Posted by: sciliz | April 24, 2013

My story

So if I was not going to school what did I do?

I read. A lot. Fairly early on I found The Teenage Liberation Handbook which has a splendid bibliography and led me to find other lovely books, like Lives of a Cell, A People’s History of the United States, The Double Helix, and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I also probably got turned on to Tom Robbins sooner than I would have otherwise.

I colored. No, seriously. I read comics.

I socialized. Kind of a lot. With other homeschoolers, with neighborhood friends, at summer camp.

For a more complete reflection of my unschooling experience, there is a Q & A that I wrote up to answer a survey that was part of Gina Riley and Peter Gray‘s  research.

Posted by: sciliz | April 24, 2013

Q & A

I pretty much always say yes when somebody asks “Would you like to take a survey?”

If I was a bean, I’d totally be a garbanzo bean.

The following questions are part of a research survey about adults who were unschooled conducted by Gina Riley and Peter Gray.

1) Please tell us about your history of schooling/homeschooling/unschooling:
(a) Did you ever attend a school, as a regular student, when you were between the ages of 5 and 16?  If so, please list any schools you attended by type of school (e.g. public, Montessori, etc.), your age when you attended and when you left, your grade level(s) at that school (e.g. kindergarten through 5th grade), and your understanding of why you left that school.

I attended a public, neighborhood school from Kindergarten through halfway through fifth grade (11 years old).
There are always a variety of push and pull factors in the decision to homeschool. The short explanation for why I left is that the school started a mandatory uniform policy, and my Dad had told me that if they went through with that then I didn’t have to go there. Some of the push factors: I was academically and socially asynchronous in my development, leading to frustration; I was bullied, particularly riding the school bus; I was unchallenged academically; it was very difficult for my parents to get me up in the mornings; I was asked to stop reading ahead; most crucially, the uniform policy and the PTA discussions over it had left a bad taste in my Dad’s mouth… while he respected the civic-education function public schools can serve he “didn’t want these people teaching me about democracy” because they ignored their own poll results when it came to this policy. Pull factors: my Dad was already a SAHD, one of my classmates in the gifted program had started homeschooling except for coming back for that program, we had met and enjoyed socializing with our local homeschooling groups while exploring the option during the uniform discussions. In addition, the social side of the local Catholic schools was likely to be as problematic as the public schools, and the independent schools in the city (Chicago), while very appealing, were simply impossible in terms of cost and commute.

(b) During the years when you were not in school, between age 5 and 16, did you ever do homeschooling—that is, school at home, where you were following a curriculum determined by your parent(s) or another adult? If so, please describe that experience, how long it lasted, and your age at the time.  If you switched from homeschooling to unschooling, what led you and/or your parent(s) to make that switch?

During my 5th grade year, I was still enrolled in the local public school for art/gym/music/gifted classes. During this period, my Dad also tried to come up with some assignments for me. They were well-intended, but led to a lot of frustration on both sides. Gradually, we shifted to fairly pure unschooling with a few guidelines.

2) Please describe briefly how your family defined unschooling. What, if any responsibility, did your parent(s) assume for your education?

My Dad was interested in my education, and would bring home books for the library he thought I might like, alert me to history programs he was watching that might be interesting, and so on. There were always vigorous discussions in my house, about all manner of subjects. But during a good chunk of that time, you could argue his most time-consuming responsibility was that of “driver”, because I had a lot of enrichment type classes outside the home. Over the years these included sewing, karate, Tae Kwon Do, competitive swimming, homeschooling support group social functions, 4-H, Girl Scouts, science clubs, art lessons, summer camps, summer gifted programs, theater groups, book clubs, and probably some other things I’m forgetting.
My Dad did set up a little bit of structure in ways that might not go completely with unschooling. His first guideline was that I would spend 6 hours a day doing something educational- including the classes mentioned, educational computer games, and reading. Eventually, my Dad realized I was doing far more than 6 hours a day of stuff he thought of as educational, so we stopped tracking it. The second guideline, which I think of as relating to homeschooling since it wasn’t in place when I went to school, was that the amount of time I could spend watching TV of my choice was less than an hour a day. The third guideline was that I would do the standardized tests administered at the local schools once a year (about a week of testing, ISATs and CTBS if I recall). There was no minimum required performance on the tests, though I never scored below 80% on any test while I was in school or during unschooling, so I don’t know if my Dad would done something differently if there had been greater deficiencies.

3)  In your opinion, why were you “unschooled” instead of going to school or doing school at home? Is this something that both you and your parent(s) wanted to do?

Since we kind of gradually transitioned to unschooling, it wasn’t based on a theoretical framework or anything (though my Mom had read John Holt in college). Yet there was a lot of struggle when my Dad tried more hands-on teaching. Part of that was probably related to the timing- I was already doing a lot of adolescent individuating by that point. Part of it was probably related to not striking a good “growth mindset” balance, especially for math (always my weakest area and probably the one my Dad most wanted to help me with, and that was just fundamentally challenging for us to communicate about). Ultimately, things were calmer and I was happier without the instruction side of things, and my Dad was quite keen on fostering creativity, so unschooling just arose out of the situation.

4) Are you currently employed? If so, what do you do? Does your current employment match any interests/activities you had as an unschooled child/teen? If so, please explain.

I am not employed right now. My most recent job was as a postdoctoral scholar in food science/microbiology, which certainly matched my teen interests. From a very young age (3?) until I was about 13, I mostly wanted to be an artist. As a teenager, I developed a strong interest in biomedical research, which is what I pursued since then.

5)  Please describe briefly any formal higher education you have experienced, such as community college/college/and graduate school. How did you get into college without having a high school diploma? How did you adjust from being unschooled to being enrolled in a more formal type of educational experience? Please list any degrees you have obtained or degrees you are currently working toward.

Due to concerns about having enough math background to do science, we looked for an algebra class for me when I was 14. It turned out that one of our homeschooling support group contacts knew the vice president for academic affairs at our local community college (Prairie State College), so they agreed to let me take the placement test even though they normally only accepted people at least 16 years old. I tested into the third of three remedial level math classes (and into college level English), and I started with enrolling in College Algebra over the summer. I got a B and went on to take two classes the next semester, and continued to build up an academic record in that fashion. In part because I started gradually, the formal setting wasn’t too hard to adjust to. Later on, they changed the age policy to explicitly admit younger homeschoolers, which I’ve always felt was a good thing.
When I was 17, because I’d taken the SAT/ACTs and done well, I got a boat load of mail from colleges. Partially because I was overwhelmed by the decision, and partially because I knew I wanted to get research experience and they would take most of my transfer credits, I decided to simply apply for transfer to the state flagship university (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). I graduated with my B.S. in Microbiology when I was 19 (albeit two days shy of my 20th birthday), and went off to graduate studies at 20. I graduated with my Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine from Penn State at 27. In a sense, adjusting to grad school was much harder than undergrad. This may have had to do with my age or lack of certain types of social maturity. Primarily, it was navigating the academic hierarchy that was challenging (a lot of people in academia say things about being “self directed” that sound like they’d fit well with unschooler mindsets, but in general, academics are people who are good at school and have trouble seeing problems with the system that rewards them so much).

6)  What was your social life like growing up?  How did you meet other kids your age? How was your “social” experience as an unschooler similar/different to the types of social experiences you have now?

For a time, I maintained some friendships with girls my age from school that also lived nearby. I ended up helping ‘nudge’ one family into unschooling themselves, but also loss contact with other friends who didn’t live as nearby. I also had a wider range of different aged kids I played with in the neighborhood (more boys in that group). Over time, I made friends with other teens from the homeschooling support group, and eventually made some really important friendships in community college.

7)  What, for you, were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences. In your view, how did unschooling help you in your transition toward adulthood?

As a kid, after attending my first homeschooling conference my parents asked me what I thought. I said “The smart kids seems smarter and all the kids seem happier”. I still think that the ability to make unfettered progress in learning and the focus on the joy of the learning process are the biggest strengths of unschooling. Some random skills honed in unschooling- how to run a meeting, how to communicate across generations, how to find people who can help me know more about what I want to know about… are things that I use most as an adult.

8) What, for you, were the main disadvantages of unschooling? Again, please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now.  In your view, did unschooling hinder you at all in your transition toward adulthood?

Growing up, I’m not sure I saw many disadvantages to unschooling. I had such negative feelings toward school, and I felt so fiercely defensive about my education that I wouldn’t have admitted to many. Granted, as a teenager I did notice socialization differences with some of the folks in the homeschooling support group. There was some awkwardness that was probably partially attributable to homeschooling.
In a sense, since I’ve chosen to spend so much time in formal academic environments, unschooling was not actually great preparation for what I’ve done as an adult. I mean, I am fine at the ‘learning new things’ part of academic research, just not the hierarchy/status orientation or publishing frenzy. Also, most Ph.D. types reach a point where they are very narrowly focused, and that’s never felt like a natural strength for me.

9)  If you choose to have a family/children, do you think you will choose to unschool them? Why or why not?

This is a really tough one for me. I have a 3 year old son, and he’s developmentally fairly precocious, at least for athletic and academic traits. Right now he’s going to a high quality mixed-age preschool, and I would ideally like him to start Kindergarten next fall. Based on his personality, I feel like if I can work the system to make sure he can be around older kids, he may do perfectly fine in school. So over the next few years we’ll have to see what happens with my partner and my careers and whether the school system will be a good fit. In any event, right now my son is definitely in a more structured schoolwork focused type of environment than I was at his age, but I could definitely see us doing something more unschooling like after he’s reading fluently.

Posted by: sciliz | September 6, 2011


So all over my twitter and bloggyland people were chatting about a new website aimed a young girls called “Smart girls at the party”. I checked out some of the episodes, and this one on robots really got my attention. Now, I’m currently trying to learn some Java programming through a Stanford Engineering Everywhere  (SEE) course (CS106a). This has introduced me to the lovable (although frankly rather dim) karal the robot, who I find vaguely reminiscent of the Logo turtle of my childhood, except less tangible. SEE also has their intro to robotics course for the more hardcore.

While as a kid I did love Legos, I never really got into the robots (the relatively high cost of the kits was probably part of the issue). But there are a lot of Youtube videos for those looking for inspiration, and apparently you don’t even need a specialized kit. By far my favorite is the pancake robot.

And of course, no geeky post about robots is complete without an obligatory They Might Be Giants video (because of course, If robot Then TMBG)…

Posted by: sciliz | September 9, 2010

hello… universe

Ahh! It’s a NEW BLOG!

Now I’m wondering what a personal equivalent of the Voyager Golden Record would be…