Friday, July 21, 2017

A Glimpse of Unschooling Through Fiction


Earlier this year, veteran homeschooling moms Milva McDonald (no relation) and Sophia Sayigh, released their book, Unschoolers. Using the distinct lens of fiction, Unschoolers offers a glimpse of the homeschooling lifestyle. Both parents and their homeschoolers are likely to see bits of themselves in the rich characters presented in the book. 

In my interview with Milva below, she shares more about the development of this book, her own experience with homeschooling her four, now-grown children, and what she hopes readers take away from Unschoolers

Finally, Milva's name may sound familiar to some of you. It was her unschooled daughter who graced the cover of Boston Magazine two years ago for their feature story, "Our Kids Don't Belong In School."

1. What prompted you and Sophia to create this book?

I’d been thinking about writing a book for a while and I’ve written fiction in the past, but it was Sophia who had the idea of portraying unschooling in fiction. When she suggested it, I realized it was perfect. Not only have Sophia and I homeschooled six kids to adulthood, we’ve been active in the local and statewide scene and still serve on the board for the non-profit organization we co-founded about a dozen years ago, Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts. We’ve presented conferences and lectures on homeschooling, and facilitated book clubs, writing groups, and debate clubs for homeschoolers. We’ve organized countless field trips, camping trips, potlucks, and so much more, so we felt we really had the knowledge and experience to tell the stories in the book. The lack of representation of homeschoolers in fiction was definitely a factor in the decision, as was the perennial question “What do homeschoolers do all day?”


2. Why a fiction book? How do you think fiction offers a special lens for examining homeschooling in general, and self-directed education (e.g., unschooling) in particular?

The book isn’t meant to sell anyone on homeschooling, unschooling, or anything else. It’s fiction, so it’s really about a particular set of characters and their lives. It just so happens that realistic portrayals of homeschoolers and unschoolers have been mostly excluded from fiction and movies. Instead we often appear as crazy or extreme in one way or another. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk on “The danger of a single story.” In my experience, a lot of people carry a single story about homeschoolers in their minds. Maybe they once read an article, or they know one family, or they heard about a family. As a result they tend to paint all homeschoolers with a broad brush. This is a very human thing to do, of course, but recognizing that homeschoolers are distinct individuals, and people like everyone else, can help allay the problems that stereotypes create. We’ve had non-homeschoolers exclaim, after reading the book, that they were surprised that the homeschooling families in the book are so variable in their motivations, styles, and approaches, yet their concerns and struggles are so recognizable. That’s gratifying.


3. You unschooled your own four children through high school. What have you found to be the most notable homeschooling/unschooling trends over the past couple of decades?

The biggest change is in the numbers. There are so many more homeschoolers now than when I started back in the early 1990s. That growth has attracted attention from curriculum developers, alternative education specialists, and even public school advocates seeking ways to bring homeschoolers back into the system, a topic Patricia Lines wrote about back in 2000. Technology, of course, has also created huge changes in homeschooling, as it has everywhere. There seem to be a lot more families than there used to be choosing to homeschool as a last resort or temporary stepping stone to what they hope will be a better school situation (rather than choosing to homeschool for its own sake), and they are perhaps more vulnerable to the marketing message that homeschooling is hard and you need the help of experts to do it, which really isn't the case.  One of the things that hasn’t changed is the need to find community, which seems, ironically, a bigger challenge now than when there were fewer people homeschooling. People are much more likely to congregate on Facebook or other internet sites rather than gather at a meeting or playground day or other support group event, and while it’s nice that they can instantly communicate with scores of other homeschoolers, it can’t substitute for developing the kinds of relationships and friendships that sustain homeschooling over a long period of time.


4. What do you hope readers take away most from the Unschoolers book?

I hope homeschoolers and unschoolers find themselves reflected in it, as my 18-year-old daughter did when she was reading a draft of the book. She remarked on how strange—and strangely wonderful—it felt to be reading about her life in a book. She’s been gobbling up fiction her whole life and characters who homeschool are rare. Forget finding a book that explores the lives, motivations, hopes, and fears of homeschooling parents. Other than that, I just hope people enjoy reading it.

To purchase the book and learn more about the authors, please visit the UNSCHOOLERS book website, and follow them on Twitter @UnschoolersBook.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Kerry. I'm almost finished reading Unschoolers and enjoying it very much. I hadn't heard of the idea of the "danger of a single story", yet it resonates. We see this over and over again in the comments people make on everything from homeschooling to vaccinations.

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