Book Review:UnSchoolers by Sophia Sayigh and Milva MacDonald

Did you ever wonder, what do unschoolers really do all day?

Now there’s a novel to give you a glimpse into the complex and wonderful world of unschooling.

I was excited when on of the authors of UnSchoolers reached out to me and asked if I would consider reviewing UnSchoolers.

The first thing I wanted to know was, who are the authors?

Two moms who unschooled their kids.

Here is a bit more from their bios on their site:

Sophia Sayigh is a librarian and the mother of two adult children, neither of whom went to school until college. She is forever grateful for the time she was able to spend with them unschooling, and she continues to learn more from each of them than she ever taught them. She stumbled upon John Holt’s Teach Your Own at the library in 1991, and it struck a deep chord, resonating with her own school experience as a “good” student, as well as her then life with a toddler. She is the ultimate homebody, and has supported families through volunteer work as a breastfeeding counselor, contributing homeschool support group member, and family death care/green burial outreach. A perfect moment would be spent outside in lively conversation with family and friends, a cup of coffee, book, and dog within reach.

Milva McDonald is the mother of four amazing adult children, all of whom homeschooled for all or most of their child and teenage years. She started homeschooling in 1991, after reading an essay by John Taylor Gatto and realizing school and the PTA weren’t for her. For three decades she worked for The Boston Globe and writing and reporting about arts and cultural events in Boston. Other pursuits over the years included running a folk music coffeehouse, organizing countless field trips, facilitating creative writing groups for kids, passing hors d’oeuvres at fancy parties on weekends, and performing in several editions of The Christmas Revels. She sings in The Halalisa Singers and blogs at

And I always want to know the why. Why did they decide to write?

Says Sayigh,

“People always ask, ‘What is a typical day like?’ And of course there isn’t a typical daythere are as many different days as there are families, so we had the idea to write through the eyes of a variety of homeschooling families. And it morphed into something richer, because the families also interact with each other over a series of days.” 


“It chronicles the way we homeschooled,” says Sayigh, “and looking back, it appears that it was a unique time in the history of homeschooling. It was accepted as legal in all 50 states, but it was so far off the grid that we really had to create opportunities for our kids by ourselves. Today we see families choosing to homeschool, and being immediately marketed to—as well as almost too many opportunities to join online groups. What can be lost is the do-it-yourself part. We’re hoping the book will show that the kind of empowering organizing and community building that we did is still possible. You just have to put the effort in, it has to be a priority, and sometimes it’s a slog. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s worth it.” 

I totally agree with those last two sentences about the value of the effort of building community and the DIY aspect of figuring things out.

In many ways figuring out how to learn what you want and build a community of support and friendship are the most empowering and lasting lessons. What that looks like can be hard to convey in just a few words to someone wondering what unschooling is like and if it is worth it.

I was curious about how a fictional representation of unschooling would work.

  • How would they give background information on homeschooling and unschooling within the story?
  • Would the authors be able to show the diversity of unschoolers as well as common concerns?
  • Would it look like what felt true to me?

So time to dive in and read.

Yes, it felt true.  I couldn’t stop reading.

Ahh the sweet memories of our homeschooling days.

I could relate to the various characters as they wrestled with:

  • finding their way as parents
  • letting go of judgment and control
  • enjoying their children and the process of learning together
  • frustration and fears of uncertainty and forging a new path
  • the tensions between those farther along in accepting and choosing freedom and parents still scared to let go of the system
  • the reality of parenting partners not always being on board with homeschooling
  • the challenges of accepting and embracing differences

Of course most parents want what is best for their kids and try to design a life that will be best for their kids. And all parents come with their own baggage and beliefs about the best way to do that.

Once you decide – whatever your reasons – that you need or want to go outside the traditional path for educating or parenting your kids – you have hopes and expectations about the other adventurers choosing to forge their own paths.

And the confidence to be different and intense idealism does help forge bonds. But the seekers are still endearingly imperfect humans learning as they go.

MacDonald and Sayigh do a wonderful job of capturing the love, desires, fears, questions, and commitment that can lead to enduring and deep relationships between kids, families and friends that choose to create community along with taking ownership of their learning.

Follow-up questions with Author Milva MacDonald

I asked Milva how the response to the book Unschoolers has been, what questions come up, would she change anything, and what next.

She said,

The response to the book has been great. Homeschoolers who’ve read it have been able to relate to it, and non-homeschoolers have found it illuminating. One question people have asked a lot is “Why fiction?” Sophia and I both love to read fiction and agree with the research that says it fosters understanding and empathy. So we thought it could be a good way to help break through some of the assumptions people have about the motivations, belief systems, and lifestyles of homeschoolers. Another reason we chose fiction is that homeschoolers and unschoolers are woefully underrepresented in books. When they do appear, they’re often sensationalized or extreme in some way. People also ask if we’re trying to promote homeschooling or unschooling with the book, and the answer to that would have to be no. In writing the book, we were just trying to tell the stories of the characters.
Would I change or add anything? Probably! I was once in a writing workshop with the amazing novelist Tim O’Brien and on the first day he walked in with of his published books, opened it wide and held it up so we could see that he’d copiously crossed out, underlined, and reworked to the point where the original text was barely legible. He wanted us to know that he was constantly revising. Years before that I was in a workshop with the novelist Ivan Gold. I had brought in a story and told the participants I was having trouble finishing it. Ivan looked at me and said, “The story is done! Send it out!” He was right, of course. I think it’s pretty common for writers to feel like they’re never finished. 
I would love to see more writers incorporate unschoolers into their work. I’ve been leading creative writing groups for unschooled kids and teens for years, and even in that environment the kids are more likely to create young characters who go to school than not. School is deeply embedded in our cultural framework, and even homeschooled kids figure that out. Writing exercises that feature characters who homeschool can help steer them toward including unschoolers in their writing. 
Sometimes it feels like homeschoolers are invisible. I once attended a church service to support a friend who was delivering a lay sermon. Before my friend spoke, the kids were assembled for the young people’s portion of the service. Two of the children were homeschoolers. These kids were also members of the church and well known to the children’s minister, but her discussion focused exclusively on questions about the particular public and private schools attended by the other kids, completely ignoring the experiences of the two homeschooled kids. She may have been so clueless about homeschooling that she didn’t know how to formulate questions about it, but the result was that the two homeschooled kids just sat there while all the other kids talked about their school lives. The more homeschoolers and unschoolers are portrayed in books and movies in realistic ways, the more comfortable people will get about it. 
I’m currently working on a short book on facilitating creative writing workshops for homeschoolers, as well as finishing a novel that has nothing to do with homeschooling.
A sequel to “Unschoolers” may appear at some point, too. We’ll see!

I’m looking forward to more books!


Over to you, have you read Unschoolers, what did you think? 




Gratitude and Hope

I am feeling a lot of gratitude these days for all the gifts and opportunities I have in my life. As we head into Thanksgiving weekend in the the US, I don’t want the frenzy of sales to overshadow this opportunity to reflect on the Ferguson decision, and critical questions of racism and inequality in the world and what actions we can take.

What I am so grateful for at this moment in time:

beautiful squash volunteers Gifts of Gratitude and Hope
An abundance of volunteers in my garden this year. Photo: J.Pierre Stephens

That I have plenty.

A garden of abundance. I can fill my belly, quench my thirst, keep warm and lay down my head when I need without worry.

That I have choices.

So many choices about how I use my time, how I relate to my loved ones, my community, strangers. I have choices about how I parent and relate to my child, how to learn, what I want to pursue at this point in life and how I want to do it.   Continue reading “Gratitude and Hope”

Thiel Fellow Closing Ceremony: Questioning the Experiment

As a parent of Dale Stephens, a  2011 Thiel Fellow, I was excited about attending the closing ceremonies for the group.

This first group of fellows were guinea pigs–quite fortunate guinea pigs–who had forged the Thiel fellowship program along with the foundation staff.  They had been supported financially, skillfully mentored, and emotionally bolstered for two years. Most importantly, they had all learned so much about their own projects, about persistence, and about the business world. Would closing mean losing much of that opportunity for dramatic growth?

 Family, friends, foundation representatives, mentors, and current finalists gathered in the Yerba Buena Center Theatre in San Francisco. The room, alive with energy, emotion, and excitement, quieted as Foundation program director and representatives took the stage.

As I sat in the audience, I thought about how I had been in my son’s audience for the last two years, watching from a distance as he grew in leaps and bounds. Onstage the speakers talked about guiding the first Fellows through challenges and about the gifts they’d given each other in the community they created. The Thiel Foundation representative explained that the Fellows were encouraged to continue to participate in this community of support, with Thiel and each other, even though their official fellowship, with the very helpful monthly stipend, was over. The foundation didn’t see this closing as severing ties, he explained, rather it saw it as a transition in their role within the community.

I heaved a parental sigh of relief. Okay, no more money and no degree, but continued access to a network of support and community. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that losing the network was what I feared the most for Dale.

Representatives of the class of  2011 Fellows spoke to express their appreciation for the Thiel Foundation, staff, and mentors. Each fellow spoke briefly about his/her journey. I was fascinated by the individual stories.  I didn’t expect to need kleenex, but I did.

Next came the questions from the audience. You could hear curiosity and trepidation from the finalists, as well as questions, concern, and skepticism from some of the parents and other attendees.

What next? What about? What if? Many were expressions of fear and concerns that there were “no guarantees.”

There are no guarantees.

There are risks, opportunity, choices, and challenges. There is the possibility of growth, success, failure, and learning. And this is true every day of every child’s life. We like to pretend that it isn’t, that getting into the right college, or onto the sport’s team, or into a job means the end of risk, but it doesn’t and more importantly, it shouldn’t.

So my questions are for the parents reading here.

Are we brave enough to let our children try something that did not exist when we were the age of our kids?

Can we let go of our fears?

Our sense of how life “should” look, what goals are “worth” achieving?

Are we open and trusting enough to support them while they try something new? Difficult? Unknown? Different? Remixed?

Can we navigate this new territory of parenting passionate young adults?

Can we help them learn to balance pursuing new experiences and exciting demands on their attention with taking care of themselves?

The world is different for them than it was for us.

The choices, costs, and opportunities make it seem like a new universe.

The speed, intensity and demand on our children’s time and attention barely compares to the demands of our college experience.

The Thiel Fellowship, like and other alternative learning experiences that take place in the real world, demand more of our kids than following a neat, well-trodden path. The increased responsibility and access to a high-powered network of mentors speeds up the process of learning and maturing. Suddenly our babies are fending for themselves. And, yes, It is scary.

As parents can we let them go?

Even though we wonder if what they are choosing–usually choosing instead of college–provides the kind of structure yet freedom that will support personal development as well as academic and professional development, can we let them try?

Can we collaborate with rather than control our children?  Can we encourage them to define success in a way that includes all aspects of a fulfilling life?

The closing ceremonies ended and I looked around the room abuzz with people making connections, sharing their dreams, giving advice.

I smiled and raised my imaginary glass of bubbly: here’s to the experiment!

A Paragraph Has 3 Farts

A Paragraph Has 3 Farts. LisaNalbone.comI always found that first day of school both thrilling and scary.

I had anxiety dreams of showing up with no clothes. I over-prepared, hoping to set the tone for the year.

I wanted to help students:

take ownership of their learning

connect deeply with me, each other and the world.

form a powerful, compassionate, and caring learning community.

So how was I going to do that?

After the “getting to know you” activities, I started by showing students the curriculum and sharing my philosophy that we could make learning fun even though there would be some boring stuff we just had to get done.


I emphasized that they could have more control of their learning, and our schedule, if we worked as a team to do what HAD to be done efficiently, so we could use as much time as possible to have fun with learning.

To compare, I led them through two different activities–A, a basic grammar lesson straight from the book and  B, a hands on science activity where they had lots of choices. I  asked their preferences. It was a no brainer.

I told them how much prep lesson A took, 5 minutes compared to lesson B – a couple of hours of pulling together all of the supplies and strategizing how it would go well. I was willing to do the extra work for them, to make our learning time more fun, if they were willing to choose to engage and make our time worthwhile.

We took a few minutes to think and write and then shared about our hopes and goals for the year.  The students were quiet and thoughtful. I could tell they hadn’t expected this kind of opening day “speech”.

I noticed we had about 15 minutes until school ended and told the kids we could use this time to take care of a biggie on this year’s learning list.

Back in 1988,  a big 5th grade benchmark was knowing how to write a proper paragraph (in order to begin stringing together 5 paragraph essays and reports). So, I always started off the year with a lesson about the parts of a paragraph modeled in a paragraph on the board.

I let them know this lesson was a basic building block they would use frequently, and if they got this in one day, which I knew they could, they would be geniuses. Most classes spent weeks on this lesson and we could just get it done.  We we’d have all that extra time for the things we had just brainstormed together


I began reading the paragraph aloud. I was hamming it up, trying to make this incredibly basic and boring tidbit more memorable. Only I accidentally made it unforgettable.

A little framing. These were 10 and 11 year-olds from a small farming town more than 25 years ago. They were less sophisticated and pre-you-tube. Basic poopoo doodoo was still pretty funny.

So over-dramatizing and with sweeping arm motions and a loud theatrical voice I began,


 “ The proper paragraph has 3 FARTS. There are three FARTS to the paragraph!” 


OOPS! Not what I meant to say. Parts my brain screamed!!! Parts!

There was a moment of stunned silence. Everyone held their breath.

Bright red heat crept up my neck and face.

Oh, to have had a smartphone in my pocket. Their expressions were inspiration for a Normal Rockwell painting.

Then we all burst out laughin.  We couldn’t stop laughing and repeating, in the same overacted sing-song,


 “The paragraph has 3 FARTS. There are 3 FARTS to a proper paragraph. “


Tears ran down our faces. I laughed so hard I thought I might wet my pants. If I did, it would totally define my teaching career, so I crossed my legs and laughed harder. The kids were in stitches, falling off their chairs. We were all hysterical.

A teacher from next door popped her head in,  “What is going on in here????”

The room went silent again. I said, “ “Umm, sorry if we disturbed you. Nothing really.”

Then we burst out laughing, again. She  shook her head, gave us a stern look, and left.


Later that night I had a parent call me.

“ Now you said in your letter we could call you anytime and I’m curious about what happened in school today.  Little Johnny has been laughing all night. We keep asking him to explain but he shrugs, and says, “ Oh nothing really, just something that happened in class today. Nothing I can really tell you.”  And then he starts laughing even more. We can’t get another word out of him. So I really want to know, what happened?”


A paragraph has 3 farts blog post. Photo of Funny tree face with Victor Borge laughter quote.

A different kind of glow and warmth spread through me.

Wow, something happened in class today. We connected. We became a team.

And it wasn’t from my carefully planned lessons about community or the speech about taking charge of their learning.

It was about a good belly laugh.  It was from being able to be real, and silly, and let go.

So, tell me:

How do the learners in your life know that you are a team?

When was your last belly laugh?

What was your last belly laugh about?

I’d love to hear your story in the comments. If you know someone who needs a good laugh or to remember to use laughter when connecting with their learners, please email this post to them. Thanks, Lisa