Sunday, May 25, 2008

Unschooling Unitarian Universalism

Delivered at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax May 25, 2008

Those of you who have heard me preach before might recall that I grew up in an entirely secular home. Well—secular doesn’t really even cover it. I am the product of several generations of commie atheists, and my family bore the mantle of our heritage proudly. Just about the best way I could rebel against my upbringing was to go into ministry. Frankly, my folks are still a bit scandalized by it.

Even though I knew I wanted to try out Unitarian Universalism, I was a long time looking for a congregation to join. I frittered around in a few different young adult groups in college and beyond. But by the time I was 23 I was sick to death of the exclusive companionship of other young adults. I hungered for the wisdom of an elder, the laughter of a child. I sought out a community that would accept me as I was—young, yearning, fiercely liberal, fiercely independent, and largely unsure. I spent a dozen Sundays at a suburban UU church standing around with a cold cup of coffee, trying to look approachable, before giving up.

I sat zazen for a year instead. I quickly grew to love my meditation practice. Yet at the end of every session, I felt saddened as the crowd promptly left the zendo and melted into the city around us. I longed for the chit chat of a churchy church. I needed to process my journey with others. I hoped to be encouraged to grow upon my path in a way that was respectful and joyous. It was a difficult mix to find.

And then, just as I was considering chucking the whole enchilada, a friend from work recommended 2nd Unitarian of Chicago to me. The little brown church in a hip, residential neighbourhood was an easy el ride from my own.
As I walked down the footpath to the sanctuary door that first time, a familiar face greeted me. “Hey, you like kids! Come downstairs with me!” There stood Sharon, a sociable regular from the Heartland Cafe and Buffalo Bar, the trendy joint where I served bison burgers, curried tofu, and a dazzling selection of microbrewed stouts to a equally dazzling array of urban clientele. Sharon and I had put back a whiskey or two together at the end of a shift.

She was, of course, the Director of Religious Education at 2nd Unitarian. She linked arms with me and ushered me right into the basement. We entered a warm and funky common area full of children working on their own projects. Among the heaps of books, poster paints, and puppets, two tykes were hard at work at a craft table, hand-lettering a gltter and feather encrusted banner endowed. It read, “Welcome Lynn and Kelsey”—Lynn Ungar, the newly called minister at 2U, and Kelsey, her same-sex partner.

I knew I’d found the place for me.

At Sharon’s kind and insistent invitation, I immediately began teaching God Images to nine and ten year olds. I didn’t even make it up into the sanctuary for weeks. I never did establish a strong presence upstairs. The minister knew me only slightly, and the board president had me conflated with somebody named “Deb”. I think they were all pretty surprised when they heard I was going to seminary.

I didn’t care. The basement of the church was my first real religious home. My young, uncertain heart was nourished in the religious education committee meetings. In that basement I met the older adults who became my models and mentors as we planned field trips and debated the purpose of religious education. The children were also my teachers, modeling a lifestyle in which personal choice about belief had always been an unquestioned right.

Having been raised in a home that while extremely liberal in some ways was quite rigid and rule-driven in others, I was amazed to watch young children assert a great deal of choice in their own lives, and I was further amazed at how well they handled the responsibility that came with latitude.

As I spent a few years with them, I was privileged to experience how an eight year old’s beliefs and schema of the world changes to a ten year old’s to a twelve year old’s... as their parents showed me how a 38 year old’s beliefs can change as he turns 40 and 42. I realized I didn’t have to “get it” yet, and that in fact life is a neverending parade of things to get. And that I’ll be done when I die—or rather, I’ll never be done.

My first congregational community modeled for me how each step we take in life propels us further down an individual path, and how winding our paths together increases our joy. Most importantly, that congregation shared the joys of diversity with me through the way they honoured the individuality of each person among them, including their children, while seeking to expand their welcoming arms at the same time.

We are already diverse by the nature of being human. For me, attending to diversity is a profound spiritual act. UUs, more than any other group I’ve belong to, get that having lots of different people with varied skills, beliefs, talents, knowledge bases, and viewpoints, is a blessing.

Once I was in seminary, my exploration of spiritual freedom and belief infected nearly every waking moment. One of my favourite parts was the intense and volatile year we spent backtracking the long and winding path of the western tradition’s theological development. I stuffed more Paul and Augustine and Kant and Locke in my head than I would have thought could fit—and in fact a fair bit of it has fallen out the back end since then. But that’s what it took for me to really get that people aren’t inherently bad in any way. In fact, any idea that levies judgement upon human characteristics is just that—an idea, an idea without any empirical truth behind it.

We belong here. We are as much a part of nature as any bee or hummingbird. We are naturally diverse. I’m further convinced that we have a strong instinctive drive to learn everything we need to know about the world around us and to get along with others. We don’t have to be forced to behave the right way because A) there is no one “right way” and B) we are just fine they way we’re born.

Given my current lens on humanity, I observe that most of what mainstream culture holds to be true about children is deeply rooted in the idea of original sin. We are enculturated to believe that in many ways we must both make choices for children and force them to follow our choices...or else. Duh duh daaaaaah! The evil inside them will take over. The dishonesty and laziness and desire to play World of Warcraft night and day will swallow them from the inside.

For me, Unschooling means un-choosing values based in fear of human nature, or God’s nature, and letting go of my need to control my child’s path. The word “unschooling” is a term coined by educator John Holt. It refers to interest based education in which the parents do not authoritatively direct the child's education, but instead aid the child in exploring his or her interests. Unschooled children learn primarily through the experiences of life.

I first met unschooled kids at a Unitarian Universalist youth conference. I was working as the chaplain for the Central Midwest district. This meant that I attended youth conferences around the Chicago area. I would sit for about 72 hours straight in a designated chaplain’s room and talk to whoever wandered in. People who came in usually did so accidentally or looking for a place to be alone with a new friend. Most of them were pretty gracious about ending up talking to the chaplain instead. I loved hearing their stories.

At the time I thought homeschooling was a totally banana cuckoo thing to do, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the unschooled youth in particular. Like Linnea, who told me about her internship at a physics lab nearby, or Josh, who had never spent a day in a classroom but was looking forward to the experience when he went to university that fall. What impressed me the most about them, though, was not their achievements or even their knowledge base, but their sense of composure and ease in relating to the people around them.

One of the biggest misconceptions about unschooling is that it’s a laissez-faire, hands-off method of parenting. But letting go of control doesn’t mean letting go of my child. Unschooling is an involved process of helping my kid get the information and resources he needs to make decisions. At Charlie’s age it means respecting his autonomy as much as I can while protecting his physical safety, and most of all being an active and dynamic problem solver myself as I model a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Charlie needs me to love and support him in his natural processes. His existence put to me the question of how we support the dignity and inherent worth of an infant, and then a toddler, and then a small child. As a lifelong learner myself, I’m still figuring it out.

For me as a parent, much of unschooling is simply living my fundamental theological beliefs:

• Life is short, and then it ends. Every moment we have in the meantime is precious and worthy of joy.

•There is no such thing as a problem in the absolute sense. There is a problem for someone. There are always multiple ways to address a problem.

•Shit happens, completely unrelated to whether it is in any sense deserved or not, and completely out of our control. Our control is over what meaning we make out of what happens.

•Now is the time of the learning and the making of joy, of the continually expanding into the now, into loving one another and the world.

So that’s what we do all day in my home. It’s a 24-seven lovefest. Well, not really. Right after I wrote the preceding paragraph Charlie and I went to Superstore, where he ran away from me five times before drawing on his face with a Sharpie. When I put him in the bath at home to wash the marks off (not that that worked) he rolled all the toilet paper off the roll—a new roll-and put it in the bath with him. I did not respond well. I did not say, “ah, life is short, let’s make some meaning. I’d rather not repeat what I said here.

But eventually, I did return to my breath and remembered to trust our natures. Unschooling for us means loving each other as gently as we can while gathering disintegrated tissue shards together, then end up chatting about where toilet paper comes from and googling what kinds of trees are used for toilet paper and what their habitats are like and then we end up back at fair trade and environmental sustainability, which seems to happen to us all the time.

In our family unschooling means listening to lots of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. We read books. We read book reviews. We plague the local librarians with our incessant demands for books. We roam the streets of Lunenburg, making friends of every age and ilk.

Our family is a learning community. We travel through life together, even as we each take our own path. We enjoy an intensely home-based life, ebbing and flowing in a shared rhythm. Our home is our religious home, and our house is sacred space. All learning connects us. Diversity strengthens us. In our family, it is more than okay to be different from others. To swim instead of fly and dare to love it. It’s an improvisational approach. No wonder we love jazz so.

We’re very lucky that we can even consider offering this learning modality to our child. We work hard to make it happen and we’re lucky that it’s a choice. We live our love of learning together. We know enough about difference to know that what works for our family is not “right”, but simply what works for our family. We don’t have anyone else’s answers but our own.

Unitarian Universalism has given me the tools and the support to put aside judgement and open myself to love in many ways; unschooling is a central part of how I practice it. The values that first attracted me to Unitarian Universalism are the values that sustain me in my life today. As UUUs, we are free to find our truths and support in the basement or the attic or the ocean outside our door. It’s a life in which we ask not, “who is right?” but “how can we creatively meet everyone’s needs?”

My husband asked me about the title of this sermon. He said, “Unschooling Unitarian Universalism! That sounds... prescriptive for you.” But that’s not how it’s meant. I don’t think UUs should become Unschoolers or that UUism needs Unschooling. Rather, I think we already are unschooled. Our core values are unschooling values. We dare poke at the assumptions of our society. We never stop asking questions. We never close ourselves to new truths. We unmake to make anew, to create meanings in a life that holds no easy answers.

May we all walk our paths today in joy.

May we share them together with love.

And coffee.


Egg Mama said...

GREAT sermon. I have a lot of thoughts and hopefully I can disentangle some of them at a later date and either post them here or on my blog.

I'm a bit ashamed to say that as my Egg has gotten older, I've fallen more into the controlling mindset. And frankly I don't really know how to get out of it. I actually feel more comfortable with rules and boundaries and all that stuff.

I feel like there must be a way to be a "structured unschooler". I believe in everything you wrote, wholeheartedly. And yet it just doesn't seem to work so well for me to let my daughter steer her own course. It's not that I think she will steer wrongly, exactly - but it's a confusing and chaotic world and I feel like she needs me to interpret it for her and set limits so that it's easier to navigate.

But...I'm not really sure I'm doing the right thing in the right way; in fact I'm confused as hell a lot of the time. I think a lot of it could be solved by listening to more Django Reinhardt with Egglet instead of kind of spacing out and getting buried in my anxious headspace, or frittering my time away on the internet while she watches TV.

Your parenting inspires me. :)

ShuShu said...

Interesting timeline. I too had atheistic parents, but they attended UU sermons for a while. I too looked to reconnect with a UU community, in chicago no less, but couldn't find it.

My wife posted your sermon on her BLOG (thesodhut) because it mirrors much of her journey. Espescially the bit about unschooling children.

egg mama, don't underestimate the power of television in the unschooling process... :) I take it you didn't get to enjoy the wave of joy that washes over you the first time your 2 year old picked up the universal remote to turn on JETIX, or watched your 4 year old scale the bookshelf to place the Hulk into the DVD player.

This is probelm solving to the highest order, requiring the developement of both physical and mental capabilities. Sure it means you never know what you'll find when you come downstairs in the morning, but there are worse things than half eaten half gallons of ice cream. First hand evidence that the little unschooled primates have leveraged their TV gained knowledge into even more rewarding behaviors. Besides, the older primates got to learn about effection nutrition teaching techniques AND find better hiding places for ice cream all from a single event. Well multiple trial and error events actually, but heck, thats how we learn , right... :)

But we have our uschooling concerns. Raising Unschooled children in a schooled world while tenaciously preserving our Lazy Parenting roots is working well for now, but will it continue? We have done the Waldorf thing, but our kids tapped out at age 4. Our 5 year old thrived in public kindergarden, but we were blessed with the teacher. Switching schools and education paradigms on an annual basis is paying great dividends on the diversity front, but we fear is not long term sustainable.

Rachel said...

Fantastic sermon. I think that everything you said is true. It's so easy to get caught up with controlling the kids more than necessary at times. It's something I have to remind myself of on occasion.

I have been trying to talk myself out of the house for an early Sunday to try out the UU down the street from me.
I want to get the kids into RE again, especially now that they're a little older, and I enjoy UU community for myself, too.

I found your blog via MDC recently and am enjoying it.