Dare to be different: Homeschool learning from literary rebels throughout history

Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

“It’s better to stand out in a crowd than blend in.” That’s the caption my 18-year-old daughter, Ashar, put on one of her Instagram stories recently, along with a note that said “I will never stop being myself.” I cannot think of anything that would make me prouder as a parent than having a teenager who knows their worth and realizes that they are exactly perfect just as they are.

Disclosure: In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received several books from Candlewick Press for free. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but we’ve easily spent quadruple that time with these books already because we like them so much!

I give Ashar a ton of credit for being her own person, but I also know it’s not an accident. The choices I’ve made as a parent – especially as a homeschooling parent – have definitely helped to shape her perspective.

In our family, we try to celebrate the rebels, the oddballs, the unique. We watch movies and read books and talk about people who dare to be different – whether that’s women throughout history, innovators like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, or people who don’t fit into the majority because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political views.

One of the coolest things we do is keep a fully stocked “book basket” on our coffee table with things all of us can pick up and browse, and we definitely try to use that space to reflect literary rebels, both factual and fictional. Recently, I added a big collection of books from Candlewick Press and they’ve been amazing! You could use these as the basis of a unit study – either on one particular person or group of people, or overall to talk about being a rebel!

Real-Life Heroes

If you’ve been following Unschool Rules for any time, you probably know how much Ashar is into history.

She’s obsessed with Shakespeare, and thanks to falling in love with the Hamilton soundtrack, fascinated by the Revolutionary War. The following books have been very cool ways to learn more about those topics:

What’s So Special About Shakespeare? by Michael Rosen

This is a great book that’s shown us a lot we didn’t know about Shakespeare. Ashar and I are actually reading it aloud together (yes, family read-alouds can still be AWESOME when you have teens!) and have learned a bunch – including how Shakespeare sort of stole a theater, that he has no direct living descendants, and how he uses language tricks to make specific points. It’s an easy read, probably designed more for middle grades than high school, but still interesting even at Ashar’s age (and mine)!

Some of the cool things to talk about:

  • What is the role of theater in social/political commentary? Shakespeare went out of his way, usually by using comedy, to deliver very pointed insults to certain groups of people, even powerful ones. We talked about how this happens now in more modern plays that go out on political limbs, like when the Hamilton cast delivered some pointed words to Vice President Mike Pence.
  • How is our language today different than Shakespeare’s, or influenced by Shakespeare’s? If you’ve ever used the words “manager” or “uncomfortable,” you owe a debt to Shakespeare. Yet while those words continue to be important today, there’s a lot of Shakespeare’s kind of language that has died out. Ashar, for her part, loves the original words, because they have a lot of nuance that she says helps you tell what emotions the characters have, more than “regular” language would. She also points out that because you have to stop and ask questions, it makes you slow down and consider the meaning more.
  • Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? We found out from this book that Shakespeare… well, he kinda cribbed some major plot points and even some whole phrases and ideas directly from old stories. A Roman book by Plutarch, for instance, describes Cleopatra riding in a barge “the poop whereof was gold, the sails purple, and the oars of silver,” and Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra, describes “The poor was beaten gold; purple the sails… the oars were silver.” So… is that OK? Nowadays we have a different idea of giving credit, but what do you think about this happening at the time?
Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

Ashar shows her “dramatic Shakespeare pose.”

Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution by Roxane Orgill

The Revolutionary War, told as a series of poems? OK, I’m enough of a lit nerd to think that’s pretty cool, but I wasn’t sure Ashar would love it, given her general “just the facts” mentality. But we ended up having a great time and coming up with some great conversation points.

  • Was it OK that Washington owned slaves? This was a big question for Ashar – whether someone can be considered a hero even if they do something we consider “wrong.” We talked about the culture of the time, but we also talked about how Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of Ashar’s heroes even though he cheated on his wife.
  • What’s an acrostic poem? This isn’t a life lesson by any means, but there were multiple acrostics in the book, and Ashar and I worked together to create an acrostic poem about ways in which she’s kind of a hero herself, using the letters of her name as the first lines.
  • What made George Washington a good leader of the Revolution? We think it’s because he was willing to think outside the box – for instance, by letting black people into his decimated army to bolster his forces, even going against his advisors to do so.
Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

This is Ashar’s “I’m a rebel” face.

Fictional Bravery

I get the idea from talking with other homeschooling parents that most of us are pretty confident about the idea of learning from books about real people – I even have a whole post on homeschooling with biographies that delves into that.

But there is so much to learn from fictional characters as well, and I think we forget that sometimes. These books might not be 100% true, but there are DEFINITELY opportunities in them to talk about people who dared to be different – fictional literary rebels, as it were.

A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers and Other Badass Girls and The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, both edited by Jessica Spotswood

These anthologies are absolutely full of great stuff. In the preface to each, Jessica Spotswood describes working with contributing authors to tell stories featuring women and girls who were on the fringes of society, or radical for their place and time.

My favorite was the opening story in The Radical Element, about a Jewish woman in the 1800s who wants to read the Talmud for herself, which was crazy controversial at the time. There are also stories about women of color, queer women, women who want to vote, women who want to work outside the home, and more.

We had some great conversations about women’s rights thanks to these books, and Ashar showed me these amazing Instagram posts from Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on The Walking Dead and who starred in Black Panther, who talks about how great it is that men are starting to speak out about women’s rights:

We talked about a ton of other issues thanks to these books, including:

  • What makes something radical? These books led us to talk a lot about time, place and culture. As in, what was radical for a woman in the 1940s – like, you know, pants – is pretty commonplace today, though it would still be radical if, say, you lived in an Amish community like the many near us.
  • Are there any ways in which you – or someone you know – is “radical”? We have a pretty unusual family. Divorced couple still living together, with one person (me) engaged to someone else, who I’m living with despite not being married? Teenage girl who presents visually as a teenage boy in clothes/hair? We sort of stand out in a crowd, is what I’m saying. But the “radical” stuff really isn’t about those appearances. We think we practice radical kindness, saying yes any time we can help. We think our unschooling lifestyle is pretty radical. We’ve gone out on a limb, started a nonprofit and given away more than 500 stuffed penguins. That’s the kind of radical we are.
  • What elements have been historically missing from coming-of-age stories? One of the reasons these anthologies were so powerful to me is that they featured characters who are young women coming of age. Dan mentioned that the “classic” coming-of-age novels – Johnny Tremain, Catcher in the Rye and the like – are all strongly white heterosexual male. More books have started to include females, but what about women of color? What about gay or trans women of color? Those stories are just starting to be shared, and these books are a huge step in the right direction.
  • What types of women from these stories or from real life do you consider inspiring? Ashar says Danai Gurira, who we mentioned above, but she also gave big shout-outs to Ellen Degeneres and Michelle Obama. She also mentioned Walking Dead actress Alanna Masterson, who had a great post recently on body positivity.

It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt

This amazingly-told story follows Mike, a high school freshman who moves to a new state with his family, including his domineering father. Dad wants Mike to stop being into art, to attend church regularly, to get into sports… and definitely (spoiler alert) NOT to be gay. But when Mike meets and falls for Sean, he realizes that being different in his suburban community can become pretty dangerous, eventually leading to him getting sent to a camp that attempts to convince him that being gay is wrong. (This reminded us of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Outcast, where a character is sent for “re-conditioning” because of gender preference.)

Some of the many things we talked about from this book:

  • What happens when your parents have different ideas about what’s acceptable than you do? “Compromise?” Ashar (who has never had parents tell her she can’t be anything except who she is) suggests.
  • What’s the role of religion in your life? Does following some particular religion shape who you are so much that it can change your views on things like gender preference, or can those things coexist peacefully?
  • The million-dollar question: Is it OK to be gay? No matter how you as a parent feel about that, make sure you ask your kids. They may feel differently – or you may find you agree. In either case, you’ll have a great discussion. (And while I stay away from all things divisive for the most part, let me go on the record and say: Ashar and I are very open and affirming to the LGBTQ community, and we would love to use this space to make sure you know that.)

Dolls of Hope by Shirley Parenteau

This fictional story is based on the real-life friendship doll project, a program designed to ease cultural tensions between Japan and the U.S. in the late 1920s, following World War I. U.S. schoolkids sent 12,000 dolls to Japan, and this book explores the story of one young Japanese girl, Chiyo Tamura, who is chosen to be a protector of one of those dolls, and to help craft one of the 58 dolls Japan would go on to send back to the United States. It’s an incredible elementary or middle-grade read that gives a lot of background into the Japanese culture.

Some of the things we talked about from this book:

  • Can being peaceful be rebellious? At a time when these two cultures were pretty tense, one of the biggest acts of “rebellion” was to accept the goodwill gesture of the dolls for what it was, and to offer dolls in return. We don’t usually think of peace as an act of rebellion.
  • What is the value of honor? The book begins with Chiyo dishonoring her family by being caught spying on the man her sister is to marry. That’s considered dishonorable and she is sent away on a journey that will eventually lead her to the dolls. But is it really “dishonorable” to have tried to protect her sister? What does it mean to be honorable?

Get Your Own Great Books About Rebels

If you order these or any other books from Candlewick Press online, use discount code CANDLEWICK at checkout for 25% off!

Also, Candlewick Press is giving 30 winners a paperback copy of Judy Moody #1. You must be a U.S. or Canadian resident to enter, and the giveaway closes at 11 p.m. April 18!

Find out more by following Candlewick on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

Unschooling: Our March 2018 adventures

Unschool Rules: Meet the Conciliottoman family

Hey, it’s all of us!

So… it’s been a while since I did an “official” wrapup, though I did share the biggest highlight of Ashar’s December and January, her cross-country trip with Dan to Arizona.

I had mentioned at the end of December that I was looking for a new format for this wrapup, because it really takes me a long time to put together, but those of you who commented told me how much you like it. The downside is that when things get busy, like they did at the end of January and again at the end of February, I just can’t finish a big post!

So this will mostly be a roundup of March, but I’m going to try to pop in some highlights from the end of January and February as well in order to get caught up. Then, who knows? MAYBE I’ll do something crazy like post once a week in April so it’s not so overwhelming. (Don’t hold me to that!)

(As always, if you want a more frequent peek at what we do, you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook. You can also check out our archive of previous wrapups here.)

Unschooling in Central Pennsylvania on Unschool Rules: A month in the life of radical unschoolers.


By far the biggest new discovery for our family last month was Outschool. It’s a platform for independent online K-12 classes taught by all sorts of people – from certified teachers to hobbyists to trade professionals – and it’s amazing.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it's because we really do believe in the book or item!
We’ve been doing mostly single-session classes, which range in price from about $10 to $20 an hour, but a couple of weeks ago Ashar joined a six-session Shakespeare roundtable for teenagers, which is $75 for the full course. There are even some semester-long courses, but that’s more than we wanted to bite off for now. You can search by course length, day and time, age level and topic.

So far, Ashar has taken:

… and of course, the aforementioned Shakespeare Roundtable is underway.

She’s also signed up for “The Butterfly Effect” – Vincent Van Gogh; Meet People Who Have Changed The World on Thursday, April 5.

I cannot speak highly enough about Outschool, which has been super-fun for us. In fact, Dan and I have even talked about signing up to teach classes ourselves! Many thanks to my local unschooling friend Nikki for mentioning this to us.

Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Chris made a snow bird feeder.

Chris made a snow bird feeder. When it snowed. 18 inches. On the first day of spring. Grr.

Shakespeare and other theater

So of course you saw the multiple Outschool Shakespeare classes.

In addition to that, in the realm of theater in the past month or so, Ashar has also:

  • Watched a movie version of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson
  • Worked heavily on the set crew for a production of Bridge to Terabithia at Dreamwrights
  • Seen a production of Beauty and the Beast at our local high school
  • Discussed how Shakespeare uses folklore, assisted by a phenomenal antiquarian book Chris owns called – you guessed it – Folklore of Shakespeare

We also watched some cool videos about Shakespeare’s use of meter:

And this cool mini-biography of Shakespeare:

On the topic of other performing arts, then there’s this gem:

And finally, Ashar also shared this with me: A collection of celebrities reciting Poe’s “The Raven” as part of a benefit:

As you can tell, theater was pretty much our big focus!

What comes next?

On the Unschool Rules Facebook page, I asked what everyone wants to read more about once Ashar finishes her compulsory school years – more stuff about unschooling philosophy and ideas, or more stuff about our day-to-day lives post-“school.”

You’re all incredibly unhelpful, because pretty much everyone said both. Yeah, I said it. Unhelpful. I was hoping for “clear direction” and I got “keep writing whatever you happen to think of,” which … well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyway, there were a lot of people who want to know what’s next for Ashar, and you MIGHT have noticed it’s something I don’t talk too much about. Sure, part of it is because we’re sort of live-for-the-moment types, but part of it is…

… because we just don’t know.

First of all, let me be clear that Ashar is her own person. Whatever she chooses to do – this summer, next year, five years from now – is going to be what she wants, not what Chris or Dan or I decide for her. We feel super-strongly about that. But it means that unlike a lot of kids, who are told “You have to go to college,” or “You have to get a job,” Ashar has to do the hard work of choosing. And honestly, she just isn’t quite ready to decide yet.

But that doesn’t mean we are hands-off. Our role is to talk with Ashar about responsibility, options and goals, and to put resources in front of her that might help. We’ve looked at a program called Transitions, part of The Janus School, which caters to students with learning differences. We’re not sure yet if that’s in the future, but we spent a day last month visiting with Ashar and trying to find out if it’d be a good fit as she tries to figure out adult life on the autism spectrum.

All I can say is, when Ashar knows, you’ll know 🙂 Until then, I hope you’ll be happy hearing about the day-to-day, because we really feel like that’s where our focus should be right now, and it’s where all the coolest stuff is happening!

Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Family fun day

Ashar and Chris making funny faces together, and Ashar and I twinning in our shirts from the David Byrne concert.


Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Ashar Otto with Pa. Sen. Mike Regan at 4-H Capital Days

Ashar had a great time meeting our state senator, Mike Regan, at 4-H Capital Days.

Movies and TV

Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Chris made this amazing drawing of Pepe Le Pew and his cat friend.

Chris made this amazing drawing of Pepe Le Pew and his cat friend for Sarah!


Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Mother-daughter ouroboros tattoos

Ashar’s and my ouroboros tattoos – this was her 18th birthday present from Dan and me. (Before you ask, yes, it’s the Fullmetal Alchemist symbol, but we didn’t know that; it was on a necklace Ashar got at the Renaissance Faire and that’s what we based it on, having no idea of its provenance.)

Recent rabbit trails

I mentioned in September’s post on our unschooling planner system that our “rabbit trails” are the most fun we have in unschooling.

Here are just a few we touched on in the past few months:

  • The New Deal, voting and other rights for people with disabilities, FDR and Kennedy, thanks to a cool history tool we got to review.
  • Gay actors playing straight characters and vice versa.
  • Based on some videos from Clearwater Marine Aquarium, river otters and sea turtles and how they breed and why they might need to be rescued.
  • Thanks to a local Greek food fest, we got into a winding discussion about Greek orthodoxy and the Greek langague.
  • Viral and bacterial illnesses, when a young friend of hers got very sick and needed to be hospitalized, but doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In great news, her friend is now home and recuperating.
  • After attending an AMAZING concert by my favorite singer, David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads), we talked a lot on the way home about the violent deaths of many people of color, thanks to his last encore song, a cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song Hell You Talmbout (worth a listen here).
  • European history, Pol Pot, the Dark Ages, and famous death scene photos.
Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Selfies after finishing a jigsaw puzzle

Mom and I selfie-ing after finishing her 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of classic candy wrappers; you can see Ashar’s World of Warcraft game in the background.

Other fun stuff

  • We all colored maps showing what states we’ve been to (Ashar is winning).
  • Ashar continued to work on creating fan video edits for her Norman Reedus fan Instagram account.
  • We tasted Universal Yums from Greece, France and Poland, and with the Poland ones we also did a cheese-tasting party based on some many cheeses we had recently acquired.
  • As part of Ashar’s We Rock class, she learned a bit about how to play a three-string guitar, or riff machine.
  • We found, for $1.50 on clearance at our local Staples, a zombie coloring book, and Ashar colored us some amazingly detailed undead friends.
  • Ashar continues to enjoy sorting her stamp collection, which has led to conversations about the Republic of South Maluku, which I had definitely never heard of, flags, and a bunch of other great stuff.
  • We’ve been talking about dogs a lot since our Goldendoodle, Coby, passed away in October. Then we found out that there are a bunch of new Doodle breeds – like Bernedoodles (Bernese Mountain Dog plus Standard Poodle) and Sheepadoodles (Sheepdog plus Standard Poodle). I subsequently lost my stuff, because they’re phenomenal.
  • For the third year, Ashar took part in 4-H Capital Days, where she went to Harrisburg, debated a bill on the Senate floor, and met our senator, Mike Regan, who told her a cool story of how he helped a young boy and his family get a diabetes monitor after an insurance denial so that his parents could stop staying up all night to check his sugar.
  • We had some birthdays – Ashar turned 18, my mom turned 83. We enjoyed restaurant dinners out for both of them, and Ashar got a tattoo as a gift from Dan and me, an amazing Chromebook as a gift from Chris, and a very sweet video from a longtime friend/extended family member named Jerry. (And back in January, Dan celebrated his 31st birthday!)
  • Ashar, who loves penpals and letters, wrote to a fellow Walking Dead fan and artist in Japan named Ai, and to her longer-time penpal Christina in Taiwan.
  • We had our big 4-H Auction, the main fundraiser that keeps our county 4-H Center building running all year. Chris successfully won a gardening-themed basket from Ashar’s alpaca club, but generously put it up for rebid to help raise more money, and Dan and I successfully won a cheese basket for an exorbitant (but certainly charitable) sum. That’s where the cheese for our Cheese Tasting came from. We also managed to donate $20 for four hot dogs because of a lack of change and a general feeling of generosity.
Unschool Rules unschooling in March 2018: Celebrating Mom's 83rd birthday

Me and Mom on her birthday after I gave her an air fryer (not pictured).

Updates from around the family

Since our “curriculum plan” for this year featured not just Ashar but the other house adults, I figure I should give monthly updates on our progress too. So here’s a look at what’s new with the rest of us.

An update from the me, Joan

I’m still trucking along with two grad classes this semester, carrying a high A in both right now.

I managed to read six books in January, 10 in February and 10 in March. Tops among them were The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe (which will make you cry exactly as much as you might guess a book with Auschwitz in the title would make you cry) and The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell, a great look at smallpox variolation in Britain and Boston in the 1700s.

If you’d prefer a fiction read instead, I’d say go for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman or Caleb and Kit by award-winning YA author (and friend of mine!) Beth Vrabel.

I mentioned in the last update that I started new medications for my bipolar, and they continue to be amazing, though I had to call an audible and request a dosage reduction because I was veering way too far into “comatose” for my liking. I’m more alert/awake/functional now.

I also got to go on my annual scrapbooking weekend with my best friend, Nina, and we have something like four or five scrapbooking days planned in the next two months. With all of those, I should be able to get 2017’s album done by the end of May, then I can spend the rest of the year working on my current backlog project, a book of everything between when I was born in 1982 and when Ashar was born in 2000.

What’s new with Dan

Dan says:

“In January, I spent a bunch of time catching up on work and freelancing post-Arizona trip. I hit a bit of a lull in reading books, and mostly worked through longer internet articles. The few books I did read were mostly disappointing, with exceptions in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine [which Joan mentions above] and Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell. I also finally managed to watch Get Out, which was a great psychological horror movie.”

Updates from Chris

Chris and Ashar have been doing a whole bunch of stuff lately, and he wrote me a pretty detailed update.

“One of the things Ashar and I did was focus on art, storytelling and creativity. We enjoy watching old Looney Tunes cartoons (especially Road Runner and Tweety & Sylvester), so we researched some images of cartoon characters and I did my best job of imitating the sketches, describing the process to Ashar as I made the art. It took a lot of patience, slow-going, and trial and error. But we were pleased with the final products, which included Wile E. Coyote, Tweety Bird, Pepe Le Pew and, switching to Hanna-Barbera, Shaggy holding a frightened Scooby Doo in his arms. So now we have some more art for our walls… We also like to do silly sketches and let our imaginations roam, which is how we ended up with a PG sketch of young Vincent Price with a tattoo on his bare buttocks.”

Yup, Vincent Price’s butt. #unschooling, friends.

“Another part of our creative efforts was co-authoring stories together. We use old postcards, chosen by Ashar, as our launching pad for whatever fictional stories strike our imagination. Back in December, we co-wrote a comic-romance piece about Napoleon – and then we completely changed gears in early March and wrote a ghost story. These are truly co-authored efforts. She comes up with the characters and settings and basic plot, and then I work to gently steer the whole thing into a viable short-story structure, asking her many leading questions and having her create much of the dialogue and other key moments. Then, when we’re done, we create a ‘book cover’ for our story, using the original postcard as the starting-off point. Ashar brings a great sense of art direction and cool typographical ideas to the table.”

More from Chris: “On my ephemera and history blog, Papergreat, some of the things I researched and wrote about in January and February included Lancaster humorist Jakey Budderschnip, the Great Blizzard of 1888 and old bookplates.”

“Some of the books I’ve read since the beginning of 2018 include Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory [note from Joan: I recommended this!], Plutona by Jeff Lemire, Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock, Welsh Churches by H.C. Trengove and Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak. Plus a bunch of Ms. Marvel and Captain America comic books to round things out. In March I added The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander.”

On the less-exciting front: “At work (LNP), the big event at the start of the year was the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory in the Super Bowl. While I did not get to watch the game with Ashar, it afforded me the opportunity to share information about the newsroom workflow and efforts required to put out a newspaper on a very short deadline (we only had 90 minutes after the game ended) following the Eagles’ triumph.

I must also add that in sad news, Chris was in a car accident (not his fault) that left his car totaled. That was not an exciting end to March!

My mom (also Joan) weighs in

Sort of pun intended, because she says “I think all we did in March is eat.” She’s not wrong. Also we started April by eating a TON when we all got together for Easter, so…

She and I also had a good time going to a tea with some of her friends, and she’s been participating in a Bible study with ladies from her church every week. They just finished studying Titus and will pick up with another book soon.

Back in January, we also celebrated the end of one of my sisters’ radiation treatments for breast cancer, so that was great news!

And Chris and Ashar got Mom a jigsaw puzzle of classic candy wrappers, and she and I worked together on that and completed it all in two nights at the end of March.

So what’s new with your family this month? How is your 2018 starting out? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”