Unschoolers before us: The Piercys
23 February 11
Hearing other unschoolers’ stories is so inspiring. The internet has made it possible to connect with others who have embraced the philosophy of learning naturally, and I’ve been asking those with adult children to describe their unschooling journey.
Self-described “hippy homeschoolers”, the Piercys originally pulled their two children out of school in 1996 because they believed that they could provide a better, more personalised education for their kids at home. They naturally slipped into unschooling as they discovered their children thriving as they were encouraged to pursue their passions.
Deanna defines unschooling as the recognition that learning happens all the time — in many ways. “It is the acknowledgment that we are all born with the desire to learn and that children do not need formal education and teaching in order to learn.”
The Piercys’ son Chris, now 27, stopped attending school when he was twelve but later scored very well on his ACT, received academic scholarships and completed a degree in sociology with a minor in English at a local university. Now he is employed at the same company where his father works.
Lisa, now 23, was homeschooled since 4th grade. As an adult, she has pursued her passion in environmental affairs and writes for different “green” publications as well as maintaining the popular blog, Retro Housewife Goes Green. Deanna believes that unschooling gave Lisa the confidence to pursue her passions, and thinks public school might have crushed her.
The Piercys’ move to homeschool happened after the kids were already in school and Deanna was working outside the home. “I had been working full time as a hospice nurse for a couple of years, and quite frankly, I missed my kids.” Deanna says that she could also see a few issues beginning to arise.
“Chris — for whom school had always been easy — was bored. He was beginning to lose that spark and doing just what he needed to do to get an ‘A’ but nothing more.” Lisa was diagnosed as dyslexic although in first grade she was tested and qualified for both remedial reading and the gifted class. “That’s a challenging situation for any teacher. When Lisa was still not reading beyond a very limited basis by the end of 3rd grade, I knew I had to do something.”
While Deanna suspects there were friends and family members who had their concerns or disagreed with their decision to homeschool, no one actually approached them about it. “I have two college degrees so I often heard the comment that while I was “qualified” to teach my own kids, a lot of those other homeschool parents weren’t!”
Although she’d never heard of unschooling when they first started homeschooling, Deanna says she still never expected to use an entire planned curriculum. “I bought various resources and single subject curricula over the years, most of which went unused.”
Instead, Deanna says she and David equipped their children to pursue their passions. “That was the fun part! I thoroughly enjoyed watching them develop various enthusiasms.”
David felt that his most important role in their education to be the funding of those passions. “He happily paid for music and art lessons and whatever equipment or materials they needed for their projects. I think the most important thing we did was to offer encouragement and then give them the time they needed to pursue their interests.”
Although David says that he had a few misgivings about the methods of what they called “hippy dippy homeschooling”, he trusted Deanna implicitly and was willing to try unschooling. “In the beginning,” Deanna says, “I spent countless hours reading about educational methodology — something David didn’t do — and he correctly assumed I would do what was best for our children.”
Deanna found the education aspect was easy. She says that she’s one of those who naturally see learning possibilities in everything and enjoys sharing that with her kids in a fun and relaxed way.
In some ways, the Piercys watched the underlying principles of unschooling at work while their children were still in school. “We didn’t begin homeschooling until the kids were older. Chris was reading some words at home as young as three so I thought he’d be one of those very early readers. Instead, his reading progress at school was pretty ordinary until the end of 1st grade when something really clicked. By the beginning of 2nd grade he was reading on a 7th grade level.”
With Lisa, Deanna discovered that she was barely reading after three years at school. With perseverance and personal attention, Deanna helped Lisa learn to cope with her dyslexia. “I would set a timer for 10 minutes and have Lisa read anything she wanted to. At first, this was very difficult for her and the second the timer went off she would put down the book — even in the middle of a sentence. But gradually I noticed she was less fidgety while reading and would occasionally read a bit more when the timer went off. We just kept encouraging her, allowed her read whatever was of interest and eventually she was able to read well enough that she could even read for pleasure.”
In unschooling her kids, Deanna found herself learning alongside them. She says that Chris worked through a couple of Saxon math books on his own and then switched to a different author for geometry. “I knew that if he had a question part-way through the book I’d be lost, so I did the lessons along with him.” Because Chris was preparing to attend college, the Piercys knew he needed at least a basic understanding of algebra and geometry. In the end, Chris completed about half of each course, which was adequate because he scored well on the ACT.
Deanna confesses that she is a bit conflicted regarding unschooling and math. “Lisa initially wanted to be a nurse, and I know from personal experience that nursing requires a good grasp of math, so we struggled through the Saxon math books.” In the end, Lisa decided against nursing, so Deanna feels they could have skipped the higher math altogether. “I didn’t have a crystal ball,” she shrugs and smiles.
During the unschooling years, Deanna says that she learned she had a temper. But in pursuing the philosophy of unschooling, she also learned how to relax and enjoy her kids.
While their kids were at home, finding personal time as a couple was an issue for the Piercys. “David was busy with work, and I was totally caught up in the children. Eventually that was something we were forced to address.” Deanna is adamant that others with young children deliberately make time for one another as a couple. “I wish we had set aside time for date nights on a regular basis.”
Government bureaucracy was not a problem for the Piercys. “We are quite fortunate here in Oklahoma — it’s considered to be one of the very best American states in which to homeschool. We are not required to register, test or provide any information to government officials. In fact, Oklahoma is the only state in which the right to home-educate is guaranteed in our state constitution.”
As she guided her children, Deanna found a lot of support from online friends. “Early on, I joined a Yahoo group for Christian unschoolers, and I gained support and encouragement from the lovely members. Even though my kids are grown, I remain a part of that group and consider many of the members to be amongst my best friends.”
Finding true support among with local homeschoolers did not happen. “Our family was just so different from most of the others.” Deanna discovered that most of the other families were homeschooling for religious reasons and in an effort to protect and shield them from the world, while the Piercys were doing it primarily to offer a better, different education. “We enjoyed the activities of the local group but I can’t honestly say they provided any support for our choices as unschoolers.”
“Looking back I would have to say that unschooling my kids ultimately helped me accept the fact that our family is a bit different and to embrace that. We live in a very conservative part of the country, both religiously and politically. Our ‘hippie homeschooling’ lifestyle was outside the norm, to say the least.”
Although passionate about unschooling, Deanna says that she is hesitant to advocate unschooling over any other method of home-educating. “Although I’m 100% in favor of unschooling and consider it the best way to educate a child, I come back to the question: Can all families do it well? Unfortunately, the answer is no.”
But while the Piercys embrace unschooling as an educational method, they’re not entirely sold on the “no-boundaries” side to radical unschooling. “Can it work?” Deanna asks. “Sure — in some families and with enough time. But quite frankly, poorly behaved children annoy me, whether my own or someone else’s. Personally I don’t have the patience for how much time it takes before children will become self-regulating on their own.”
In their own household, the Piercys didn’t have a lot of rules, and Deanna can’t actually recall any hard and fast rules. “We had guidelines,” she explains. “We expected our kids to behave in such a way that we and others enjoyed their presence.”
Although a Christian — “My faith in God is central to who I am and therefore affects every choice I make” — Deanna says she doesn’t necessarily identify as a Christian unschooler. “We never formally integrated Bible teaching into our days — we simply talked about God and our faith as a natural part of our daily lives.”
The Piercys’ daughter Lisa is married to an elementary school teacher and yet Deanna is fairly certain that if they have children, Lisa will unschool them. “She’s very much into living a natural lifestyle, and I think she’d find it very difficult to send her kids to school.”
Deanna is also hopeful for Chris and any future children he may have. “I know that my son is appreciative of the sort of education he had and supports unschooling.” No matter what her children decide with regards to her grandchildren, Deanna says she will support them whole-heartedly. “But of course I do hope that my grandchildren will be unschooled!” she finishes with a smile.