Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Unschooling Assessment (Part 1 of 3): The Great Parts

We had a really good summer around here.  Days, and even weeks, spent at my folks' cottage; the kids enjoyed a tennis camp (which meant that mama had a whole week of days to herself...the only time this has happened in the past year!); the boys took in two days of a parkour introductory course (which they loved and which is pretty much the only thing that I've ever seen tire Seth out!); we hung out at home for endless pyjama days; we swam; we hung out with friends; and so on and so on. It was lovely.

Now we are transitioning back into fall activities, like pretty much everyone around us.  And with the changing of the seasons, I've been reflecting quite a bit on our past year of schooling at home.  It's been just over a year since we made the transition to unschooling and there have been both high points and low points.  Overall I think it's been a success, but there have certainly been challenges along the way.

First the positives. And there have been quite a few!

1.  For one thing, my kids are generally pretty relaxed these days, which might not sound all that noteworthy or even all that desirable to some, but for us it's pretty important.  As you know if you've been reading here for a while, my oldest is highly sensitive and, thus, prone to anxiety, and so for him to be relaxed is pretty important when it comes to being willing and able to learn...much more so than when, for example, he's in a state of high anxiety.  For my middle child, who has had so much to cope with in his nine years, this year of being more relaxed has meant that more of the walls guarding his heart have come down and he's been able to move from barely grappling with all that he has to learn about survival to being able to start to learn about things purely out of interest.  It's like the internal alarm system that used to be blaring in his head almost continuously in order to protect him has quieted to an occasional flare up...which is amazingly helpful when it comes to being able to learn things beyond basic survival.  My youngest, despite her many foibles and challenges, has perhaps been the least affected by our transition to unschooling - but she is the most adaptable, anyway, when it comes to learning and learning environments.

2.  For another thing, this year has been a blessing in the sense that it's the first year since Seth and Lizzie have been home that the kids have actually learned to really play together.  Don't get me wrong - they fight regularly (especially oldest and youngest) and they quibble and quarrel with each other (especially the younger'd think they were a 60-year married couple to listen to them) - we're not some saintly family where the relational roses are constantly in bloom!  But they've learned about each other and about what works and doesn't work in relationship, and they can now spend regular times in play together without it necessarily having to erupt into chaos.  Even now, as I write this, they're on the trampoline together, jumping and shrieking as they get sprayed by a sprinkler throwing water on them - I was outside with them until ten minutes ago, and I was totally fine coming inside knowing that they will be ok for the next half hour or so...I can hear them right now, screaming with delight, ordering each other out of the way, and loving just being together out under the sunshine.

3.  I have also experienced, quite profoundly, how much better the kids learn when it's something that's of interest to them, or something that they're developmentally ready for.  I love watching them discover something that they really learn about and then just doing it...and it's got that wondrous quality to it because they're ready for it and interested.  For years I have believed in my head that the developmental process is the way to go (ie. waiting until a child is ready and willing and able to learn before offering up learning); but now I believe deep down in my core that this is the ideal way for my kids to learn...not the only way, to be sure, but in my books, the ideal way.  I could think of many examples of this, but for some reason three particular examples jump to mind:  Seth figuring out on his own that counting in multiples is faster than counting one-by-one (even if he can't do it quite yet); Lizzie deciding that she's ready to learn how to read and so she's starting to charge through stuff with me and is actually able to read simple words on her own now - she's almost teaching herself to read (amazing!); and of course, the biggie this year was Matthew deciding that he wanted to read and then just doing it and demonstrating that he's pretty much at the grade level he would have just completed in the school system.

The ease with which they learn when they are developmentally and neurologically ready is phenomenal!  I shake my head just thinking about the seeming miracles I've seen in this regard.  All of the struggling that I previously had to endure when trying to teach specific things at specific times has entirely disappeared!  Gone.  Gone.  Gone.  And let me tell you, given the daily tantrums we were going through just over a year ago when I asked a child to learn something, not having these kinds of events any more is remarkable (though we're at the beginning of piano lesson practising, so this might change!)...and is itself far more conducive towards a more relaxed environment, which again makes the learning environment that much friendlier.

4.  As I've spent time over the past year really paying attention to the kids' interests and dislikes, and their means of learning, I've also gotten to know each of them better.  It's fascinating what one can learn when forced to pay more attention - and I say 'forced' because when unschooling it's easy to believe sometimes that the kids aren't learning anything...after all, the learning happens very organically and with (often vastly) different content than is set out in the curriculums.  So I've forced myself to become more observant, to make notes, and to take advantages of opportunities to help the kids learn something and to learn it at a developmentally-ready time.

One current example I can think of is how we've capitalized on Seth's love of dogs for learning purposes.  When I finally understood (I'm a slow learner!) that his interest in dogs runs deep and wide, I decided to use that to prompt some learning.  I put together a bunch of books (including a few from my childhood - 'cause I was a total dog fanatic, too!) and dvds and sticker books about dogs and I used the age old technique of strewing (see note below) to peak his interest further and to help him learn.  So he's currently learning about things such as:
  • dog breeds and the breeding of dogs;
  • animal care, including diet and exercise (which also led to further discussion about human diets, etc);
  • puppies - when they're able to open their eyes, sit, walk, etc etc
  • reinforcement of the concept of mammals (live birth; fur; nurse mother's milk; etc);
  • dogs' skeletons (and a bit about how they compare to human skeletons) and other pieces of information about their body make-up (for example, we reinforced the notion of our five senses by talking about a dog's senses);
  • the ancestry of dogs, and their classification as canines;
  • what domestic vs. wild means;
  • watching a dog's body language and understanding more about how animals communicate;
  • reinforcement of the food chain and the dog as predator, etc; 
  • how to sound out words such as dog, and puppy, and cute and a reading-related element, too.
  • so many other things!  I may even try to arrange a meeting with a vet and help Seth develop some questions of interest to him.
Seth's eating this stuff up, not even realizing how much he is actually learning.  This kind of interest-based learning is huge for Seth...frankly, for all of my kids.  It's often just me who can be rather slow on the uptake with regard to noticing and taking advantage of opportunities.

Side Note:  Strewing is a simple technique often used by unschoolers (and others, no doubt!) and it's effective in our household.  Strewing involves leaving things out and about around the house so that the kids might 'happen across' something interesting and feel motivated to dive in to the material.  Once the interest has abated, it's time to strew something else about.  This is how I introduced Seth's dog learning; and it's how I continue to spur on Matthew's interest in reading, by leaving interesting-looking books in the car seat pocket in front of him so that he can 'happen' to find them and read them out loud to us in the car.
I recently noticed that my boys are loving their small rock collections, so I'm about to strew various things around the house about rocks and minerals...books, dvds, trays of actual rocks and minerals broken into their main groupings, a magnifying glass, and so on.

5.  I really do like having flexibility:  To enjoy pyjama days regularly; to have time to play and visit with friends; to take off on vacation for two weeks in May or whenever; to spontaneously go swimming just because we feel like it; to learn stuff that happens to be in our path rather than relying on curriculum; to not have to pack lunches very often (seriously, moms of schooled kids - don't know how you do it...I was tired out after a week of making lunches during tennis camp!!); to cuddle in bed and read all morning if we want to.  I think that giving up these things would be the hardest things for me to give up if we someday, ever, stop schooling our kids at home.  It's the time together that I love.  The time and the flexibility.  It's truly awesome, even as it's utterly exhausting at times.

6.  I really, really, like being able to teach my kids things that I know will be practical and helpful to them in their adult life.  I love that all three are interested in learning how to cook and clean, for example, because it's going to be such a help when they're on their own someday.  I love that my boys already know how to throw in a load of laundry (while I supervise, still) and that they know how to fold clothes and put them away and that we often do this chore together and that we can talk or listen to music while we're doing the job.  I love that all three kids can and do empty the dishwasher and that, even though they can be utter slobs in their bedrooms and leave a tornado of crafting messes behind them, they are usually willing to dive in to help clean up.  I love that Matthew has started a recipe book to reflect foods that he's made that he loves; and I love that the kids sometimes fight about who's going to help me get ready for dinner.  I love that almost every life experience seems to have the potential for learning if we see the opportunity in it, and I love that the kids are curious about a lot of things.

7.  This is a more subtle positive that's come out of the last year:  I believe that my kids are going to ok, academically, even if we continue to unschool them.  They are learning.  They may not have all of the knowledge their school peers have about certain subject areas.  I can guarantee, in fact, that they don't know what a subject or predicate is when it comes to breaking down a sentence...and the grade 3 and 4 English curriculums are all about such grammar subjects....I know because I've looked.  Two of my kids don't read yet.  None of them print very well yet...well, Matthew does, but for him there's the issue of spelling...  And yet....  Honestly I'm intensely glad to be spending the time that they might otherwise be learning about grammar, etc, reading to my kids so that they learn language (and grammar) organically.  I'm glad that Matthew's understanding of similes and metaphors came first from the reading of books like Inkheart (in which the author masterfully and extensively uses such techniques) and was then deepened during crazy car conversations when we tried to think of the silliest possible examples of similes and metaphors!  Whether they learn about subjects and predicates now or in eight years (or never) matters not one iota to me...when they need to know it, or when the time is right, they'll learn it in the time that they can snap their fingers.  They are all three intelligent, curious, observant kids (even with some potential learning disability on the part of one) who can increasingly hold their own (even shine sometimes), and who are increasingly comfortable holding on to themselves even when it means being different than other people.  Just two days ago, when some (unkind) person called homeschoolers weird (actually the term "weirdo" was used), Lizzie unexpectedly and enthusiastically said "Thanks...that's such a kind thing to say."  Even my baby is learning to be comfortable with herself, even if that means being a little different than the world around her.

There's a flip side to this point, in that it's hard for me to always maintain this perspective of believing that my kids are ultimately going to be ok, even academically.  But I'll talk about that more in my next post, which has to do with some of our challenges in being unschoolers.

Overall, it's been an awesome year and our intention is to continue down this path throughout this year. I do think a few small changes are warranted, but that's the subject of yet another post...also soon to come.

It's been good to think through some of the positives of our past year.  And now lets' move on to explore further some of the challenges.

1 comment:

  1. So, I could easily have typed numbers , 2 and 3. In fact, I may have typed something similar to those just today. ;-)
    Looking forward to the next installment.