How We Backed Into Unschooling

Have I told you that we homeschool? Actually, a more accurate description of how we learn is “unschool.” I looked on Google for a neat and succinct definition of unschooling, but I couldn’t find one. Maybe that’s because unschooling isn’t neat and succinct. It’s messy, just the way it’s supposed to be.

According to Wikipedia, the term “unschooling” was first used in the 1970s by an educator named John Holt. One of Holt’s statements perfectly summarizes our family’s educational philosophy:

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

Instead of a huge checklist of a body of knowledge Cami should know, her dad and I concern ourselves more with teaching her how to find out what she wants and needs to know. This educational paradigm is a far cry from the way Michael and I were schooled. How did we end up unschooling? It’s really a God thing.

Have you ever driven up the side of a steep mountain? On the way up, the road seems to constantly curve and wind away from the mountain at times, back in the direction you just came from sometimes, and all the while, you can’t see the next curve. Yet when you reach the summit and look back on where you’ve been, you see how the road-makers laid out the road with switchbacks to make the ascent or descent more manageable.

Our journey into unschooling has been like those mountainous roads: switchback after switchback. We started Cami’s educational journey with one paradigm: her learning the way we had been taught. We took the Mommy & Me classes. Cami attended a year of preschool. We enrolled her in public school kindergarten because that’s what we were supposed to do with our child. As we did all the “right” things, our family life was slowly descending into emotional chaos: daily meltdowns and a lot of yelling.

The first drastic u-turn and realigning of our educational paradigm really began in Cami’s kindergarten year. Every school day, I left Cami at the Kiss and Ride spot on the school’s sidewalk and drove away crying. Every. Day. I felt like I was abandoning her, throwing her to the wolves, leaving her to fend for herself. I told myself those feelings were silly. I fussed at myself for crying. My support system affirmed me in my attempt to grow up and let her go.

The school year began in September, and we made it until February. The morning I was getting Cami ready for school and she wrapped herself around my ankles, crying, “Mommy, please! Can I stay home with you? Mommy, I just want to stay with you!” was the morning my heart broke. I cried out to God for wisdom, and I let her stay home.

The next week, when I picked Cami up from school, we walked to the van with a little boy and his mother walking behind us. The little boy said over and over, “Cami, you’re a bad girl. Cami, you’re a bad, bad girl.” Not in a sing-song voice, not in a mean voice. Just a matter-of-fact voice. “Cami, you’re a bad girl.” Cami didn’t say anything to him. I wasn’t sure she even heard him.

I buckled Cami into her seatbelt, and in the time it took me to walk around the van and get in the driver’s seat, she was crying hysterically. In the course of the rest of that afternoon, she spilled the secret she’d been keeping bottled up inside her: the little boy who called Cami a bad girl had also hit her, pushed her, and continually threatened to take his knife and cut up all her stuffed animals, set her house on fire, and kill all of her family.

In addition to the bullying situation, Cami was having trouble meeting kindergarten benchmarks for reading and writing. Her teacher requested a parent-teacher conference where she suggested we have Cami tested for the autism spectrum based on her visual observation of how Cami flapped her hands when she was nervous or excited. Cami had done that since she was little bitty; when I asked her about it, she said she was being a hummingbird. I’d never thought it pointed to autism.

I know now that Cami’s sensory integration struggles, specifically the auditory processing disorder and the dyspraxia, adversely affected Cami’s ability to cope at school. The teachers’ instructions were getting lost before Cami could process them, especially in the gym and on the P.E. field. She wouldn’t follow directions because she didn’t understand them. But she didn’t know how to say so, especially in front of her 24 classmates who were all looking at her, listening to her, and standing or sitting close to her. Factor in the fear Cami felt from being threatened and bullied, and no wonder my child screamed and cried a lot. At the time, all I knew was that Cami was in trouble. I watched her behavior go downhill at school and at home, and I watched her lose her love for learning. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t know how to fix it. When I told Cami’s teacher I had considered homeschooling Cami, her teacher surprised me by saying, “I think that’s the best thing you can do for her at this point.” So I withdrew her from public school.

As my husband and I prayed, begging God for His wisdom and perspective, He led us gently and surely to the place we are today. Through a battery of educational, psychological, emotional, and behavioral evaluations, we discovered Cami’s sensory processing differences, her dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia. In the effort to recapture Cami’s love of learning, we invented “Sneaky School,” where we “sneak” the education into the fun activities of the day. For example, on a trip to the National Aquarium, we made a list of the alphabet and found animals whose names began with each letter. We took pictures of each animal so we could remember the information later. After a few years of Sneaky School, Cami began pointing out when we had learned something school-like in our everyday living: “Hey, Mom! We just did Sneaky School!”

You know what I’ve found? Cami learns more efficiently when she teaches herself. The day I found her reading a textbook just for fun was the day I took all the textbooks off the closet shelf and placed them on the bookshelf in her room. On the days when it’s sunny and warm and her friends are home from school, she goes outside and plays, building fairy hut villages and reading fairy tales to her friends. One of her public school friends taught her the “Mr. President” game, where each child takes a turn being “president” of the class and making presidential-like decisions. In our neighborhood, the children elected our dog Roscoe as the President. I knew something new was happening when Cami asked me, “Mom, where’s my book about the government?” Using the resources on her bookshelf, Cami researched the way the U.S. government is structured and proceeded to organize Roscoe’s “Cabinet” of officers from all the pets she knows. (The cat next door is Roscoe’s Secretary of Defense.) Cami pursued this knowledge on her own. I didn’t suggest any of it. That’s basically how unschooling works: the child directs her own education. Our job is to provide her with the resources she needs to learn what she wants to know.

Through unschooling, God is answering the promise He gave me when Cami began public school: “All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be your children’s peace” (Isaiah 54:13). God truly orchestrates how schooling works in our family. Really, the journey’s joy or stress comes from our perspective. Most days, the view through the windshield looks like thisroad to sky

It’s hard to trust what’s on the other side of the hill when we can’t even see the horizon past it. But God is such a patient and faithful leader, and we trust Him.

The times when I glimpse the bigger picture help me trust Him more with the switchbacks:


I am constantly amazed at God, how He gently leads us, how we begin in one direction and, step by step, He turns us and steers us until we are going in His direction, sometimes almost before we realize it. If you had told me twenty years ago, “Cassandra, in twenty more years, you will be a stay-at-home mom and be homeschooling your daughter with learning differences and sensory challenges, and you will love your life,” I wouldn’t have believed you.

But I do. I love my life.


*A previous draft was posted at on February 8, 2012.

Posted in Throwback Thursday | Tagged , | Comments Off on How We Backed Into Unschooling

{My First} 5-Minute Friday: PAINT

Canon July Butterflies 2010-0005Every Christmas, my husband asks me for a list, an idea of what gifts he could purchase for me. If you know me at all, you know I don’t often know what to put on a gift list. I think it’s because my thoughts go first to “what do I need?”

I have trouble knowing my wants.

On this year’s list, I surprised myself with how many items I listed—most of them experiences. My last item?

“I’d like to learn to watercolor.”

So, of course, under the Christmas tree was a set of professional watercolor paints, paper, and brushes. All my own. I don’t have to borrow Cami’s supplies anymore.

Just last month, my artist-neighbor and close friend moved to Germany quite unexpectedly with the Department of Defense. Aside from the quick transition and the hurtling into the unknown? The DoD packers wouldn’t let her take her paints. She left behind her oils and her acrylics, and all the solvents necessary for a painting career.

She gave them to me.

I have my own paints and brushes.

I think I’m supposed to learn to paint.

Oddly enough, not only is it what I want, I think it might be what I need.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Live loved, because we are,

Linking up with Lisa-Jo and the 5-Minute Friday writing community for the first time.

Five Minute Friday

Posted in 5-Minute Friday | Tagged | 3 Comments

To Moms of Church Youth Group Girls

Turtle handlingDear Moms of Middle School Girls at Church Youth Group,

Can you help me help my daughter?

She doesn’t want to fit in; in fact, she joyfully embraces the part where God made each one of us different, and she celebrates that truth.

She doesn’t want everyone to like her; in fact, she isn’t bound by that nasty stronghold called fear of man, that strangling insecurity of trying to figure out what everyone—anyone—wants her to be like, so she can be like that and they will like her. Unlike me and most of you at that age (and now), my girl likes herself just the way God made her, so she doesn’t think about if others like her or not.

She doesn’t want to control anyone (except maybe herself and her own mistakes).

She just wants to be friends.

Can you help me help her? See, I watched your girls tonight at youth group. I saw them watching her. I saw their smirks and their frowns, their raised eyebrows when she approached them and tried to start a conversation. I saw them turn their bodies in toward each other and shut.her.out. Sure, some of your daughters replied to her conversation starter question with a short, polite answer before turning away. But they still turned away.

Did you know her dad and I have coached her on how to engage people in conversation? Did you know that at home, we practice how to use our words and our body language to show other people how interested we are in getting to know them, finding out how God made them? Did you know we brainstorm for ideas on how to approach and engage the people on the fringes, the ones who might seem mean or conceited because those body languages might hide insecurity and grief? Did you know we practice leading questions, talking not about ourselves, but asking about the other person, then trying to find a point of connection with them?

Yes. We practice.

Could you practice those conversational skills with your girls? Maybe they just don’t think about what their body language says when they turn away like that. It could be misinterpreted to say, “You’re not valuable to me, so I’m not interested in you.” They can’t be thinking that, right? Not at church, right?

Maybe they don’t know that the fullness of Christ dwells in my girl. Maybe they don’t know how much she loves His Word, how she tried to figure out what God wants her to do with the things He tells her in His Word. Maybe they don’t know how He whispers in her ear encouraging things to say to everyone she meets, how she tells total strangers that Jesus loves them because, “Mom, they might not know.”

Maybe they don’t know that if they mention a prayer request, she writes it in the journal that she carries around for the times she doesn’t know what else to do to reach out to people, so she finds a quiet corner and draws and writes. Maybe they don’t know that she’ll pray for them, that she looks at her notes as talks to God about the people who have said they need prayer, and the people whom others have mentioned need prayer, and anyone else she thinks might need prayer.

Maybe they don’t know how much she loves coming to youth group, how she “never” wants to “miss a week ever, Mom.”

Maybe if they know those parts about my girl, they’d be more interested in getting to know her.

Please, moms of middle school girls at church youth group, can you help me? Let’s make their middle school experience different than ours was. Let’s give them permission to stick out from the crowd and embrace others who stick out from the crowd. Let’s give them room to be who they are, and not who we think they should be, or who their friends think they should be, or who the culture says they should be. Let’s help them discover who Jesus made them to be, and then celebrate them there.

He wants to change the world through them, did you know? He wants to use their generation to declare His truth and display His glory. It’s tougher now than when we were in middle school. Our culture doesn’t like Jesus, but we knew that was coming, right? He told us it was going to be this way.

We have to equip them. We have to train them in the one-anothers, in the way of Body life, because it’s our love for one another that makes us different, that makes us useful, that makes us a significant force for change in this world. When we love each other, we spur each other on to love others, and the Kingdom is built here, now, today.

But we have to lead them by example. We can’t give them the freedom to love Jesus, themselves, and one another with freedom and abandon until we walk in that freedom ourselves. So will you help me?

Thanks for helping me clear up the misunderstandings.

Live loved, because we are,

Candi (Cami’s mom)

Linking up with Jennifer and the #TellHisStory project

Posted in letters | Tagged | Comments Off on To Moms of Church Youth Group Girls

Why Turtles?

One of my daughter’s unique traits is the way she hears things. The this-is-the-way-it-should-be people call it “auditory processing disorder,” where the message her brain concocts from the information she receives isn’t the message the sender intended. (We all have a little of that, don’t we?) I will say, negotiating Cami’s auditory processing differences has taught me how to listen and really hear. Sometimes, her processing glitches make for frustrating times. Other times, it makes for funny stories. One time, it gave me treasure.

The December when Cami was five, she was telling her daddy and me about evergreens. She said, “Evergreens are trees that never lose their leaves. They remind us of God’s love for us and our happy turtle lives.”

Michael and I looked at each other, and then it dawned on me. “Cami, do you mean eternal life?”

“No, Mommy.” She was very sure. “If you believe in Jesus and ask Him to live in your heart, then you get a happy turtle life.”

Michael said, “Cami, the Bible says that God so loved the world,” (we had been trying to learn John 3:16) “that He gave us Jesus so that if we believe in Him, we can HAVE ETERNAL LIFE.”

By this time in the conversation, I had tears streaming down my face from trying not to laugh out loud and hurt Cami’s feelings, while still trying to participate in this very important conversation. I’m so glad Michael could keep his composure and be there for our daughter.

“Oh,” Cami said. She repeated, “Have eternal life.” She sounded almost disappointed that the Christian life didn’t necessarily involve turtles after all.

Since that day, turtles remind me of the gift we have in this life–the gift of time and paying attention. We are called to live “happy turtle lives,” lives filled with glory-moments, where what the world would say is “wrong” with us actually reveals God’s fingerprints all over us.

Posted in purpose | Comments Off on Why Turtles?

March Is For Spring(ing)

March inspires the blogger in me

to start

to switch

to spring forward

(even if it feels like I’m falling on my face).

My first blog post ever, on MySpace (remember that?) posted March 17, 2006.

I published my first post for on March 20, 2011.

And now, here I go again, springing forward

in March.

God’s got big plans for this space. I hope you’ll join me to see what He does.

He doesn’t wait for March to spring.

Live loved,

Posted in beginnings | Tagged , | Comments Off on March Is For Spring(ing)