Talking About Life Learning
Sandra Rakovac talks to Life Learning editor Wendy Priesnitz
Learning’s founder and editor. Also a journalist, poet, author, former
leader of the Green Party, peace activist and home business consultant,
she has been a passionate advocate for unschooling since the 1970s. She
and her husband and business partner Rolf are the parents of daughters
born in 1972 and 1973 who learned without schooling and who continue to
inspire her own life learning. This interview took place and was
published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007.
Q: How did you decide to unschool?
A: I taught elementary school for a short
time before I met my husband Rolf. I was 20 years old and teacher’s
college had been just a one-year course right after high school. I’d
been a successful student (meaning I’d received good marks without much
work, and the teachers generally liked me.) I had virtually no
encouragement to think about a suitable career other than the fact that
my mother wanted me to be a teacher.
So there I was, trying to manage a classroom of young children who
clearly didn’t want to be there, even though I’d excelled at curriculum
planning, lesson plan writing, bulletin board decorating and other such
esoteric classroom management courses. I was spending my time keeping
the kids from jumping out the windows and retreating to the staff room
every possible chance I had, often in tears.
So I resigned. Then I did what I should have done at teacher’s
college: I immersed myself in reading about child development, learning
theory, and alternative education. Some of it intuitively made sense and
some of it seemed like academic drivel! I also spent some time working
in daycare centers observing very young children and how they were
learning. That’s how I began to formulate my own theories about how
people learn and about what hinders their learning. It became very clear
to me that the archaic and hierarchical model of schooling with
standardized curriculum, grading, testing, and so on, has little to do
with children learning and lots to do with adult arrogance and taxpayer
Q: Was this a joint decision with your
A: Shortly after I quit teaching, I met and
married Rolf, whose school
experiences had not been good (and who answered a couple of these
questions with me.) In contrast to my lack of direction, he had been
explicitly told by guidance counselors that he’d be lucky to finish a
two-year high school program that was then in place for so-called
non-academically oriented students. So, they said, his plan of enrolling
in the university-stream program was doomed. He was horrified,
stubbornly ignored them and graduated from the five-year arts and
technology program, went on to a career in the construction trades, and
is now Director of Apprenticeship at a community college and one of the
country’s foremost proponents of the apprenticeship model of learning
(not to mention the Publisher of our
Given that neither of us had much respect for schooling and its
trappings, it is not surprising that we decided not to send our children
to school before they’d even been conceived!
In my experience, the willingness (and financial ability) of a father
to join his partner to stay at home with his children was relatively
uncommon then (and still is now). But Rolf’s commitment to the idea of home-based learning for
his future children was a definite attraction for me when we met. And I
suppose my subsequent development as a life learning advocate was
nurtured by his parallel trust in and respect for children.
Although I know that many single moms do an excellent job of
parenting and unschooling, I have often thought about how wonderful it
was for our daughters that they got to know their father so well and had
the influence of both parents much of the time. I didn’t have that
luxury when I was growing up in the 1950s, when my much-loved father
went off to work in the morning to a job that I knew nothing about and
often came home too exhausted to spend time with me.
Q: Describe how you unschooled.
A: I have trouble with the terminology
around this, as many Life Learning Magazine readers will know by now. Our
family’s lifestyle would be called “radical unschooling” today, but I
prefer to say that our daughters Heidi and Melanie simply lived their
lives and incidentally didn’t attend school. The idea that we unschooled
them is foreign to me because it connotes something being done to them.
Inevitably, Heidi and Melanie learned many things in the course of
their everyday activities; perhaps they learned more than some other
children might have because they hadn’t learned to depend upon others
for the agenda. What they learned was certainly different in content! They didn’t memorize the facts on the school curriculum
but they retained their ability to learn.
In those days (1970s), before John Holt’s term “unschooling”
came into popular usage, homeschooling for most families looked like unschooling (or, as I
prefer to call it, “life learning”) does today. In order to make a
living and allow us both be at home with our daughters, Rolf quit his
construction job and we launched our home-based publishing business.
The first decade or so was very busy, with the business growing,
employees coming and going, a number of moves happening. The children
were integrated into our life and our business; we were often occupied
with publishing deadlines, financial issues, and other constraints, but
there was always time to read a child a book or answer a question. In
fact, Heidi and Melanie were always present when prospective employees
were interviewed and they had to approve of the chosen candidate.
Likewise, anyone we hired had to enjoy children and be willing to take
time out from their work to help a child spell a word or to play a game
As Rolf and I worked and played, so did the girls. They accompanied us as
we did business and personal chores, they played by themselves inside
the house and explored the neighborhood, they started their own little
businesses, they wrote their own magazines and used the photocopier to
reproduce them, they took dance lessons (by their own request) then
bartered more advanced lessons for their help to teach younger students,
they wrote and performed plays in the community, they played with
neighborhood friends who went to school and with the few other
non-schoolers we knew, they made LEGO extravaganzas, they baked bread,
they sat and read, and later they volunteered in the community. Rolf and I never planned their activities or their
learning experiences (although we sometimes inspired them...and vice
versa), and they never used text books or a formal
curriculum. They were never tested or graded.
Q: How did your family, friends, neighbors,
co-workers react to your decision to life learn with Heidi and Melanie?
A: The grandparents were understandably
skeptical at first: “When are you going to get a real job and send them
to school?” But they soon became supportive, realizing that their
granddaughters were flourishing. Friends – except for the rare ones who
were homeschooling too – tended to ignore the topic. Our oldest friends,
a childless couple who became “family,” marveled at how “well-behaved,”
articulate, etc., Heidi and Melanie were, but just thought it was some freak of nature and didn’t connect it to their
mode of education or how they were parented. Neither Rolf nor I care
much about what other people think of us, so other people’s reactions
weren’t about to influence us.
Unfortunately, one employee of our publishing business turned out not
to be in favor of the idea and, when we laid her off, got her revenge by
complaining about our homeschooling to the school board. That became a
bit messy for awhile. Because homeschooling was so uncommon in the
1970s, we had to educate the school folks about the legalities…and
homeschooling without curriculum, tests, grades, and so on was even
harder to explain. But we survived the process intact, a well-thumbed
copy of the legislation in hand, and I quickly realized I’d better
become a vocal advocate and activist in order for such things not to
happen to others.
Q: What has made an impact? For example:
understanding learning styles, decompressing, etc.
A: I’m glad that Rolf and I were able to
sustain our trust in our children’s ability to learn without being
taught and our belief that they had/have the right to their own
feelings, values, opinions, needs, and goals…as well as respecting their
ability to express (or keep private) those things.
Q: If you have read about the topic of homeschooling/unschooling, has one particular author or work or
event influenced you the most?
A: Most of what I’ve done, spoken about and
written about on this topic over the last 35 years has come from my own
experience and thinking. But I discovered John Holt’s writing after Rolf
and I had decided not to send our future children to school and his
early books, such as How Children Fail and How Children
Learn, were quite affirming.
Better Late Than Early by the Moores also reinforced my own
experience watching Heidi and Melanie learn. Books like Ivan Illich’s
helped keep me focused on the big picture of non-school-based life
Q: What do you remember most about your own
childhood education – in school or elsewhere?
A: Most of what I remember has little to do
with academics. I attended elementary school in the 1950s, before the
second wave of feminism. I remember the teachers, who were all women for
the first six years, treating the girls differently than the boys, which
I felt from an early age wasn’t fair. I had a strong awareness of
injustice and it was evoked often. I always thought memorizing lists of
facts was a dumb time-waster, but I did it more or less successfully in
order to please my teachers and parents by getting good marks. Never did
master the times tables though.
I also remember worrying that they weren’t teaching me how to think
in school, and that I’d be a failure as an adult if I couldn’t think, in
spite of all the dates and poetry and mathematical shortcuts that I’d
had to memorize.
Then I was lucky enough to have a teacher who convinced me that I
could think and who valued that rather than my ability to memorize. He
also awakened in me – and encouraged – whatever talent I have for
writing and speaking. From then on, those were my passions. Too bad it
never occurred to me until much later to use those passions to make a
Q: How has this shaped unschooling with
A: Oddly enough, it’s only been recently,
while a PhD candidate began writing my life history as a
homeschooling advocate, that I’ve linked my early childhood experiences,
and the context of the era in which they happened, with my determination
to provide something better than school for Heidi and Melanie. Before
that, I considered school teaching as the main influence.
Q: If you had to start again, or taken in
the context of grandchildren, would you do anything differently?
A: Ah, hindsight is wonderful, isn’t it? I
don’t really think I’d change much, except that I might dismiss more
promptly and confidently any fleeting doubts that occasionally would
make me buy workbooks (which, fortunately, Heidi and Melanie regularly
and wisely hid under their beds, eyes rolling.)
I might also spend even more time playing with my daughters than I
did. But I am also realistic about my personality and about how
passionate I was about my work. And I know that they inevitably were
influenced by and benefitted from living in a family that was achieving
important things in the world. I have absolutely no regrets.
Q: Any advice or caution you would like to
offer to others?
A: Remember that your children will learn
what they need to know (both academically and otherwise) when they need
to learn it – with your help or in spite of it.
Seek inspiration, comfort, advice, or reassurance from others
(including this magazine) when you need it. But know that you and your
children are the best and, in fact, the only authorities when it comes
to knowing how to live your lives. So trust yourself and your children!
Relax and enjoy exploring life with your kids. They’ll grow up and
move away all too soon.