Stronger than ever – Hell yes we’re unschoolers

I know that when people are first diving into the world of home-based education, they tend to be overwhelmed by all of the different options and philosophies and methods for doing so.

New Homeschoolers get overwhelmed that there are so many options to choose from.

Often, parents will start off with the intention to be one kind of homeschooler and then as their children grow, they’ll evolve into a different kind.

When my oldest was a few months old, I decided that we would be both homeschoolers AND public schoolers.  I couldn’t shake the “lack of socialization” myth. The idea was that every day she’d scoot off to school (on the bus, for socialization) and when she came home, we’d do 3-4 hours of “real work” because I knew the public schoolwork would be bland.

I’m so glad my thought process didn’t end there, I’m so glad I kept reading and kept learning.  We decided on unschooling based on the writings of Sandra Dodd and Joyce Fetterol back on Yahoo groups in the early 90’s.  As my daughter grew older and I was having trouble implementing this new (to me) philosophy, I cringed at the idea of asking them for help because their group had a tendency to verbally bash newcomers and that kind of treatment isn’t one I learn from.  This was my kid, I needed to learn, not be bullied.  I veered away from radical unschooling altogether, in favor of my own combination of child-led and classical unschooling.

Sidebar note: for Classical Education, check out The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (Fourth Edition) (we edited away the religious aspects)and Mortimer Adler’s The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto.

It worked for us at the time, we had the visual trappings of  an impressive classical education. With only two children at the time, our daily activities were initiated by me, on a schedule that Emilee had more control over than she realized.  We could spend as little or as much time on Latin as she wanted.  And we were having fun together, I was learning along with her (I mean, how many kids of the 80’s ever had Latin classes, right?).  If she wanted to buzz through three weeks of material at once, we could do that. My goal – of not limiting her to teeny tastes of topic material at a time – were realized.

But our family grew and one-on-one-time with each child became even more difficult to come by.  As the older girls’ reading skills increased, I was able to send them off to do assignments.  I don’t remember when that sending-them-off first started and they never objected to it, but it was definitely not in my original picture of how the early educational years should be. I always believed that one-on-one attention and stimulating intellectual conversations were more effective than simply filling out worksheets.  Children learn by asking questions, not answering them.

Somewhere along the way we opened up a restaurant.  My older two were still the only school-aged kids we had and I remember creating a massive spreadsheet of our assignments over the summer, to make sure that they covered everything over the school year. I had been doing it for years and I didn’t stick to it like glue, mostly I used it as a guide.  “Working through” a lot of the literature mostly consisted of reading, writing and discussing what we’ve read. Writing, reading and history were intertwined, a method I later learned was called The Thomas Jefferson method. Math was Saxon and Science was a series of guided experiments, accompanied by readings and discussions.

I remember clearly sitting in our office at the restaurant in mid December, trying to get the payroll done and it was nearly midnight.  The girls wanted to go home and I did, too.  I’d just discovered I was pregnant with our 5th child and still hadn’t digested the ways life would change, but I knew it would and even thinking about it was daunting. We had an air mattress in the office that they could snuggle up on when work kept me late but this night they were antsy and I was afraid that if I laid down to read to them I’d never finish payroll.  Who wants to sleep on an air mattress with 4 kids in an office?  I did not. Except I did, I missed them so much while I was working.

In an effort to redirect my second-oldest, I asked her to go get her schoolwork.  “I’m done” she said.  So, like any smart mom, I said “Then do tomorrow’s.”  But that didn’t work, see, because they had actually finished the entire year.  I realized that I had become the mom that was limiting their experiences by dripping material slowly over the course of a year when they clearly were capable of digesting it all at once.  Instead of rewriting the rest of the school year, I just had them write up what they were learning about independently each day and we’d discuss that instead.

It was so exciting to watch their love of learning deepen. Meagan dove deeply into Egyptian mythology and Emilee was learning more about popular musicians. I loosened the reins and was reminded of what I knew before, that the world is a fascinating and amazing place and that children are curious enough and smart enough to learn through their own devices.

Years went by and as the girls got older, they decided they wanted to go to public high school.  Our home life was not stimulating, in fact it was super stressful and we barely had the resources to leave the house and buy groceries, so nevermind about the field trips and “exploring our world.” Research has proven that kids have trouble learning in a stressful environment. By that time, the restaurant had gone out of business when baby #6 was less than a month old and I was working from home, the sole income provider for a family of 8 and it was hard.  I knew I couldn’t keep their interest maintained and I knew that it wasn’t fair to keep them home anymore, when there’s a whole amazing world of knowledge out there that I couldn’t afford to show them on my own. Also, I was losing my ability to maintain a happy home, as my husband’s depression grew and more and more of my time was spent working to support us, instead of being the mom I wanted to be.

They decided to go to school in the next town over and that was fine with me.  We lived in a rural area and the social connections in the next town were sure to be more diverse. In fact, the girls had been attending social functions there for years already and were eager to see more of their friends.  We had to get a district transfer and make a million trips back and forth just to get them registered. (And years later, a misguided aunt actually had the nerve to say that my daughter ‘registered herself for school in 8th grade?”  WTF???)

For two years, I drove the girls into the next town, 12 miles each way both in the morning and in the evening.  The only car we had at the time was a poorly-maintained Suburban that got about 10 miles per gallon. So that’s 48 miles a day at $4 per gallon.  In the afternoon, when I couldn’t afford the gas, I’d have the girls take the city bus 3/4 of the way home.  Like I said, we were rural. The bus only went so far. It was worth it because the girls were happy, I was relieved that they weren’t enduring the stress at home anymore.  When I was trying to work, the only other adult in the house would often shirk parenting responsibilities by “delegating” diaper changes and food preparation to the older girls, which isn’t really fair to anyone.  Nor was the scary temper.

Their adjustment to public school wasn’t that difficult.  I didn’t expect either of them to dive in as straight A students, but they were both able to read and write and figure out the nuances of turning assignments in on time and taking proper notes and writing outlines fairly easily. They both learned to take advantage of the helps that were available and overall, adaptation to this strange environment was more fun than stressful for all of us. I know there were moments they hated but their perseverance and determination was (and is) impressive. Because of our involvement in Girl Scouts, 4H, the homeschooling co-op, dance classes and the time we spent running the restaurant, and involvement in other community activities, the girls were already equipped with social connections and eagerly participated in extra-curricular activities.

School play - unschooling boot camp At the time of this writing, Emilee is in school to become a massage therapist and she does a lot of local theater stuff, as well as occasional modeling jobs. She’s also an excellent photographer and decorator, with an eye for beauty because it comes from deep inside of her. She has a tight-knit group of friends from her swing dance group and they do charity fundraisers and volunteer together.  Meagan is in her Junior year in high school.  She’s busy with two dance classes each week, plus extra-curricular activities.  She’s in the school band, she’s performing in a musical with the drama club and she still swing-dances with her older sister a few times a month, this is her 4th year of swing dance.  She’s trustworthy, principled and feisty. I like and love them both like crazy. Although, I don’t like the expense of paying car insurance for teenagers.  WTH???

After the girls started school, our family life went topsy-turvy and we’ve had several more “educational experiences” that I’ll blog about at another time.  Suffice to say that I’ve gone “back to my roots” and I’m stronger than ever now.  The younger girls are participating in a program much like Ivan Illich describes in Deschooling Society whereby the kids choose which courses to participate in as a group and which to learn independently.  Class age groups are mixed and the focus is on their experiences as well as learning the material, not merely passing tests or memorizing trivial details.  In this program (which we’ll be commuting over 700 miles a a week for) parents get to be actively involved and participating families have plenty of opportunities to spend social time together, like a learning community and, from what I hear, the lounge-room discussions are stimulating and exciting, with impromptu book clubs and material-sharing and potluck snacking (all the best things).  Instructors are adults who are passionate about their field of expertise and enjoy sharing it with children on a short-term, part-time basis.  There are no holier-than-thou “career teachers” here. We’re all so very excited to get the benefits of “the village” without the bureaucracy of heavy-handed and arbitrary institutionalization.  There’s no “principal” and no “board” to contend with, just families who are private consumers of educational offerings. Finally.

unschooling bootcamp The mindless and short-sighted focus on “meeting grade level standards”  or “passing tests” or “getting good grades” was never part of my philosophy and it never will be.  After watching my kids deal with public schools for the past two years, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s a gross disservice to their intellectual development. Grade levels are asinine. No child is best served when their learning is monitored and controlled and regulated and measured.  Learning is a natural result of curiosity and creativity.  I will never ever ever ever ever be the mom who is concerned about “grade levels.”  My kids are smart, spunky and enthusiastic about learning. They own their brains, follow their interests and they’re responsible for their lives.  There will be no “learned helplessness” in our home. Institutionalized schooling robs kids of their innate ability to master their own minds, in favor of external control.  It’s a narcissistic system that leaves kids dependent, depleted and craving freedom.  I’ve had a partner like that in my life and escaping was the very best thing I’ve ever done. I will never consent to allowing my children to live at the mercy of someone else’s whim.

Information is free.

Learning is a natural state of affairs for humans.

Institutionalized education, as is currently executed in public elementary schools and  many private schools, is an unnecessary assault on the autonomous learning process that every healthy and happy child has access to.  The popular system of grades and testing and focusing on silly arbitrary standards instead of individual strengths and passions does more harm than good for children.




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