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I could be an unschooler, if I just understood how

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Fairly Odd Mother

Frantically waving my magic wand to make wishes come true.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I could be an unschooler, if I just understood how

When I first started thinking about homeschooling, I was immediately drawn to the concept of "Unschooling". I loved the idea of letting my kids learn at their own pace, of exploring the world with wonder and excitement, not glumly sitting at the table while I lorded over them.

From the get-go, though, I stumbled. I remember joining Unschooling message boards and feeling way out of my league. These were women (and men) who forged metal, knew the periodic table by heart, knitted sweaters, raised chickens (from eggs!), and took month-long hikes with a compass and a map. They knew the answer to any question, and not after first saying, "let's check Google!". They were smart and resourceful and definitely did not use the television as a babysitter.

There were also the Radical Unschoolers who had no rules for their kids other than basic safety guidelines. Their kids were up until 11 and slept until 10. If my kids are up after 9pm, I start to twitch. I remember innocently asking, "so how do you go about teaching your kids to read" and having the wrath of many descend on me for daring to use the "t" word.

I backed away, slowly, and adopted a more traditional approach. I read The Well-Trained Mind and loved it because it seemed to take away all my worries that my kids would not learn anything if left to my own devices.

But, and this is a big "but", it also turned our homeschool into exactly what I was trying to avoid.

When I say, "time to do grammar!", I'm met with groans. History, my oldest's favorite subject, has become a chore. Science, a favorite among all three, is hardly touched since I can barely get through math, reading, spelling, history, grammar and language in any given day.

But, when I try to loosen up, my kids play. Just play. OK, before you guys say, "but aren't they supposed to play?", I say, "yes!". I want them to play. But, why is it that the unschoolers I read about have kids who do math emails for fun, or start reading chapter books on their own? Mine will sit and play with dolls or blocks or puzzles for hours, which is great, but isn't going to help with "six times eight" as far as I know.

Plus, many unschoolers do what looks like "school" to me with lapbooks, math curriculum, schedules/charts. . .which makes me think that maybe unschoolers are regular homeschoolers with less rigidity?

And for you, how do you make sure your day isn't consumed with your own tasks/needs/jobs? If I don't tell myself "school starts at 9:30", I will find myself writing or cleaning or Googling something until 10 (or later). Especially if the kids are happily playing in the other room.

So before I go and make yet another schedule listing all the subjects we need to cover in a day, please shed some light on what makes unschooling work for you. But, if you tell me your family just finished building a homemade telescope to study the rings of Saturn, I'm going to weep.

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Blogger Sarah @ Ordinary Days said...

I had read about the whole unschooling thing before but just these past few days I was really digging deep into it's world. And, yeah, the people who write about it totally overwhelm me too.
It sounds good in theory, but when it just isn't working when put into practice (even if not working just means it makes mom antsy) then I think it's A-OK to do a hybrid of unschooling and regular schooling.
(Feel free to not listen to me at all since I've only been at this for six months.)
We do a combo, kind of. First thing in the morning we do our workbooks and table work. (Please don't flog me for using workbooks!)
Then I send the boys off to do some type of play that is still educational on their own, either computer games, puzzles, or read books.
I honestly think to unschool, you have to put so much more work into it. And money! I'm sorry but I don't have the budget to go on field trips every day or buy supplies to build that dang telescope.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Boston Mamas said...

C, I don't homeschool but I wanted to comment in to express my awe. I guess I had never really thought of camps within homeschooling (though I guess there are camps within anything) and I can see how that pressure would build up.

I was just talking to someone the other day about the idea that with kids at school who are excelling, you never see what's going on behind the scenes. So, maybe they're looking all breezy and easy, but a sh*tload of work has gone into it off the radar.

I'm not meaning to incite the unschoolers and suggest that they're secretly drilling math tables while no one's looking, and I am a huge proponent of learn through play with Laurel. However, I agree with you that things like reading and math need to come with lots and lots of practice. I'm scratching my head on this one too.

9:15 AM  
Blogger The Mom said...

When I was researching, I looked at unschooling as well. The thing was that the unschoolers seem to work harder at it than those of us who do traditional schooling. The amount of time that they spend with their kids doing things that teach without a book is incredible. I think it takes a certain kind of person to do it right. I'm just not that person.

In our house, we have to start at 9AM on the dot, or things don't get done. It is a discipline issue for me and the kids. We have a routine for getting through things with short breaks here and there. I can do a few things while school is happening (Noah is currently working on grammar as I type this) but for the most part, I have to drop my things until we're finished.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Velma said...

I'm in awe of anyone who homeschools, no matter what their style. I really doubt that I could do it with any measure of success and retain my sanity, so no matter how you are doing it? I think it's great.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Julie said...

Just a thought here, some of the subjects you list are "extras" maybe you don't have to do EVERY subject every day.

The whole Unschooling philosophy is lost on me, so no help there.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

I don't get unschooling. I just don't. It seems so chaotic to me. I'm the kind of person who needs to be able to check things off a list. How do they know if they are covering everything? Don't you ever wonder if they call themselves Unschoolers, but are really No Schoolers? I mean, come on. Kids aren't just going to intuit multiplication tables by digging in the dirt.

In the last few years, I feel like I have finally realized who I am and become more comfortable with it. I do have to give myself stern talking-to's when I start comparing myself with all those annoying Super Moms out there. But overall, I have accepted that I am not the kind of person who could unschool. I also am not the kind of person who reads aloud for eleventy hours a day. I roll my eyes at nature journals. The idea of lapbooking every single subject makes me feel slightly ill.

Some days it's harder than others to be face the fact that I am not that Perfect Homeschool Mom. You know - the one who sews all the clothes, bakes her own bread, and makes her own playdoh that her loving brood never gets on the floor. Especially when encountering attitudes like, "You use WORKBOOKS? How dare you call yourself a homeschooler!" and "You only have two kids? Well, I guess that's a start" and "PBS? Don't you know tv is the DEVIL? What kind of a parent are you?"

And then I flip on Dinosaur Train and hide in my room with the stash of Bribing My Kid To Potty Train m&ms.....

1:31 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I just wrote a similar post a few months ago. And, I am currently a member of all those unschooling forums. And, I just read the Unschooler's Handbook. And, I am equally confused.

I have asked again and again, "How does one's child learn to read if no one teaches him?" No one will answer me. :(

I've read Well-Trained Mind, too. Most recently, I've read about Charlotte Mason. And, I've read about Reggio-inspired learning, Constructivism, etc.

I am thoroughly confused. This, I believe, is the reason so many homeschoolers call themselves: eclectic. :)

2:07 PM  
Blogger Idzie Desmarais said...

I'm an 18 year old longtime unschooler, and I've actually recently written something to the effect that I think that unschoolers often have a tendency to only talk about the happy shiny fairy dust part of unschooling (of which there is plenty, don't get me wrong ;-)) and gloss over some of the challenges.

Most unschoolers aren't amazing, brilliant, earth shattering people: they're just people who have been trusted to grow and learn at their own pace, and in their own time. That's really the BIGGEST thing about unschooling: trust. Trust that whatever your kid is doing now is what is *right* for them at this point in their life!

I didn't really read until I was 8 or 9, at which point having been read to my whole life and having picked up a few basics a couple of years before, I picked up a book and just started reading. For several years following that I did very little but read novels! Yet that single-minded focus ended eventually, and I found many other things to be fascinated with... Currently I'm focused mainly on writing, with the hopes of traveling soon. I don't believe that unschooling only works for *extraordinary* people! And I'm not mentioning the reading thing to try and sound impressive. I'm mentioning the late reading thing to say that reading and other things don't have to happen on the schools time line!

I do believe (and everything I've seen and done backs it up) that if given the freedom to do so, people will find passions, and will follow them until they've had their fill, before moving onto something out. Younger children need play more than anything else! That if often their primary passion. There's a time later on when other, more "school-y" things, will probably become more interesting. And just as a note, I don't know any illiterate unschoolers. The basics of literacy and math skills are gained simply from luving, and being around people who possess those skills!

Sorry that this turned into such a ridiculously long comment! Anyway, hope it's of some use to you. :-)


4:02 PM  
Blogger Idzie Desmarais said...

Oh, and if anyone has specific questions about unschooling, or how I learned things, I will happily answer. I want people to understand this educational philosophy that I love so much!

4:03 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I love this post. I really thought I would be an unschooler too but then I just got too "nervous" that my kids wouldn't know anything. Love hearing the responses.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Obi-Mom Kenobi said...

Please stop pulling the thoughts from my head, Fairly Odd Mother. It's kind of creeping me out. :-)

We've run the gamut of hsing styles and ran from the barded arrows of the unschooling and radical unschooling message boards. I wish I could point you to "the one true way," but I'm still trying to figure out how to make my beliefs, wishes and day-to-day reality line up more and more closely these many years.

The biggest struggle in our home is that we all learn so differently that we tend to butt heads and dig in our heels if pushed too far in someone else's preferred direction.

Day-by-day we march on. Hopefully we'll arrive some day to that magical place that can accommodate us all.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Obi-Mom Kenobi said...

PS - should have been barbed (not barded)

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Jenners26 said...

We're only a couple of years into our unschooling journey, so I'm certainly not an expert on the topic, but let me tell you what's worked for us.

When we first made the decision to homeschool, I started doing curriculum research and was so overwhelmed by the different styles out there. How was I supposed to know which one to get? Which one would match his learning style? And how was I supposed to know what my child's learning-style was when I'd never formally taught him anything?

Then I came across the philosophy of unschooling, and it really 'clicked' for me. Think of all the things your child has learned without being formally taught. When they were toddlers and they were learning their colors, did they learn them because you sat them down at the table and did worksheets and gave them quizzes? Or did they learn them through a more natural, organic process over time? That's not to say you weren't involved, but you weren't actively teaching them simply because you decided that it was time for them to learn. You supported and encouraged their learning.

That's a very simple analogy, but hopefully you understand what I'm trying to say. The same way you didn't stop learning the day you graduated high school, your children won't stop learning simply because you stop teaching them. Curiosity is part of human nature.

Sure, they may play with dolls or watch t.v. all day long to begin with, (or maybe even for weeks on end!). You have to prepare for a 'deschooling' process to happen. Let them adjust to having freedom they haven't had before, and let them become secure with the fact that you're not going to suddenly take that freedom away one day because you don't feel they're being productive enough...THAT is when the real process of unschooling begins. You'll trust that they will learn, and they'll trust that you'll support them.

Provide them with resources, go to the library, visit museums, take a walk...just live. The learning will happen naturally.

11:38 PM  
Anonymous Summer said...

Oh goodness, there's a ton of play going on here. The boys watched cartoons, played with cars, and played in the sink "washing" toys. Now they're coloring toilet paper rolls to make binoculars and then plan a safari in the hallway.

I think it's fine to mix unschooling and traditional schooling, as long as you're following what your kids need/want. The learning happens with the play.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I wonder what families you are talking about?! They DO sound amazing! I've been unschooling for quite some time, I like to think I'm pretty cool but I have yet to forge metal, I will never know the periodic table, I've never knit a sweater (maybe a blanket - once), no month long hikes, never raised chickens (tough i'd like to!), have trouble with compasses and I use google... A LOT!!!

Sometimes it's possible to look at long-time unschoolers and although they are absolutely amazing people, put them up on unreasonable pedestals. I even look at some unschoolers sometimes and think, oh gosh... I'm not doing enough! Unschooling looks different in ALL families. Think that the ones you read about are probably the more outgoing adventurous ones. Our family, right now, spends a lot of time at home playing computer games and baking cookies.

Unschooling is about trusting that they will learn. They WILL learn to read. We live in a text-rich society, it's almost impossible NOT to read. Children can learn to read without being taught as simple as they learn to walk and talk without any teaching. It's when we begin that "teaching" that we see their curiosity and internal drive starts to disappear.

Unschooling parents need to "deschool", start trying to live as if school didn't exist. Think about that. What if school didn't exist? Anyway, my blog might have some insight for you if you find the label "articles". Also try reading and then read some more. :-)

11:51 AM  
Blogger said...

Um, no. We're not unschoolers. I am not organized in the rest of my life enough to let schooling just "happen." I can appreciate how it might work, though. And, in fact, I think that all homeschoolers do SOME unschooling to a degree. Justin and I just had an entire discussion regarding the location of Guam, why Native Americans were called "Indians", and why spices were so valuable a couple of hundred years ago. Of course, we are all still in our jammies and the house is a disaster neither Evan nor Corinne has done a single bit of schoolwork but they're playing quietly and I am not going to interrupt just yet. So I guess we're "unschooling" 2 out of 3 kids right now. That, or I'm just being lazy today... Very possible...

12:26 PM  
Blogger Lise said...

I don't think all homeschoolers are cut out to be unschoolers. There's a continuum running from unschooling to strict school-at-home, and not everyone is comfortable being at one end or the other. But I have to say (and please picture me saying this gently, with a friendly smile on my face) if your method of homeschooling is making your children hate learning then it's probably a good time to look at other options. That might not be unschooling for you. . . it might be a science program centered around experiments or history learned through reading historical fiction and watching period movies. Learning doesn't have to be painful or boring in order to be effective.

I have four daughters, and our homeschooling started out structured and moved toward unschooling very quickly. Their learning patterns varied from kid to kid. One read early and remains a voracious reader. Two didn't read until the age of nine. . . and remain voracious readers. We read aloud to them constantly, and I offered to do the reading lessons in "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" but they chose whether or not to do the lessons. They all did the program, but at different ages and at different paces, and I never forced it.

We did no formal science lessons but instead just occasionally did a fun science experiment and talked about the basics. My 21-year-old just earned her degree in Genetics and Cell Biology and my 18-year-old is also a biology major so clearly they didn't need 12 years of learning and regurgitating science facts. We did no grammar, but they naturally picked up good grammar from reading, and were able to thrive in writing-intensive classes at the community college starting at age 16.

We did no formal history, but all of the reading we did gave them "hooks" on which to hang future knowledge. When some historical event came up in conversation, I could say "That was when Laura Ingalls Wilder was about ten" and they knew what I was talking about. "Johnny Tremain" stuck with them far longer than a list of facts about the Revolutionary War, and when they actually needed to know those facts, they were easy to learn.

I'm no wonder woman. I have no interest in forging metal, raising chickens, or any of that. I have to look all kinds of things up. I didn't wake up every day full of ideas for fun activities for the kids. There were a lot of days when the older kids read all day and the younger kids played. But that's okay. Kids are natural learners, and if you don't put the roadblocks of boredom and stress in their way and you offer interesting things to read and do they *will* learn.

By the way, one of my kids taught herself multiplication and division by playing with duplos.

Sorry this is so long. I hope you find the solution that's right for you.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Amanda Petite Mommy said...

I'm still trying to figure out what works best for us as we go along and I've been homeschooling for a couple of years now. I have to say that I'm very relaxed in our approach and it's working well. However, we are not unschoolers...more child-led. I have to say it all sounds awesome though. :)

Since I work from home and I don't want my kids to hate schooling, we break up the subjects into 15-20 minute sessions for each one. We do 5-7 subjects per day with lots of flexibility and I allow them to play a lot especially outside.

For subjects my 8 yr old hates already like Math for example, I try to do as many games as possible to make it fun. As for other subjects, I ask him what he is interested in and that's what we will work on for the week and I try to incorporate reading, writing,etc. into that topic. Have you tried Unit Studies?

Language arts, reading,& math are in my opinion things that have to be taught and repeated often with worksheets, games, books, etc. to really sink in.

We all have to do what works best for us and our children. I still think -even with unschooling there has to be some type of direction from the parents. Maybe it's putting an idea into the child's head, etc otherwise my son would play video games all day. Just my 2 cents! :)

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

I will just second what others have said so well... children learn at an amazing rate when they are ready and when they have a need. My son wanted to be able to play a trading card game without having me know what his cards said. That's how he learned to read. I did nothing except read to him. It's usually the parents that have "schooling" so ingrained in them that they have a hard time letting it go. What about before schooling existed? It seems to me that plenty of amazing learning and inventing and advancement was going on. Because people had a need and a drive.

Will your kids play video games and watch TV all day? Sometimes. But believe me, they will get bored of it. It is human nature to want to learn and improve yourself. As someone else noted, forcing schooling on children is what takes the fun out of it.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Cara said...

Oh, so glad to see this article! I'm so not an unschooler . . . i love structure and yes, if I dont have a schedule, nothing gets done. I love working because someone else gives me deadlines!

My kids would gladly play video games all day every day, and then melt down continously . . .they dont take breaks for excersise, dont notice they are hungry, nothing. My kids, in other words, dont self-regulate. So during school, there is no video games . . until 2:30 for the 6 yo and 4 for the 13 yo. I try to give them varying amounts of 'free' time during that, and some scheduled work. Well, more scheduled w my older one.

I have met a lot of unschoolers, and i really like them, except when they talk about school . . . it drives me nuts! I mean, in my mind, kids work is learning. Ok, yes, they can learn while playing . . .but they can also learn from curriculum. We have time in the day for both.

Even my younger one, who will fight me on curriculum, actually enjoys it once we get started. I often feel like the unschoolers I know (who brag about how much time they have to knit or play games while their kids play video games all day) are really abdicating their role as parent.

otoh, I see that, kids who are really motivated, will get themselves where they need to be eventually. But my kids have serious issues and would be much more likely to give up than work harder at the end. And yes, i do believe most kids will learn to read on their own - i've known people who taught themselves to read before school. Some just do it earlier and some later.

but who knows, maybe i'll eat my words . . . for now, i really, really think its good for kids to learn some stuff . . . stuff that they wouldnt have thought of if it hadnt been suggested by an adult. And i cant function without a schedule.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Fairly Odd Mother said...

THANK YOU for all this food for thought! I am in the process of relaxing a bit on some things and finding resources that work better for my kids. I definitely do not want to be stuck with kids who hate their homeschooling experience b/c their mom ran it like a school!

So, so, so interesting and I am loving your comments. For anyone just joining in on this convo, I just ask that we keep things nice and respectful----we're all doing the best we can do, no matter what method we choose to employ. And, I feel super inspired by all of you. . .

5:26 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I can't even SAY the word "homeschooling" without feeling terrible slick shame dripping down my back and guilt pooling in my underpants. I felt like -- before I had kids, mind you -- that I'd be perfect for that gig.


Yes, we just made a model of Saturn out of tampons and cat litter.

What I am trying to say:

I bow to you, lady.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is coming from someone wedded to the CM idea of education. I am still mourning the fact that my kids love their online learning program. Something about doing it by themselves on the computer makes it seem not like schoolwork. We do plenty of reading and other stuff too, but no idyllic learning "relationships" on their own. You have to do what works for you and if it's not working, find another way. Sending hugs and knowing you'll figure it out eventually!....Terrie

10:11 PM  
Blogger Krystan said...

Thanks for writing this. The comments have been very thought-provoking. I definitely want to keep structure in our day, and feel like there are things I *have* to "teach" them, but I would also like to be more relaxed and "fun". I do feel like we are *always* trying to strike a balance between structure and freedom, and there really *is* no magic answer. Something works for a while, and then it doesn't and we adjust. Generally, Monday starts out pretty structured, and we ease up as the week goes. Even though I feel guilty about "skipping school", it does seem to be working alright. My kids seem to learn so much more by reading and conversations than with specific lesson plans. And they do whine about math, so maybe I need to ease up on that for a while.

So thanks for the food for thought. I really don't think there is one right answer for every child or every family or every week or every year.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Kellee said...

I have no kids, so I know nothing about home-schooling. I wish I had some advice to offer. :) I think if I ever have children, though, I shall be a "get my kids out of my hair for six hours a day" kind of person. :)

11:30 PM  
Anonymous earthfriendlymama said...

Wow- such good info! I am currently in limbo between traditional, Child-Led and unschooling. We were doing great with workbooks & curriculum, but then I read, "Better Than School" and Child's Work" by Nancy Wallace and decided to take a step back, figuring my son is so young still , he really only has a short time to just play! So we have not done "school" since Thanksgiving. (although he asks when we are going to again?)

During this time we have "Learned" alots. He got a solar system for christmas and my husband thought we should hang one at a time each night and read about that planet....He is obsessed with electricity and how it works, so we have talked and read about that, for math we play games or he makes up games, as for reading....(this is not ment to be bragging by any means, just what happened) He has been reading since 3 1/2....I did not TEACH this to him, I simply pointed out letters everywhere we went and told him the a means of keeping him entertained at the store/dr's/car etc... So I wonder do I have to "Teach" him grammer if he already knows how to read?

But, I have a strong urge to sit down with his workbooks & journal and "teach" him again.

So I am with you...What to do?

P.S I am just an average HS mom, but I have hobbies too, and I happen to love making bread, jam, playdough takes all kind in this world! :)

9:21 PM  

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