Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unschooling Update

I feel like I am still trying on that label, like a new coat I've brought home from the store--but haven't removed the tags from yet. I keep trying it on and deciding, again, whether it fits, whether I like it enough to keep it. The conservative part of me wants something a little less bold, like "eclectic" or "relaxed." Is it really accurate to call what we're doing "unschooling"?

Because I'm not letting them play all day. We have certain subjects that we do every day, whether they want to or not. I'm not radical enough, yet, to "trust that a child will seek out and learn what he needs to know, when he needs to know it, without coercion, without school or school type methods....." There's just too much of the teacher in me to eschew "school type methods," and too much experience with my kids needing coercion guidance, frequently, to use their time wisely.

But we are not using a curriculum. Despite my intentions to do so--compulsively, I'd really like to finish up at least our spelling and grammar workbooks from last year--we haven't cracked a workbook or a textbook, not even a math book, yet. I haven't drawn up a schedule, or a checklist; we're not getting to every subject area every day. Yet Bantam13 said to me yesterday, "I'm learning more this year than I ever have before."

So what have we been doing? On a daily basis, we're focusing on reading, writing and 'rithmetic. We're working in other subjects almost daily too, but they don't even seem like school to the kids--like music (piano and guitar practice), PE (running with Dad, dance class), Bible (reading aloud), reading comprehension and speech (learning/presenting new magic tricks). We have enrichment classes starting up soon, and their theater classes have already started. We've touched on history and science when these subjects have arisen, and we've pulled out a couple of activity kits we could never get to before, to study meteorology and crystal formation--but we're keeping our main focus on the basics.

Writing, for example, has always been our bugaboo--I love for my kids to write, but it's time consuming. Rewriting and polishing is so frustrating to a kid who's got a whole checklist of other subjects he needs to get to. But if I say, "Would you rather go back to a grammar workbook? A spelling workbook? Remember that's what we're covering when we edit your writing"--then they're considerably more cooperative about spending that time correcting errors and rewriting. And they're rewarded--and get keyboarding practice, too--by publishing the results, along with pictures, in their own blogs! (see sidebar)

For reading, for the first time in years (since we've done Sonlight for the past two years), I am not assigning them their reading books. So they don't have a "school" book and a "pleasure" book going--they're focusing on one that they've picked. Bantam13 has been reading the fifth Harry Potter book and is enjoying it so much that he keeps choosing to go read--even over going out with the neighborhood kids, one time. I don't recognize this boy! He always complained about the Sonlight readers--too hard and/or boring, he usually said, and he wasn't a fast enough reader to have much time left over for his own selections. But he is amazing himself with his ability to concentrate, stay awake and lose himself in the story--something it seems he's never been able to do before, even with Harry Potter, because he keeps remarking on it. That's worth gold to me!

We're also reading aloud from a book that I picked just for them--a favorite of mine when I was their age, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. We are reviewing vocabulary as we come across words which I feel need explaining; I am also pointing out writing style items of note, such as how she builds suspense and intrigue. The book has raised questions of science as well. They are loving it.

Math was the scariest subject to teach without a curriculum, since I'm not really a math person. But in my "back to basics" approach, I knew we had to start with the simple facts that my oldest son had never really mastered. With Saxon Math last year, I'd observed repeatedly how long it took him to do problems, and I'd prescribed daily time with the Flashmaster. But his is not an independent learning style, despite my urgings to develop one--which did not coincide well with him frequently finding himself third in line for my teacherly attention, last year especially.

So it's been addition and subtraction flashcards, for him and his 4th grade brother, for the last month. Part of me wants to freak out because, how will we ever get him through that Saxon 76 book this year? The other part of me is watching him grow by leaps and bounds, in confidence and in his ability to do mental math, as he notices patterns and develops strategies, especially for numbers in the teens and above (our flashcards go up to + 12, and begin with 24-). The practice is exactly what his brother needs as well. I've looked at MathUSee's Intermediate book to remind me what else we could be reviewing, and we've also worked on place value and reading and writing numbers up to one billion and down to thousandths. My plan is to keep following our noses through the math world--after multiplication and division come fractions, decimals, percents, basic geometry and algebra, right?--and eventually look at the Saxon book and see what we left out. Or maybe we'll switch to MathUSee--we'll see.

So what do you think? Are we unschooling?

We're not following the school's scope and sequence for 7th grade, but my 7th grader says he's learning more than he's ever learned in a school year, so far. He's loving reading, writing daily without complaint, and gaining so much confidence in math. (His comment was: "It was always too hard and I hated it, so I didn't really learn it.") We're focusing on what they want to learn and what I think they need to learn. And it's surprising how many extras we're fitting in around those "big rocks."


Anonymous said...

So inspiring, Jeanne! Thank you for your detailed updates on the home schooling. (even if it's "unschooling," it's schooling done at home!).

Kurt and I are planning to homeschool (we plan ahead, huh?) and I love getting inspiration for what to do from your blog.

One thought: I wonder if your new approach this year is working so well because of the foundation you built in past years using the traditional homeschool methods. Just a thought.


Heather said...

Glad to hear that things are working out well. If you keep following this school method, you can compare your youngest kid's academic progress with your oldest kid's progress and see how much difference a more structured beginning really makes in education. Then in 4 years, you can publish your findings and I'll know what to do with my kid! The teacher in me wants a teacher's guide and a coordinating workbook, but the mom in me knows my boy would hate that.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Taryn & Heather--

I am wondering some of the same things--could write a detailed response, but I think I'll turn it into a post!

I will say that I know I'll never get too far from some kind of structure and plan. But I also am planning on teaching my two youngest in a much more interest-directed way, as I did my first two when they started out. It's the two middle boys that have had the most structure in their early years, and I don't think it has served them well.


Paula said...

I think you would REALLY like what is called STREWING. Google it! Basically, if there is a subject you want your kids to learn, you put out some books on the subject, or if it is art, you put some paintings out along with the books. If it is shells you could put some of those out along with identification books. You can take it a bit further and start doing the subject yourself. Kids ALWAYS want in on something when Momma is doing it - they think it HAS to be fun if MOMMA is doing it. :)

Islandsparrow said...

I think Id like to be in your school myself :)

I'll have to give Christopher Paolini a fair try - I read Eragon and I wasn't overly captivated - I'm tired of dragons . . . but I will try again since he is so loved by so many.

Have you or your kids read Cynthia Voigt's kingdom series? I really enjoyed them. Or The Blue Sword? Also wonderful fantasy.

I'm going to get the meme up today....finally :)

Jena said...

I'm with you. I've always struggled with the tension between letting them follow their interests and "knowing what's good for them." Looking back, with one successfully at college now and a 16 year old wondering what to do with her life, I think the only thing I would definitely require of them is math. That's just not a natural for so many people and you have to do it on the ACT and SAT, and most colleges will make you take classes in that if you're not proficient. Making up 12 years of math at the last minute just sounds impossible! So whatever you can do to keep them moving forward in math without too many tears, I'd do it. All the other stuff? Let's face it, if you can read and glean information from what you read, and if you can recognize good English, you've got it made.

Facts are useful, and you can't help but pick them up, especially if it's a topic you love. But most of the facts we learn in school have little value unless you are going into that major in college or making it your vocation. And if you are, then you are probably naturally interested in it and will know it anyway. Everything else makes you good at playing the board game Trivial Pursuit. :)

At A Hen's Pace said...


Great idea--I love it!


Haven't heard of the books you I'm eager to look for them! We need something for the boys when they're done with Harry Potter and the Inheritance series (Paolini's books).


Thanks--that is a really helpful perspective. I agree that math is a must, and I think writing is a must too. (Well, reading too, but that goes without saying.) That's why I'm focusing on those three this year. You're so right about the rest!


Earthmommy said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. My 16-year-old daughter is much like your kids with reading. She reads slowly and hates reading text books. But she recently recently devoured all four books int eh "Twilight" series by Stephanie Meyer in about month. The first three books were 500+ pages and the final one, 700+. This is my child who hated to read in school.

I tend to think there are subjects that lend themselves more to unschooling than others, like reading. Math on the other hand, espeically higher math, I would think would be tough to teach without some curriculum. We're not there yet though, so for now we're still using curriculum with my older one.

The toddler unschools naturally right now, and I imagine our future schooling wiht her will be a relaxed mix of methods.

Rosa said...


Your approach toward education sounds remarkable! I personally don't think it really matters whether it technically fits into "home" or "un"-schooling.. it seems to be working well, from what I've read!

When I was in 10th grade, aside from attending the public high school for half days, I did something similar to what you are doing now with "unschooling." My mother let me design and follow my own American History/Literature curriculum, and I have to say that it was probably the most rewarding experience I had that year.

So, I just have to say, way to go! It sounds like you have a very good grip on guiding your children through their education, but also letting them choose components of it that will shape them as individuals. Props to you! =)


Heather said...

It sounds like you are definitely relaxing towards and interest led approach, not really unschooling (the more you focus on what they want to learn and less obviously on what you think they need to learn, letting God do the prompting, the more unschooling it becomes) but moving in that direction. Strewing would definitely be a good thing (and how my kids usually get into what I buy thinking they might use. You place interesting books and activities around the house where you know the one who would be interested will see it and pick it up.) And yes, this would be good on the CU site.

tonia said...


i am heading in this direction as well. i woke up the other day and just felt so *done* with schedules and lessons and calendars. i would really like to school year-round and follow the seasons, adding in meaningful family work (like gardening or harvesting/canning, etc.) instead of being a slave to the "school year". this week i am trying to be a little more relaxed...*hee* it's a stretch!...and insisting on some writing every day, some math every day and letting the read their ambleside selections at their own pace.

my oldest daughter LOVES it. i like it too...just worried that i will regret not getting everything on the list done.

thanks for the inspiration and encouragement!


Catherine said...

I aspire to this kind of relaxing pace as well. Sounds like you're doing great with your kids.


Alison said...

I gave up with the labels some time ago. Unschooling, life learning, child-led learning, eclectic, school at home, individualized learning, self-paced learning. We are doing or have done all of them at one time or another.

Mostly it's about figuring out what works for you and your kids. It's about adjusting, about trusting, about doing the best you can for them, it's about loving them whatever they are achieving academically too of course!

And just because something works now, or doesn't, that doesn't always mean a lot. It may change next week.

I do find that it took me three years to kind of figure it out though.