Friday, October 4, 2013

A Few Weeks In as Unschoolers

We've been at the new unschooling thing for almost four weeks now.  What a whirlwind it's been and it doesn't really feel like we're an unschooling family yet...whatever that means!

The Friday before we started, we got together with some friends for an annual 'not back to school' party and that felt like great fun to the kids!  That is always a good day to celebrate!

Like most people with kids in school (of any variety), September started with a bang - mostly trying to get used to a new schedule of extra curricular activities...though of course, in our case this continued to  include a few pajama days!

Matthew dropped Hip Hop after one class, declaring that he'd rather figure out a way of dancing in the privacy of our home rather than in 'public' and, although I encouraged him to give it a few more tries, in the end I was secretly a little relieved because it made my Thursdays much simpler.  Other than that, no big hitches.

I'm particularly pleased with how the kids' swimming lessons are working out.  Because most kids are still in school when we're available to do swimming lessons, it ends up that Lizzie is by herself in her class and the boys are together in a class by themselves.  So they'll essentially get private and semi-private swimming lessons all winter.  In just four classes, I've seen significant improvements with all of them.  Lizzie is in level 2, Seth in level 3, and Matthew is almost at the end of level 4; although I don't frankly care about levels...I just want to see their skills improving.  All three kids are working hard during their classes and I'm thrilled to see how much they love swimming - all three really are little fish!

I must say that, in particular, Lizzie is a real joy to watch during swimming lessons and I'm thinking that she's a dream student for her teacher.  Not only does she love the water, but she throws herself with abandon into every single thing the teacher asks her to do and she does it all with a huge smile on her face.  She loves being there and so she works really hard at it.

Other than the extra curricular stuff, the one thing I've been pretty firm about is Math. You may recall that Math is the one curriculum that I'm employing with the kids this year - mostly because I don't find Math skills to be as easy to work at in a natural environment as other learning areas.  So, as I wrote in my series on our move towards unschooling, working with a Math curriculum was kinda my bottom line...the rest was up in the air, but darn it, we are going to do Math.

That was a pretty tough thing for my oldest to accept, I have to say.  Even that bare minimum requirement was met with huge resistance.  For the first two weeks, he struggled mightily every single day to accept that this one thing was going to happen.  I was very gentle and very compassionate and very firm with him.  He saw a calm and supportive, determined, mama.  But on the inside, I found those first two weeks very, very hard, and it was all I could do to keep myself calm and carry on.  I don't lose my cool easily or often, but there was one occasion when, feeling a lot of frustration building up inside of me, I sent the kids outside to play and I banged my fist on the steel front door until it was swollen and wasn't a smart thing to do, and I've never done anything like that before, but the frustration simply had to go somewhere in that moment, and I was just glad to be able to do it in private (my hand would have appreciated landing on a soft cushion, though, rather than steel!).  After a minute or two of that expulsion of my frustration, I was able to have a good little cry about things and that's what enabled me to adapt and to gather myself up and continue on when the kids came back inside.

Thankfully I had anticipated that it was going to be tough for Matthew to adjust back to school life, even if it was just Math, and the fact that I had anticipated it and had prepared mentally and emotionally for this helped me through many of the dark moments of those first two weeks.  I had decided that the doing of Math was going to be a futility experience for Matthew - something about which he would not be able to effect change and which he would have to grieve in order to (eventually) get to a point of acceptance.  We really did nothing else school-wise or un-school-wise during those first two weeks other than get Math done because it took hours and hours every day just to get Matthew to complete his 35-40 minute Math lesson.

But stick to it I did and on the 10th day of buckling down to do Math, his lesson was done in about 45 minutes...first thing in the morning.  He managed it easily and relatively contentedly, and I felt victorious!

Then, last week, we took a day off for an awesome annual field trip out to a pumpkin patch and then ended up not doing anything school-related for the last couple of days of the week because the kids were all sick with their first coldy fluy thing of the season.  That made the start of this week a bit rough again but we're back in the saddle and it's been smoother again the last couple of days.

I also started Seth and Lizzie on Math a few weeks ago - both at the kindergarten level, although Seth is plowing through the work at a pretty strong pace...he has completed 29 of the 112 kindergarten lessons already and I won't be surprised if he finishes all of the lessons by Christmas or shortly thereafter.   I am deliberately wanting him to start at a place where the work is easy for him - this is the first time (ever) that he's done workbook type of work and I want him to feel good about what he's able to do.  He's quite enjoying it, I think, as is Lizzie.  I've been working at Math with them about 3 days/week and, at their request, I've also been doing 2-3 reading lessons/week with them for the past few weeks and so we're slowly making progress in this as well.

Perhaps the biggest observation I have of the past few weeks, though, is how much of my time is consumed simply completing Math with all three.  They are all at a very different level of ability and understanding and so I cannot overlap any of their lessons - I need, at this point, to work with them one-on-one in order to complete the work.  Yesterday was a prime example.  The kids and I had breakfast and got ourselves ready for the day and did a bit of bible reading and discussion.  By the time Matthew and I were at work on Math is was 9:00, but he had a rather rough and reluctant start today and so it was about 10:30 by the time we finished.  Almost immediately, I pulled Lizzie in and did Math with her.  After that it was Seth's turn.  With a break between the two and a few minutes to prep and a few minutes to tidy up, it was just past noon by the time we finished doing Math!  So this whole unschooling thing gives them a lot more time to do whatever project is of interest, but my time is being incredibly consumed just by completing basic Math with each of them.  By the time lunch was over and cleaned up, and after they'd had thirty minutes to play outside (during which time I folded laundry and vacuumed), it was already mid afternoon and I hadn't even read out loud to any of them yet!  Then it was time to head out for swimming lessons and we got home at 4:30...time to prep dinner and cram in a little out loud reading.

The whole thing felt a little crazy given that we're only doing one type of curriculum and given that we're supposed to be free-wheeling unschoolers now!

That being said, I knew things would take some time before we'd be fully adjusted.  It's really just now that I can see how we're soon going to be able to contemplate some of the funner learning things that we want to delve into.  Later today I will be making a call to the province's education library to order materials on a few different subjects that the kids have expressed interest in.  I've never actually done this through our provincial education/teacher's library, but I hear it's a great service and I'm eager to try it out.

Speaking of government-related things, I was recently (pleasantly) surprised by something.  About ten days ago, I faxed in to the relevant provincial government office my annual notification of our intent to school at home - I submitted this for the boys because they are of the age to be required to be in school.  I was a little nervous about this year's notification because of our shift to mostly non curriculum types of learning.  The September notification is to include a brief summary of our plan for the year as it concerns Math, English, Social Studies and Science (and then we provide January and June updates).  In the past, I've just simply stated that I was following curriculum for Matthew's schooling.  But this year, of course, we're not doing that.  So for each boy, I attached a short synopsis of how our schooling is changing this year and why.

To my surprise, I received an email a couple of days ago from the government liaison for h/schoolers and it was a lovely email!  He thanked me for submitting the information that I did and mentioned each boy by name as being lucky to be in this home learning environment for various reasons.  He further said that he "completely understand[s]" why we are moving in a different direction (ie. unschooling) and wished us every success as we proceed this year.  It was a full paragraph of niceness and encouragement and supportiveness, and I was somewhat shocked...and delighted!  So many things and people have confirmed our decision to proceed in this direction and this was a surprise, surplus affirmation.

All in all, despite the adjustments and the time factors, I'm pleased with how the last few weeks have gone.  It's true that we haven't gotten to most of the things I had envisioned we would do as unschoolers, but then again, we are unschoolers now and the world is really our school

...when Matthew was calculating the value of a bowl full of coins at the kitchen table;
...when Seth was learning how to make a stove-top roux one night in preparation for the makings of a homemade pasta sauce;
...when Lizzie asked me during a morning cuddle in my bed if I could put words on my computer for her to sound out and read;
...when they were all helping me with a menu plan and grocery list;
...when they were completing clean-up and raking chores;
...when they were cleaning out the van or folding laundry with me;
...when they had alone time out on the trampoline and lay there looking up at the blue sky and contemplated life;
...when they spent three hours with me cleaning out the garage and culling old bikes and scooters to give to friends and neighbours;
...when they lugged groceries in from the car and counted how many times those groceries needed to be lugged before the food would end up on the table;
...when we talked all the way home from grandpa's and grandma's one evening about the residential schools that many Aboriginal people were subjected to in the not-so-distant past and the impacts of that experience on those individuals and on the generations to follow;
...when we had many other van conversations about God, the homeless, life in Ethiopia, the movie we just watched, aging, and dying;
...when they prayed about something and experienced God answering it;
...when they played with their friends for hours at a time, swinging from tree forts on Tarzan-like ropes or playing dodgeball or running across a field or running down slides meant for bums;
...when they learned new ball throwing skills from their gym teacher and had to partner up with people they hadn't worked with before;
...when they interacted with a newly adopted friend from Ethiopia over a lunch of Ethiopian food;
...when they were building their 1000th fort of the month and trying to figure out how to make it stronger than the last one;
...when they tried to figure out how to organize their bedrooms a little better;
...when they were fighting and squabbling about who-knows-what and needing to work things out with the siblings that never go away;
...when they negotiated the driveway circuit each of them would ride on their bikes;
...when they practiced looking a visitor or a grandparent in the eye while answering a question;
...when they cried over the various futilities that they ran up against;
...when they mixed up muffin batter or wiped down the bathroom counter;
...when they did another gazillion little things that will give them the foundation, someday, to live life as capable adults...

...Surely all of these things and many more count in our new lives as unschoolers!  Month one.  Complete.


  1. Well done! It sounds like everyone has indeed been learning (including the goverment liaison man by the sounds of it). And you know what? Your first month of [un]school sounds an awful lot like my first month of school: a lot of figuring out of new routines, understanding what did and did not go well and why it took so long (believe or not but I have been reminded several times lately that it takes A LOT more time for 8/9/10 yr olds to do stuff than 11/12/13 yr olds), etc...
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Ellen...and glad to hear that I'm in good company!



  3. That sounds so great, Ruth, and so typical. Congratulations of surviving and thriving through month one. (I knew you would!) We also have a very hard time doing anything "curricular" on an independent basis. Like you, we unschool with a few more formal things thrown in for good measure, though not nearly as regularly as you... more of a twice a week basis. The time I have to do my own chores is when the kids are out playing with friends, so yes, the house is usually on the verge of chaos, and I have, on occasion, gone into the bathroom to literally pull my hair in sheer frustration (usually at the sibling fighting or messes being made.) I have also found our HS liaison to be totally great - he obviously deals with lots of unschoolers and doesn't balk at all at our efforts... in fact he's encouraging, which is totally lovely. We're lucky, in Manitoba, to have so much freedom. Onwards to month 2!

  4. Ugh....cyberspace seems to have stolen my comment.
    Please point me to the link where you discussed unschooling or the information on how to begin. Tired of the workbooks and kids are really disliking the seat work.

  5. Hey Corrie -
    lovely to hear from you!! I hope all's well in your corner of the world!

    Yes, we've transitioned to a mostly-unschooling family...the only curriculum we're using is Math and I'm continuing to read out loud a lot...beyond that, it's much more interest-based.

    If you want to read all nine parts of our journey towards unschooling (!), here's the link to the first one and the others follow in the days immediately following.

    Hugs coming your way over the miles!