Thursday, November 7, 2013

Unschooling Update

So I mentioned a few days ago that we're finding our new groove as unschoolers.

Maybe one of the bigger changes this fall has been in me.  My perspective on how to do school has evolved so much over the past six or seven months that I hardly recognize myself.  I spent months and months agonizing over whether unschooling is the best thing for the kids, how I was going to manage it, whether it was the best thing for the kids, dealing with all of my fears, and whether it was the best thing for the kids.

Now, just a couple of months in, I can hardly imagine it any other way any more.  Astonishing, isn't it?  It is to me, anyway.  It just took doing it, plunging into it, to help me to really see that this is an amazing opportunity for the kids...for our family.

I am loving both the routine and the freedom of (mostly) unschooling.  The routine comes in the form of doing math three or four times every week; there's a minimal sense of structure and comfort in that for me.  And there's a new sense of freedom for me in seeing how much children can truly learn simply from otherwise living life as a learning experience.  Maybe that sounds obvious to you, but it hasn't been for me - I was so terrified about this part and didn't really believe it to be possible.

Having thrown off most of the shackles of curriculum, having tossed aside school-based notions about when children should learn certain things, I see the kids learning - not necessarily the same things their like-age peers are learning in the system, but learning nonetheless...and playing hard...and laughing more...and getting into more trouble (sigh)...and learning from their mistakes as well as from their triumphs.

They are learning... the morning during their math lesson or about whatever it is that I'm reading out loud to them;

...about household responsibilities when we plan a week's menu plan and grocery list and try to guess how much our grocery bill will be; or when they figure out amongst themselves the best system for clearing/wiping the table after a meal and sweeping up underneath it; or when they vie to be the one to help prepare a meal for; or when they're helping me fold a load of their freshly washed clothes.

...about their Creator and about how our world works when we engage in bible reading or in discussion about whatever the topic of the hour is...and there are many;

...about how to/not engage people outside of our nuclear family when they play with their friends or get together with grandparents;

I could go on an on about the things they are learning and asking about.

No one is more surprised about this than me.

I just mentioned to a friend this morning that this is the smoothest things have been in our house since Seth and Lizzie came home almost 2.5 years ago.  Truly.  More than ever, the kids are getting along (with bumps along the way, of course) - I still can hardly believe that, the difference from just months ago is so profound.  We're all laughing more.  As a result, I'm more relaxed, too, which also contributes to a softening of the rough edges around here.  We sit at the table over a meal and talk about real things (as opposed to the table manners that dominated our discussion until a number of months ago!) on a regular basis and the kids are not only absorbing things from those conversations but also contributing to them. It's awesome.

Perhaps one of the ways I'm changing and learning is about paying more attention to what my kids are talking about.  I'm learning so much about listening for things that are of interest to them and am learning to capitalize on the natural learning opportunities that seem to crop up almost every day.  The big thing for me, since giving up most curriculums, is thinking more about what my objectives are in h/schooling my children and finding those opportunities naturally every day.  

I'll give you two quick examples from the past few days...just two top-of-mind things that are being replicated every day around here.  

First, a very basic example.  The kids and I are reading the first of the Canadian Flyer books - a series very similar to the Magic Treehouse series but based on aspects of Canada's history.  Yesterday morning's reading introduced the kids to Nunavut, one of Canada's northern territories, and to its capital city.  One of the kids piped in about "didn't we learn about Nunavut when we were talking about the Inuit?" and so we pulled out a map of Canada and started talking about Canada's territories and provinces.  We poured over that map and talked about provinces for about ten minutes before moving back to the book and continuing to read.  Will Lizzie remember much of that detail?  Probably not, yet, but the idea that Canada's land mass is divided into thirteen big chunks has resonated and the fact that today, while reading, she remembered the word Nunavut and could point to where it's capital was did make an impact.  Simple, organic social studies learning - which sinks in so much more than when I sit them down to teach them a unit on the provinces.  They're already motivated to learn about Quebec because we hope to make a short trip there in a couple of months, and so I'm working on fulfilling that interest.

A second example is one where the change in me is furthering their learning.  A few days ago, Matthew expressed an interest in building some kind of home for his favourite small stuffed animals.  Up until a month or two ago, I likely would have responded with a vague "um hmm" or reminded him that they already have a home (in my sunroom!), and I would have let him proceed to figure out whatever on his own...or maybe let it die out.  And that would be an ok thing to do, too.  But this time, I listened to his ideas more intentionally and prompted him to further his thinking about how to do this.  As a result, we're together beginning to put pen to paper in drafting a multi-level home for these little creatures, and thinking through design, room dimensions, necessary materials, and so on; I also plan to encourage him to figure out the budget for building his home once he has the plan finalized.  Then Geoff is going to work with him to actually build what he designs.  All in all, this is a waay bigger project that I would have encouraged in the past.  Best of all, he's all over this and so excited!  What a learning opportunity for him - in planning, building, math, finances, persistence, using tools, and so on!

These are simple examples of what is happening all the time around here these days.  I'm so relieved!

One hurdle I've encountered is record keeping.  It's easier, when using a broad spectrum of curriculum that reflects what's happening in the public system, to note what the kids are learning and working on.  But I need to do some kind of record keeping.  In part this is motivated by needing, in January and June, to provide the government with an update about both boys' activities...I don't need anything too detailed, but having some detail to remember would be helpful when preparing those reports.  My other motivator, though, is wanting to remind myself about what the kids are, in fact, learning and doing.  It can be discouraging, on harder days, to remember why we're doing this and what the point is.  On those days it's harder not to worry, too!  By having some kind of record to look back on, I hope to find encouragement and hope for those harder kinds of days.

So I've developed a quick and simple system (helped by a friend) of tracking what we're doing which allows allows me to record things that the kids are interested in, and my hope is that this will be a way to capture what they're involved with outside of our Math curriculum.

Can you tell that I'm excited?  I feel it building in me.  Over the past few weeks, I've noticed simultaneously that it no longer bothers me when other h/schooling moms talk about the amazing curriculum that they're using for xyz subject.  That's totally astonishing to me - this was such a hurdle just a few months ago.  I'm genuinely glad for others about what's working for them...and find myself now relieved that we're doing something different because it's working for us.  I realize, too, that I might also have opportunity some day to use some of those curriculums if the time is right.  I don't feel married to the idea of using only a Math curriculum - it's just that this is what's working right now, and what we're doing is producing both curiosity and learning.

I'm learning that the beauty of unschooling is to be found in slowing down enough to listen to my kids, really listen, and then help them figure out ways of furthering their interests and deepening their knowledge.  I'm still so new to this and have a continued learning curve ahead of me.  It's hard and a huge investment on my part; but even just a couple of months in I can see the benefits to the kids...and to us as a family unit.

Just this morning, when clearing up breakfast, for the first time the kids worked with me without having to be reminded - in fact, they initiated the process themselves:  They cleared the table; wiped it; swept under it; emptied the dishwasher; and helped me to load it.  The whole time that we were puttering about we were also chattering away about one thing or another and it felt a little surreal - as if I was looking down on us from somewhere up there and seeing how good this life is for us.

This really is whole life learning...and I'm loving it!!


  1. Lovely, organic, emergent curriculum. Life!!

    ps. re assessment, might I suggest:
    1) sit down for 5 each day and intentionally record what you did with the children, conversations, and what you noticed about their learning. Much like this blog entry, but of course could be messy, point form. If you had a journal you record it in, you could do it even during the day, just grab it and write something down. Sometimes I wrote things down on stickies that children said (if they really struck me as amazing etc) and stuck the stickies into my book too, so that i'd remember later.
    2) once in awhile, you might want to assign the children a small assessment task if you just want to check their understanding of something... and keep these for 'later', just as part of your files. For example, you could say "that was an amazing conversation we had this morning about Nunavat, I'm going to sit down and write down some thoughts, memories and questions about it, and I want each of you to do the same. You can draw pictures too. We're each going to do this for 15 minutes and then we can stop.".... this kind of activity gives their brain a chance to stop, make space, reflect, and slow down enough to form some long term memory around this as well. For themselves. Another example would be to give them different little tasks... small, interesting engaging things that seem natural... so for Matthew for example, you could say "I wonder if an alien came to earth and didn't know anything about our math, how could we explain 4x3 to them?"... you could do something like make a teeny weeny book with 6 pages that he has to make to give to the alien explaining 4x3... that's just an example. but just kind of little 'check'ins'... This could help you have a record of learning etc for when you need to show it. Just shove them all in some box or file or whatever you have for keeping this stuff. Also the children can help you document their learning. You could explore together with them (start tentatively and slowly) what it means for them to share their learning with someone else. Even invite a friend or someone to come see... etc... so with Matthews little house project, he might want to keep a photo diary of each step so he could share that with someone afterwards. You could interview him about what he did or is learning and record it and transcribe it for him. My experience doing that is children find it VERY cool to read their own words and thinking if someone writes it down for them.

    here endeth the thoughts of the day. And ps once more... I just remembered another book I think your kids would love and find hilarious. It's "365 Penguins". It's very funny and just right for their age(s).

  2. As always, Jackie, you are a font of knowledge for/to me and such a wonderful support. Thanks, both for the encouraging words and for the practical tips/suggestions/etc. So much to think about.

    One thing I did recently, to do a little test of Matthew's comprehension of multiplication, was to ask him how he might teach Seth how multiplying works. He thought about it for a minute and then proceeded to tell me how he'd teach him...he explained it so well/clearly/simply that I actually said to him that when it came time to teaching Seth I was going to ask him to remind me again, and maybe even sit down with me to help teach Seth (if Seth is willing). He LOVED it...and I knew without a doubt that Matthew understands the concept of multiplication beyond the doing of the actual calculations.

    Bit of a sidebar, but while we're on the subject of multiplication... one thing that was/is important to me, in the scheme of Math, is that my kids know their multiplication tables...I don't care WHEN that happens, but at some point. Matthew has actually learned several already, but I got a little stuck on how to teach 7s creatively because he was resistant. So as part of his Math, when I ask him to write out today's date in full, I've been asking him for the past 6-7 weeks on a daily basis how many days there are in 1 week/2/3/4/5/etc up to 10 weeks (and I'll be working towards getting him to 12). It only took a couple of weeks before he could invariably answer these all correctly, but I just kept asking as part of his math lesson and made it routine. Then a few days ago, I wondered out loud what 7x7 might be and he grunted and said (a little condescendingly), "Mom, that's too know how I know? 'Cause there are 7 days in each week and there are 49 days in 7 7x7=49." LOVED that moment...and he's almost done learning his 7 times table! The next day I started asking him about how many months there are in 1 year/2 years/3 years/4 years...eventually we'll get the whole 12 times table done, too!

    Anyway, enough of a rant! Some of these little things are so encouraging to me...especially given how hard the past couple of years have been re: schooling with Matthew. It's amazing to me now how much more relaxed he is about it all, now that he only needs to do a Math curriculum and gets to do a lot of other stuff he loves to do. He still doesn't LOVE sitting down to do Math, but we haven't had any meltdowns about it for about 10 days and it seems like he's getting into the rhythm of it.

    I really appreciate the ideas for record-keeping and will be adding these ideas to my roster. I'm finding, similar to what you said, that if I do it regularly, I'm not forgetting things, so I've been doing it in the evenings. But I think I'm going to try to step this up a bit and do it throughout the day so that I don't miss a lot of stuff...which I know I am right now. And the stickie idea is a great one 'cause I usually have those in our school room and kitchen, etc.

    OK, now I'm going to check out the book idea - thanks again Jackie...on all counts!

    Hugs, and have a great weekend!!


  3. Jackie, I just ordered the Penguins book through our library should be at our local library for pick-up in a few days.
    When I went to amazon to look at it first, they also recommended a book called "Lion's Share" to go along with "Penguins" so I ordered that one through the library as well and we'll see if it's any good!

    Thanks again!


  4. THat's a wonderful math story!!! A really amazing example of how our human brains work... they require concepts and language to hook other concepts onto. So much of our schooling has become fragmented and disconnected (and unnatural). This example is beautiful because it shows the opposite... 7 times table IS hard if it is fragmented, but easy for our brains if it is connected to actual images and connections. Then the memory formation is strong and lasting. There is a wonderful math resource for multiplication and division by Marilyn Burns.. maybe you can find a copy:

    The whole book is amazing and engaging games and activities, all hands on, the develop a deep undesrtanding of concepts of multiplication. All your kids could do them. Another teacher shared this book with me when i was teaching grade 3 and 4. She said I would never have to use any other 'method' or activity, just follow the lessons in the book for about 6 weeks. The children loved them and suddenly the whole class knew all the multiplication facts. Like a miracle!

    The Lion's Share book is amazing! I think i recommended that to you awhile back when Lizzie was talking about saving her food for later. I forget the story you told. Your kids will love it. It's a wonderful story, but not as funny as the Penguins book. There are so many beautiful picture books that explore math concepts in really engaging ways. Look up some of Anno's books too when you're at the library...


  5. ps. I'd love to hear what the children think of the Penguin book... I miss reading these kinds of books with young people!

  6. Your brain holds more knowledge than mine ever will Jackie! Thanks for the further ideas (and sorry I forgot about you having already told me about THe Lion's Share book!!). I'll let you know what they think of the Penguin book and will put the multiplication book in my amazon cart for the next time I order.

    Must run...lunch and music/piano classes coming up fast!

    Talk soon. Hugs,


  7. Jackie, I just ordered the math/multiplication book from our local education library (that serves teachers, including h/schoolers) - it was my first time ordering through I should have the book in my hot little hands next Wednesday evening when I can make it there to pick it up! Then I can use it for up to 3 months.

    Thanks again!