Tag Archives: unschooling

What Makes a Good Student

Have I told you this story?

If I know you in real life, I probably have:

When Violet had just turned 6, she took golf lessons. She was really interested in golf, and was excited about the class. I so vividly remember driving home one day, asking her about the class, how she liked her teacher, what they did during class (I was walking Victoria around in the stroller, myself).

Then I asked her, “So does your teacher ever give you tips or suggestions on how to hit the ball a certain way, or swing the club.”

“Yes,” she said, with some distaste. “And it is getting Really Annoying.”

I tell this story a lot because I think it expresses something Very Violet. And I told her this story today, after she repeatedly argued with me about following her teacher’s directions for practicing a particular piano piece.

She loved the punch line, laughed in surprise, and then laughed in recognition. When I said, “So I think you have always kind of disliked taking instruction,” she kept on smiling and laughing and said, “Yeah, I guess so!”

That gave us a good opening to talk about her resistance to taking input from people with more experience, without a lot of yelling (on my part). We noted that her education was largely structured to allow her a lot of freedom and independent learning, but that she could also think more about being flexible in the way that she learns.

This was just today, so I did not have a brilliant 5-point strategy for how to implement any of that. What I hope we did accomplish was getting both of us to recognize that disliking being told how to do something is a pretty firmly ingrained part of her character — it doesn’t have to be a character flaw, or willful disobedience, just part of who she is and how she is likely to stay, to some extent.

I hope our next steps can include talking about what she doesn’t like about taking instructions, whether there are times when direction hasn’t bothered her, and what our options could be for making taking instructions more bearable. I hope we can both be more flexible — that I can find more times to let her do things her way, and that she can separate her preference for going solo from acting out when she doesn’t get her way.

I can’t tell — is this child tailor-made for unschooling, or does stubborn, willful indifference to the knowledge and experience of others disqualify her? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Filed under Gifted Ed, Gifted Heart and Soul, Learning Styles, Our Philosophy (such as it is), Why Homeschool?

A Footnote on the Un/Homeschooling Discussion

Again with the unschooling/homeschooling . . .

[I posted this a couple of days ago, then I took it down. I was trying to express that my privileged perspective on homeschooling might give me a more simplistic view of the whole “label issue” than others would have, but I started to think I just sounded condescending. (Maybe the whole Obama-bitter “controversy” has me hypersensitive! ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) But this is a blog, not a book, so I don’t have time to edit and prune and perfect to get the tone just right. Consequently, either you’re going to have to give me the benefit of the doubt, or think I’m a boneheaded so-and-so — or something in between those two — and I’m just going to have to let it go!]

As I keep reading and thinking and enjoying, a nagging voice at the back of my head says “What a privileged girl you are!”

I was looking at Elsie’s question about the ideal school, the school that might tempt me away from homeschooling, and I realized that my ideal school would probably be impractical for many families — families whose work makes them adhere to fairly consistent 9-5 schedules, who cannot work at home. Depending on whom you ask, my ability to work from home for good pay comes from either the grace of God or my own hard work and the time I’ve spent acquiring and honing desirable skills. Either way, I have the good fortune to do a kind of work, for a level of pay, that many people could not wake up tomorrow and begin doing.

As I read Willa’s notes on the history of homeschooling, I know that it would not have been nearly as easy for me to pull my daughter out of school if other parents had not pioneered this path, making at least somewhat socially acceptable. Socially tolerable maybe?

I’m blessed with family members who have been accepting of our desire to homeschool. It might not have been their 1st choice, but it’s OK. On my husband’s side of the family, his sister was one of those pioneers — for her own family, at least — in making homeschooling seem acceptable to her family — including us! It didn’t hurt that I came to homeschooling with a PhD, teaching experience, a stint as president of a moms group, and a mind-bendingly challenging period as co-chair of our parish council during a time of contentious transition, not to mention with a demonstrably self-educating child. Wrong or right, I’m still the “smart girl” in a lot of my circles (save for those years in grad school when I was the “about average girl”), which means I’m cut a lot of slack. (More than I deserve!)

Dare I say, it is also somewhat my personality to dive in with what I want first and deal with objections later? I am not thick-skinned by any means, but I do have a serious stubborn and independent streak. And I have a hefty dose of (sometimes misplaced!) confidence in my ability to do whatever task I set myself — at least, I do before I start. (I do learn a lot this way . . . I just never learn to consider whether the knitting pattern is too hard before I buy the yarn and dig in, and I haven’t quite learned to accept the limitations of time and space when taking on a new project.)

I came to homechooling with such a sense of freedom about whether to do it and how to do it — not that it wouldn’t be challenging and we wouldn’t get a lot of crap for it, just that we *could* do it — that it’s hard for me to imagine otherwise. At the point we became homeschoolers, the only pressure we felt from others was the pressure to do less! (I think this was in part because of our identification with the gifted label, which tends to make people suspicious, like you’re tying your child to a chair and running flashcards and math drills all day. “No lunch til you’ve got this periodic table of elements down cold!!”)

This probably makes me less than sensitive to the reality that many people have come to homeschooling feeling unsure, under scrutinty, unsupported, underqualified. As Theresa says, there may be something in finding an appropriate lable that helps with those feelings by finding people who get it. Reflecting on the discussion of the last month or so, I don’t think I’d change anything I’ve said here or in com boxes. I just wish I could add a qualifying footnote that would convey an acknowledgement of that reality. I would not want to dispute the liberating potential of well-chosen words.

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Filed under Curriculum, Gifted Ed, Learning Styles, Our Philosophy (such as it is), Why Homeschool?

How is Unschooling like Santa Claus?

I have been so interested in the many posts on homeschooling styles that have been cropping up around the homeschool blogosphere. It’s been on my mind a lot. This post, in fact, has been growing and evolving and is still unfinished, but I want to let it go!

I could have stopped a while ago, but a quirk in how God saw fit to make me means that I don’t usually leave well enough alone . . . because I don’t really believe in “well enough.” It’s just in my nature, often for better though sometimes for worse, to look at something and try to improve it. I am not a go-with-the-flow person, and I am pretty sure–after some years of trying to be otherwise–that I am not meant to be. (There must be some kind of irony in there, that I have finally chosen to leave my improvement-oriented self “well enough alone.”)

This is one reason I’m not an unschooler, I suppose. But after all the reading I’ve done in the last few weeks, I’ve decided that the real reason I’m not an unschooler is that I don’t believe in unschooling.

What I mean is that I think of unschooling like Santa Claus — the spirit of the thing is huge, with multiple variations across cultures (“6 to 8 Black Men,” anyone?), and the reality of it rests in how and whether a family practices it. But as a thing in itself, it doesn’t exist.

What got me thinking about this was reading Melissa Wiley’s many wise thoughts on how her own family has moved towards a more unschool-y style. She wrote:

Unschooling is outside school, bigger than school. It doesnโ€™t need to be the ideal best-possible version of school. It is something broader, richer, more rife with possibilities.

And I could not help but think, But how is that different from homeschooling? Homeschooling for us has been about drawing comic books and writing songs as history “narrations”; sitting down at the piano before breakfast, and then again before lunch, and then again after dinner; dropping English as a subject and picking up Chinese instead (and soon, German too!); dumping long division for a while and playing with protractors and compasses. And of course it has been chin puppets and orchestra concerts and sisters playing Harry Potter for an entire afternoon. It’s full of surprising connections, giving Victoria opportunity to say “just like Mozart!” or for Violet to draw stories weaving together the fiction and history she’s reading with her love of manga.

But no one would mistake us for unschoolers. I mean, you could say we are child-led learners, in that I follow my children’s interests at the pace they seem to want to go (though I find I tend to underestimate that). But how do you unschool Chinese? And if sitting down with a computer program or a workbook and doing the sometimes tedious work of memorizing characters is unschooling, then what is not unschooling?

We also feel free to take time off. This “school year” we’ve been to Disneyworld, Mexico, and South Dakota when everyone else is still in school. On busy days or weeks we let any formal lessons slide. But those aren’t unschooling times. They are part of the flow of our family life, the center of home education.

I came to homeschooling late in the game, of course. I’ve heard that once-upon-a-time there were two groups of homeschoolers: hippy-dippy institution-rejecting radicals, and super-fundy ultra-conservative insular radicals. Perhaps then the distinctions between homeschooling types were more marked, and more important.

I also came to homeschooling after pulling out of public school. We deliberately “de-schooled” for a time, but Violet was itching to dig into the fun stuff she’d been missing out on, like Chinese and history and playgroups when you were not too tired to play. We have a direct comparsion for how our family’s way of home education is “bigger than school.”

I read Charlotte Mason books when we first started, but it just wasn’t something I got into. This may sound arrogant, but I think maybe the reason I didn’t get into them much is because they didn’t seem all that different from our lives. Good grief, I write about literature and history for a living! When isn’t someone in our house nose-deep in a “living book” and reporting what they find? I think our house is “strewn” beyond what is reasonable! And “twaddle?” If anything I have always erred on the side of limiting my kids’ reading and viewing too much, forcing my “high-culture” ideals on kids who ought to have a little more room to develop their own tastes.

I don’t mention this to condemn devout CMers or to say that I am “beyond” her beautiful vision of a home educating family. No — if only I could live up to it! I guess I’m just trying to say that I came to homeschooling with a lot of homeschooling already in place in my family.

But enough about me. One “classical” homeschooling family I know said that they had all their formal work done by 10am, so the rest of the day was open for whatever. Another “classical” family I know schedules their winter lessons around skiing and their spring around golf, because golf and skiing are family activities that take precedence. (Oddly, one of the more free-spirited, Waldorf-style homeschoolers I know is always driving her daughter to co-ops and classes, but I think she’s an outlier.) Even the families I know who have enrolled in online public school but still consider themselves homeschoolers bend the rules, speed up and slow down at will, and explore their own interests.

All of these families do more formal curriculum than we do, and we do formal curriculum here too, but it’s plain from how they try to live their lives that they too are intentionally trying to make education something bigger than school, more rife with possibilities. (With apologies to Melissa for leaning on this phrase, but I think she succinctly articulates something that most, if not all, homeschoolers aspire to.)

So I’m not sure what is to be gained with the term unschooling, unless it means that you never offer any direction to your child or support for her exploration of her interests — or her opportunity to discover unknown interests. [Edited to add: I have plainly botched this sentence, based on the comments I’ve gotten. What I was trying to say was that most people do not consider “unschooling” to mean not offering direction or support, and therefore I am not seeing how “unschooling” as the description of educational practices offers a significant distinction from “homeschooling.”] “Homeschooling” may not be the best term either, though it seems to have stuck. (A little bit like “gifted,” eh?) If I ruled the world, everyone would be talking about “home educating” and we’d all be “home educators,” because I think the salient point in what distinguishes home educators is that education takes place in the organic context of home and family.

Home is the place where you are valued for who you are, are expected to make a reasonable contribution to your family life, and mature into freedom within thoughful limits set by people who know and care for you. Home education flows from there (and the best school-based education models itself on that pattern). Among families there are degrees of formality and spontaneity, different areas of interest, varying levels of energy and activity, and a wide variety of tolerances for things such as mess, noise, and fart jokes.

I am starting to wonder, however, if among home educators distinctions at that point are any more meaningful than distinctions between snowflakes or stars in the sky.

As I told my friend Patience, it seems to me that the bedrock principle of either homeschooling or unschooling, if you must call it that!, must be that all participants are true to themselves, especially the parents, as the children are still experimenting and discovering. (Well, so are the parents, but I hope you know what I mean!)

If the homeschooling parent is homeschooling in a way that is contrary to her own drives, loves, quirks, hates, beliefs, needs, and tendencies (except perhaps the universal human tendency toward sloth!), is it really education in the heart of the home, as Elizabeth Foss says?

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Shabby Chic Homeschooling

I love the look of cottages. I love decorating and lifestyle magazines that feature the cottage look, especially the cluttery English cottage that probably exists only in someone’s imagination.

Slipcovers whipped up freehand, quilts tossed casually but perfectly over a slouchy sofa, distressed wood, old benches as coffee tables, slightly rusty birdcages as decor, cafe curtains made from vintage dishtowels — these are elements of that comfortable cottage style that look fun and funky to me.

I do not even think of attempting it.

I am a very messy person prone to extremes of clutter, and lots of dust bunnies. That “shabby chic” cottage style — or whatever you want to call it — merely looks shabby in my house. I have many good qualities, but the ability to pull off that artful artlessness is not one of them. I am comfortable with this, and I have learned to develop a style that (once you hide all the books and papers in the closet and give it a good dusting) looks good to me.

Here’s the analogy:

I read many lovely homeschooling blogs. Many of them are much more unschooly than I am. These mothers seem to pull together disparate threads of daily life and casually weave them into a beautiful tapestry of unscheduled, unplanned, and unparalleled learning and family togetherness. Just like how the cottage-style decorator seems to take a collection of random flea market finds, family heirlooms, and a cast off from an elderly neighbor and create a living room that is gorgeous, comfortable, and highly personal.

I bookmark these blogs and mark posts as “starred” on Google reader, just as I used to stack home-style magazines by my bed. I admire the sense of relaxation, the closeness to nature, the organic and authentic feel that I get from these blogs about happy “rabbit trails.” There is an attention to detail that seems to elevate random observations into exciting discoveries strung together by surprising, unexpected, yet profound connections. This kind of homeschooling looks gorgeous, comfortable, and highly personal.

But I can’t seem to do it.

I have various theories, mainly designed to make myself feel better about it, but in both home and homeschooling the basic cause is the same: too much stuff. There’s too much stuff crammed into my house, too many activities crammed into a day, too many ideas crammed into our heads. It’s that last bit that makes me feel better. There are several very bright people in our household, which means that we are bursting at the seams with stuff to think about and do.

Like many bright children, mine want to sing, and act, and play piano, and play soccer, and learn 2 languages, and also draw a comic strip and study Japanese history and be a detective and read Harry Potter 15 more times and go to the science museum and learn figure skating and plant a garden. If their parents are any indication, as adults they will want to sing, and act, and play piano, and tap dance, and learn guitar, and learn 2 more languages, and scrapbook, and write stories, and lead the parish council and the homeschool co-op and write the MOMS Club newsletter . . . We can’t do it all, but by God, we are going to do as much as we can.

So many interests and abilities on the part of so many people in one house requires a level of planning, scheduling, and organizing that I know would feel very limiting and very wrong to many people. Too much Martha Stewart, not enough Mary Englebreit. (Then again, I have always sympathized with Martha in the biblical story.) But for me it seems freeing — structure makes it possible to explore more of our interests and give more of ourselves than we could otherwise.

I had a chance to reflect on this while on “vacation.” As is often the case, I had a working vacation. As a self-employed person, I sometimes get frustrated that I am on-call 24/7. Add homeschooling to the mix and I sometimes feel overwhelmed with doing two 24/7 jobs at once. The flip side, of course, is that I *get* to do so many things at once: travel, be with my kids, write about Descartes or Martin Luther or Tristram Shandy, see my parents, knit, learn Chinese . . . It’s not easy to pack it all in, and our lifestyle is not for everyone, but for us it’s worth it.

When I look at it this way, my bloglust and envy subsides, though my admiration for those relaxed, unschooly families is undimmed. Likewise I am sincere when I gush over a friend’s fun and funky living room, decorated with garage sale finds and whatever the previous owner left in the attic. In my house, though, the pictures are all hung symmetrically, and I refuse to consider an overstuffed chair or a sofa with loose pillows in the back. My way looks good to me.

The longer I keep at it, the more I think my way of homeschooling is OK. Yours probably is too.

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