What It’s like on the fringe

I went to a meeting of homeschoolers. In rural Wisconsin, of course. Because that’s where I live.

We talked about that the group is a safe place to talk about the things we’re having trouble with. A leader pointed out, “If you go to church and tell someone you are having trouble teaching algebra, the person will say, then put your kid in school.”

Everyone nodded.

Then no one told about any problems they have.

Instead we talked about what there is to do. Where you can take your kids: The zoo. The children’s museum. The science fair at the local college.

I expected to talk about educational theories. Does project-based learning make workbooks irrelevant? Does child-driven learning mean no algebra for dancers? Who among us would qualify as an unschooler?

But here people are proud that they can teach their kids to national standards. They talk about Algebra 1 and they worry about getting the right answer when someone asks what grade their child is learning at, saying only “between 8th and 9th.” And I think, “Really? At that age, who cares? What does she like to do? Where does she want to go?”

There is a pattern in my life. Where I try my best to do what is right. I go with my intuition and follow my heart. And I realized that, once again, I have driven myself to the fringe of the fringe.

30 replies
  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I’d want to talk about what you want to talk about and since you are way smarter than me, I’d probably learn a lot. I think most homeschoolers still worry about national standards though. It’s not just where you live.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      As soon as I started the homeschool blog I started receiving links about unschooling and education reform. So at this point, I guess I have a skewed version of what most homeschoolers are really doing. I was thinking most parents are doing unschooling because the research really, really supports that as the best way to teach kids.

      I was shocked, absolutely shocked, that most education reformers think that standards-based learning is completely unnecessary and very stifling to real learning.

      Here’s a great link about this:

      I think the big idea here is that if you want your kid to be spoon fed curriculum, the kid might just be able to do that better in school. The reason to take the kid out of school is that national, curriculum-based learning has been largely discredited and you can only do a different type of learning in extremely expensive private schools (like, $40K a year) or at home.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Thanks for posting this link, Penelope.
        Very good, educational article including the link within it regarding the Sudbury Valley School.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        I think the real point is that most people don’t want children to become independent learners and thinkers. If you opt out of the system you risk it.

        The more freedom the child has in learning, the greater his risk of becoming independent. Most parents want more influence on their children’s life choices.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          I think there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying, Zellie. Parents want some assurance that their kid will grow up in a way they want their kid to grow up.

          I think this is probably not the best way to think. It’s so hard, though, investing all this time and still not having control. Maybe it’s the hardest part of parenting to come to grips with.


          • Karen
            Karen says:

            Whenever I start to obsess too much about my kids, their educations and their futures, I remind myself of something a wise friend said to me when my first was born:

            “Your children come into this world through you, not for you.”

            It helps, most of the time.

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          Zellie, most parents do have a lot of influence over their children’s life choices … probably just not the ones they would like to see which is what I think you mean here. Children will practice Newton’s third law here (equal and opposite reaction) if they are prevented from discovering their own path.
          Also, the word “risk” made me think of something else regarding homeschooling. One of the reasons why many parents will probably not home school – the fear of failure. If their child were home schooled and he/she did not have a successful, happy, or whatever life, people could point to the fact that they were home schooled. It has the potential to reflect badly on the parents and the family. Hardly a valid argument but somehow I think many people would think that. Public schooling complete with teacher and standardized tests are the “safe” and accepted norm for most of the population. It’s how they were taught and their parents were taught … and I fall into that category. However, I managed to make it through the public school system and college and still enjoy learning. It doesn’t matter what the environment is so I consider myself to be lucky. Unfortunately, the joy of learning for many people was extinguished by teachers telling them what to learn and how to learn it.

  2. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    We used to select topics to talk about for our meetings. You could have a meeting about teaching algebra, have a guest speaker come for a topic. We had a teen panel every year to talk about their “high school” years and answer questions.

    Probably things to do will be the best resource this group has to offer. You may not have unschoolers in your group. Online groups can be a way to branch out. Do they organize field trips and have a newsletter with events in it? This is how the kids can form a somewhat consistent peer group.

    I would love to talk about the things you’ve mentioned. So what are you doing? It sounds like you have a lot of things in mind for your kids so “child-influenced” may be more your style at the moment?

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Well, first of all, the meeting was very worthwhile since you learned you were on the fringe of the fringe. :)
    When I find myself on the fringe of the fringe, I find what works best is to step back and reflect on how I got there. Determine the motivations that got me there. And then piece together the reality of the situation and determine what I need, want, and able to control … and not control. You need to know yourself. In this case, you also need to know other people and where you fit and don’t fit and take it from there.

    • emily
      emily says:

      Thanks for the reality check here – and thanks penelope for the concept of fridge of the fridge. I’m used to being completely on the edge. It feels right to be there, even though it’s a very emotionally raw place to be. Whenever I move more toward the center of things I feel like an outsider and it’s very isolating. I’m just not sure where I do the best work – when I have a different vision to offer or when I can work with people who already share the same vision?

  4. silvermine
    silvermine says:

    Yep. You’re not as fringe in other locations, though. Wen I lived in Silicon Valley, you couldn’t walk three feet without running into an unschooler. The kids were all fine and happy and often did community college classes as teenagers to transition to college, if that’s what they wanted. And not all wanted college. ;)

    And I don’t care about state or national standards. We’ll learn things in whatever order it makes sense to the kids, not the fictitious average student that standards are made for.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Is it messed up that I’m consoled that Silicon Valley is full of unschoolers? Somehow I feel like this is the mainstream endorsement I’ve been looking for.

      I’m on my fourth startup right now, and each time I have had to look for Silicon Valley to get approval of trends, market analysis, all sorts of assumptions I THOUGHT I was right on, but was not quite sure.

      So it turns out, I guess, that I’m very comfortable getting assurances from Silicon Valley in other aspects of my life as well.


  5. ZenCat
    ZenCat says:

    An empathetic wave from another member of The Fringe *wave*. My son and I are in our 2nd year of homeschooling (he’s 14). We migrated quickly from casual-but-structured homeschooling (with “subjects” and “projects” and “planned events”) to completely free range unschooling. I have also accepted the fact that he is and has always been naturally nocturnal, so that puts us on a very unique branch of the fringe: I don’t impose “bankers hours” on him. I’ve recently come into “virtual” (but not yet in person) contact with a surprising number of homeschoolers in this smallish Connecticut town we’ve just returned home to (after 5 yrs in NC where homeschool was “normal” but not the way we do it). I’m pretty sure our method of homeschooling will seem decidedly eccentric to them. It has become clear to me that my son has no need to be taught anything. He absorbs information continuously. He absorbs knowledge he gleans from all around him and applies it. He always has. Math, science (especially astrophysics), politics, statistics, world culture, history, etc. ad infinitum. He absorbs situations and strategizes his way through them with his knowledge. He absorbs people’s moods and motivations and applies his knowledge to diverse social situations (try explaining THAT to the “But what about socialization?? askers) as the situation requires. This is a constant process which mainly I attempt to facilitate and not direct. We are both intensely introverted as well, though well-loved (if not understood) by our non-homeschooling friends. I try not to see the view from here as The Fringe (though I’ve been a Fringe-dweller all my life) so much as The Microcosm. Hooray for the freedom to be *exactly* who we are. Hooray for intuition and following your heart. And hooray for parents who choose the culturally provocative path to preserve that freedom for their children.

  6. Darlene
    Darlene says:


    SERIOUSLY those were your expectations going into a meeting in rural America. REALLY?? lol — C’mon, girl! You KNOW better than that. Come here to talk about Project Based Learning. Go there to share your zucchini bread recipes ;-) And RSS http://gettingsmart.com/ -Darlene

    • Juliet
      Juliet says:

      Wow. Elitist much? People in rural America (Wisconsin and elsewhere) have interests besides zucchini bread. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people better able to teach a kid about entrepreneurship, small business, environmentalism, agronomy, mechanics, animals, and yes, cooking – and local food, sustainability, improvising, and a host of other topics.

      • Darlene
        Darlene says:

        No, not elitist. My point was that Penelope’s going-in expectation set was incorrect for the regional demographic – Educational Philosophy is not what the expectation of a rural group discussion should be. Hope that clarifies. Again, hardly elitist. Study any of the MDR and other Nielsen data for given areas and you will be able to level set your expectations. Cheers, Darlene

  7. Teri S
    Teri S says:

    I find myself on the fringe, as well because most homeschoolers in my area use an ISP & let someone else dictate the curriculum. In addition, I homeschool for quality reasons, not just faith. It makes me a bit of a rebel. I don’t give a hoot about national standards but I stick to standard subjects (plus Latin because I think it’s fun) as a base even though we may not follow the course exactly. For instance, my 16 y.o. is simultaneously doing courses on British & American literature; each one could take a year alone. Because she is an adventurous gourmet & designer her cooking & sewing projects earn credit (even though they’re done outside of school). We use grade designations because it ends comments & speculation. It took my sons ACT scores (2 pts over the avg, and he’s dyslexic) to quell my dad’s concerns over their lack of standardized test scores. Stay on the fringe if that’s where your kids learn best.

    If you’d like some in depth discussion about curriculum or homeschooling, I’m up for it. I usually end up talking to my kids or my sister (who is a private school teacher).

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I’ll be your homeschool friend. You sound just like me. I pulled my kids out of public school because I was absolutely appalled by the quality of the curriculum being used there, not because I don’t think that they need one at all. Most of the people in my homeschool group are unschoolers and I don’t really fit in with them because I’m using the classical trivium as a model (3 cheers for latin – it is fun and does amazing things for kid’s vocabularies).

  8. karelys
    karelys says:

    omg so nice to know! i mean, kinda. i feel the same way and then i want to run back to the safe place but then the safe place where everyone is doing the same thing feels like a prison.
    maybe you can take a course online about educational theories.

    in my community college i came across people who took random classes (it seemed to me) for personal enrichment.

    or maybe you can make friends with a doctor/professor/counselor that will give you the download on what you want to know. Not as a shortcut but as a way to go directly to a good source. that way you cut time in research.

    i love research but sometimes i don’t know where to start looking. so I pick up the phone book and pretend i’m in college still and interviewing psychologists for a certain topic.

    i learn tons this way.

  9. Jana H
    Jana H says:

    Maybe there is a homeschooling group in Madison you can join which meets when you’re down there for other activities. You’re bound to find more unschoolers there.

    • Erika
      Erika says:

      I was thinking the same thing. The other thing is that I *think* there’s a group of Waldorf-theory unschoolers based out of Verona, and you might find that they’re more your thing.

    • Erika
      Erika says:

      I was thinking the same thing, about finding a group in Madison. The other thing is that I *think* there’s a group of Waldorf-theory unschoolers based out of Verona, and you might find that they’re more your thing. And Verona is like going to Madison, without having to drive all the way into town…

  10. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Just found a whole new section on your blog. Exciting! Loved the last line.

    I’m a homeschooling failure. Tried it when we were traveling round Central America. We all hated it though I loved the idea and still do. So I’m a homeschool mummy at heart:)

    Plus it’s true a lot of homeschoolers are odd and I can’t abide hanging round in groups. Hopefully you can find a couple of other remote fringe dwellers to hang with:)

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      If traveling itself would have been fun and you had put off school until you finished, you might have been surprised to find the kids learned “a sufficient amount” anyway.

      My daughter was afraid she didn’t know anything because I didn’t teach her “school” beyond reading and calculating about age 7. She took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to see how bad it was and was surprised to find she had learned anyway.

  11. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Penelope, you quite naturally feel somewhat ill at ease realizing you’re on the fringe of the fringe. Again, right?

    I’m intimately acquainted with that discomfort.

    As someone who may well be farther out on the fringe than you, having begun 18 years ago with an “attachment parenting” approach to parenting that gradually evolved into radical unschooling* as our child’s mind grew, I can tell you that the rewards of following your mind and heart can be well worth the cost in socially awkward moments.

    Look at any social animal and you see a familiar pattern. The safest spot is in the middle of the herd. As individuals instinctively seek that center, the herd as a whole moves as one without any coordination. Survival does not demand they end up going a good direction, just that they all go in the same direction. Predators pick off of the fringe, the edge cases, those who stray or cannot keep up.

    I wish I was more different from an antelope, but I feel this instinct too. Where I do differ from an antelope is I decide what I think is best, and when it is away from the center of the herd, I disregard my instincts the best I can.

    If you want to innovate, lead, discover a frontier, or be the best, you are, by definition, setting yourself apart. You are committing yourself to the fringe. You can’t strive for greatness and strive for normalcy at the same time.

    There may never be peace, but I think you can work out a truce. And that’s something you must have a lot of practice with, given your unique perspective on life, yet working within a field that is very much about successfully fitting in.

    * Radical in the sense of “from the roots.” Thorough, pervading. Unschooling as a way of life, a philosophy, a total and uncompromising commitment to principles. For example, see http://www.sandradodd.com/unschool/radical

    • Darlene
      Darlene says:

      Hi Mark,

      I absolutely loved this line that you wrote: “You can’t strive for greatness and strive for normalcy at the same time.” I may get a poster made! -Darlene

  12. Latha
    Latha says:


    I get the fringe of the fringe. I am way out there on the long tail. Atheist-humanist, immigrant, solo choice parent-single child family, attachment parenting/unschooling, name it…However, my post is not about that. It is about not dismissing your local homeschooling community. You might be in for a pleasant surprise if you are open to it.

    My son and I live in the middle of nowhere and we don’t know any real-life unschooling families. However, over the last four years of our living here, my local (rural, right-wing, mostly fundamentalist Christian) homeschooling community has become a great resource for me to rely on and learn from. By forced association, I have learned (and by extension, my son too) to communicate across boundaries, build bridges and maintain relationships regardless of the side one is in. Any of those families would be my first choice to call if I need anything. I began like you did, but repeated contact opened my mind. It doesn’t mean they or I have experienced any drastic changes in our positions/preferences, but all of us have learned to respect the other, listen to each other, and build a peaceful partnership/community where we can all co-exist.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for the really helpful comment, Latha. I think you’re right. I’m working on it. Hearing that you were able to find a spot for yourself in this type of community gives me hope that I can do the same.


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