This week we are talking with Peggy Webb of West River Academy. We are talking about unschooling and eclectic homeschooling and what it all means for your family.
You can listen to the audio below or read on for the transcript of our conversation.
Carrie: You’re back with Carrie at Natural Moms Talk Radio. My guest this week is Peggy Webb, Director of the West River Academy. Hi, Peggy.
Peggy: Hi, Carrie. How are you? Thanks for having me today.
Carrie: Oh, I’m glad to talk with you. I was browsing your web site, and you have the most interesting thing going on. I’m not even sure how to describe it, but I’ll let you do that. We’re going to talk today about your philosophies and thoughts about unschooling, and how it fits into the over all homeschooling picture.
Peggy: Okay. I can start maybe by mapping out a homeschooling philosophy continuum, so that the listeners know where we are here.
Generally, when someone wants to homeschool, they think they’re going to do what schools did, except that they are going to do it at home. I’m going to by a curriculum, I’m going to sit my kids down at the table or the front desk, and we’re going to go through the various subject areas. I’m going to be the teacher and they’re going to be the students, and they’re going to do what I asked them to do. I’m going to grade them, and do the homework and so forth.
When people find out that there’s another way of doing it, it’s really very refreshing and liberating to a lot of people that are open to the idea. It’s not for everybody, because people come to this idea of allowing your children to have the freedom to participate in the decision about how they are going to be educated. They find it rather different, because most people have gone through a school system, and they’ve been told what to do.
This whole idea of being given a choice is a little bit scary for them. A lot of questions come up about are they going to succeed in life if they’re given so much freedom? I’m an adult, and I’ve got to make sure they learn this, that and the other thing so that they can be successful. It’s a whole different mind set, it’s a different paradigm.
But what you find on this spectrum is what we call school at home on one end, which is what I just described, and then on the other end is the opposite. It’s more of a bottom up rather than a top down. It’s actually engaging your children in a discussion, where you want to check to see what is their learning style? Do they learn better when they’re jumping on the trampoline reciting the multiplication facts, or when they’re sitting with a workbook and memorizing flash cards and that sort of thing? What is the learning style? What are your children’s goals? What do they want to accomplish with their life?
Some kids, at a very young age, know very clearly what they want to be when they grow up, and they never change that. You want to give them the honour and recognition that it is important that they are part of this decision.
Then, you sit down and work together with a child to decide what’s going to be studied, what the materials are, if it’s going to be hands on, if it’s going to be through travel and field trips, or a combination of book study possibly with apprenticeships or mentorships, group activities, co-op learning with other families, … There’s just so many things out there to explore. Your child is one of how many billion on the earth, and they are each different.
What happens with the school system is that there’s a mass educational technique, because when you have 30 kids and one teacher, you can only make them all do the same thing at the same time. So that model has been followed even right into the home. It’s something that at least needs to be looked at and questioned before deciding how you’re going to homeschool.
So, unschooling, then, is including the child instead of telling the child what to do.
You might say that school at home, the top down approach, is at one side of the spectrum, unschooling, or the bottom up approach is at the bottom end of the spectrum.
In the middle is what I would call an eclectic approach, sometimes a parent will make a contract with a child that says “I really need you to be doing some reading every day, and some math every day, and I need you to be spending at least an hour on things that I realy think are important for you. I realize that that’s the top down approach, but that’s where I am. This is what we need to be doing. However, with the rest of the day, let’s see what you want to be doing.”
So there’s a contract and a compromise, and they come together with a plan. It doesn’t’ mean that the plan is ground in stone, of course, it can be changed. I always recommend that you regroup as a family and sit down and say “How has this been working?” After a month or so, and then you can tweak it, change it, listen to what the child has to say. Get a lot of feedback. Take note, keep a journal. Have your child keep a journal. Then work together as a team and come up with something that you’re going to move into if that plan hasn’t been working.
That eclectic approach is what people generally either start off with, or in some cases end up with. What I am finding through the consultations that I do through my work as director of West River Academy since 1993, is that students and families are moving more in the direction of unschooling, because they start realizing that it’s not the monster that some people have described it to be, and there still is order in the home and mutual respect, parent to child and child to parent. The children aren’t running wild, just having control over everything that their younger maturities are not able to handle. Then it becomes more of an educational process than a parenting style.
C: A couple of things I want to touch on. First of all, early in your conversation, you mentioned the word scary. I applaud you for using that word, because I really pick up on a whole lot of that. I think we have this very pervasive idea in this culture that children have to be forced to learn. When anyone finds out that you have a leaning towards unschooling, they almost have this fear.
“Your child’s not going to stay where the other kids are, and how are they going to keep up with the other children?”
It’s so interesting, because just the other day this gentleman (who was a stranger to me), and he was in this 60s, he asked me “How do you know that your kids are keeping up with other kids their age?”
I responded to him respectfully, but I couldn’t help but think in my mind “I wonder how you know that you’re keeping up with other 60 year old men?”
P: And does it really matter?
C: Exactly. It was funny that he misspelled a word in this message to me, and I thought “Hmm, maybe you need to revisit your own education.”
P: That’s a really good point. We apply it to children, but you were brilliant in applying it to a 60 year old person. It’s ludicrous, it’s crazy, and yet we accept that craziness if it’s for a child who we believe to be immature, and not having wisdom in this world. Some children are so wise that they blow you away. Again, it’s that respect for the child.
We have to admit as parents that it is fear.
You just really nailed it. It really is a fear that they’re not going to be successful, and there’s a false responsibility of the parent that it’s my job to make sure that the student is successful in later life. If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, than he could fail.
But also to understand that we’re just temporary guardians of these children. They are their own person, and they come into the world with gifts and talents and abilities and all kinds of knowledge that they’ve brought in with them. Our job is just to nurture them, and guide them, and help to expose them to what is available in this lifetime, in this experience, in this world that they’ve come in to. It’s more like a guide, not a dictator.
This whole idea that if they’re not forced to learn, they won’t learn.
One of the greatest educational experts, John Holt, the founder of unschooling, he coined the term unschooling, has a famous quote that says “Birds fly, fish swim, and humans learn.” It is a natural thing for the human being.
Have you ever seen a young child not wanting to learn anything, that just wants to sit around looking at the ceiling every day, if they’re healthy beings? No. They want to emulate, they want to monkey their older brothers and sisters, they want to talk, and they want to walk.
Yet, if you think about when they take their first step, you don’t say “Oh, my gosh, he’s taken his first step now, we have to start walking lessons.” Or when he says Mama, “Oh, my gosh, he’s said a word. Now we have to start talking lessons.” When they learn to ride a two wheeler, we applaud, we clap, we say “yay “That’s great.” Not “Okay, now it’s time for advanced bicycling lessons.”
Yet, when they go into Kindergarden, we take it for granted that now it’s time for someone else to tell them what to do, and tell them how to learn their colors, and how to learn their ABCs, and of course they’re never going to learn how to read unless they’re in school, and in first grade. They can’t pick it up on their own. We start applying things that we have been taught, falsely, without questioning them, to our own children. Yet, it’s ludicrous. When you think about a baby, you don’t think of it that way.
I often give an analogy with how do you know your children are keeping up, or how do you know without testing that they’re really going to be with their piers? I think we’ve already debunked that they have to be with their piers. Do you want to do exactly what other 32 year olds are doing? No, you want to do what you want to do. That’s not even a concern.
But the whole idea of testing, I’ve used as an analogy, watching a carrot grow. You plant the seed, an you water the carrot, and maybe you give it some fertilizer, and eventually you’re going to see some little green leaves come to the top. You know that there’s something going on underneath the ground, but if you were to dig the carrot up every now and then to see what it’s doing, you’re not going to help the carrot grow, you’re going to hurt it.
If you can just trust, and that’s a big thing, you’ll find at my web site at the home page, we trust parents 100% that’s what’s necessary, to bring back, to empower parents, to be trusted, to be fully competent to work with their own children. The parent is going to see, by these little green leaves, that are healthy and thriving and getting bigger, you can just be sure that there’s a really healthy carrot growing underneath. You don’t have to test them all the time to find out. You don’t have to test them at all to find out, because you’re with them every day. Why would you give them a test?
When people ask you “Do you encourage testing?” No. “Do you discourage it?” Yes, because again, it’s designed for mass education where the teacher doesn’t know what all the 30 kids are doing, and thinks that the way he or she is going to find out is by giving them some kind of a test. It’s not for the children, it’s not for the parents, and it’s for the system.
C: For money and politics.
C: And budgets, and taxes, and funding and all that fun stuff that has nothing to do with education.
P: Yeah. We have to understand that it’s really designed so that the child will get used to being subjected to this, without any power to refuse.
Grow up, taking tests, going through the system, nodding his head yes, graduating from high school, going to college, graduating from college, continuing to nod his head, and submit to all these things, and then ultimately, he’s been trained to be a subservient tax payer with a job instead of an entrepreneur using creative ideas, maybe having some creative ideas that will allow him to pay less taxes.
It’s just part of that system, all based on fear. Fear of change, fear of allowing creativity to express itself.
C: It’s about sameness. John Taylor Gatto, I’m sure you’re familiar with his works and his books, “The Underground History of American Education” is the name of one of his books that I read recently. He talks about the insidious motives and purpose of schooling, and why compulsory schooling even came into existence, because of what you said. To create good little factory employees.
P: Automatons. Exactly. I think the unschooling movement, at least from maybe a generation ago, when I started 23 years ago, my oldest daughter is now 23, that was more of a movement of fiercely independent thinking individuals who did not want their children to grow up as John Taylor Gatto describes, to be these subservient automatons, that go about being cogs in the wheel. They wanted them to express their individuality and determine their life. Be creative entrepreneurs.
I think through the years, the schools have gotten this concept of unschooling, and are now offering it through the school system to keep these dollars flowing through the system. People are not as independent, as courageous. They sometimes want to be taught by an expert. “How do you homeschool? I want to homeschool my child, so what are you going to do for me?“ Instead of how it used to be in the early days, when John Holt was discussing it in the 70s.
We’ve seen a change in the movement, we’ve seen the movement itself has grown. The percentage of unschoolers in the movement also has grown, but we also see a large percentage that are going to conferences and are calling and saying “I don’t have a clue, what do I do?” It’s just a changing environment. There are still those people who want to take matters into their own hands, and advocate for their child, regardless of what’s required. I applaud those people, they’re very brave.
C: You’ve talked a little bit about the homeschooling continuum, and the thoughts of eclectic homeschoolers, unschoolers and radical homeschoolers.
But what basically is the difference between the unschooling that you’re talking about and radical unschooling?
P: My understanding is radical unschooling is more of a lifestyle than an educational philosophy. It involves what I would consider, – this is my opinion, because as you can tell I’m not really fully in agreement with it, but it’s more of a permissive parenting approach, where you take the freedom of the child to me to an extreme, where you’re giving them freedom to make choices that they may not be ready for, because they’re still children. It might have to be with watching television, they can watch as much as they want, they can watch whatever channels they want, they can keep their room a mess if they want to, after all it’s their room. They don’t want to clean it up, that’s okay. I don’t have the right of a parent to go in and ask them to clean it up, or to – it’s sort of treating the child as an adult, in that sense, without boundaries.
That’s where I draw the line, because I, in my consultations with people, talk about unschooling as an educational philosophy where the child participates in determining the direction. They may not have complete final decision making power, but definitely they’re respected and heard, and then together they hammer out a plan. Still, you may have parental rules, just like any family has rules about even bed time, or getting up in the morning, or what the routine chores will be, or how much television or video gaming can be done. We have to understand that addictions come to all of us as temptations, and children aren’t any better capable or able to handle them than adults. We get addicted to our computers and our chat sessions and our telephoning.
C: And our Crackberry.
P: Blackberry. Whatever it is, yeah.
C: I totally agree with you. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the parenting philosophy called “Taking Children seriously.” They call it TCS for short.
P: No, I haven’t.
C: I almost hesitate to bring it up and give them publicity, but they have a very radical approach to child rearing. Everything has to be reached by consensus. A lot of it has a very, almost a sect like feel. They’re very disrespectful and unrespecting of any other views. If you’re not doing things the way we preach, you’re completely whacked out, and you’re ostracized and shamed if you leave the philosophy.
P: Cult like, huh?
C: Very much cult like. But that’s one side of that, where the children are allowed and even encouraged to play video games all day and all night, and even have sex at young, young ages. It’s just really bizarre. That brings up an important point.
For a parent to embrace unschooling or eclectic homeschooling, it is important to set limits on things like that. Because we’re not just providing an environment, we’re also facilitating education, in my opinion. It’s difficult to do that in an environment where there’s no structure at all. Children are going to make immature choices. If they had their way, they would be eating a lot of sugar and staying up all night, and we see the effects of that. We do have the right to set those boundaries and to set those household rules. They don’t have the wisdom yet.
P: I think children are just as different as adults. Some are very self disciplined. I’ve seen the whole gamut of kids that are completely unstructured and really need to have somebody keeping them on task by their own admittance and by their own request. Other students are extremely self disciplined from day one. I’ll ask them what they’re going to do now that they’re not in school anymore, and they’ll tell me exactly what they’re going to do, how they’re going to structure their day, and they’ve got it all figured out. They don’t need a parent to help them with it. It’s just individual. But we as parents are the best equipped to know our children, and know what their tendencies are and the best role that we can play in helping them to achieve their goals. That’s what it’s all about, helping them to achieve their goals.
C: I absolutely agree with you. I wasn’t even thinking in terms of education, I was thinking in terms of every day choices. But you’re so right about that. For instance, my oldest son has decided that he has got to finish this particular math book that he’s using. I didn’t make it a goal that he had to finish that or a requirement, but he’s like “Mom, this fall I’m going to be in fifth grade, and I can’t be doing this book. It says it’s fourth grade.” He’s like “I have to finish this this month, so I’ve gotta do X number of pages every day to get it done by the end of the month.”
But this is a structure that he’s put on himself, a boundary that he’s put on himself. I’ve seen that with my kids, but I was thinking more in terms of their over all schedule. He would love to stay up until midnight every night, but I see the dark circles and the impatience with his little brother that he’ll have the next day. So I have to put some boundaries on that kind of behavior. But not when it comes to his learning at all.
P: You’ve brought up a good point. Because someone might say “Gee, Carrie, can you call yourself unschooling if he’s using a math book? A real text book? That’s not unschooling.”
And that’s where I’d like to clarify here by giving examples of my own children. They stayed up until midnight and later, read until 03:00 in the morning, but they didn’t have to get up early, and our whole family was more into the late night, not getting up early. We’re all night people. So that’s okay. That depends.
But unschooling, as long as it takes the child into account, when the program is planned, or as things work through day by day, it’s unschooling.
If the child chooses to do a math book and wants to get through it from beginning to end, that’s okay, it’s still unschooling. If he chooses to go to public school for four years of high school, that’s still unschooling. Why? Because it’s the child’s choosing.
My youngest, who is now 14, has been through every kind of education that I can imagine. She started as a homeschooler. During that time, the town offered something called “Home Options” where they had little gatherings of homeschoolers. She was in those little groups. Then they started an alternative school which was private initially. She went to that for a couple days a week. Then that school became a charter school under the public school’s supervision. She did that for a while.
Then in seventh grade, she went off to another state and went to a boarding school for the entire seventh grade and part of eighth grade. Then she came home and was homeschooled for the next few months. Then, in ninth grade she went to public high school full time for the first semester. Then the second semester, the public school offers a home school program, and so she opted out of the public school, went to the homeschool program, which offered a couple of classes of high school.
There was an eclectic thing there. Finally, last year, as a sophomore , she did the entire year in public school, at which time she said “I’ve had enough. I see how it works, I don’t want to be there anymore.” So now, as an almost 15 year old going into grade 11, she kind of got ahead of herself, she’s decided not to go back to school.
She’s going to spend the whole semester traveling in Costa Rica and Japan because she’s into languages. The following semester, she may be going to France. When she’s not doing that, she and I are going to talk about grade 11. What do we want your Grade 11 transcript to look like? What do we want to do for English? What do we want for history?
She’s going to report to me every week. She’s going to have to write, keep a journal every day, and write to me every week, and tell me what she’s been doing, because I need some raw material that we can use to make the eleventh grade transcript. It will be based on in English, we’re going to read this many books, and every week you’re going to tell me what you’re thinking about the book reading you’re doing. That will be your English credit. What are we going to do for Math? What are we going to do for science, and so forth?
Once we decide what we’re going to do, and we go to sign off on it, then she will be accountable to me to get it done, whether she’s living with me, or her father in another state, or her relatives in Japan, or whatever it is. She will be accountable to do that until we come together and say “Let’s change this” because whatever reason.
All these things, it doesn’t matter if the child is in college classes, some students take college classes, and they’re still unschooling. So unschooling doesn’t have any look. Like school at home, you think of kids sitting at the kitchen table, doing bookwork. That’s more of a look.
Unschooling doesn’t have a look, because it includes everything. It’s more of an attitude of respecting the child, honoring his own individuality, and including him in his own educational path. Maybe that’s helped to clear up for some people a fear that unschooling is going to be wild, and they can do what they want. No, that’s not it.
C: Thanks for making that important distinction. I think that because people have that school at home vision in their minds, that vision, that’s why you get that pat response when people find out you’re homeschooling. “I could never do that.”
You hear that all the time as a homeschooling parent. I always tell them “It’s not as hard as you think.”
P: They think they have to choose the subject matter, and actually teach it. Particularly parents who haven’t had a college education, sometimes are feeling very ill equipped to be the teacher of their high school aged children, and so they’d rather put them into high school, or sign them up for a program that will teach them. But our job is not to teach. It’s to facilitate the learning experiences, connecting our children to the right people and the right experiences, that will be their teachers.
From a pond, to a horse, to a mentor, to a five year old child, to a 52 year old English professor, to experiences at college, group activities. The children are learning all the time. I think our love for our children tells us that we want our children to learn from the right sources. They’re learning a ton at school, but look what they bring home. Then we have to try and correct it or fix it. Do something. Remedy it. They are learning all the time. So it’s what they’re learning and from whom are they learning it that’s of concern to parents.
No matter what style of home schooling we choose, the fact that we are home schooling means that we are devoted to our children, and we’re doing our best, and we’re evolving.
Let’s be a little forgiving to ourselves, too. Most of us have not grown up as homeschoolers or unschoolers, we’ve grown up through the system. So we have to change the way it’s been done for some decades of History and be open to other ways of doing things. Experimenting with our own children, and that is scary. If one person has done it, and you’ve seen a model you can say “That person did okay, so I can trust maybe I’ll be okay, too.”
With your first child you take that leap, and it starts to turn out okay, and so your second child, okay, that’s better.. And by the time the third one or the fourth or the fifth comes along, you feel like “Okay, I know what I’m doing.” And yet each one is different, so it’s never going to be a pattern, it’s always going to be unique and different and challenging.
That’s why we have these support groups and that’s why for example, I do consultations to reassure them and empower them, that it’s okay you don’t have to be perfect. You’re going to make mistakes, and your kids are going to forgive you, and they’re going to make mistakes, and you’re’ going to forgive them, and life goes on. In any case, they’re going to learn way more than they would have learned if they were in public school. We tend to think the grass is greener. “If they’re in public school, there wouldn’t be any gaps.” How many gaps do you have in your mind? I have a ton.
C: That’s right.
P: It’s not perfect on the other side. There’s gaps over there, and children end up in a lot worse situations often as graduates of the public school system. We don’t have to worry about keeping up. We can be assured that our children are going to be just fine, and as long as they have chosen their life, whether it’s college or military service, or a career, a job, whatever they’ve chosen, they’re going to learn from it. We can just rest assured that life is going to continue, and it’s not completely our responsibility for where our children end up. We just want to give them our best shot.
C: That’s a great note to end that topic of discussion on. Before we conclude, tell us a little bit more about what West River Academy is all about.
P: I started this school back in 1993 when I lived in Colorado. I was looking for a school that would give me the legal protection I needed and the support I needed, and give me an accredited diploma and transcript. But I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t want someone telling me what to do, and making me make reports, and using my time in ways that were not productive for my children. I couldn’t find a school like that. When I moved to Colorado, and looked at the laws there, I thought “I could start the ideal school for myself.” And that’s what I did.
That’s why, if you look at my home page, it says “We trust parents 100%” I’m one of those parents, and it’s a golden rule. Do unto others. I made a school that I would want to be part of. It has very reasonable fees. A year’s enrolment includes the whole family, and I’m available to talk to people.
We offer A La Carte services, you just pay for what you get. We do consultations, , we do transcripts, and we are accredited. We’ve had great success with our diplomas and transcripts being recognized by colleges and military. It’s very simple, I don’t have packages to send people, we don’t offer curricula, we don’t recommend any particular curriculum, but we support you if you choose a curriculum, we support you if yu don’t.
We really honor the family in being the experts for their children. There’s nobody out there that’s more expert than the mom and dad. I try to help through the consultations to empower the parents. When we do the consultations, I work with the parent and the children together. I’m asking questions of the children too, because sometimes they answer in interesting ways for the parents to hear, that helps to get a perspective. And then we work on the program that they’re going to do. It’s mostly a consultation service that I provide, in addition to the enrolment.
C: Awesome, that’s great. Thank you so much, Peggy, for sharing your experience over the last couple of decades in the homeschooling world. We appreciate you very much.
P: Thank you so much, Carrie for having me on the show. I look forward to listening to your podcast.