I’m still trying to figure out the best approach to homeschooling for our family. I’ve only begun to realize that for most homeschooling families it’s an ever-evolving undertaking. Very few, if any, jump into homeschooling and immediately figure out a path that works well for them and suits their particular goals, philosophies, and lifestyle for the long-term. There are always tweaks and adjustments to be made, new approaches to try. It can be unsettling to feel like you never quite have it all figured out, that you never get to feel 100% certain that the way you’re doing it is the best way to do it, but that really is the beauty of homeschooling: the flexibility to make changes.
So, I’ve been feeling more and more unsettled lately about how I’m approaching homeschooling. The girls are learning the stuff I’m making them learn, but that’s just the thing: there is still a sense of coercion which we all feel and dislike. Probably the girls’ favorite subject right now is history, because it’s very relaxed. We sit in the living room and read from A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror (I am determined not to peddle a sanitized or white washed version of history to my kids) – which has led us on detours to a separate book about slavery, and now a book about the Mayflower and its passengers. Sometimes the girls take turns reading, but mostly I read, and while I’m reading, they draw or doodle or play with clay or something. So it’s very laid back. And we have these great discussions about what it must have been like way back when, and how the past impacts today’s social issues, and sometimes something we read will prompt us to look something up in the World Atlas. It’s probably my favorite subject, too, not only because it’s interesting and engaging, but because the girls all participate willingly and seem to genuinely enjoy it.
I want more of that, and I think the girls do, too.
Which is why I’m thinking more and more about unschooling.
Unless you’re actually familiar with unschooling (which I’m only starting to be), most of what you think about it is probably wrong. I’ve had the same skepticism that most people have about it. I think the “un” in “unschooling” can be misleading in that it sounds like “not educating.” But that’s not what it is. Unschooling is a sort of radical departure from conventional schooling and teaching. It’s also known as “child-led learning,” and it means putting the kids in the driver’s seat of their own education. So it’s not about textbooks and worksheets and prescribed reading and projects. It’s not about presenting material in a sequential manner and expecting kids to learn in a sequential manner. It’s not about scoring or grading or ranking or comparing. It means making available to kids plenty of opportunities to explore things and subjects that interest them, and trusting that, if allowed to pursue what is relevant and meaningful to them, they will learn what they need to learn along the way in order to live a meaningful, self-directed and self-sufficient life.
It appeals to me because it’s very much in line with my belief for Finn in “life as therapy.” Way back when he was two years old, after much agonizing, we ditched all the usual therapies that parents of kids with Ds are expected to buy into because it seemed largely pointless, intrusive, in some ways counterproductive (in that it involved constantly assessing, evaluating, and comparing him, with an eye towards improving him), and yes, even coercive. I fully believe that just about everything Finn has learned has come from living life and from being included (to the extent he has been included) – not from therapy.
So, unschooling, in a nutshell, is “life as school.”
Still, it’s a HUGE leap of faith. And it’s not one that I’m sure I can make all at once, with both feet.
The other day I sat all three girls down around the dining room table for a little conference. I wanted to hear from each of them how they’re feeling about homeschooling: what they like about it, what they don’t like, any concerns or worries they might have, and what changes they’d like to make to how we do things. They all cited “less stress,” “less pressure to keep up,” “being able to work at our own pace,” “no homework,” and “more free time” as things they like about homeschooling. They all said they dislike math (this isn’t news; math is the subject that elicits the most whining, nagging, and tears). They all want “more fun stuff” and “more field trips.”
After we talked for a while, I asked them each to come up with their ideal weekly schedule, and I encouraged them to collaborate. Then we sat down again and talked about what they had come up with, and agreed on a new weekly schedule that we’ll try out. We agreed to sit down again in a couple of weeks and talk about how it’s going.
We agreed to do more history, and more reading literature together. We’re ditching the writing/grammar program I’ve been using with the twins because they just aren’t engaging with it. They rush through the assignments just to get them out of the way, not because they particularly care about them. The twins have agreed to keep writing on their own – anything: essays, short stories, letters, journal entries – and to sit down with me once in a while and talk about writing. (I’m going to keep doing the Barton system with Lilah, because I feel like she needs the tools in order for her dyslexia to not continue to be a barrier for her.) We’re also ditching the science program we’ve been using, as it’s textbook based, and like the writing, the girls aren’t particularly engaged with the prescribed material presented. All three of them would rather study animals and so forth on their own. They all take an art class across town once a week, which we’ll continue for now, but I’m thinking probably not for the long-term, as it’s expensive, and I suspect the girls are going to get bored with it.
Math, though. I’m really struggling with what to do about math (and from what I understand, it’s the subject that a lot of unschoolers stress over). For now we’ve agreed to cut it down to three times a week instead of five, but they still dislike it, and it still feels like I’m the taskmaster, cajoling them to do lessons they resent and don’t care about. Just this morning, as Lilah cried over yet another worksheet, I stood there thinking, “What is she really even getting out of this?” I’m having a very, very hard time letting go of the conditioning I’ve received all my life, though, that math (formally taught in a sequential manner, with lots of practice drills) is necessary, and they need to do it for their own good.
I don’t know where we will ultimately land in our homeschooling journey. Although I am cozying up to the idea of unschooling more and more, I think it’s going to take some time for me to become completely comfortable with it. In the meantime, baby steps. I’m trying to let go of the conventions I’ve had hammered into me all my life, and let the girls have more say in their own education.
I have another post brewing about democratic education; stay tuned.
Edited to add this link for anyone who might be interested. Looks like a great resource, and offers a nice explanation of homeschooling: unschool