Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part IV: Play…Where It All Breaks Down

I think this will be my last post under this heading, because a) I am finding that the structure I have created here – the sense that I need to finish what I’ve started before I can move on – is slowing down my posting, and b) increasingly, this entire blog is pretty much on how I understand my pedagogy as unschooling, so the bracketing of these posts feels unneccesary.

That said, I do want to address this theme here, because it’s significant. I think that I told the story, in an earlier post, of students looking at me as if I had just landed from another planet when I assumed that puzzles were fun. This happens to me in almost every class; I say, by way of reassurance and encouragement, “You’re just playing! Let yourself play!” and they mutter and scowl and it is quite clear that I am out of touch.

So I began asking my students, in office hours and on walks across campus, what they do for fun. This is by no means a representative sample, of course, and I make no claims whatsoever to generalizability. But, as far as stories go, these are instructive and, again, heartbreaking.

There was the conversation that went like this:

Me: What do you do for fun?
Him: Fun?
Me: Yes, fun. What do you do in your spare time?
Him: I dunno. I guess I sit.
Me: You….sit??
Him: Yeah. Sometimes I sit.
Me: Okay. What else?
(He thinks, apparently in earnest, for a few minutes.)
Him: I really just go to work, I do my schoolwork, I go to bed and then I go to school. And then I do it again. But sometimes I will just sit.
Me: What about on weekends?
Him: I work on weekends.
Me: What about at night?
Him: I go to sleep after I do my schoolwork.
Me: TV?
Him: No, I don’t have one.
Me: Video games?
Him: I don’t like them.
Me: Do you read?
Him: I like to, but I really only read what I need to for school.

I’m not making this up. Then there was the woman who was struggling to pass my class. She came to me because she did not know what she wanted to do for her final paper.

Me: Okay, well, what are you interested in?
Her: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, what interests you?
Her: Like about the class?
Me: Well, ideally, but really anything…what are your interests?
Her: I don’t really understand.
Me: What do you *like* to think about?
Her: Um…I don’t really like to think.
Me: But you think all the time! What are you thinking about when no one’s telling you what to think about?

She is quiet. Then she says, avoiding my eyes,

“No, I don’t really think.”

Me: Okay. What do you do, then? What do you do in your spare time?
Her: I don’t have spare time. I work and go to school. And I run.
Me: You run?
Her: Yes.
Me: You like to run?
Her: Yes.
Me: What do you think about when you run? I mean, what’s on your mind?
Her: Nothing. I listen to music.
Me: Okay, but when you’re listening to music, your mind is still doing things. What’s running through your head?
Her: Just the music. Maybe the lyrics?

This went on for another ten minutes. I’ll spare you the details. But I will share one more, with a student who was struggling to understand the reading.

Me: What do you normally do when you don’t understand what you’re reading? I mean, if you’re reading something you enjoy, but you don’t understand it…what do you do?
Her: I don’t read if it’s not for school.
Me (seeing where this was headed): Okay, but when you weren’t so busy – when you were younger, what did you do?
Her: I never read.
Me: I see. You don’t like to read? Did you read anything in high school you liked, even a little?
Her: I never read in high school. I mean, we just had, like, little bits from books in our textbook. We didn’t have books.
Me: Do you remember a book from your childhood?
Her: This book for this class is the first book I’ve ever read, like cover to cover.

The point is not whether these horrifying stories are actually true. The point is that, at my institution – a place, like many across the country, where students go to school because they think they have to, exactly the way they go to work and, some of them, exactly the way they feed and bathe their kids – the narrative they tell is that all of it – school, life, every moment of every day, is gruntwork. I have dozens of stories just like these. This is the story they tell of themselves – of their lives, of their identities, of their practices.

I’m not interested in anything.
I have no time for fun.
I don’t think about anything.
I don’t like to think.
I don’t have any hobbies.
I’ve never read anything before.

I presume that at least some of these students browse the internet, watch movies on their phones or ipads, hang out with their friends, have sex and/or engage in recreational drug and alcohol use. (And obviously, the runner has thoughts.) But these are the stories they tell me. To their professor. One might think that they want their professor to see them as dynamic, multi-faceted human beings. Instead, they appear to want me to see them as overworked, exhausted…utterly depleted, living lives of ascetic drudgery.

And here I am, trying to follow their “interests.” Trying to get people to “play” when they’re telling me they don’t want, like, or have time to play.

I don’t believe that real learning – intellectual, cognitive, conceptual, experiential growth – can happen without playing. I’m unconvinced that it’s really possible. Memorization, sure. Retention, maybe. But that’s not learning. So the question, for me, becomes: does “play” have to be fun for them? Does it have to be pleasurable? Do they have to experience it as leisure?

Because at any given moment in my classrooms, students are “playing.” Some of them are laughing and moving and clearly enjoying themselves. Others are not.

If you sit in a chair and phlegmatically stick Legos together, halfheartedly hoping something comes out of it by the time you get to leave and go somewhere else, and hating every minute of it, are you playing with the Legos?

Sometimes I am trying to force my students to play with Legos, simply because they won’t tell me what they want to play.

They won’t tell me, many of them, because they really don’t know. Sometimes, I guess, I need to go Montessori rather than unschooling – surround them with stuff (going the opposite way, of course, of Maria Montessori’s calling everything “play” instead of “work,” since I’m dealing with schooled adults).

I’m often tempted to have my next class write their own syllabus. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Maybe they don’t need to read anything. Maybe they don’t need to write anything. What is it that they want to do that will help them learn?

But for those who don’t actually want to “learn,” then no amount of ownership or play or autonomy will help. For those students, I have to find a way to make the classroom a different kind of space, or I have to just let them go without learning. They fail my classes. They find a professor who will help them memorize some stuff….maybe they’ll even retain some of those facts for years to come. And maybe that makes them feel “smarter,” more successful, better equipped to be a citizen in this world.

But I maintain that they’re not any “smarter.” These indicators of educational success are deeply, grossly, offensively problematic. They’ve spent their money and their time, both of which are at a serious premium for students at my school, and they’ve got nothing of value to show for it.

This is the tragedy here: we take the worst advantage of the least privileged students. It is precisely those who think that education is about a degree for a job, those whose alternatives would be low-wage jobs at best, who need to learn to play, to be creative, to think imaginatively, to free their intellects and trust themselves. It is, exactly and always, the students who don’t know better whom we are supposed to be teaching better than this. Otherwise, the “democratization” of education is a joke.

In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote, “…in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of ‘life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence” (319).

It’s nearly six decades later.  We need to transcend, people. Trans-fucking-cend.


Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.


Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part III: Strewing

I regret the delay, but it’s been an especially busy couple of weeks. The good news (sort of) is that I’m finding I really don’t like it when I can’t seem to find the time to blog.

So…apart from my deschooling efforts, what do I do in my classrooms, that I am, increasingly, coming to see as unschool-y? Here’s the next part of what appears to be turning – albeit verrrry slowly – into a series rather than merely a multi-part post.

Some years ago, when Monkey was quite young and I was first learning about unschooling, the (online) community was split on an issue called “strewing.” The term appears to have originated in a post by unschooling-guru Sandra Dodd, and while I admit that no longer follow the debates these days, it appears to be a much less controversial practice among unschoolers than it was a decade ago.

Strewing, sometimes called “littering the path,” is the practice of opening doors for kids…without shoving them through. I remember bitter online arguments over whether deciding to litter the path with particular books or toys or art supplies was fundamentally manipulative (and therefore coercive), and whether taking a child to the library on one’s own accord (rather than at the request of the child) really “qualified” as strewing.

I never had a problem with strewing, whatever the kind. I saw it as our role to open our kid’s world as much as we could – and yes, admittedly, this meant that we took initiatives in the directions that we valued – and then to follow her interests wherever they led. “Strewing” in our house generally takes the form of buying and borrowing lots of books, traveling and introducing her to an array of play, art and music possibilities. I have no problem whatsoever with handing Monkey something and saying, “Hey, I thought you might like this,” and if she never cracks it open, no worries.

Some folks call it strewing when they bring home projects or materials or books or movies and leaving them about. Some view their family travel as a form of strewing, or visits to museums or farms or browsing online. These days, it seems to me that placing anything that might spark the interest of a child in her path – literal or figurative – can be considered strewing. What most unschoolers likely agree on, though, is that pushing kids into particular activities or materials or conclusions is inconsistent with unschooling principles.

Therefore, until quite recently, I did not conceive of what I do in the classroom as anything remotely related to strewing. After all, I have assignments, which they must complete if they want credit in the courses. In most of my courses, out of sheer practical necessity, I choose their reading material, and then I go to great lengths to ensure that they read it. I do push them into particular activities and materials, if not conclusions. I have not been trying to strew. I have not even been thinking of strewing. My unschooling is one thing, and my professing another. I am the expert in the room, and I am simply trying to teach to the best of my ability.

And yet when I sat down to think about my pedagogy as a professor and my unschooling as a parent, I realized that the way I approach course reading is, in a strange way, really an awful lot like strewing.

I am always aware that when I teach two sections of the same course in a semester, they are vastly different from each other by the third week. Similarly, in terms of content, the same course is entirely different from one semester to the next. I understood the cause of this as the fact that my courses are “discussion-based,” and thus each class is different than the next. I get bored easily, I say to people who ask why all of my courses are a new “prep” every semester. This works for me.

But there is, it turns out, more to it than that. My approach to teaching is based firmly and heavily on reading. I want them to read closely, deeply, carefully and critically. I want them to read smart, well-written, interesting books and articles full of ideas, concepts and illustrations that are germane to the discipline. Beyond that, though, I really don’t care which books and articles they are.

This is because I view the material I assign as merely inspiration: sources of a spark… “litter” in their path. It is because I am fortunate enough that teaching my particular discipline is tantamount to teaching a way of viewing the world, a way of thinking, an approach to intellectual processes, and the tools with which to take that approach. I can teach it using almost anything.

In my fieldwork workshops and senior seminar, my typical approach is that students choose their own course reading lists. Because they lack the knowledge to do so, I make recommendations in their areas of interests along the way, and by the end of the semester, 15 students have all read different books and doing very different projects. Each time I listen to a student describe her work and excitedly blurt out, “Ooooh, you may want to check out (this book!),” I am strewing.

In lower-level courses, I usually choose a few books with which to begin, but I stay flexible on two levels: 1 – Whether we stay with those books and what we switch to, if not, and 2 – What we do with the material: what we talk about, where it takes us.

For example:

I often assign a primary text to begin, and then leave it open for the students to decide, based in the readings and discussions through the first third of the semester, what they would like to read, talk and think about for the last 2/3 of the semester. They tell me what they’d like to read and learn more about, and I find the materials and bring them into the classroom.

It occurs to me for the very first time as I write this that this is exactly how I approach the state-mandated documentation of what our homeschooling is going to look like for the year. True story from the last such exercise:

Me: Hey, Monkey, what do you want to think about or do this year?
Monkey: Gravity. And physics!!!
Me: Okay. Anything else?
Monkey: Yes. Video game music.
Me: Video game music??
Monkey: Yeah, like how they make the music that plays on video games.
Me: Ah…okay. Other interests?
Monkey: I want to learn more about dogs.
Me: Dogs, okay. Anything about dogs in particular?
Monkey: Different breeds and training dogs.
Me: Got it. What about history?
Monkey: Not really interested in history this year.
Me: Okay. Art?
Monkey: Maybe sculpting.
Me: Math?
Monkey: I like fractions.

And thus I spend far too many hours on Amazon, designing what the state considers her “curriculum.” When I’ve found books and toys and activities on the topics in which she’s interested, I list them for the state. She gives me a general sense of her interest and I strew related things about the house. They become holiday gifts and the objective of library runs and this is how we do it. Science: Physics and Biology (um, you know…dogs)! Art: Music and sculpture. Literature: Any of the zillions of fiction books she reads or I just decide to offer. Math: Fractions. Social Studies: All of our travel, and whatever else has come up in the course of my research; art leads to Renaissance life, and an interest in dogs leads to a book about how particular breeds emerged in particular times and places.

Sometimes – as was the case with “video game music” this year and “buildings” last year – Monkey is no longer interested by the time these things come to fruition, or perhaps she never really was and it just sounded good to her at the time. This is fine. They sit on the shelf or in the attic and wait for her. Maybe she’ll be interested again someday. Maybe she won’t.

This flexibility, I am now noticing, is integral to my course design as well. It is not unusual for me to change the entire content of the course based on student interests. (Yes, yes, my syllabus says this):

“In the interest of a productive and dynamic learning experience for as many students as possible, required texts are subject to change, and/or additional texts may be added, according to the needs and interests expressed by the students in class. Changes will not be made without class discussion first.”

And because I am focused on the process rather than the content, I can change the pace of the course to follow student interests also:

“Our reading schedule will change based on student interest. This means that you should obtain the contact information of classmates now, in case you miss class, to ensure that you are writing your collaboration paper on the relevant reading.”

This means that we can, in most cases, just drop readings in which there is just no interest and spend more time on things that do interest them.

The challenge, as any unschooling parent with a child who is not academically inclined can tell you, is getting them to be interested (or being okay with them not being interested). Monkey always wants to read about something, learn about something, do something. That makes it easy at home. Work is another story.

In the first place, people are just different. In the second place, nearly of my students are products of our current public school system, and what curiosity and imagination and interest they once had has, in many cases, been droned and roted and gold-starred and graded and right/wronged clear out of them. My goal is to follow their interests – but as a staggering number of them claim not to have interest (sad, sad stories on that in another post), this can be rather difficult.

My most recent attempt to deal with this has been to require, explicitly, that they find a way to make themselves interested in something. Anything.

“Each month, you will complete a written assignment on the readings and discussions thus far. I will not give you a question to answer, nor a required length. The goal is to be creative, in your representation and in your content, and to own your intellectual involvement and process. Your work in the course will culminate in a senior project. This is to be a project in which you have invested intellectual energy and time, and of which you are proud. The mode of representation is entirely up to you. It may be a performance, a short story, a painting, a research paper, or nearly anything else. Do not do something that does not interest you. Do not do something that you hate doing. You will not be given any guidelines.”


“This course is a collaborative effort among all of us. In my view, it is my job to inspire and facilitate learning, rather than to provide you with information. If your preferred mode of classwork is to sit and say nothing, this course will require you to stretch beyond your comfort zone. To a significant extent, the course is what you make of it.”

This semester, in what is turning out to be the very best course of my career thus far, I’ve stumbled upon more effective ways to describe how to write “collaboration papers:” Don’t. Just don’t. Give them only one rule, said many different ways:End up somewhere different than where you started. It shouldn’t end up on the same topic as the reading. It doesn’t need to end up on the same topic as the course. Go somewhere. Go anywhere. Make connections.

And while you’re working on that… read this. Try this one. No? Okay. What do you want to read? Do you like this? How about this one? I say to them: you just think, about pretty much anything you want. And you will get better and better at it. Don’t mind me; I’m just strewing.