Friday, April 5, 2013

a slave to passion: the unschooling way

We started the school year this February…with a timetable.

Yes, you're reading that right! We free and unfettered "life learners," we long-term unschooly types, tried a timetable on for size this term.

Oh, it was so pretty.

I dolled things up by changing the font, using different colours and text sizes, fitting things into coloured boxes, all in the attempt to make the Scheduled Learning Opportunities look enticing and fun.

I printed it out and put it in a plastic sleeve where we oohed and aahed over it. It looked so fancy, so polished, so Sensible and Straight.

And I had high hopes for it, in the beginning. This timetable thing was how I was finally going to fit all the government expectations and requirements into the week, squeeze them in like step-sisters' toes into our glass slipper.

You see, at the beginning of the school year, I suddenly got hit by a fit of the Have To's. The Shoulds, the It's Got to Look Like This'es. My son was going into year 8 this year, and two days before term began, I suddenly thought, "Woah! This is serious! Better start "Doing" high school, then!" I forgot we'd been perfectly happily "Doing" high school all last year, without the sense of squishiness, without feeling the subjects crowding into the week like mad concert goers rushing the stage.

So, I tried to fit all the Stuff—the language, technology, science, maths, literacy, history, geography, all the boxes you're supposed to tick every single week—in around the kids' passions. But these things were bullies…or at least, by attempting to change who we are and how we learn, I turned these Required Subjects into bullies…because they shoved my son's juggling practice to the far reaches of the day. Half an hour in the mornings, maybe. Perhaps an hour or two on a Wednesday, if he was lucky. He had evenings, which I thought were enough, working on his passion before bedtime.

But the problem with (and the beauty of) passion is, it's all consuming. It is your greatest love, your escape; your saviour and your finest hour.

Go without the thing you love for long, and it's torment. You aren't yourself. Everything feels wrong, feels wobbly, like you're not in the right skin, the right life.

I know this, because without my own passion, I get lost. When I'm not writing, everything feels a bit (or a lot) off kilter. There are times I can mask the feeling with more exercise. Magnesium supplements. Extra sleep. And with mindfulness exercises…where I take note, gladly, that I am well and get to hang out with my kids all day.

But if I forget to write, or get so busy tweaking a schedule that doesn't fit—"facilitating learning experiences exactly between the hours of 9 and 12 on a Monday, and 10 to 1 on a Tuesday, etc, etc"—that my writing time shrinks to nearly nothing, then after a time, it feels like a limb is missing.

The last few weeks, I've begun to truly prioritise my writing. Brought my computer everywhere I've gone. Grabbed every spare minute to write, write, write. I've written in the mornings while the kids eat their breakfast, written while they've pottered away at their projects, begun to put my writer self first. I've written 20,000 words over the past month, and it feels beautiful.

And as I've raised my passion up, valued it, prioritised it…well, our timetable has, sort of, um, fallen away.

What has this done to my newly-organised homeschool family? Well, the kids have gone back to learning, exploring, creating, discovering, just as they have been, quite organically (with us as a team, following ideas, suggestions, and desires), for four homeschooling years.

And as for my son's juggling, it is setting up home in centre stage.

The other day, you see, my son showed me yet another Youtube juggling video—one of the hundreds, literally, he has watched over the past year.

He said to me, "Mum, this guy [pointing to the teenager doing mad tricks…] practices juggling for three hours a day, seven days a week."

I said, "Really???" and he said, "Yes."

"Huh. Would you want to do that???"


He was so quiet, sitting there at the computer, looking at me with these eyes—the only word to describe what I saw there, was 'Hunger.'

He didn't just want to throw objects into the air for every waking minute of every day. He needed to. He was unmoored without it.

Something clicked. So this is what passion looks like when it's outside your own body.

We talked for ages about how to make this love an actual, honest to goodness priority. He had his circus classes, yes, but needed practice time too—hours and hours. And practice space—he needed tall ceilings. He needed time to watch videos, to make videos, to think about juggling, to breathe in circus arts like oxygen.

So we're doing it. Going for it, jumping into the deep.

We've set up open training at his circus space. Two hours here, three hours there, almost every day of the week. I've talked with his teachers and they've told me what he needs, to get into university to study circus arts. They're setting higher goals, harder tasks, because they take this thing seriously. They will take it seriously for as long as it's my son's dream. I've even booked my boy into ballet class—he can't wait to start.

I've rewritten a timetable he might never see. Great swathes of the day are filled with the words, "Circus Training." Our classes—art, tennis, writers workshop, music and more music—are marked down too. But the "Official Stuff?" The boxes filled with labels like "maths"? Gone. I've rewritten the timetable…for me. Now that it's been written, with all the right bits in, I'm not sure, honestly, if I'll look at it again.

Passion is valid, vital, alive. It's okay…it really is…if it is everything and all the other Stuff fits and flows around it. I've read articles about unschooling and kids having consuming passions and how this all can work…and I am finding my way again.

Which brings us to today.

My son made juggling videos, all day. He filmed his training yesterday, edited and formatted the movie, added text and music. Together we created a Youtube account for him. He worked his way around the site for hours, adding a profile pic, creating a cover image for his Youtube channel, subscribing to his favourite jugglers. He uploaded his first ever Youtube video. Hurrah! And then…he went and made another.


  1. Amazing! Juggling on a rolly-thingy? Wow!

    (I had a laugh when the ad that popped up in the youTube window was for Increasing Your Child's Grades at a Learning Center)

    1. That's awesome, Deb—so glad you liked it! Perhaps the learning centre should introduce Juggling as a required subject? It would bring a LOT of happiness (and wild, beautiful enrichment), I suspect :)

  2. I love the videos! I love the time taken for following passions (for Everyone in the family). I love it all really, even the, 'oh, we Should do this Schedule', and then the, 'oh, yeah, that's why we don't.' I love your writing.

    1. Thanks so much, Nikole! I love that you love my son's special things. I love that I get to share them with you.

      I also love that I was in bed, just now, at 2am and realised that I didn't like part of what I had written, so put on sweatpants and crept down the stairs in the dark to rewrite a whole section of this post. I think you read the first version :) I know, this is what passion does. Makes you very sleep deprived sometimes!

      Yes, I am glad we tried the schedule for a while. It made it very very clear that such a thing isn't a fit at all! Though it was truly lovely to rewrite, and chuck all the Stuff out :)

  3. Wow! all of you are inspiring! I too have been through those 'schedule' moments - the times of state influenced self doubt and they are a killer. They kill time, possibilities, opportunities and true learning. Great videos! I hope one day to see your boy perform in some big stadium somewhere :)

    1. Thank you, Yeshe :) Yes, exactly what you said about "schedules"—unless of course you thrive on them, and then it's another story entirely. We don't thrive on them, not for long, anyway. Unless you count the new routine we've got for my boy where he goes into train at the circus, at specific hours we've set up with the circus manager. Now, THAT schedule he LOVES!

      And it would be lovely to have you come watch my boy perform. Come soon; don't wait for the stadium show!

  4. Awesome videos! Incredible skills combining juggling and balancing and piano-key-tapping!! Excellent choices of musical accompaniment!
    My kids just did a 6hr circus class and loved it. Does your son have any tips for a 6yr old who can't throw the ball straight up (and therefore has no chance of cathching it)?

    1. Thanks so much, Jackie! There's a video out there of my son playing kazoo, juggling, and playing drums at the same time. I'll have to show it here, too! :)

      I am sure he would have some solid tips for your boy. He's got the patience, respect for others and so much love for his craft that I know he could be a great teacher some day, if he chooses to be! (And if your boy wants to visit my town, my boy could give him some real life lessons!)

      And now I think of it, the ball isn't supposed to go up straight—isn't it meant to go in a curve across to the other hand? Yes! That's the answer! (It gets a little bit more technical than that, but you could start from there…) :)

  5. Oh Helena, I wish there was a little button I could press that would make the sound of loud applause burst out of your computer enthused I feel after reading this post! Passion shouldn't be underestimated huh?! I'm so thrilled for your boy that he feels this burning passion within. How is he going with the ballet?

  6. Ha, I love that you tried to do a schedule of learning and found it did just the opposite. I have done that! I, too, spend a great deal of time making sure my passionate guy gets his hours of practice in every day. If he misses more than 2 days, we are all sorry! You are doing an amazing job supporting his passion right now. I am going to show the videos to my boys.


I love hearing from you! Thank you for your heartfelt, thoughtful responses—they lift me, and give me light.