Sunday, September 28, 2014

Unschooling Assessment (Part 2 of 3): The Challenges

Overall, on our unschooling journey, we have experience many more positives than challenges.

But there are a few challenges I'm having to become accustomed to:

1.  First, it's really hard to track what we're doing and what the kids are learning.  I'm working at developing a system of note-taking, but I'm not terribly disciplined about it and am constantly struggling to find time for so many things; as a result record-keeping often falls behind.  But I really should be tracking things better because when I do, I see trends in the kids' interests and in their learning; this is so important when unschooling, if only to be assured that we're making progress, but also so that I am able to capture and maximize the learning that is possible in given area(s).

As a side note, I'm actually quite grateful to be required to submit government reports three times/academic year because they force me to sit down every few months and go through my diary and calendar and recall what we've been doing.  Although the government reporting forms are very, very minimal in requirements (I could write a mere sentence or two if I wanted), I've used them instead as a bit of a tracking device; I break down the reports into various categories of my own choosing:  Extracurricular activities; fitness; math; reading; out-loud reading (mine); printing; technology; play & crafting; social/recreational life; family life; spiritual life; geography; science; travel; general observations.  Our government liaison has, shockingly, been very, very supportive of our unschooling and highly encouraging of what we're doing; he has even stated that he thinks my kids are very, very lucky.  Thsi summer I got a lengthy email from him, in which (among other things) he said that he is confident in my approach and believes that we are on a "very conscious, deliberate right track in how you are approaching your unschooling program with both boys"!!  Huh - who'd have thought it from a government rep about unschooling?!

2.  Second, and for sure the biggest challenge for me, has been the need for my own transformation to being an unschooler.  For an academically-oriented woman who would be far more comfortable with a curriculum and a schedule and book learning to throw all of these things out the window and focus on in-the-moment learning has been (and is) a massive transition.  I've had to slow down our life so that I am simply there when something happens that I can help a child capitalize on.

I think that this transition needs to impact Geoff a little more than it has to date.  It's true that he's not nearly as involved as I am in our learning endeavours, but there are many ways in which I can see greater opportunity for him, too.  For example, when he took the boys to my parents' cottage for a couple of boys' weekends this summer, his intent was to build campfires and roast things on it, etc etc.  It was me who had to suggest that he take the opportunity to teach the boys about it:  How to build the fire; the necessary ingredients for fire-building; the chemistry of it all; the different kinds of wood/kindling to be used; and then to extrapolate into other areas, such as forest fires, care for the environment, safety issues, fire fighting, conservation, renewal, etc etc etc.  That's the thing that's challenging for us (at least, for me) as unschooling parents - to grab natural, life experiences that interest the kids and take the time and put in the thought to add a wonderfully educational component to it...and those are the times when information gets virtually sucked into the kids' brains...not just for the moment but for the long term.

Here's another example of in-the-moment life learning that I've had to recognize.  I can't remember if I've shared this example here or not...forgive me if this is a repeat.  A number of weeks ago, on our way out of church on a Sunday morning, Matthew saw a 3-tier shelving unit along the wall that was filled with Bibles.  He stopped and said that he was curious to know how many bibles there were on those three shelves.  Rather than making some offhand comment and hurrying him along (as I absolutely would have done a year ago), I stopped, too, and also wondered out loud how many volumes there were on those three shelves.  With people milling by and around us, I stood there while Matthew lay down flat on his belly in the foyer and started counting the books on the bottom shelf, one by one.  After a minute of this, he observed that adding quickly by grouping them and multiplying them would be a faster way to go.  He then noted that most of the volumes were in stacks of seven and he counted that there were 12 stacks; then he noted that three stacks had only 6 volumes and wondered out loud how to account for those differences...he was stumped.  Again, though tempted to offer up a solution, I suggested that it would be interesting to think about how to figure out the total number.  Two nights later, while I was sitting with him at bedtime, he told me that he'd figured out that there were 81 bibles on those shelves.  He was right.  I asked how he'd figured it out.  He said that he'd been practicing at night counting by 7s (and he demonstrated this by counting forward and backwards by 7s from 0-84); he then said that there had been 12 stacks of bibles, and that all but 3 of them had 7 volumes in each stack; and that the remaining 3 had only six.  So he multiplied 7 x 12, and subtracted 3.  Conclusion: 81 bibles.  That is the kind of learning Matthew does best....when I recognize opportunity by really listening to him, allowing him the time and space to make observations about the world around him (and not rushing him), and by giving him the time to process what that means.  Today, weeks later, I think he can still count by 7s up to 84 and can figure out the times table for all 7s up to 12.  It became real to him and he understood first hand the benefit of being able to do he learned it.

This is hard for me.  I could easily and willingly and simply have shown him quickly how to calculate the number of volumes on those shelves.  I almost did.  Almost...I was so close that my mouth probably opened to speak before I clamped it shut again.  A year ago I would have done it.  He would have picked up some form of learning.  But the learning would. not. have. been. the. same. for him.  It's taken a full year for me to find it a little easier now to simply provide the time and space for the learning to happen happen.  This takes time and thought to just be in the moment and, quite honestly, it takes a whole lot of patience to provide the right environment and then just support it.

The other (related) aspect that's hard for me to become accustomed to is timeliness.  For example, often the kids express some thing or another that they're interested in, and I'm very happy to accommodate - tomorrow, or a week from now, or two weeks from now...when it fits into the schedule.  But the problem is that by this time the opportunity (ie. interest) has passed and it becomes a missed opportunity.  So when, one Sunday night in June, the boys suddenly expressed (a little on the late side for the planting season!) that they wanted to plant pumpkin and tomato seeds to watch something grow, we got into the car immediately following breakfast the next morning and visited a nursery to buy seeds...and then planted them immediately.  That same morning, when they were excited to learn how to take care of their seeds, was the perfect opportunity to have conversations about the differences between living and non-living things; what it takes for a plant to grow; and how plants convert the sun's energy into food, etc etc.  That meant for me that, the night before, I stayed up a little later researching and remembering how plants do this work, so that it could form part of our casual conversation the next morning.  And the boys have been talking about these things off and on since, as they have watched their pumpkin vines grow - Matthew still remembers the word 'photosynthesis.'  So immediacy, which is often so hard for me to do, has become a critical part of our unschooling journey and a key to helping the kids learn...and learn deeply.

These things have never been strengths of mine: Just being; or being timely.  When I was a student, I procrastinated and crammed at the last minute...and paid the price by forgetting everything the moment the exam was over.  For me to remember the details of how plants convert energy into food took research for me on that Sunday evening because my personal history is one of cramming and forgetting.

3.  Another challenge has been time time management of our days.  I think our days over the past year have been a little too loose.  There are clear advantages to being flexible in our days but we've gone a wee bit too far, in my opinion.  I won't be implementing anything like from 9-10 we will do xyz and from 10-11 we will....  Nothing that rigid.  But I am working at adding a bit of structure...more on that on my final post (I think).

4.  In Part 1 on this subject, I noted that I believe that my kids will ultimately be ok, even academically, as a result of our decision to unschool.  One of the challenges I face, however, is always maintaining this belief.  I get discouraged at times and start to doubt myself.

The truth is that unschooling flies in the face of the norm and I'm not always comfortable being so 'out there' in our differentness.  I feel continuously highlighted, spotlighted, and I have to struggle not to not be defensive when confronted about why we're doing what we're doing - by family or by perfect strangers - like the worker in Home Depot last Monday who, when he learned that we were h/schoolers, said (in front of my kids) that he thought h/schoolers were a "bunch of weirdos" and then proceeded to grill my kids repeatedly on facts (like the imperial measurement system that hasn't been taught in schools since I was in fourth grade!!) that he thought they should know (which forced me to intervene time and again until finally simply suggesting that he stop).  

There's no doubting that we're a unique little unit around here, which is not instinctively comfortable for me.  1.  We're h/schoolers, even unschoolers for Pete's sake, and this is not always understood or welcomed.  2.  We're Christians, which is the one thing not to be in today's world of tolerance-for-anything-but-Christianity.  3. We're a trans-racial family, which garners us attention virtually every time we're out.  4.  We're an adoptive family, which adds an extra layer of issues or complexities that most people don't really understand about us.  5.  And Geoff and I have this weird goal of trying to parent our kids from a developmental perspective, which sometimes looks a little different than our behaviourally-oriented society of parents (imagine the tennis coach's surprise, for example, when he gave my child a time-out for bouncing the ball past the time when he was to be bouncing the ball and my child didn't know what a time-out was).  

Being always so different, so against the current, is sometimes hard for me and I get discouraged.   I grew up knowing not to rock the boat, to please others; I grew up knowing order and structure and academics and achievement.  It's an ongoing struggle and I have to give myself almost daily pep talks about this being the right course for our family.


...where to from here?

Well, that's the likely subject of what will become the final part in this series of posts!


  1. "Being always so different, so against the current, is sometimes hard for me and I get discouraged. I grew up knowing not to rock the boat, to please others; I grew up knowing order and structure and academics and achievement. It's an ongoing struggle and I have to give myself almost daily pep talks about this being the right course for our family." YES!

    YES! I am so glad you are back Ruth. I've missed you. Self talk is so important. We are different and I struggle also. I am so great at ordering and as an unschooler not much is ordered but I love how organic learning is for my R. It is not easy and I constantly feel like I am bombarded with normal routines and schedules presented to us in our very structured society. Please know that your self talk is helping those of us out there who are trying to live their life differently as well. Heather (from Chicagoland)

    1. So lovely to hear from you, Heather...I miss you!

      And thanks for sharing what you's nice to know I'm not the only one who struggles with the continuous differentness. And yet, what you also said is bang-on about organic learning - it's awesome to watch when it happens, seemingly all by itself!

      Glad the self talk is helping...I'll keep going!

      Hugs coming your way across the miles, my friend!!


  2. Hi Ruth,
    I so enjoy reading your blog - I find it so interesting. These last two entries left me with two very different feelings. One is jealousy, I wish my kids had been unschooled. I wonder how differently they would approach post secondary education, career choices and life in general.
    The second is relief that I am further along in life than you. If I were reading this say 10 or 15 years ago, I would have struggled with the choices we made about schooling. Quite frankly, I don't know if I would have had the energy, patience or motivation to do what you do. I wish there was a 'Ruth's School for Unschooling' that I could have sent them to.
    Hang in there, it's tough going against the current but you will never regret it.

    Susan (from PAC)

    1. Thanks so much Susan!! How lovely to hear from you...and what kind words...thank you!

      Let me be clear that I DON'T always have the energy, patience or motivation to do this massive u/schooling job. I'm often totally done in by the day's end, and my patience (while definitely greater than it was a few years ago) often gets stretched and sometimes feels like it's completely gone!

      But in the end, I'm finding it so worth it. I LOVE (usually!) that I get to be with my kids all day and just KNOW them. And they know me really well, too - the good, the bad and the ugly! I feel very blessed to be able to do what we're doing and even on bad days/weeks, I usually end up feeling similarly.

      Thanks for the bit of a pep talk, too - it is hard going against current all the time (the psychological part of u/schooling is, for me, almost the toughest part) and I appreciate the reminded that I won't regret it.

      Many thanks!


    2. The other thing I was going to say, Susan, was that I can understand a little, I think, of what you might be feeling, in having two different reactions. Sometimes (usually on the harder days), I wish I was done with this and that I could know how it will all turn out...I wish on those days that I was in your shoes. But then usually (thankfully) I have that thankful feeling that we have this as an option and that we're living it now. It's a real mixed feeling, isn't it?! And I imagine even more so for you because you've finished that stage of your kids' lives. BUt we all do what we think is best in the I have no doubt you did too!!

      Again, thanks! Blessings,