You don't have to use a curriculum to learn a lot about geography. Here's how Shell's family does it.
Sometime between 6th and 8th grade, most students run into a math block. Could unschooling be the answer?
There are emails in my inbox from my children this morning. My son has sent a link titled, “Best Worst Game Trailer Ever,” and my daughter, the middle kid, has sent an email titled, “How Utah Solved Homelessness,” and “TV Return Dates.” My latest email exchange with the oldest is titled “21 Things you can do in London that are Free.”
This habit of emailing each other throughout our day has grown, I think, from something my husband started. He sat down a couple of years ago and made a list of things he heard the kids bring up in conversation often. He created a list of Google Alerts for himself with keywords based on those topics and the alerts became fodder for email exchanges with the kids (and me — he outlined my interests, as well). At first I was perhaps a little skeptical of his motives, but I soon saw how often those exchanges started spilling into our conversations, sparking exchanges we might not have otherwise had, and how many times an idea or concept picked up in this manner turned into a whole family dialogue.
Even better, the kids began responding in a similar fashion. When they came across something they found amusing, enlightening, or curious, they’d send an email titled, “What do you think of this?” or “Something we should consider.”
It’s become another way for me to peek inside their universe at an age where kids are often accused of being less accessible. I may not know every detail, but in this small way I think I am gaining a greater understanding of what captures their interest and imagination. I don’t always understand what draws them to the things they are drawn to, but these glimpses have opened my eyes to things I might not have noticed on my own. I learn a little something with each note and what evolves into conversation helps me understand where a topic ranks in importance.
Many of these exchanges burn out quickly, while others have become subject of daily conversation between a few of us and sometimes all. I like the point of contact that fits between schedules that are increasingly filled with job and school obligations, something our lives were free of for so long.
These email exchanges are indicative of our changing roles. We serve as the primary resources for our children less and less with each passing day. More and more, they are teaching us, showing us the things we need to learn to keep up with this ever-changing world.
When the kids were younger, September was a month of settling into a new routine.After summer 4-H activities and nearing the end of the summer farmers market season, we looked forward to making plans for fall projects and defining just what it was that we wanted to accomplish in the coming year as the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped.
New routines don’t feel like so much of a joint effort anymore. I’m feeling, in fact, like the month of September snuck up on me. Our family has managed to wrap up a summer full of 4-H, quite a bit of travel for the kids, farmers market events, extended family gatherings with cousins one-two-and-three generations down the line, and we’ve celebrated the middle kid’s 17th birthday.
What has changed?
I find myself asking if it is more the kids or me. As they’ve gotten older, my routine has slid toward working more and hanging out at home less. A defensive mechanism, perhaps? A way of keeping myself from hovering? A reaction to the fact that I realized, at some point, my kids would benefit from a little less mom time?
Five years ago I took a job as the farmers market manager (part-time summers, somewhat less than part-time through the winters) and what my vendors have been reminding me lately is that the kids were there, near weekly, helping out. My youngest learned to count change by sorting the market money bag. The oldest helped by plugging the numbers into the accounting program for the first few summers. She also became the market’s official photographer for events. They carried corn and watermelons for shoppers and were often there to ring the start of market bell.
“Haven’t seen your girls all summer,” a vendor said to me on Saturday, and, “That boy of yours, I barely recognized him. He’s gotten so tall.”
Some days I feel I don’t see much of them either. My oldest seems to be having an easy semester. When she’s not in school, she’s working… saving her money for big plans down the road. She’s spending more time out with friends, studying… or whatever it is the college kids do these days.
The middle kid is also on campus, for only one class, but it is five days a week, and she works in the office for her dad the one day I’m not there. We took a break together at lunch yesterday to review the state’s guidelines for high school graduates. We then went to the university’s page for incoming freshman. She’ll have no problems getting in. She could be “done” in fact if we chose to look at things that way. In the spirit of being thorough, we decided to add a Crash Course/Khan Academy chemistry unit to her transcript. I volunteered to sit beside her as a student, too. I’m looking forward to the time together.
My son took on a two-half-days-a week babysitting job in the summer that has morphed into three-more-or-less-full days this fall. When I worried that it was too much time, too much responsibility, he talked me into letting him give it a try. I still worry, but he is finding his way, and we are keeping the lines of communication open about it. In addition to the babysitting job, my son remains dedicated to daily “edu-pack” time, his self-titled selection of topics/themes/lessons that has evolved from what I once urged as a daily things-to-do list. The last I looked, in included things like DuoLingo lessons, a history series on YouTube, and daily time on Khan Academy. In addition, he has signed up for a German cooking class, and has been studying the area technical school catalog, trying to decide if there is a certificate he might like to apply for (he has learned that high school students can begin taking classes at minimal cost their junior year of high school).
I have moments where I ache to have it all back again… days centered at the kitchen table, rolling out egg noodles for lunch as little voices take turns reading out loud from the latest Harry Potter novel. Last night middle kid made pizza for the whole family. Tonight we each ate what was found in the refrigerator as we arrived home, varied leftovers as varied schedules permit. Last night’s pizza maker has her nose in a book, and it’s not the same book I saw her reading a few hours ago. My son has retreated to his room, feeling the need for some alone-time, I suspect, after another full day of babysitting. I crawl into bed without seeing the oldest. Hubby and I have a conversation about it. Should we ask her to check in more often? We hear the key in the lock as we drift off to sleep.
September will soon turn to October, and I will be doing my best to balance keeping out of the way, while spending all the time I can manage with them.
It can be tempting to fill up every hour, but the real magic often happens in the spaces in-between.
Lately, I keep thinking back to a dance class my oldest daughter took when she was four. It stands out in my mind as one of my early parental blunders. She didn't want me there, you see. It was an “all by myself” moment which I failed to honor.
From my lap, she had turned and whispered, “I don't want you to watch.”
I remember sitting in a chair outside of the dance studio, watching mothers enter with their daughters as I stirred my feelings of jealousy. “I'm paying for the class,” I reasoned. “She’s my kid. I deserve to watch.”
I also remember the look on her face when she spied me there, hiding at the back of the room near the doorway. It completely erased the delight I had felt at watching her dance. In that moment, I was transformed into someone she couldn’t trust, and to come entirely clean with her about my emotions and desires seemed the only option.
Truthfully, it broke my heart a little, but I also understood that it wasn’t really a rejection. She was simply saying that she was prepared to go this one on her own... as she would be prepared, over the years, to try many things I may or may not have enjoyed watching.
“I messed up,” I told her clearly. “This was my error, my selfishness. Though it may have felt that way, it had nothing to do with a lack belief that you could do this thing on your own.”
Until last year, when she started college, she’d never been in a traditional school setting. That decision, which originated with me, had given us ample hours together. Some mothers cringe when they think of time with teenaged girls, but I have no regrets. That conversation we started having when she was four and I screwed up at dance class? We are continuing it still.
I had expected to experience a bit of heartbreak when she decided to try college full-time. The change wasn't necessarily easy for her. As an unschooler accustomed to taking charge of her own time and planning her days and weeks to meet her own agenda, she had some struggles with “someone else” making so many demands on the way she filled her calendar. I honestly wasn’t sure she would commit to continue past the first semester.
But now we had more to talk about than ever before. For those first few weeks of college, in fact, I remember having this feeling that we had returned to that hand-in-hand place. Though she was more frequently gone, when she was at home we were often in the same room and interacting with an intensity that hadn’t existed between us since she was young enough to need me for things like reading directions and reaching the projects on the highest shelf. She was constantly filling me in on her experiences and observations. She was full of questions and eager for my input.
Today I’m generally comfortable standing on the sidelines or completely leaving the room when asked. I recall from my own childhood that it was sometimes easier to be brave, bold, and experimental when my mother wasn't around.
She knows I’m her biggest fan and supporter. But she also knows that I trust her and will listen when we disagree. When she says, “I've got this,” I know now to walk away, to keep my opinions to myself, and to leave her needs above my wants.
When I was young, there were a lot of homeschooling parents who would brag about the chapter books their children were reading and how many grade levels ahead they were. I wasn’t reading yet, and my mother — feeling somewhat overwhelmed I’m sure — repeated for years, “She’ll learn to read when she’s ready.” It became a mantra of sorts, in the face of surrounding pressure. When she’s ready, she’ll learn.
My mother was right, of course. I was growing up in a very literate household, and without any learning disabilities. By the time I was 10, I was reading at least as well as my same-age peers. Surrounded by other parents who were very pleased to have poster children, my mother had resisted outside pressure and held true to her beliefs in natural learning.
When my family shifted more into unschooling-friendly circles, we started seeing less comparing of children to each other within the community. But holding up unschooling poster children — and poster young adults — to those new to or outside of the unschooling community seems every bit as common.
The message seems clear: In the face of widespread misunderstanding and criticism, we have something to prove — and the best way to prove it is to show how spectacularly impressive unschoolers can be.
I get the drive behind it. It’s hard to be such a small group doing something so unconventional, and it can be easy to feel a ton of pressure to prove the validity of our choices.
But, it can be really hard being one of those teens and young adults who are held up as examples, and even more difficult for the ones who end up feeling they don’t measure up to poster child status.
What success means is pretty subjective. In our culture it generally boils down to college degrees, a “good” job, money, prestige… Unschoolers often add some less conventional items, like traveling the world or starting a business, to the list. But whatever judgements are used, I think all young adults feel a lot of pressure to prove themselves capable adults. When you’re coming from an unschooling background, not only do you have something to prove personally, but suddenly you’ve become a stand-in for all unschoolers, a metric by which to judge the worth of an entire educational philosophy and group of people. Any success is seen as proof that maybe unschooling has some merit to it — and any failure? Well, that’s seen as proof that unschooling is a really bad idea to start with.
With that type of pressure coming from outside the community, it can feel especially hard to have that pressure coming from within the community as well.
I sort of accidentally fell into the role of unschooling example. When I first started writing my blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write. I never knew it would end up being so popular or lead to conference engagements and some level of notoriety in alternative education circles.
It’s a position that I sometimes feel very proud of, and that, at other times, makes me kind of uncomfortable. I love that my existence and my writing can help people see how valuable unschooling can be, but at the same time, I want to be looked at as just me, and to be representative only of my own life.
I want what I think we all want, no matter our education: to be seen as a unique individual with my very own aspirations and goals and experiences. I want my successes to be celebrated, and I want support and encouragement when I fail.
As a community, school-free learners want greater recognition and understanding. I want this as well, and have chosen to do what I can to advance that cause. But I also want each and every homeschooler and unschooler to be seen primarily as themselves, not as products of a philosophy, whether it’s believed to be good or bad.
As I wrote in a post last year:
I just hope, as unschoolers, we can hold tight to our shared value of appreciating learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s big or small, sung from the stages of a national singing competition, or curled up in a comfy chair in a nondescript house reading about Arthurian legends or the history of comics.
The goal should never be raising children who are impressive. It should be, instead, about nurturing and celebrating each individual, no matter who they are.
I spent three different cafe writing sessions auditioning names for this column. I considered them while washing dishes and watering tiny kale plants in my backyard. I listed the best candidates on the idea file on my computer. Life Outside the Box. (Trying too hard to prove a point.) Learning What We Want. (Weird and too long, according to the 18-year-old.) Life Lessons. (For a homeschooling column? Cliché!)
The Wonder Files came up because I have a thing for the word wonder. Six years ago I named my blog Wonder Farm, and the word still hasn’t grown stale for me. Wonder is the stuff of homeschooling. The best homeschooling days are suffused with wonder—and the most challenging ones, well, they summon it.
Wonder can be a verb, as in: The four-year-old wonders if he can make a cake out of paper. Or: My son wonders why the Greek gods are always so irrational. Or: My daughter wonders what the women did while all those men killed each other on Civil War battlefields. Thoughts like those will take you places.
Wonder can be a noun: a surprise, a phenomenon, a state of amazement. It’s been interesting to see what my kids have embraced as personal wonders over the years. A few favorites: Greek myths, Pokemon, poetry, Broadway musicals, Marvel comics, historical fashion, Alfred Hitchcock, the Periodic Table, the American diet, the Duomo in Florence, the League of Legends video game.
Such wonders can derail a homeschooling day. How can we get to math when there’s a universe of Marvel villains to sort for a chart? When research on Broadway musicals leads to an impromptu mother/daughter sing-along? So we skip the math and hack our way down the kids’ wonder trails. We break out the glue guns. We watch YouTube videos. We dance around the kitchen.
Often these wonders have lasted months; many have gone on for years. They simply morph along with the kids. My two boys each grew out of their Pokemon fascination by the time they were nine, but both applied the game’s appeal of categorizing and sorting by power to subsequent interests, everything from the Periodic Table to military history. (A Roman centurion was more ranked than a munifex, Mama!) My daughter’s adoration of Shirley Hughes’ Rhymes for Annie Rose at three was the gateway to poetry slams and Franny and Zooey and witty rap music at seventeen.
You can build a homeschooling life around this sort of wonder. What starts as a wonder can lead to a calling.
Which is all well and glorious, these homeschooling days of wonder. But there are other days wracked with a whole different sort of wonder, particularly if you are a parent. Why can’t he write a paragraph by himself if school kids his age can? Should I push her to read instead of listening to audiobooks for hours on end? Do I really need to teach long division if it makes him throw things and his mental estimates come pretty close? Does watching back-to-back episodes of MythBusters count as science? Will he always do the least amount of work necessary to get what he wants? And does that prove that he’s lazy—or incredibly smart?
Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Lots of homeschoolers latch on to a particular style of homeschooling that manages to answer all the questions for them. You might find a philosophy that comes complete with online forums aimed at making clear what you should and should not do. That keeps your wondering at a gentle simmer. To you I say, Lucky duck! To the rest of you, who question the online forums, who question the philosophies, who question how to get your kid off that video game when it’s supposed to be homeschooling time, I say Join The Wondering Club.
After we’d homeschooled for a couple of years, I tried writing an essay on how we did it, on (insert deep and serious voice here) Our Homeschooling Philosophy. Every Wednesday night I went out to a cafe and worked on that essay—for a year and a half! I’d finally get a draft to start coming together, and I’d find myself unraveling it. That thing I was calling Our Homeschooling Philosophy kept wriggling away from me, just as I thought I’d captured it, exactly like our rabbit Rue does when she escapes into our neighbor’s backyard. Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.
I finally moved on to a different essay.
I began to notice that as soon as something worked in our homeschooling life, something else would change. The morning routine that rolled so well with a six and nine-year-old got knocked off-kilter when their baby brother was born. Leisurely days of homeschooling in fits and starts got compressed for afternoons of dance class and piano lessons. The reading that came so easily to one kid was a struggle for the next. The interest-driven learning approach that was a given for years suddenly seemed questionable when we had a high school-aged kid who would eventually need a transcript for college.
Wonder, wonder, wonder.
We’ve hit on some practices that have held fast for us over the years, regardless of kid or age: Having a regular time of working together most days. Making sure the kids like how they’re learning. Letting their interests be the pulsing heart of all we do.
But mostly, seventeen years into this homeschooling gig, I still wonder plenty. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have one kid who has just graduated from college and another starting in the fall (after childhoods of homeschooling and a mix of homeschooling/high school.) It’s just the twelve-year-old and me homeschooling these days; you’d think after all this time I’d have things figured out. Nope. Still wondering constantly. Why doesn’t this kid like making things like his siblings did? How could he possibly learn so much by simply reading, watching videos, and talking? Will he want to go to high school? Should I prepare him for that—or help him enjoy his learning freedom while he still has it?
Back when I was trying to write that homeschooling essay, all my wondering made me doubt myself. It made me feel confused, inexperienced, indecisive—not good qualities for someone taking on the responsibility of another person’s education. These days I’ve embraced the wondering. If I’d found a homeschooling philosophy that answered all the questions for me, I would have stopped asking questions. I would have stopped searching for cues in my kids. I might not have considered textbooks for some subjects—although they worked for my teenage son, who wanted lots of time for making movies, and also a high school transcript for his film school applications. If I’d known what we were going to do each day, my daughter might not have stumbled on her six-month project exploring how the American diet has changed over the past hundred years. If I’d found that elusive approach I’d sought—the one that would work beautifully day after day, year after year—there might not have been room for my youngest to research and build a complete periodic table of Marvel comic characters. And if I hadn’t continued questioning what learning means, I might not have recognized the depth of what he gleaned from a seems-sorta-silly project.
Maybe I’ve finally written that essay on our homeschooling philosophy, right here. I can sum it up in three words: wonder a lot.
I plan to do lots of wondering in this column. I don’t promise any answers—actually, I aspire to refrain from offering any. I’m hoping that my wondering here will prompt your own wondering, which will lead you toward your own answers.
At least until tomorrow rolls around and you start wondering all over again.
Patricia Zaballos writes about homeschooling and writing on her blog, Wonder Farm and in every issue of home/school/life. (You should subscribe just for her column. Trust me!) She is working on a book of essays. This column is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue.
In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s caterpillar season. The leaves are bursting forth from the trees, grasses are growing taller, birds are building nests, bats are waking up and they’re looking for food for their young. My youngest child’s insect project is ramping up and we are spending more time with our hands in hedges than sitting down and holding a pencil.
When we first started home educating, I kept a mental checklist for most tasks we’d do. Running around in the park? That counts as PE or recess. Baking a cake? I’m sure that counts as math. Making bracelets? Definitely good for fine motor skills. Looking for caterpillars in hedgerows? That must be science. It felt good to think that every aspect of our lives could “count as school.”
If my five-year-old son was in school, his teachers would be helping him work on his pencil grip, form letters and understand phonics and the basics of mathematics. At home, my son only holds a pencil or pen for about 15 minutes every day. Maybe I should worry. Maybe he will never learn to write his name!
But I don’t worry. I don’t worry at all about his writing. The reason is not that I’m ultra-confident. I’ve got all sorts of worries about my children. But when I watch my son gently lift a caterpillar from a leaf and hold it with precisely the correct amount of pressure and grip to keep that caterpillar safe from harm in his hand, I know my son has all the fine motor skills he needs to write his name. When he pulls out one of his nature books, turns to the index and asks me to look up that caterpillar’s food plant or when he opens the tablet and pulls up a document about caterpillars, I can see that he understands about letters and language and what they are intended for. He knows where to go to find out what he wants to learn. In short, he knows what he needs to do to find out. That skill—the ability to find out is the key, for me, to being a successful learner. The thing is, he knows what he wants to learn and he knows how to find out. Gradually he will arm himself with the skills to find out, perhaps by asking me for help or by figuring it out himself.
He will eventually learn to write, because he wants to find out.
He will learn to read, because he wants to find out.
He will become numerate, because he wants to find out.
I am here to mentor him, to help him learn the skills he needs, to encourage and support him when it’s hard. I want to nourish his curiosity and support him while newer and more exciting doors open to him.
I used to box-tick and think about whether what we were doing “counted as school.” Now I hardly think about school. I simply wonder what he’ll be finding out next.
“Do your kids get the summer off?”
It’s another one of those questions I get when people learn that our kids don’t go to school. I’ve still not mastered the answer. The question they are asking, of course, comes from the realm of traditional public schooling. What they really want to know is: Do your kids get to spend the summer running wild and free? Do they drive you crazy with all their summer-time needs and wants? Do they get a break from all that learning? Do you look forward to your time with them all summer long, or do you long for the structured days of school again? If your summer break isn’t really a break… how do you cope?
This time, the answer came out something like this.
Well, they are teenagers for one. I mean, they are pretty self-sufficient at this point. They “do” in the summer pretty much what they “do” the rest of the year-round. I see my job as staying in touch, trying to keep up, helping them look down the road a bit to make sure they are accomplishing what they need to accomplish now in order to be in a place they want to be down the road. It’s an ongoing conversation, just as it is the rest of the year. Routines may change, but we don’t take a break from eating, drinking, sleeping, or breathing just because a new season is here.
I talked about some of the projects the kids are currently working on. The 4-H fair is right around the corner. I’ve come to think of these summer months as a season of finishing things… or of deciding which of their projects are deserving of a finish. My daughter—my seamstress—has been meeting with a younger club member, helping him on a sewing project. She made a jacket to go with her formal dress last week. She’s tweaking a pattern for an upcoming project. She’s got the old bed sheets out, working on a draft before she tackles the final project. My role in this has been as a brainstorming partner. What if I split the pattern here? Of these two patterns, which do you like best? (I picked, she went with the other one.)
My son has already gone to and returned from his one and only summer camp this year. He’s working on a voting simulation class that he will lead at a local day camp soon; he’s working on ideas for getting 7- to 11 year-olds excited about their future in the democratic process. He took over his oldest sister’s babysitting job this summer, he continues to ride his bike to get around town, and he recently switched from studying Italian to German. He’s making plans to travel to Germany and I’m feeling a bit behind on the news. I’m sometimes tempted to tell him he’s not allowed to leave home without me, but somehow I don’t think he’ll fall for it.
Three of us are reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, joined by a fourth, my oldest, about half the time. Though it is harder to find the time for it, this much has not changed—I love listening to the voices of my children. I enjoy the discussion that springs from our together-reading.
As a family, we are working our way (again) through the Hobbit movies, and we’ve just switched our online viewing service from Hulu to Netflix, so I imagine a few series marathons are in our future.
Both girls are studying near-daily with their dad, in preparation for a math class they plan to take in the fall. The oldest will be entering her second year of college. She is working on an essay today, as part of the application to enter the honors college this fall. For the middle one, it will be her first class on campus, her first traditional classroom experience.
We’ve got a friend’s wedding on the calendar this summer. We are still trying to work in a few road trips to visit with distant friends. All three kids are quick to help me out at the farmers market when I need it.
It’s summertime, and things are much the same as they are any time of year. I don’t think my kids consider themselves “off” for the summer. I don’t think they consider themselves on, either though. They are just living, day-by-day, as we all should be.
I didn’t grow up in a traveling family. Besides the yearly ritual drive down to a cabin for a week every summer, my parents weren’t big on trips of any sort.
But in my later teens, that started to change, mostly because of my sister and me. We started wanting to connect with the unschooling community more, and traveling as a trio of sisters and mother (my father’s job doesn’t allow for much traveling) to unschooling conferences and camps. And pretty soon, the friends I made at those places had me craving more time spent away.
In the past six or so years, I still haven’t been off this continent. I haven’t even made it to the opposite coast! But I have made many, many trips to visit friends, most within a (sometimes long) days bus or car ride. And though it might not be as exciting as backpacking in Europe or hiking in Peru, I have learned and grown a lot from the experience of traveling, not to mention having some of the best times of my life. Here are just a few reasons why I love getting away from home every now and then for a good adventure.
When I first started traveling by myself, at a time when I was just starting to be more independent, it felt like a very big deal to be the only person responsible for getting myself over long distances and handling whatever problems came up while I was gone. While parents have definitely been called in a panic time or two, when they’re not within an hours drive you still have to fix things yourself, with just advice (and the occasional emergency loan or bus ticket) to get you through. I haven’t needed either of those last two in a while, and the panicked phone calls have become few and far between. But travel has marked some of the times in the past that I first started to feel like an adult because I did manage to solve problems by myself, get myself to the right destination, deal with emotional upheaval (both my own and that of friends), and otherwise keep it all together. And managing to do that while far away from my parents meant so much to me.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe in rural Maine, many hours from my home in Montreal. Some things may have changed in the years since I started spending more time away from home, but what hasn’t changed is how much more confident I feel when away from my familiar haunts. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but being somewhere unfamiliar, meeting lots of new people and going to new places, gives me a freedom I feel few other times. I’m more outgoing, and though it’s still scary, I’m more likely to introduce myself to someone, joke around, and be more myself than I often am with anyone other than close friends. Maybe it’s because my immersion in the social life of wherever I am is so temporary, so that I don’t feel as concerned about how other people view me. I can be less self-conscious when I’m leaving in just a week. But whatever lets me push my social boundaries when away definitely stays with me when I head home. I’m reminded of all that I’m capable of, and that I can be an outgoing person at home, too, if I want to. Stretching my comfort zone when away gives me that much bigger a zone when I get back home.
If I’m to be confident and independent, I need to first feel secure. This has meant learning, through trial and error, how to find or create situations where I can be comfortable far away from my usual surroundings and routines. For me, this has meant that I now stay only with friends (whether at their houses, or camping with them, or staying at a less familiar place with a good friend) and not friends of friends or casual acquaintances. I need to feel safe wherever I am, and for me that means being with at least one person I really trust. It also means that I keep my routines. I might be away from home, but I can still do the same things I always do before bed and when I get up in the morning. I can still use the same methods to calm down when I’m stressed. Bringing familiar routines away with me helps me stay calm and grounded, no matter how unfamiliar a place I am. It’s thanks to that base I can try scary new things and meet so many new friends!
I head back home on Monday, after over a week of adventuring in Maine. I’ve already met a lot of new people, tasted a whole bunch of different food and drinks, slept at two different houses, walked around Portland, and swum in a lake. Plans for the coming days keep unfolding, as my good friend and host thinks of more places she wants to bring me and more people she thinks I should meet. It’s been a really good time so far, with more good times to come I am sure. And through it all, I feel myself stretching, testing my current limits and finding new ones, and feeling better and more centered within myself.
No matter how near or how far we venture, I think travel can help us all to learn and grow!
Finding the right rhythm for your family’s days can make homeschooling a much happier part of your life.
By its very definition unschooling is something individual and flexible, something that will look different to each child and in each family. With the cultural idea that people need to Get An Education, as if it’s something that can be pre-packaged for mass consumption, comes the idea that there is one single education to get: a set collection of facts and formulae that will lead to a well-rounded, competent, and productive adult.
I think there are several things wrong with that idea.
Curriculum varies by geographic location, individual schools, available electives, and teachers.
Even the most ardent attempts at standardization can only affect so large a region. There might be Common Core standards in the USA right now, but what you’ll find being taught in Arizona will not be the same as what’s found in a school in Massachusetts. Similarly, my home province of Quebec has different curriculum than British Columbia. And that’s just talking about North America! While the model of industrialized schooling (along with the accompanying ideas about what education means) has been exported to most regions of the globe, the content taught varies widely.
Add to that the difference between what individual teachers focus on or choose to include, whether someone is in a “gifted” program or not, whether a teenager takes shop class or theater or music…
On the spectrum of home education, few families seek to create an exact replica of school in the home, as most want to create something more personalized or rigorous or otherwise different from what a child would be taught in school. No family and no child will receive the exact same body of knowledge and skills as every other child, no matter where they spend the majority of their days. People and standardization just don’t go that well together, no matter what many bureaucrats and politicians might hope.
This means that, since there isn’t one “education,” either everyone has gaps in their education or the idea of there being such a thing as “gaps in education” doesn’t really make sense. I’m going with the latter.
Embracing diversity in education.
One of the first things you realize when you start unschooling is that not everyone will learn the same things, and that that might actually be a good thing.
What’s important in the life of one person won’t be in the life of another. Someones’ family and place of residence, their cultural background, friends, interests and aptitudes are all going to have a strong influence on what they actually learn and remember, regardless of what anyone attempts to teach them. As unschoolers, you really just choose to embrace that diversity!
There is so much in the world that can be explored, studied, and experienced. Each of us will only ever learn a fraction of what there is to know. What a narrowing of possibilities to attempt to teach every child the exact same things.
Learning “important” things.
Despite the appeals of personalized learning, most people still feel that there are some universally important things that everyone should learn. I could say that my important isn’t your important, which is true, but I can’t really disagree that understanding history helps us understand current events, or that an understanding of mathematics is important for everything from budgeting to pursuing scientific careers.
But what history is important will depend on where you live, what you care about, and what’s currently going on in the world. How much and what type of math you need will vary depending on whether you plan to pursue a STEM career or just need to know the basics for your everyday life.
And, as unschoolers quickly learn, the important things crop up in life all by themselves: you learn what you need to learn by living, by encountering the challenges life presents, by pursuing your interests, and by striving to meet your goals. It’s the job of parents and mentors to help young people figure out what they need to learn to get where they want to be, and that works best when the young people themselves are driving things. After all, the best motivation is always internal motivation.
I don’t know what you know, but that’s okay.
In my teens I used to worry that I had “gaps” when compared to schooled peers, but the older I got the more apparent it became just how different everyone’s skills were. I realized that I was better at some things than some people, and other people were better at other things. I knew more about some subjects, and less about others, just like all of my friends, whether schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled.
Who I am and what I’m good at depended on a lot of factors. All unschooling did was give me the space to grow and learn in a more flexible, organic way.
We all have “gaps,” but I feel good about the knowledge and skills I have, and most importantly, I feel like I can continue learning and growing as I meet new challenges and explore exciting new topics!
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.”
In recent months I find myself reading a lot about the importance of play--unstructured, risky play included--and all of the ways it influences childhood development.
Sometimes when I think about my own childhood, I feel like it didn't include much risk. I didn't spend a lot of time in unsupervised outdoor play, I didn’t climb high trees, travel freely around the neighborhood with a pack of fellow 6- and 7-year-olds, or build forts in the woods.
But I'm realizing that there were other elements of my childhood where potentially risky tasks were embraced, namely real work with "dangerous" tools and materials.
I remember once when I was in Brownies (a level of the Canadian Girl Guides program), my mother, one of the leaders, organized an applesauce making activity. She was all set to provide all the 7- and 8-year-olds with small paring knives and peelers, but the other leaders were positively horrified by the idea. None of their children had ever handled a knife in food preparation before. My mother found this surprising, considering I'd been doing so for years at that point.
I owned a set of small yet perfectly functional tools: a hammer, screwdriver, etc. with metal heads. Real tools, just child-sized ones. And when it came to the kitchen, I was using small sharp tools--under the supervision of my parents when I was younger--almost as soon as I was able to hold and control them.
My sister and I helped with cooking and cleaning, banged on nails, stacked firewood, helped change bandages on our dogs' minor wounds, and all other tasks, small and large, of everyday life. Some of these tasks (like wood stacking and apple cutting) seem, to some, to be dangerous and inappropriate for small children. But in our house, they were just treated as important skills, and things that needed doing.
In our adult lives, my sister has expressed distress at the way some other people she knows mistreat their cast iron cookware (we love our cast iron in this house) or (don't) clean their kitchens. I've been surprised many times over at how difficult cooking even the simplest dish is to so many young people. We learned from a young age how to feed and take care of ourselves and each other: our own version of “home economics,” I guess you could say.
In this culture where children are increasingly being sheltered from any possible risk, and where domestic and hands-on skills of any sort are considered to be far behind more intellectual and academic pursuits in importance, I guess it’s not surprising that many don’t learn those skills at a young age.
It seems to me that one of the ways home education prepares young people for later life is by intimately involving them in the here and now. Learning domestic and life skills alongside their parents, through nothing more elaborate than helping with the running of the house in age appropriate ways, is important. Anyone, regardless of education, can do this to some extent. But home learners, with their strong ethos of life learning and without school taking up the majority of their children’s time, seem to be especially good at it.
I might not have gotten those countless hours of unstructured outdoor play that researchers are finding is so important, but I did learn a whole lot of equally important life skills from a young age. I can budget for and buy food that I can turn into various delicious and healthy meals; mend clothes; start fires in our wood stove; grow garden herbs; care for sick pets and sick humans.
In some ways, I guess that doesn’t sound like much. But I’m as grateful for those skills as I am for the more academic ones I’ve worked on in my life learning journey thus far. Which I guess highlights one of my favorite things about self directed learning: the ability to value and cultivate the skills that you feel are most important, for yourself and your kids, and to expand the range of learning well past what a school curriculum considers to be the most important. Literacy and history are certainly important, but so is the ability of each individual to take care of themselves, their dwellings, their loved ones.
I wish that instead of seeing children using the tools of daily life as unnecessarily dangerous, people could instead see it as the first steps in learning to live healthy lives and as an opportunity to gain the unique feeling of independence found in being skilled at the everyday necessities of life.
My son spends a lot of time on his computer. And when I say a lot, I mean hours… and hours… and sometimes even more hours at a time. Experts would more than likely advise that he is spending way more time than is healthy playing video games, watching YouTube programs, and being in front of a screen, in general. I’ve learned to blow those experts off, for the most part. I know that they mean well, but I’m certainly not convinced that the problems they claim exist by letting a kid have too much screen time, are actually problems when that kid is given unlimited access (without judgment) to the computers/game consoles/electronic gadgetry of his choice.
I actually contemplated a technology-free lifestyle when my kids were little. I liked the idea of all-natural toys, a focus on outdoor play, and reliance on imagination over television and electronics. There was one big obstacle, however. My husband and I both really enjoy activities that involve electronics, screens of many kinds, and new-fangled gadgets, in general.
So our family ended up taking a little different path. My desk soon had two computers. My kids had the option of working alongside me, or going out to play, or doing any of the myriad of activities they spent their time doing, pretty much any time and for as long as they wished. My kids reached for a keyboard and a mouse probably as often as they reached for building blocks and crayons.
It wasn’t a perfect system. I’d be lying if I claimed I never worried about it, but any effort I ever made to control screen time only served to make it a more valuable commodity. If I placed time limits, for instance, I could be sure that each kid demanded they receive their maximized time each day. With no limits, they might spend a lot of time playing a video game, but they might also go for days without spending any time on the computer at all.
Another approach? Join in their screen-time games.
As my children became savvy consumers of video games, websites, movies, and the endless varieties of media now out there, I came to rely on them to educate me. Instead of worrying that they were spending countless hours playing a Harry Potter video game, I sat down with them and had them teach me how to play. I was actually quite bad at it, but my son, at six, was satisfied with my skill level. The girls tackled the game together, making it all the way to the end (where they conquered Voldemort – yay!) weeks before my son and I got there. And yes, I found myself obsessing over the game, and together we spent hours playing, side-by-side—learning, improving, and having tons of fun together.
My son and I still reminisce about that Harry Potter video game. It was a good time of bonding for us. And he went on to spend several years where his interest in all things computer/video waxed and waned as often as the moon in the sky. There was summer when he was nine when my son spent hours, day after day, baking bread. Weird, I know, but he did it. And I gained ten pounds because, honestly, he soon made bread better than anyone else in the family.
The idea of spending each hour of a day focusing on a new and different subject is as foreign to my son as having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. He totally gets the state of flow, and I have learned to measure his subject interest by weeks and months rather than worrying about it moment to moment.
When he plugged in to his most recent video game/computer habit, about three years ago now, I was under the assumption that it would last for a season and then he’d move on to something else, as had been his pattern. His attention span is getting longer, however.
We saw a level of commitment to computer games that I had not imagined possible. He was playing them from beginning to end. He began researching the new games, and following the industry the way I might follow the local news or developments affecting Kansas farmers markets (of which I am a manager). He began writing reviews of his own experiences playing games and he experimented with recording his own video game playing YouTube channel.
My son’s interest grew into a desire to create, and so he forayed into programming. His computer, for which he saved his own money and purchased by unassembled pieces, he built from the motherboard up. It has become a tool for his life that goes well beyond the video game realm. Via an online program, he now works on learning Italian every day. His favorite games are on the subject of nation-building and he spends a considerable amount of time now reading the actual histories of the places and people he encounters in these games. He puts both my husband and I to shame when it comes to knowledge of world geography. He knows the chronological order of dynasties and dictators, world leaders and world wars. The historical and geographical subjects he is fluent in at the age of 14 are far beyond anything I encountered even in college.
And just when I began to worry that he wasn’t seeing enough (literal) light of day, he picked up a bicycling habit to get himself around town and an O’Dark-thirty workout routine that includes sit-ups, push-ups, and timed aerobic exercise. (There may be a girl influencing things here, but I’m going to remain happy in my denial. I’m not prepared to write that essay, just yet.)
It’s true, my son spends a lot of time on his computer, and I can’t imagine, at this point, how much damage I might have done had I insisted on only one hour, only once a day…
Can kids be trusted to moderate their own time, even when that time involves screens and electronics? Do we have the same worry when they dive headlong into books? Do we obsess if they spend hours outdoors, watching ants crawl across the garden gate or collecting sticks to build a fort?
I think my son is evidence that children can be trusted to choose their own screen time, and to indulge in it when and how they please. It doesn’t mean that they will 100-percent make wise choices, or that they’ll always be drawn toward studying subjects we immediately recognize and value as adults.
But if we are going to trust them, we have to trust them all the way. Trust and find the balance, but don’t sit in judgment about time wasted. If all you can see is time wasted playing a video game, force yourself to look a little closer. They need our engagement, as well as our permission to engage. They need us to believe that even though it may be okay to prod them in another direction for a while; it is also okay to follow their lead. Our doubts, our worries, are only going to impede the natural flow of things.
I haven’t done it perfectly. I’ve let the experts and their advice get in the way more times than I care to count. But I’m here to tell you, that even if they do play video games all day, it is not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning, most likely. Perhaps a world you don’t understand or have little experience in, but it’s a valid world to be in, nonetheless.
You can spend your entire homeschool life second-guessing yourself — or you can trust yourself (and your kids) to get where you need to go.
“How will they ever learn to listen to their boss if they don’t have to listen to teachers?”
“They’ll never make it in the workforce, you have to do things you don’t like to do and deal with jerks.”
“In the real world you don’t get to do what you want.”
There are a lot of ways that many people seem convinced unschoolers will fail, and most of those reasons lead back to the belief that unschoolers just have it too good. They get to be too happy, too playful, too independent, too creative. If they’re used to living such full and interesting lives, how will they ever manage to knuckle down, obey their superiors, and resign themselves to a job that’s unfulfilling at best, and nearly intolerable at worst?
I think this attitude is an indictment of the current education system (as well as the typical workplace environment and maybe even the current economic system). Unknowingly, people who express concern that unschoolers won’t be able to function in such unpleasant situations are saying just what they think schools are good at: namely, teaching people to function in unpleasant situations.
I should hope that school free learners aren’t holding up, as their greatest vision of success, that their children become good at resigning themselves to unhappiness. I’d hope, instead, that life learners are raising children who will seek to build lives that make them happy.
Is it important to be able to deal with unpleasant people and situations at times? Of course. Sometimes you’re going to have to take a job you don’t like so that you can put food on the table. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with a bully to get something you need.
However, I believe that people are best prepared for challenges such as these when they have a core of self confidence and self respect instead of just being accustomed to putting up with discouraging situations on a daily basis. I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.
There are certain qualities in myself that I try to cultivate and encourage.
A lifelong fascination and excitement about whatever catches my interest at any given time. In other words, a passion for learning that never ends.
A strong ethic of self care and firm boundaries, skills and practices that help me to stay healthy and grounded in a world that can often feel overwhelming.
Caring and empathy for other people, and a focus on educating myself about important issues, seeking with my words and actions to make the world at least a little bit better.
Trust in my own instincts.
Confidence and a feeling of self worth, no matter how much I’m struggling at any given time.
Striving always to keep my passions, dreams, and plans at the forefront, working to build my life based on what I truly want and think is right for me.
I share this because, when I think about my own future children and what I’d want for them, I don’t think about college acceptance or an ability to conform to the values and pressures of the dominant culture. Instead, I think about what I want for myself, and I hope that my someday children will have those qualities in even greater abundance than I’ve managed so far for myself.
Figuring out how to live a life in line with your ideals and values is hard no matter what your educational background. But I like to think that unschooling helps. It’s certainly helped me to trust myself because as I child I was never taught that I was untrustworthy. It’s taught me to value the perfection of flow in learning because having experienced it, I know I need to always seek that out in my adult life as well. It’s taught me to question the supposed “common sense” of the dominant culture, and to develop my own thoughts on various issues for myself. And it’s taught me to always follow my passions because doing so will almost always lead me in the direction of the greatest happiness in my life and the greatest contribution to the world.
Let’s cultivate in our life learning journey a version of success based on what makes you come alive.
The holiday break for our family included two trips to the build-it-yourself store (lumber yard), at least four (I lost count) trips to the hardware store, three trips to the recycling center/dump, and one big trip to Goodwill. In short, we built a wall for Christmas (and got a little spring cleaning in as a bonus). All hands were on deck for a remodeling job that turned our small, three bedroom home into a still small, but four bedroom home.
But why… some of our friends and family have questioned… when you have one kid with one foot out the door (perhaps) and two more closer to on-their-own than just-beginning would you bother to add a fourth bedroom now? I have no better answer than that it simply seemed to be the right time. All five members of the family were in agreement, so we spent our holiday building a wall.
In fact, our family has talked about creating more space in this old house for years. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about moving to a bigger, or at least a different house, altogether. So many options have been considered. The back porch could have been converted into a small bedroom or perhaps the side “deck” (which isn’t really a deck at all, but does have a small roof overhang). We’d even talked of a tiny bedroom in the spirit of the tiny house movement, parked in the yard and within easy commute.
But in mid-December, when I mused— “You know, we could move the kitchen table into the (imagine this) kitchen and move the living room furniture into the room where the kitchen table now resides and then put a wall right down the center of the living room with a door and, voila, we’ve got a fourth bedroom!” —that’s when the plan came together.
Anything is possible when the whole crew is on board.
Perhaps I should back up a bit and admit that we aren’t typically a family for whom construction, in the literal sense, is a standard pastime. We read books, we love movies, we take walks and we sometimes hike. We’ve been known to go camping, though travel most often requires a motel room and a hot shower at the end of the day. It would not be unusual to drop in on us at some random point in time and find someone knitting or weaving or sewing or playing a video game or writing a story... Our kitchen is often in use as we are bakers and love cooking from scratch so much that we often chose eating in over going out when we want to treat ourselves to a special meal.
But actually changing the configuration of our house? Not so much. Our tool selection is limited and our skill set, admittedly, on the shy side. In these situations, I close my eyes and do my best to channel my father (the house I grew up in was in a continual state of remodeling) and perhaps consult a how-to book or a wiki-how site.
“Can we build a wall?” the members of my family asked. “Would it remain standing? Could we put an actual door in it?”
“Sure. Why not?” I said. Those are three very powerful words, I have learned.
When the wall was complete, middle kid, recipient of the bedroom that was the product of the construction, said, “Wow. Do you know how empowered I feel? If I can build a wall; I can do anything.”
When I look back on my years as a parent, these are the words that have triggered some of the most worth-while, most memorable, and yes, most educational events of our lives. Can we stay up all night? Can I dig a big hole in the yard? Can we sleep outside? Can I cut my brother’s hair? Can I make up my own recipe? Can we make our own video game?
Sure. Why not?