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Guest Posts, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Spelling Being (Guest Post by cian saywer)

A couple of months ago, a very reluctant participant in the school spelling bee – my daughter Lauryn – went on stage and spelled for 26 rounds.  After about eight rounds, it was between her and one other person.  Every time she stepped up to the microphone and the word was given to her – despite my original nonchalance – I became a little bit more shaky, my heart beat a tiny bit faster, and my breath was held a bit more deeply.As words that weren’t anywhere near the grade two or grade three list began to enter into the arena I would tell myself that this was it.  That it was all good.  And it didn’t matter one bit that she was never going to be able to spell ‘dreadful’ or ‘easily’ (which it truly did not).

They spelled cautiously, confidently, valiantly back and forth, and back and forth until he mis-spelled his word (which made me feel sad) and she correctly spelled two words in a row for the win.  Even typing that makes me wince a little because, faced with the prospect of my children being entered into the mandatory grade level spelling bee, I had a quiet unease about the whole thing.  I couldn’t pin point why I was uncomfortable with the spelling bee, but I knew that something wasn’t quite right.

My son had a laiz et fair attitude about his grade one Bee and though he looked at his list briefly, he was not at all invested in the event.  (Which was fine by me!)  I went to show my support but neither of us were put out when he was eliminated.  Meh.  It was both our fist spelling bee experience and it was interesting, but not all that remarkable.

Lauryn, though.  That was a different story.  She was totally unwilling to do it.  She did not wish to be up on stage in front of a bunch of people spelling into a microphone.  NO thanks!  (Which was fine by me.)  I made arrangements with my husband for him to stay home with her that Wednesday because that was the only way she could opt out.  Then Tuesday came and she quietly declared that, yes, in fact she would like to do the spelling bee.  (Err!?)  Asked why, she responded with impossible to translate vagaries. My husband and I exchanged a look with questioning brows, but we accepted her decision.

That evening, at her behest, I ran through most of the grade two list (of words) with her, then she ‘tested’ me on some of the grade three words, then she got bored and we stopped.  On the way to school the following morning, I asked her to spell a few words she’d found decidedly un-phonetic (“Apron is with an O?!”) and that was that.

In the middle of all this, was that quiet but steady insistent feeling that something was not in line with my ideology.  And what does a mom do when she needs answers?  Why, she hits the google search, of course.  I searched for “effects” of “spelling bee” or any variation of that theme.  One of the top hits was an article by Alfie Kohn about competition.

I already had some of those thoughts and feelings resident within.  It was this same place where the unease originated.  And so, let me tell you now, why my daughter winning the grade two spelling bee was a big deal for me.

You see, we were an unschooling family for seven years.

What that means is that there were no formal lessons on anything.  We learned trailer-loads, boatloads, tons – all that.  But nothing was scripted, forced, or coerced.  My children both were gifted with a dream like childhood in which they played and played, then played some more.  In a house, with a mouse, with a fox on a box, in the rain, on a train, in they day, in the night, over here and over there – we played and played EVERYwhere!  (But if you’ve ever read this blog, you know that already!)

Then (due to a Big Reason that cannot be broached here), they both enrolled in a super small school in January last year.  They completed grade 1 and Kindergarten in a class of four people (including them) and had the luxury of a teacher that could move as fast or as slowly as they needed.

THEN.  They started “Big School” last fall.  Tests every week.  Homework.  End of term exams.  The whole 10 yards.

And THEN.  Having had zero formal learning that our society touts with the veracity of a marketplace hawkers, my daughter spelled her way to win the school spelling bee.

I beg your forgiveness if you have found this circuitous and hard to follow.  The story itself is hard for me to really get and really tell.  It’s so much more complex than paragraphs.  So much more rich than sentences.  So much more meaningful than this blog post will ever be.

Her spelling bee win was bigger than spelling.  It was a win for being a kid and having fun.  It was a solid victory for living as learning and learning as living.  It was validation for the uncommon irreverent ideas – Truths! – that this mother holds so dear.


cian is an enthusiastic mother and a spirited advocate for an educational overhaul. She hopes to create a progressive learning community one day soon. She writes about all of it. She can also be found at here



8 thoughts on “Spelling Being (Guest Post by cian saywer)

  1. Cian, I had forgotten you were such an amazing writer and to think I could have been reading all along. Both Ian and I celebrate LEAS remarkable victory with you! Look forward to reading more! P.S. It was wonderful to see you and LEAS the other day. Happy Summer wishes xoxoxoxo

    Posted by Samantha Moree | July 22, 2012, 6:52 am
    • Thank you so much, Sam (and Ian)! 🙂 I am prone to narration of my experience and I am always grateful when anyone enjoys sharing in my stories. It was great to see you see Lauryn! Happy everything to you both! xo

      Posted by Cian Tabytha | July 22, 2012, 11:30 am
  2. Yes, unschooled kids can and do perform at high levels when they choose to or even when they just have to attend regular school.

    That may show something about unschooling. I think it does. It may show that bright kids can learn all the crap that regular school stretches out over years in a much shorter amount of time. It may show that once a kid enjoys learning and knows that they are in charge of what goes into their head, that can be helpful in regular school — if that’s what they are deciding to put in their head.

    My DD decided to go to public school after having unschooled through 8th grade. She found the regular public high school was not interesting/challenging enough. She spent 9th grade there and then transferred to a smaller charter school more focused on academics, with a large number of dual enrollment classes at the community college on the same campus. She is doing very well.

    But most of her classmates did not have her experience — unschooling all her life including reading her way through the local public library branches — and they are also doing well. She’s in the top layer of her class but it is a tiny class. The rest of the kids have to maintain a certain grade and test level in order to stay so they are at least doing that.

    I’m sure unschooling has helped her in cutting through some of the BS of regular school. And it has, goodness knows, made her confident in making her own choices. She is truly in charge of her education. I have, of course, met the Guidance Counselor at her school and go to the required parent nights. But 99% of the time, when there is a problem to be solved or a decision to be made, DD is in charge. That, to me, is a fine outcome for unschooling, whether or not she aces every test.

    Congratulations to your daughter! For winning the spelling bee, yes. But also for deciding what she wanted to do. And for having parents who support her in making her own decisions.

    Posted by NanceConfer | July 22, 2012, 8:40 am
    • Thank you for your comment!

      I think that as an unschooler, being on the fringes of “acceptable”, can sometimes be as undermining as it is empowering. What I mean is that, it’s pretty scary out here in few-man’s-land. And so, I guess, some validation can really help a person feel reassured, that this ‘non-normal’ practice is ‘working’.

      I am awash with quotes – I mean “quotes” – because it’s hard to articulate the complexity of the feelings I am trying to describe!

      But yes, when people get to choose and in so doing learn so much more about themselves than anyone could ever teach them, that is the most important learning of all, I think. Armed with self knowledge, a person can do anything!

      Posted by Cian Tabytha | July 22, 2012, 11:36 am
  3. Hi cian,

    First congratulations to Lauryn and to you. Sweet story. You mean you don’t have to go through years of Spellwell Book A, AA, B, BB, etc, with a test every Friday to actually spell well?!

    I am curious though, for my own practice, if there is some way we can feel this same kind of vindication and self-assuredness that our unconventional methods are “working” if our kids don’t demonstrate this kind of explicit success in comparison to their conventionally schooled peers. I direct and teach at a small independent school. The kids here do not participate in standardized tests, and they have no homework. So, often, the larger community assumes that we don’t care about academics or achievement. I know our kids are doing amazing things and growing remarkably in many ways, but I have trouble transferring my confidence to the whole community at large. Sometimes I wish the kids would take the damn test and blow it away and shut up the critics for a while. I have discouraged families from having their child participate in the spelling bee or science fair because of the inauthentic and competitive aspects that do not fit well with my pedagogy. But I have doubts about this every time. Can we continue to develop our kids’ (and our own) pride and confidence in their success without such competitions and the quantifiable results they afford? Is there any harm in just taking the tests, the Bees the academic bowls, and seeing how we measure up occasionally? While you say repeatedly that it really didn’t matter to you that Lauryn chose to participate, or actually won the Bee, would this blog post have been published here if she had not done so?

    I don’t mean any of this critically, cian. I really think it’s terrific that it was your daughter’s choice to compete (having that clear choice and actually changing her mind about it is a key element in this story, I think) and that she did so well, apparently rather effortlessly. Amazing. I am just genuinely struggling with my own choices and am trying to learn from your story and decisions here. Am I depriving my kids of anything by actively discouraging this kind of experience? And regarding your last paragraph, if we are to celebrate Lauryn’s success as an indication that unschooling works, then if another unschooled child performed poorly wouldn’t we have to see that as an indictment of unschooling’s shortcomings? That in fact maybe it doesn’t work all the time. Seems like, despite your clear intentions to exert no pressure on your daughter, that proving the success of an entire pedagogical approach is a lot of weight to bear.

    Most Respectfully,


    Posted by Paul Freedman | July 22, 2012, 10:26 am
    • I really appreciate your response, Paul.

      I have the same kinds of thoughts around progressive learning environments that are free from arbitrary standards and the testing that goes along with those standards.

      Had I still been unschooling, I would never, in a million years, have even *considered* putting my children into competitive “learning” situations such as testing and spelling bees. On the other hand, I have conflicted feelings about coercing young learners into situations they would not choose for themselves. There is a part of me that thinks there is something to be gained from some things like that. Which doesn’t jibe with my fundamental, but not absolute philosophy of self-direction. (I feel so jumbled trying to write about this!)

      As repugnant as I find the traditional school *system*, having put my children in the best case scenario of this institution, I have seen some incidental benefits to them being exposed to things they would not have picked for themselves and discovering that they like/enjoy/prefer the new thing.

      Which means that I think there is a balance to be struck between 100% autodidact and 100% coercion. This is a huge pedagogical challenge, methinks because where does that balance lie? Is it the 80/20? 80% Self, 20% Other?

      The story I told is, indeed, intended to illustrate a victory for my unschooled daughter entering the a traditional school system and succeeding at meeting their (albeit arbitrary) standards and expection. Indeed, exceeding them. I am at odds with myself again because while I really don’t care about those standards and expectations, I still feel happy that she (and my son both) are “doing well”. It’s so complex.

      Conversely, as you ask, f they were “failing” at meeting those standards/expectations, would it be a poor reflection on their unschooling foundation? Probably for me, I might have gotten scared that *I* had failed *THEM* somehow. But not entirely because I really really believe that at the end of the pre-framed learning time period, unschooled kids will come out a little better off than their traditionally school peers because they will know themselves. Which is the point. To know one’s self and to employ that knowledge in the pursuit of a happy and meaningful life.

      I feel I could talk bout this all day and never really say anything coherent!

      Thank you for sharing your own questions and thoughts. I totally hear you.

      Posted by Cian Tabytha | July 22, 2012, 11:27 am
      • Another personal anecdote: my own son is now 15. He attended the holistic/progressive school I helped to found from age 4-10. Then he homeschooled for two and a half years. I know him as a learner and a whole person very well and knew that his education was a “success” and a good fit for him regardless of what came next.

        Still, I didn’t realize the extent of my own self-doubt until he received his first semester’s grades at the more mainstream prep school he now attends. When we got his first straight A report card, I felt almost giddy. What a relief! It worked!! Then I actually got knda’ depressed. Wasn’t I the guy who expressed continuous disdain for all the trappings of grades, GPA’s test scores, etc. I talk about it, write about it. What the hell do I care how some teacher evaluates my kids’ skills? I know him. Why did it matter to me what his grades were? Was I a hypocrite? What if he gets straight C’s next year? What will it do to my faith in his early education, my pedagogy, our relationship? Is all this really that fragile?

        I’m still wrestling with my own shock and dismay at my own apparent inconsistency. And, as you say, this could be a much longer, and very interesting conversation. Some day.

        PS – when my son received his first ever standardized test score a couple weeks ago, an AP exam he took at the end of his freshman year, and he got a perfect score of 5, we celebrated with a special dinner, and I felt no guilt. I’m happy he hasn’t had a childhood filled with high-stakes tests, but I’m also glad he can do it when called upon.

        Posted by Paul Freedman | July 22, 2012, 2:39 pm
        • I really think that validation is important. As i said to the poster above, being on the “fringe” leaves quite a bit of wiggle room for self doubt. Of course, you believe in the method/philosophy AND because so few people have done it with “measurable” “success”, whenever the outcomes match and/or exceed the status quo, there is a sense of “phew, i was right.” It’s one thing to believe wholeheartedly in a philosophy and it’s another to then risk someone else’s potential okayness because of it.

          (I’m just processing this seemingly didactic experience.)

          The grades really don’t matter, either in the details or the grand scheme of things. What they really are is a little checkpoint on the map helping the travelers know that though they are walking a different path, they are still headed where they want to go. … I think… Haha!

          Again, thanks for your thoughts and engagement. I have enjoyed our brief discourse. Peace.

          Posted by Cian Tabytha | July 22, 2012, 8:48 pm

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