Once when my middle kid was about nine, she came home from playing with friends and said, “I must be stupid.”
“What?” I was floored. The friends were public school kids, but they’d always been kind and accepting of my homeschooled kids, as far as I was aware. “Did the kids say that? Did someone call you stupid?”
“No,” she shrugged. “They didn’t call me anything. But they were talking about their favorite subjects, saying I like social studies, I like science, I don’t like language arts, and I didn’t even know what any of those things were, so I guess I must be stupid.”
And so began one of our “formal” lessons.
Our family takes an “everything is connected” approach to life, but some people prefer to break the world into subjects, perhaps for the sake of being thorough (or because the setting of school requires it of them). It gives you more of a checklist approach to life. Have we done our math today? Have we practiced reading? Have we learned to spell a few words today? Have we spent some time with nature, making sure we are learning about the way of the world? Have we contemplated cultures, people, or methods of governing?
These are all things we encounter daily, and the flow of life naturally takes us there.
Coming from a subject-oriented education myself, I found it surprisingly hard to turn it into words my nine-year-old, unschooled kid could relate to.
Okay, so when you write a letter to Grandpa thanking him for your birthday present, and I show you the way letters are typically structured, with the date in the top corner and “Dear Grandpa,” at the beginning… that’s language arts, or English. Those are lessons in how to write.
Things that fall within this subject:
- When we read fables, talked about them, and then made up some of our own.
- When you asked why words ending in –ough had different sounds (I think the examples were cough and bough) and so we made a list of all the –ough words we could think of and talked about how some pronunciations didn’t necessarily make sense, you just had to learn them through exposure and memorizing.
- Pretty much anytime we are in the car for longer than a few minutes playing rhyming games or alliteration games or those word games we just make up on the spot to keep ourselves entertained.
- When we write our own stories. And especially when we go over those stories that you have written and we talk about the things you could do to make the story more readable for others. That’s grammar. Punctuation. Sentence structure.
The more I spoke, the more puzzled she seemed to get.
“I don’t get it. What about science? Do I know any science?”
- When your sister collected all the different leaves and looked them up and pressed them in a notebook. She wrote the names of the trees they came from on the page. She took photos of the whole tree.
- When we tried to raise Betta fish. When we talked about their genetics and colors, that’s a branch of science.
- When we collected water from all the different sources and looked at little drops under the microscope. We found the water fleas and you drew pictures of them. And we looked up the parts of their little bodies and read about the way they lived.
- When we followed the ant trails and tried to distract and deter them by placing different types of foods along the way.
- When our friend took us to the lake and showed us all the different fossils and told us stories about what those creatures once were.
- When you planted seeds and watched them grow…
Though she insisted it still didn’t make any sense when I suggested that every single thing she did each day could be categorized as a subject (or many subjects) if we took the time to break things down that way, I could see that she was beginning to understand.
“How am I ever supposed to figure out what my favorite subject is?” she asked.
How is a child to learn to detest when they are given a life focused on the joy of exploration?
That was a tough question, I had to admit. And I thought the first question she had to ask was how important was it to have a canned answer to such a question available. There were times, we both had to admit, when it was easier to just throw out an answer that the questioner understood than to have a discussion on the merits of a life-is-learning approach anyway.
She does love to read, so I suggested reading or English might be an appropriate answer. But she reminded me that reading seemed to cover the gamut of subjects and she didn’t want people to think she limited her reading in any way.
I thought maybe saying she loved all the subjects would be a good response. She thought that might be bragging.
I don’t know that she ever came up with an answer to the question. Today, at 16, she tends to spend her time sewing (mostly clothes, both upcycling from the thrift store and creating original costumes), reading (young adult, general fiction and fantasy), following Chinese culture and history, learning Mandarin, and drawing (computer illustration, but freehand). She’s a competitive shooter and a Disney animated movie aficionado. She loves to roller blade and bike (last year she even trained for a 200-mile ride, but an injury kept her from the actual event).
Of my three children, she’s the most likely to approach a subject with a drill mentality, the idea of doing something over and over again until she’s mastered it. She knows how to play the guitar, but hasn’t picked it up in months. She has to work at spelling, but has the most legible handwriting of anyone in the family.
When I asked her this morning what her favorite subject was, she furrowed her brow and looked at me like I must be confused. “Do you mean like, in school?”
She then looked thoughtful and took a minute to answer. “Traditionally speaking, I guess I would say Chinese, language and culture. Any other answer is too abstract.”