Monday, June 17, 2024

‘Unschooling’ in Mexico presents families with both rewards and challenges

“Mommy, how did I learn to be so good at sharing?” 

This is a question that my daughter asks me once in a while, usually after having spent some time being kind to toddlers, who I think we can all agree are basically really cute and tiny psychopaths. 

My daughter’s question is adorable in its naked attempt to solicit praise, but it’s also a request for an origin story, or at least an origin anecdote. 

“You learned at maternal, sweetie,” I say, remembering the nursery we began taking her to when she was eight months old. 

I remember feeling such a strong sensation of guilt and release on that day. I wasn’t going to be taking care of her myself; I wouldn’t even be available in the next room. I was admitting that I needed some time to be Sarah rather than just Mommy for a while. I was choosing myself over her, at least for a little while.

And santo remedio, she took to “school” like a fish to water. Together with a diaper bag chock full of breast milk, changes of clothes and a couple of toys, she ventured off to learn how to share and play and be in a community, safe in the knowledge that we’d be there at the end of the day to continue caring for and loving her. A moody baby, she almost immediately got happier and cheerier. Some structured time with other babies turned out to be just what she needed.

I have prefaced this week’s column with a rather long anecdote in order to give you a bit of my own background and bias before delving into today’s topic, alternative schooling: essentially, education without that principal vehicle of the institution itself: the school.

As expat and immigrant social media groups have grown, a new way (or very old way?) of educating our children has bleeped onto my radar and I’m suddenly seeing posts like this: “We are world-schooling (sometimes “unschooling”) our children and are looking for a community in Mexico with x, y, and z. What places do you recommend?”

At first, I rolled my eyes. What the hell is “unschooling?” It sounded to me like a recipe for keeping kids’ psychopathic toddlerhoods in arrested development, allowing them to continue as the center of their respective universes well beyond the time when they should be learning that others might have competing needs and wants, perhaps even in conflict with their own. 

It’s true that schools haven’t always existed and kids still managed to get civilized, but it’s also true that for most of human history, we haven’t lived in isolated nuclear family units with dwindling opportunities for community involvement.

“Well, unschooling doesn’t mean unparenting,” says Miro Siegel. It doesn’t simply mean that you cease to guide and parent your child.

Miro Seigel is a young man who grew up as a world schooler and — together with his mother, author Lainie Liberti — was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about their experience of this lesser-known world of education. Together, they run Project World School, which facilitates meetups and retreats for world-schooling teens. 

First, a note on definitions: there’s plenty of overlap among the terms “homeschooling,” “world schooling” and “unschooling,” though they’re not all identical. 

Most of us are familiar with homeschooling: children follow a set curriculum from home that their parents guide them through.

World schooling may or may not involve a curriculum and is based on, like it sounds, learning from the world around them. This usually involves travel and implies an expansion of cultural learning.

Unschooling, finally, is completely child-led, may or may not involve travel, and never involves a curriculum; learning is completely self-directed, allowing the children themselves to decide what they’re interested in pursuing. 

“It’s less about structure and more about being creative,” says Sarah Tyler, location coordinator for the upcoming World Schoolers Summit. Adds Seigel: “Learning this way is experiential.”

During the pandemic, says Tyler, many parents became, in a way, accidental world schoolers. With schools closed and a plethora of online classes of dubious value, especially for very young children, many parents were left looking for ways to keep their children engaged. 

Plenty as well were eyeing Mexico as a place they could do remote work with low(er) costs of living and make the fantasy of long-term travel a reality. “Mexico’s the door to the world for a lot of Americans,” Tyler says.

The tricky part, of course, is finding community in a new place when you’re not already part of a “built-in community” like school. There’s ample opportunity, after all, for making friends when you spend your days quite literally surrounded by hundreds of peers.

One of Tyler’s biggest pieces of advice if considering world schooling in Mexico is to learn Spanish. 

“A lot of newcomers don’t realize how isolated they’re going to be,” she says. Siegel and Liberti agree: if they want the children to learn Spanish, then “parents need to model a desire to learn the language.”

Finding opportunities to practice it and to meet others, however, means going the DIY-route to finding community, something that many Mexicans might find strange, given that institutions for socializing children already exist. 

Many turn to Facebook to connect with like-minded families, and Siegel and Liberti’s events are meant precisely to foster and bring together the community of world schoolers. Many others may put their children in small, alternative private schools temporarily so that they can make friends and learn the language. 

Is there anyone who shouldn’t adopt this lifestyle? Everyone I interviewed emphasized the necessity of being open to learning: 

“If you’re there to fix somebody or change things [about your host country], then world schooling is not for you,” says Liberti.

Also worth noting: there’s, of course, a middle ground between highly structured schooling and no schooling as well. Plenty of “alternative” schools have been popping up and/or continue to thrive as they have for quite some time, like Montessori schools, forest schools, and Waldorf schools. If I still lived in Querétaro, I would send my daughter to JFK, a school that strikes just the right balance for my personal taste between structure and the freedom to explore interests.

The problem with these places for many world schoolers is simply that they’re not mobile; to attend, you’ve got to stay put in one place. The main issue for world schoolers, then, becomes one of community, something that can be tricky to maintain through online interactions and organized get-togethers.

Liberti describes the mission of world schooling as one that “leaves behind systems to tackle larger questions.” 

“Compassion for humanity grows as world schoolers; it gives us that connection to the ‘other’ and gives us a greater path to peace.”

This, I believe, is true. Making true, meaningful contact with the “other” in the absence of a preset community is the tricky part. For my own family, the ready-made kind saved us; the community of teachers, classmates, and fellow parents have helped raise my daughter in a way much better than I might have done by myself. 

But my conversations with those in this world have reminded me to keep a light grip and to leave ample space for her to pursue and learn about her interests. Humans are nothing if not resourceful and creative: perhaps the types of communities that await us are beyond any of our imaginations.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com

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