mooom…can you come up here?” There’s a particular timber in his voice that I can now identify as a, “I just did something really cool, although I’m not sure it’s stable yet so you can you come look now?”, and that’s what I heard this morning. So whenever I can, I stop what I’m doing to go see (exhibiting a genuine interest in what he’s doing is key to continuing to encourage his excitement in it). He had, indeed, made progress, while identifying what therefore needed adjustment, as well as a piece that he needed me to order (which sent me to ebay afterward). After that, he asked me to leave him again so he could continue working. It’s now been two hours since he woke and started, and there’s no sign of stopping yet.

This is what engaged learning looks like. When a child is able to use his interests to explore the world, when he is allowed to have interests, and delve into them deeply, things can, and will come out of it. He will be involved, invested, focused and even excited to spend hours, days, months immersed in the project, and therefore in learning. The hard part is the fact that you cannot predict ahead of time what it will look like, or what learning will come from it. There’s no pre-planning and a rubric to measure with afterward. That’s where the trust comes in. But he’s proven it again and again — whether it was his sudden infatuation with WWII, or sports cars, or rescue and military vehicles; if it was his interest, an enormous amount of varied learning happened. And the number of times LEGO was a tool and facilitator I cannot begin to count. But there’s some pretty cool proof lining his shelves (all his own designs/builds).

It happens, and this is what it looks like — it just takes some trust, and, admittedly, time and attention from me. But it’s all worth it when he continues to experience that learning and discovery can not only be fun, but can be his.  He can own it, drive it, internalize it. Not because I put something in front of him, but because he did. It’s his. That makes all the difference.

Expose the Spark

One of the things that many homeschool parents seem to share is the occasional worry that they aren’t providing enough opportunities for their kids. What schools have that we don’t is finances and enormous resources. So when you hear about a public school kid playing with 3-D printers or doing fake broadcasts in a t.v. studio sometimes you wonder if you should be seeking out more. (More — always more. It can become an obsession!) Are you exposing them to enough? How do kids know they aren’t interested unless they try it?

But along with 3D printing, we’ve also never played with welding (such as mechanics’ kids might be), blacksmithing or animal husbandry (such as self-sufficient farmers’ kids might be), and a long litany of things other homeschoolers do. Our son had also never tried his hand at EMT work at the age of 8 when he declared, nevertheless, that it was what he wanted to be when he grew up. He’s almost 13 now and that passion has never wavered.

He loved trucks of all kinds as a toddler. Especially emergency vehicles. That stayed and grew as he did. Finding out what firefighters and EMTs do further excited him (not experiencing what they do, mind you, just being told what they do). So we read books. We watched videos. We did, then — as his interest was clearly fierce — visit stations, meet firefighters and paramedics who showed him all the equipment and how it worked — and on, and on, and on.

So I suddenly realized; he’d also seen blacksmiths at historical sites, played with robotics via Lego, seen videos of what 3D printers could do, visited farms and watched videos of animals being born, been taken to the exam room at our veterinarian’s office when he expressed curiosity, been to plays, watched movies, seen beautiful art (and tried his hand at it) seen demos of Tesla coils and built his own circuits — all the same kind of exposure he had to ambulances and firetrucks — but has shown no interest in learning 3D printing, or robotics, or vet medicine, or farming, or blacksmithing, or painting, or acting. Maybe he’s had all the right exposure to things we are able to expose him to, and no one anywhere is able to expose their kids to everything. No one he knows in school has had the access he’s had to EMTs/Paramedics and their work. Maybe one of them would be interested if they had. They may never know. Just as we may never know if he’d love flying jets because he’s never done it (although he’s sat in cockpits and watched no end of videos about them and never asked to do more).

And then I got it — I had never, ever been exposed in my youth to any kind of craftsman work. I grew up in an artistic family of writers, poets, theatre people. I lived inside theaters and rehearsal halls. And that’s the direction I went. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered how much I enjoyed wood working. But — not because I went to a workshop and did it. Not because someone took me somewhere and let me try it. But because I saw things in photos, watched some videos, the kid wanted a fort/treehouse and books suggested it wasn’t hard to do. So after looking at all those videos and books (things our son has done for numerous skills/jobs/interests) I got sparked and energized by the idea, knew it was something that would interest me, which prompted me to go do it. I’ve also watched lots of videos and met people who: knit, paint, work in law enforcement, etc. but have not been inspired to learn any of it on my own.

So in the end it seems that maybe it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t get hands-on in everything. Maybe that isn’t actually necessary to spark or determine interest. If we go by his passion for EMT work it would suggest that if the interest is there inside it’ll get sparked by the simplest exposure. They key is that spark sometimes is faint and you have to be paying attention so you can jump on it and increase the exposure to something more personal and direct. But the need to be exposed to all things as personally and directly? To actually experience something in order to know if you want to, well, experience it and learn more? Maybe not.

Just a thought. Because we have tried providing him with other things as well for him to actually tinker with, play with, people to talk to, hang out with — but so far nothing as prompted the passion of that first ambulance flying by with sirens and lights on. And he didn’t have to be inside, or with the people inside it, or holding a bandage or pushing a stretcher to have the fire lit inside him at eight years old.

So maybe I’ll stop worrying now. And maybe you can to. Maybe it’s not that you need to provide exposure to ignite a spark. Maybe you need to keep an eye out for what exposes the spark already there. They let you know when it happens. Just gotta pay attention.

Can’t get the kid off Minecraft (and why I don’t care)

A recent status update of mine on Facebook went like this: “Hello, My name is Melissa – and I’m a Minecraft addict”.  I’m a soon-to-be 52 year old mom to a super awesome 12 year old son. He discovered Minecraft maybe two years ago and I cannot comprehend what he has learned in just two short years. Complaints of “I cannot get my kid off this game” are met by me with a “OMG why would you want to?! Do you know what they are taking in playing this game?”

Sure, it’s just a game, and can be played like a game. But with just a little input (and with many kids, no input at all) kids are suddenly, actually learning things. “Poppycock” you might say (or not because, well, who says that anymore?), but here’s the kicker: geology (yes, the ore is in layers just like in real life), architecture, art, navigation (have you seen the maps with waypoints?), electric circuits (via redstone), engineering, smelting, brewing, cooking, area, volume, spatial relations, technology…it’s astonishing. And that’s just on their own, never mind the folks that now offer official Minecraft-based classes. Heck, just trying to learn the game requires research, locating information resources, tutorials and tons and tons of trial and error. Oh, and let’s not forget the social aspect (because, you know, homeschoolers are hermits and never, ever get to socialize) as kids can get on servers, or just get together and open a LAN (what’s a LAN? Ask a Minecrafter. They’ll be happy to school you).

But the best part? It became a place for this mom and her son to come together to play, create, discover — for him to become teacher and she student. We have wasted — no, spent — no, shared — hours and hours finding new maps, new texture packs, building together,  going on adventures together in this strange dual-world-communing where we are together in the real world, across the dining room table as well as together in a virtual world. There’s proof in the picture below. That’s us, hanging out on the beach drinking coffee.  So let them play. Encourage them to. Then ask them about it, and listen to their answers. Then go play with them.


I could go on forever. I could write a book (and maybe I will). For now, though, I have to go. The game is waiting….

While We Weren’t Looking

Math is not our thing in homeschooling. Started poorly, turned into stress and anxiety, so we pulled back and left it alone a bit, tried to look at it in different ways. Today, many years into our homeschooling journey, I played a game with our almost-twelve-year old that is similar to Blokus. Played on a grid with a set of dice. Roll the dice and each number is the side of a rectangle you must draw. Then, however you choose to figure it out, write the area of the rectangle inside it. The game continues (following rules that are unimportant here) until no one can go. Then you add up the area of all your rectangles to find the winner. I handed him a pencil, assuming he’d need/want to write it out and use TouchMath to figure the sum. He waved me (and pencil) away, “Wait, let me do what I’m doing.” And he proceeded to take 24, 20 and 18, getting first 40, then 44, then 62, and so on, arriving at the answer using tens in groups. And he got the correct sum. Just. Like. That.

I was thinking of that this evening as I sat in our front yard, staring at a huge maple tree we had hung a rope from years ago from which we hang a canvas swing chair. I looked at the branch the rope was over, trying to remember how the hell we got it up there. I thought about how the last couple of years I’d gripe about how it was harder to reach the hook that the swing hangs from, and thought it must be because the rope gets wet, being out all year round, then shrinks when it dries, shortening it.

Then it hit me. Duh.

The tree grew.  Just. Like. That.

While we weren’t looking.

It grew.

Go figure.

It ain’t just about the airsoft —

Just bought the kid an airsoft pistol. Big deal, right? Lots of families own airsoft. Well, it’s kind of a big deal here for a bunch of reasons, as well as a year in the making. Getting here has been a learning experience that I am very grateful for.

Adults tend to think they’ve reached the apex of self-knowing, got it down, figured out, know what they think and feel about things and that’s that. They certainly don’t think a kid could open their eyes to much of anything. Well…

He first asked about airsoft a year ago and I admit my initial reaction was not welcoming of the idea. See, we’re a peacenik kind of family, not big on weapons, war, gun play.  We had given in to Nerf years ago, even then only after lengthy discussions with a very tolerant 7 year old about real vs. toys, safety even in play, the reality of actual guns — blah blah blah.

But airsoft is another animal. They look realistic. They can feel realistic. They shoot ammo that can hurt more than Nerf. It’s more of a weapon than Nerf. It’s just different. Obviously, I was not quite on board (but neither did I just put my foot down and say no. I simply hesitated.)

However, we’ve also been committed to treating our kid like a thinking, intelligent, reasoning individual with his own, independent feelings, thoughts and opinions.

So we started talking. REALLY talking. Not, “No I don’t like it and that’s that.” “But –”  “I said, no.”, but an actual dialogue. I’d express my concerns and issues, he’d listen. Then he’d respond and I’d listen. It might go something like this:
ME: “It just makes me nervous. I’m not a fan of guns. I’m not sure how I feel about you being interested in them. These aren’t Nerf. They are closer to the real thing. And the real thing is dangerous, not a toy and…”

HIM (keep in mind he’s not even 12): “I absolutely hear you and understand your concerns. Let me say that I really do understand the truth about real guns. That they aren’t toys, they are tools for certain people who need them. I know what they can do, and I know this is different from Nerf…”

And we’d go on, this child and I, back and forth with a most civilized and mature discussion. My issues, his answers to them. So compelling and thoughtful were his explanations that I began researching. I asked him to share what he’d been looking at and what he had learned about them. I asked him why he was so interested — what was fun about it? Why didn’t Nerf just fill this desire? We looked together, him having a chance to share his interest, have it heard with an open mind and without judgment for what it is — a hobby. A curiosity. A desire to feel what it is like to be the various people he is curious about (military, police, special forces, black ops) within a bubble of safety, to try his hand at a skill.

We’d still negotiate — target rifle as opposed to military automatic assault. Target shooting, not war games. And as the year went on I (actually, his father and both) learned the why’s, I learned the depth of his understanding and maturity, as well as his willingness to compromise and find middle ground between his perfect wishes and the limits our comfort zone.

Along the way I discovered a few things about both of us. One is that while others his age are dissolving into video games, or immersed in sports or games like Magic The Gathering or Catan, while he’ll do those things, he still retains a strong and vivid imaginary life, and is happiest when he is deep within an imaginary world, being an imaginary person, doing exciting, dangerous imaginary things. He will happily gear up, drape his fort in camo-netting, set up his Nerf rifles and run recon and skirmishes with neighborhood boys all day long. He’s sad when they want to shoot hoops, or go in for Xbox. He wants to imagine. He wants to be the hero, the good guy, the one who serves and protects — without ever being in any real danger.

It’s no different than cos-play, really. No different than actors who love making action movies.

But — and here’s the next discovery — what if he does grow up and decide he really does want to join up and be a soldier? What then? Huh. At first, my gut reaction is, “Um, yeah, no. No thank you.”  And in fact he, himself says he doesn’t want to be a soldier, or a cop. While he’s interested in the idea, the fact of the very real danger of those jobs makes him not interested. He’s more into Paramedics, he’d say.

However, I realized today that, well, what if he did??  What if he came up to us and said he realized that what would make him happiest, proudest, most content was to be a soldier?

What if?

Well, if he came up to us and said paramedic, surgeon, animal rescue, DPW worker (all things that he bandies about) we’d get behind him, thrilled he found a passion for his life.  So?

Yup. I’d spend some time throwing up (not because I hate soldiers or the military, but because I’m saddened that we need them at all and that anyone anywhere ever needs to risk their lives that way). Then I’d be sure he did his research, that he talked to people and found out the best and the worst of it. Then I’d probably throw up some more and eat a lot of chocolate (and maybe have a beer). Yes, I’d struggle with it. But in the end — I’d support him. It’s his life, after all. He needs to be happy in it. Whatever he finds his calling to be.

If he wants his hair long or shaved. Wants to wear all black or mixed plaids (he doesn’t, btw), wants to dig ditches or save the world — it’s his life. What we are doing is raising him to be free to find his passion, what he’s good at and loves. To be secure in exploring different things, experimenting what’s out there and finding his place.

In the end, though, I don’t actually see him going into a dangerous field. I just don’t. He might always be interested in guns and weapons, may always love target shooting, collecting, learning the history of them, whatever. I think right now he’s just a kid. He’s curious. He’s an explorer, an investigator and a child with a rich and deep imagination.

In treating him with respect, in acknowledging that he has his own independent thoughts and opinions and in encouraging him to find out as much as he can about the things he is interested in with our support and guidance, we gain a truer, deeper and more honest relationship with him. He learns we respect him as an individual, separate from us with his own value and values. And we learn — well, we still have so much to learn — and sometimes, it might even come from a child.