Thursday, March 7, 2013

Better getting-to-know-you questions for unschoolers (and everyone)

A friend of mine who recently saw my children for the first time in over a year told me that she had trouble thinking of what to say to them on this particular visit. She said that she usually asks kids their grade level, or how they like their teachers, or what their favorite school subjects are. (In fact, I can recall her asking my kids some of these questions during a previous visit, and receiving a few blank stares in response.)

Because she has read my blog, and we've had some conversations about how unschooling differs from the kind of homeschooling that attempts to replicate school, she now realizes that those questions aren't particularly appropriate. But alternate questions didn't readily come to mind. After all, what kind of getting-to-know-you questions do you ask children who neither go to school, nor homeschool in a school-at-home kind of way?

I really appreciate my friend's honesty about this subject. And for the record, I think that the getting-acquainted questions adults ask each other often fall short as well.

My children enjoy talking about what interests them. "So, what do you enjoy doing?" is a great getting-to-know-you question. 

It is much, much better than the favorite school-subject question because the answer can be, "I like reading and watching movies about different U.S. presidents," but can also be, "I like playing Minecraft and watching YouTube videos about how to play it better." The answer can be, "I like reading the Little House books with my mom," which involves reading and history but doesn't need to classified under those headings to be both fun and worthwhile to the child. In fact, I'm quite sure that while reading the Little House books with me, my daughter is not thinking about which school subjects she might be checking off.

"Do you have any special activities coming up?" is another good question. A child asked this question can talk about an upcoming dance recital, or a birthday party, or a trip to the mineral museum, or the purchase of a new video game once enough allowance has been saved.

It's simple, really. The kinds of questions my children respond to with enthusiasm tend to be the same kinds of questions that I respond to with enthusiasm. Even when I had a paid eight-to-five job, it seemed strange to be defined so completely by my job title that it was the first thing I was expected to tell people about myself.

I once had a boyfriend who ended up seated on a plane next to a woman who said she was an artist. Things were all friendly and chit-chatty until the woman explained that she paid her bills working as a medical receptionist. You see, my then-boyfriend felt it was deceptive of her to call herself an artist when she spent forty hours a week answering phones and sending faxes. I mean, how dare she? (That boyfriend and I broke up not too long after an argument about the airplane seatmate, whom I defended.)

Here's the thing: If what you most want me to know about you is that you work professionally as a marketing consultant, and I say, "So, what sorts of things do you enjoy doing?" you can say, "I LOVE working as a marketing consultant!" and tell me about a big client you just snagged, or a great campaign you successfully executed. But if you are a marketing consultant who happens to hate your job, my question gives you an opportunity to share something positive about yourself--something about the person you understand yourself to be. You can say, "I love designing fondant cakes!" or tell me about how you volunteer Saturday mornings at the Humane Society, or how you're an avid reader of crime novels and are thinking about trying your hand at writing one. And instead of just performing some empty social ritual, I've actually given myself a chance to know something real about you.

Philip W. Jackson's 1968 classic education study Life in Classrooms reminds readers of "an important fact about a student's life that parents and teachers often prefer not to talk about . . . This is the fact that young people have to be in school, whether they want to be or not." While we may encounter a child who is thrilled to say that he's in third grade, or that social studies is his favorite subject, I think most children have more interesting things they'd like to tell us. We really should give them the chance.