These are common questions I get when I call myself an unschooler. But, but, but… I have to remind the people asking – I’m a classical unschooler. There’s a difference.
The difference is I see the benefit in some memorization. I let my children explore and learn things that interest them on their own. They are not bogged down with busy work. I let them be bored. A lot.
But perhaps nowhere else is our style more obvious than when it comes to the study of history.
This is how.
I insist that we get a good framework established. This means learning – yes, memorizing – a good timeline. As Susan Wise Bauer writes in The Well Trained Mind, it means beginning at the beginning of written history, not in the middle. History is a narrative, after all.
In the elementary years, we spend time singing and memorizing key historical events. I’ve found the Classical Conversations CD indispensable for this. We simply listen to it in the car in bits and chunks. For those of my children (hi, middle child!) who do not like to sing, we use the flashcards.
Once the timeline is established, we color it in.
It took us about a year to memorize the entire timeline. The next year, we broke it up into chunks. It was time to delve deep into it now. So we began reading A Little History of the Worldby E. M. Gombrich.
While reading a few pages at a time, I pull out world maps and a paper timeline we have as well. The more connections the children make, the more mental hooks they have to remember and to make sense of the world.
And after this? I leave them alone.
They can explore whatever they want in the library. Because no matter what period they pick up, they know where it fits. They can make sense of the narrative.
A memory: my daughter is a toddler. My husband and I are dealing with a discipline issue I can’t remember. She’s our first child and we are plotting with the kind of hope and blind optimism first time parents bring to such things.
“We have to be ready for the next time,” my husband reminds me.
I am not fazed.
“Situations can be created,” I aver.
He laughs. “You sound like an FBI agent.”
Unschooling sometimes gets a bad rap. People sometimes assume it means doing nothing at all. If you’ve read my book The Classical Unschooler, you probably know my take on the matter of radical unschooling. While it might work for others, it is not something that our family has chosen.
We much prefer classical unschooling.
Classical unschooling isn’t a thing that automatically happens. As I mentioned above regarding my (then) toddler, situations have to be created for our days to go well.
Strewing is a strategy we use often. Often, if I notice that my children are interested in something, I will put related things in their paths so that they can learn more about the topic.
We also memorize. We don’t do a lot of this, but just enough that there is something for the mind to dwell on or recall with ease.
Your homeschooling style doesn’t have to be either/or.
I know that as someone who straddles two supposed extremes, I often get ridiculed from both sides. I have heard both the argument of not doing “true” unschooling and “dumbing down” classical education.
Pick a side, I’m constantly told. But I resolutely refuse to do so for the simple reason that this works for us.
I will always pick what works over an ideology. Better to choose an education for yourself and your children rather than a style.
An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.
Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.
Read Widely not Deeply
I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.
I am not fussy when it comes to books.
As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.
Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.
Children Already Do This
My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.
They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.
As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.
Why Is Reading Widely Important?
Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoonby Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.
Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.
So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.
Here’s another example
In Kon-Tiki, another fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.
But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:
“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”
Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.
We need innovators.
Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.
Contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t born with a silver curriculum in my mouth. My first words were not, “I’m going to grow up, have children and unschool them.” (In fact – hold the rotten tomatoes while I duck – I distinctly remember wondering what the earliest age for starting preschool would be.)
When the children were born, something changed. I have written extensively about that elsewhere, so I won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that by degrees I became a staunch homeschooler.
I was still a homeschooler, however. My ideas of how children learn best were still heavily bound up in curricula, sitting around the table with me giving information to them.
I thought homeschooling would look a lot like school at home. Nowhere in my mind was the idea that unschooling, let alone classical unschoolingas a model would be the one that would best work for us.
It was unschooling – when I finally embraced it – that made me see the real reason mandatory public school exists.
Without school, the children are noisy & unruly
Children are loud. Period. Mine are no exception. They don’t hold back their thoughts in fear that they might hurt the person in front of them. A lot of them tell it like it is, so to speak. Biting one’s tongue comes with wisdom and wisdom comes with age and experience.
Children can be mean, noisy, rude, unruly and generally obnoxious to be around. Yes, mine are no exception here either.
Being around them all day long can get exhausting.
Correcting them, guiding them, teaching them to see things they don’t in their brash, veni, vidi, vici way can get very tiring.
It is infinitely easier to give them something – anything – to do, require them to do it and punish them for disobedience.
This is as true for homeschools as it is for government schools – how many times have we heard the term “keeping kids off the streets?” How often has that been directly linked to mandatory public schools?
But then again, giving them something to do shouldn’t come at the price of true living. Zak Slayback, in The End of Schoolwrites,
Education and work shouldn’t be easily divisible. Creating and enforcing an artificial barrier between the two just distances education from its application to our lives and makes us view work as a mere necessity. Both education and work are necessary and both have major impacts on how we structure our lives. Balancing work with education makes it harder to compartmentalize both, allowing for applications from one to travel to the other. Studying Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of work can be great when you aren’t working, but it can have life-altering impacts when you are working. Getting a good grasp of economics can appear valuable in the abstract, but it can mean the difference between staying in your current job and launching your startup when you are working.
Yes, the children did need (and want!) to be occupied, but rather than give them busy work, why couldn’t they do meaningful work? Why was my idea of them doing something immediately go to being chained to the desk-and-dining-table? Because even as a homeschooler, I associated education with sit down schooling.
Without school, we are co-learners
Without a curriculum – heck, even with one, I get asked a lot of questions. I say, “I don’t know” a hundred times a day. I look things up.
My children pester me to ask Google how presidents make laws, how to spell an infinite amount of words, Minecraft rules and tricks, and if there are purple trees (not technically, but there are underwater life forms at the bottom of the ocean that are purple and tree-like.)
I don’t get to be the authority, only a guide.
Could anyone successfully replicate this in a mandatory public school setting? Ever?
Why bother with something as paltry as listen to children’s questions anyway? Why not hand them a solid curriculum that gives them all the answers and tests them on if they can remember them? That’ll do the trick.
But although memorization is something, it is not everything. Memorizing gives us a basis for dialogue, which we take very seriously. This occurs at random times during the day. Recently, we were talking about Egyptian pyramids. It occurred to me that even though we had read about Egypt in various books and memorized the timeline, my children learned more after they had begun to wonder how pyramids were built and their general structure, and not before.
The questions and the dialogue is what made learning occur, not a preplanned, force fed curriculum.
(By the way, if you’re looking for a fantastic book about pyramids, check out David Macaulay’s Pyramid.)
Without school, we are forced to create meaning in our days
My children recently decided that they would take care of the formal part of their learning at night, before bed. That would leave them all day to play.
Perfect, I said. That leaves me with all day to play as well.
If they were in a mandatory public school, this problem would never arise. They would be given a script, a role and the best they could ever hope to achieve with that is the perfect grade.
Well, what’s the fun in that?
I don’t want to separate work and play. I want my children to get a deep satisfaction from their work as well as play. The idea that work is separate from play is redundant. (Refer quote above.) I want my children to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in their daily lives. “Flow” is impossible without personal effort, it is not passive, it is essentially existential but it is also hedonist. And it is beautiful.
Classical unschooling made me see the real reason for mandatory public school and we rejected it.
Is it more work this way? Yes. Does it require more of me? Again, yes. But does it make life worth living? Does it make me come alive? Does it seek goodness and truth and beauty in my daily existence and find it, even momentarily, every single day?
One of the nice things about having homeschooling multiple children is that I get to see – firsthand – their budding personalities emerge. I get to experience how different they are from each other. Sometimes when I get compliments on their behavior I have to remind myself that it’s not my mothering – these traits were present all along. (Sometimes, in their worst moments, while correcting them, I have to remind myself of the same thing.)
And yes, of course, they each learn differently, with their own learning style.
No such thing as learning styles? Hogwash. I don’t care how many “experts” they can gather to swear that, I teach each of my children differently. I have watched them thrive (and fail), each in their own distinctive way.
When it comes to self directed education, the kind we are working toward, the most important thing I want them to learn is that self directed education means not having to ask for permission.
I’m not talking about raising your hand before speaking (although that’s a factor). I’m also not referring to needing permission to use the restroom in the middle of desk work (although, again, that’s an aspect of it.) I’m talking about being endlessly interested in something enough to not wait for someone to ask if you want to learn more about it. I am referring to wanting to do something so badly that you get ahead of your teacher.
I’m talking about being frustrated with being spoonfed and donning the apron yourself and turning on the oven to do something about it.
The problem is that, for some temperaments, this kind of self-directed education can be a hard sell.
For instance, I have one child who will do things without needing to ask permission. I appreciate that about her. I depend on her without having to remind her. And, yes, occasionally, when she gets into things she should not, I have to stop her.
On the other hand, I have another child who waits. A little more cautious, he prefers to wait for direction. To make matters worse, sometimes correcting child #1 can have unintended consequences on child #2 by causing him to shrink a little more.
What’s a mom to do?
I have, as all of us at some point, made a list of general rules for myself to get my children to take control of their own learning. As a classical unschooler, my goal in homeschooling has always been to encourage self directed education while giving them a strong base.
Here’s my list of five practical things you can do to keep your homeschool focused on self directed education.
One of the most important reminders I need is to deschool myself. I can’t tell you the number of times I have begun our homeschooling day energized and excited only to fall back into remembered patterns of classrooms and how things “should be.”
Learning almost never looks as it “should.” I have to remind myself of that.
I learn in snippets, in places I didn’t think I would, in random situations and from people whose names I can’t remember. There are only short periods of memorization or recall – and blessed aha! moments – when things come together, but for the most part self directed education does not look like a school classroom, nor should it.
Don’t scold initiative
When either of my aforementioned children do something of their own accord that leads to an accident, I have to often bite my tongue. Yes, I want a clean, tidy home. Yes, I encourage them to clean up after themselves, especially in the kitchen. But I don’t scold initiative.
This does not mean, of course, that I don’t correct them at all. It just means that I don’t punish the desire to try something new.
I will absolutely scold my son for the carelessness and inattention that led to spilled milk, and I will always ask them to clean up after themselves, but I do not try to do it for them. And I definitely do not discourage them from doing something because it might make a mess.
Some of my unschooling friends are surprised when I mention that we have rules. Aren’t you an unschooler? is usually what I hear. But as I have written in my book, I do not shirk from rules. The old story about children playing in the middle of a field without a fence is true. It is just as true as cars that will drive toward the middle of a mountainous road if there aren’t guard rails at the edge.
Rules are just guideposts to keep my children from slipping off the edge. Guideposts are there for direction and they grow with the children, but never disappear completely. Without direction, we wouldn’t know where we were going.
Our family rules are a general map of the terrain, they are not a guidance system to a destination. We are free to trace out our own journey with their use.
My children have lately decided that they want to spend their day time playing. So they have taken to getting their school work done before bed at night. They work independently in their rooms before going to sleep. (nightschooling, yeah!) If they have problems, I help them in the morning, right before we do our readaloud or Science or Bible reading together.
Our schedule keeps us on track and leaves plenty of room for them to pursue whatever else it is they want in their free time, which, owing to their current inclination to work at night, is almost all day. Boredom alone sometimes propels them into self-directed learning.
Strew & Encourage
If you haven’t read my post about how to use strewing in classical education, you should go read it now. I love strewing and I use it as a way to introduce new passions and subjects. Once these interests are awakened, I do everything in my power to keep them alive. Like planets? Let’s go find books about it, let’s watch a movie about it!
With all this however, I also remember to back off a little. It’s easy to slip back into my “should-ing” ways and take over the education. That is perhaps the hardest part of all.
If self-directed education shouldn’t require asking for permission, it also shouldn’t require my constant prodding. It’s a difficult balance because sometimes it requires waiting and doing nothing.
Encouraging self directed education is sometimes an education in itself.
Last week, I mentioned on my Facebook page that I had been taken with the bug of how to schedule a good homeschooling day. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (and/or have picked up my book The Classical Unschooler) you know that I tend to find myself smack dab in the middle of classical education and unschooling. As such, planning an effective school day can be a bit of a challenge.
What do I mean by an effective school day? I mean a day where we
1. are not overwhelmed by pacing ourselves after an institution or peers
This is important to me, especially in the younger years. There seems to be a certain push to learn earlier and earlier lately, to push children into an institutionalized way of thinking. And don’t get me started on the back to school posts that are no doubt ubiquitous on my Facebook feed at this time of year. (Yours, too? This might make you feel better. Read it.)
But all that aside, I still don’t like the idea that children have to learn reading one year, that some curricula ties writing with reading, that they have to learn multiplication and division in third grade and that somehow time is running out. I detest that way of thinking in my bones.
And so anytime I hear someone say that children should do something in a specific year, my answer is No. They will do it when they’re ready for it. Sure, I’ll check often for readiness, but I’m not going to make them do something just because they’re seven or eight. And I certainly won’t suffer overwhelment because of it.
2. have an overall structure that helps maximize what we’ve set out to learn
I know, I know… I’m an unschooler with classical leanings. What a weird character! I’ve always sought to bring together extremes. So in my world, I don’t think it’s crazy at all to give the children free rein to learn whatever it is they want but having a schedule to cover the basics that they will need to help them get to the thing that they will enjoy.
What do I mean by that? Well, my daughter loves stories, for example. And teaching her to read was important so that she could get her hours of entertainment by reading. Also, my son loves video games and math and has a mind with the ability to remember details – lots of them. I can help him learn that about himself and ways to use those skills to enhance his enjoyment of what he will undertake in the future.
The way I see it – I am a guide, and what does a guide do but impose a structure on and make sense out of what would otherwise be confusing wilderness?
3. keep a consistent eye toward self-directed, interest-led learning
All that said, I have to add that the focus of our day while we are learning to read, write and do math is to encourage self-directed learning. I tend to model this as well. A quick example might help illustrate this. We’re currently studying The Middle Ages. So we’ve been listening to Beowulf in the car. We’ve been memorizing the Middle Ages timeline. My reading is centered in the same time period (that’s my reading on my own, not for my children) and when we pick family movies, we favor the Medieval times.
This does not always work.
Their interests are varied. They collect rocks and try and identify them. They want to read widely, play in the water, do things that children do – build tents in the living room, annoy each other, squabble over toys and who gets to sit where, but my push is toward self-direction when it comes to learning.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, next time I’ll write about how I’m bringing this all together. Yes, it’s possible!
Every time I’m at a social event, someone who genuinely wants to know will ask me, “So how’s school going?”
And someone else will pipe up, “Pssh! School? She’s an unschooler!” Laughter.
As if that means something. As if being an unschooler means I have completely abandoned all parental responsibility as well.
As if being an unschooler means I am uninvolved, unconcerned, unplanned, uncaring about my children’s education, or worse, completely lazy.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not.
And, yes, your ten seconds of guffaws reveal your ignorance.
So put aside those prejudices for a while and let me tell you what unschoolers really do, how we do not shun sit down work and how our children are not wild and how, really, we’re not hanging out in our pajamas eating bon-bons every day. You probably won’t listen, but let me tell you anyway.
Unschoolers are almost always planning the next step
You can find unschoolers poring through online sales, library sales, library catalogs, yard sales and pretty much every place you can expect to find something their children can learn. They are found at homeschooling conventions, even odd places such as their neighbors’ and relatives houses and garages because their children have expressed an interest in learning to change a tire, or sew, or learn to play a musical instrument.
With very few exceptions, unschoolers are observing their children and planning the next step almost all the time.
Unschoolers guide their children’s education with an eye to their interests.
The reason why an unschooling education doesn’t look like school to those who love to poke fun at us is because unschoolers tend to keep an eye out for the children’s interests and guide them in that specific direction.
As I have mentioned in my book, The Classical Unschooler, if I see the potential in a child that he does not see himself, I will push him a little toward it. As an unschooler, I am not abdicating complete responsibility as a parent. But for the most part, I work within his interests and abilities.
Unschoolers are non-institutional in their approach to education
I think this is the rub that gets most people and this, right here, is the reason unschoolers get such a bad rap. We are not afraid to flout the rules. We are not asking teachers for permission, for guidance. We want nothing to do with how it’s traditionally been taught. We don’t want their tests, their teaching material.
We don’t like classrooms. We want to do it ourselves.
That’s the reason we have pulled our children from said institutions to begin with. And we work hard not to bring institutional thinking into our homes. The worst thing you can tell an unschooler is the right way to do things because we know that most of what you’re saying is just plan old convention. And convention doesn’t usually work for unschoolers without a compelling reason.
“Don’t believe everything you hear!” goes the old mantra and yet, teachers in traditional schools spend an inordinate amount of time reading from textbooks approved by a committee, only recommending books approved by the school board, teaching and testing toward a curriculum that the school wants them to teach and then shake their heads at unschoolers who want to teach their children to think.
From all these jibes big and small, I am beginning to conclude that humor sometimes is the last weapon left in a lot of people’s arsenal. And if that fails, there’s always derision. Hence the jokes, the talking down.
Some might accuse unschoolers of being proud, but I don’t think that’s it at all. Just because we refuse to take something at face value and trust our judgment over that of a school’s doesn’t make us proud. It makes us self-governed and humble. It makes us responsible – something many have forgotten how to be and something we desperately need in the people of today and the days to come.
Wow… would you look at the date! It’s almost May – the month I promised The Classical Unschooler: Education Without School would be out.
It’s almost time!
I’ve been driving myself crazy getting it all done – the writing, the editing, formatting. Since this is my first time going through the Kindle Direct Publishing program, I honestly did not know what to expect. But the good news is it really is relatively easy – after the writing (the hard part!) is done.
I’m very excited about this book and I hope you will enjoy it.
If you added your name to my subscriber list, I have arranged for you to get a free advance copy this weekend in your email. If you have not, don’t worry! It will be available next week on Amazon for purchase for just $2.99.
If you’ve ever wondered what classical unschooling is, how I apply it in our homeschool or my vision for my homeschooling my children with it, this book should be able to answer all your questions.
However, I’ve been careful to say (and I hope it comes across loud and clear in the book) that this is one way of home education. It is NOT for everyone. I do unequivocally believe in homeschooling and am deeply passionate about it but I believe the method and style differs for each family depending on learning styles, temperaments and, simply, the way you manage your time every day.
This is just one way. This is my family’s way. And it works for us. Amazingly well.
Perhaps, it will work for you, too. Give it a look!
The Classical Unschooler: Education Without School will be available for purchase for $2.99 as an e-book on Amazon Kindle next week. I will add a link here when it is available. Check back often!
If you’re like me, you’ll probably never stop reading aloud to your kids.
Now, I was never a fantasy reader. I mean never. My husband had tried – unsuccessfully – to get me to read Tolkein’s works but I would fall asleep. No, I’m not lying. But something about reading aloud to my children has given me a new interest in – well, pretty much everything. Including fantasy. I’ve started for instance trepidatiously heading over to the fantasy and sci-fi areas of bookstores and even – gasp! – picking some up to read. I’m slowly beginning to enjoy them.
So I recently asked a few hundred of my homeschooling friends what books they would recommend for those of us that love fantasy and adventure stories as read alouds. I was working on a list. Then I thought maybe you would like to see this list, too.
If a squirrel for a hero is your (or your kids’) thing, you might like The Mistmantle Chronicles. I just can’t get Reepicheep out of my head and this one might be, well, let’s just say way down on our list.
Gregor and the Underland Chronicles have also been highly recommended and I’m actually excited to read these for myself as well as to the kids. A note of caution – both this one and the Mistmantle Chronicles apparently have some themes that might be disturbing to some children, so be sure to check them out yourself and edit, edit, edit if necessary.
The Wingfeather Saga is another one I’m quite looking forward to reading to the children. Sounds promising.
Lloyd Alexander has had numerous awards and The Chronicles of Prydainalso comes highly recommended. Just the reviews on the Amazon page makes me want to read this series.
And, of course, where would fantasy be without our beloved Harry Potter? We’re enjoying it so much!
Everyone knows about the public library and how to use it. Here are some others that you may not have thought of while building your curriculum.
Your local thrift stores
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This seems like an unlikely place. But trust me on this one. I have had great luck finding not just educational games in thrift stores but also flashcards and beginning reading curriculum.
But my absolute favorite thing to buy at thrift stores is read aloud books. You won’t believe the treasures. And I do mean treasures because how wonderful is it to find a hardcover wonderfully illustrated copy of The Wizard of Oz for $2? It always feels like a treasure hunt.
Another tip: To keep from getting frustrated, go often but make the time you spend there short. If you don’t find anything within the first ten minutes, leave.
Used curriculum stores
I love these. Not only do I get to peruse and take a peek inside the books (which I can never do shopping from an online catalog) I also get to compare curricula against each other.
If you don’t know if there is one in your area, ask around. And if you’re in the greater Sacramento area, you’re in luck! My favorite one is Kingdom Builder Books which, incidentally, also has various classes for different ages of students. Check them out!
The owners there also offer free consultations (with an appointment) to help you find the right curriculum for your style of homeschooling.
Ah, my favorite. If you have a computer or a pad, this is an amazing resource for books that are now out of print – good books that have fallen out of favor with the educational system for whatever reason (that’s a whole other blog post!) and are now only available digitally. For FREE!
I have found language arts readers, history, grammar and many others. Go browse!
And there you have it! Have you used any of these free or cheap unlikely resources? Know of any others? Let me know!