Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How I came to unschooling

I did well enough in school. I got grades that were good enough to not bring up or talk about (it's "not cool" to do well in school), but not high enough to actually be competitive with the top students of the class. I never obsessed about my work though, never understanding why people did things like pulling all-nighters for complete homework or projects. I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I took classes because they were required, or some sounded genuinely interesting (i'm very glad I finally figured out in high school that I do actually like science, after a 6th grade teacher had me convinced I couldn't stand the subject. Turns out I just couldn't stand her).

In college I kept going back and forth on whether I wanted to become a teacher. I could see myself teaching elementary school, but had also noticed enough problems with traditional school to feel unsure if I really wanted to go there. I remember when a long-time teacher i knew half-jokingly but half-seriously advised me to become a PE teacher, since they get paid the same but have a lower workload than regular teachers. I was taken aback by her cynicism.

It was around then that I was introduced to Montessori, since many of my close friends at the time were Montessori kids. My future mother-in-law gave me the book Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz, and I was sold (I also really love Trevor Eissler's Montessori Madness, but didn't read that till years later). I loved the idea of a school that allowed teachers and students so much more freedom, that respected each child's individual traits and that not all children learn the same way or at the same pace. I loved that Montessori (at least in theory) gave the teacher that flexibility to work with students who needed extra guidance, and involved the whole class of students in each other's education vs just a top-down teacher-tells-students-everything approach. Child-led learning. "Follow the child." After graduating from college my then-fiance and I moved to California, and I realized there was a Montessori training center in town, and I felt like I finally knew what my career path would be.

I finished my training and spent 1.5 years working as an assistant in a great little Montessori school in San Jose. I learned a lot, as the teachers I worked under had a couple decades of experience under their belts and really understood a lot about the nature of young children. Then life took my husband and I overseas, and then we had kids, and I've been home with them ever since. I've still been involved in Montessori, my kids have now both been in Montessori preschools (D for 3 years and Q just started this fall). I still love much about the philosophy and many of the teaching materials.

However... Part of me has also felt a little bothered by some aspects of Montessori. I don't think this is inherent to the philosophy, but I feel like in practice many teachers have a hard time fully breaking from the traditional education paradigms (many come from traditional school backgrounds) and still hold a view of top-down, teacher-to-student distribution of information. Sometimes hearing teachers speak among themselves there seems to be a lack of respect for those children and for their own ability to learn and figure things out. Sometimes there is still that pressure to make kids fit into a particular mold, to be the stereotypically calm and peaceful "montessori kids." It's that paradox where a philosophy or learning that is all about freedom and flexibility, gets paradoxically rigid about tis implementation when put into practice. And, many schools and teachers end up falling prey to the pressures to push academics. They give children lists of work they must complete each day, rather than leave them to freely choose their own. During D's kindergarten year his teacher seemed very concerned about him not progressing in his reading, writing, and math work at the pace she envisioned. And I can't fully blame these teachers and schools for it, as most of the kids in their classrooms will go on to traditional public schools that expect the kids to behave a certain way and perform at a certain level.

But, still.

So then I heard about unschooling, and it just kinda made sense to me. It feels like an extension of Montessori, really-- child-led learning taken to the next step. The carefully prepared environment here, is my home with access to whatever tools my kids may need to explore their world. And they have incredible freedom within that environment. In many ways it feels true to what Montessori is supposed to be, closer to what I think it would be if the constraints and expectations of traditional school didn't encroach upon it.

I still want to incorporate Montessori ideas into our homeschooling-- I have a plastic set of base-ten blocks and rods like Montessori's golden bead material, and want to try to get my hands on more of the math materials (which I love and made math make so much more sense to me, even as an adult, when I took my training). I have a book on Montessori Elementary curriculum that I will (eventually) read and gather ideas from. But I also have a wider perspective now-- I feel like that "follow the child" motto is more important than any one particular philosophy or set of ideals. Which, also includes unschooling. I may one day find or figure out something different that fits us better. But at this point in our journey, this is where we are.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"So how is homeschooling going?"

We've been at this long enough now that the question I often get from friends has changed from, "So how are you preparing for homeschooling?" to "So how is homeschooling going?" I'm finding I have as much trouble answering the latter question as I did the former.

The thing is, homeschooling is going pretty well. We are all enjoying and taking advantage of the freedom and flexibility we have in our days and weeks, not tied to a school schedule (we still have Q's preschool schedule but it's easy enough to "play hooky" on days we want/need to vs sticking to a public school's required attendance days). It's great to be able to go at D's pace of things, vs trying to fight with him over things he's not ready for or interested in. And he's doing a lot of cool stuff-- making stop-action videos, building cool stuff out of legos, we have finally graduated up to me reading chapter books to him (which he was not interested in up until recently). And I love that we have the time and freedom to just talk about stuff as it naturally comes up, like a conversation we had last week about how banks, savings accounts, and loans work after passing an ATM on our way to a coffee shop, or today when we saw the stump of a tree that had fallen over at the park, roots exposed and all, and talked about the growth rings on the tree and what the roots did and looked like, and how the roots of different plants and trees look differently and how that affects things. I know all parents do this to some degree, but we get a lot more time for these "lessons" to come up organically, and we rarely have to rush through them because of other commitments.

But when other people ask me about how things are going I tend to freeze, I think because I am trying to frame what we're doing into a "schoolish" framework of comparison and I don't know how to do that, since most of our activities don't fit into the traditional blocks of "academic learning." This is where it might be easier if D was reading on his own, or doing other stuff like that that I could point to and say, "See? We're not just some weirdo family, he is doing 'real work.'"

But I also don't want to fall prey to that sort of thinking, or to change what feels like it's working for us just to please others who may not "get it." So I'm working on formulating a good 'stock answer" to give people when they ask, that feels both simple and satisfying to others, and still feel true (enough) to us when given.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cool Things This Week

  • D made a few new short videos this week, two of them stop-action "battles" with lego minifigures. We are incorporating more props in these little shorts (like tying a string to a lego missile to make it "fly" across the screen).
  • About a year ago I bought a couple Hero Factory chapter books for D. He didn't show much interest in them then... but this week he suddenly was into them, and he and I read through one of them in just 2 days. They're a step up from the Scooby Doo books, and thankfully much better written (which some advanced vocab words, as a bonus). 
  • We discovered that the highest number of stud points that you can accrue in the Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga xbox game is 4,000,000,000. 
  • While walking to Starbucks one morning we passed at ATM and D asked about it, which sparked a whole conversation about money, savings accounts, and loans, and how banks operate. I love those moments, and that we have the time to have those conversations as they come up spontaneously. 
  • I finally downloaded the Lego Digital Designer software and D and I found instructions for making a transforming Optimus Prime. He's about halfway through putting it together (it's fairly complex... I'm pretty excited about the whole new world of lego building that LDD + online instructions opens up for us). 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Why We're Homeschooling

While I've spent so much time the past year or so researching and thinking about homeschooling, I haven't really sat down and made a concrete list of our reasons for doing this. So I'm laying it out here, trying to be as concise and non-rambly as possible.

Why homeschooling:

The biggest and simplest reason, really, is that I don't feel like traditional school is necessarily the best place to learn, or teaches in the best way for kids to learn. It's funny how we're so used to the idea of school that it seems like this immutable part of life, but compulsory public school has only been an entity for about 100 years or so. It's relatively new, historically speaking. And when you look at the research on how kids (and adults, everyone really) learn, most of the suggestions are very different from how teaching takes place in most schools. In truth, I think if we were to put the boys in traditional public school they'd probably do fine, but I feel like it would be in spite of that school structure and not because of it.

I don't want D to have to sit at a desk all day.

I don't want him to spend all day at school, then have to fight over doing homework when he gets home.

I don't want him to feel pressured into reading (or writing, or math, etc) before he's ready for it, or feel "lesser" for not being at the same level of other kids in his class.

Dividing information into defined subjects and setting arbitrary guidelines for when they need to be taught regardless of individual students' ability or interest makes little sense.

I want him to enjoy learning for the sake of finding out cool stuff and genuine curiosity about the world, vs focusing on grades above content.

I'm pretty ok with avoiding him picking up on the sorts of gender/racial/socioeconomic/etc stereotypes that tend to be perpetuated in school.

I want my kids to get to socialize with people of all ages, vs a specific group of kids their same age.

I don't want to spend my days shuttling kids to and from school and school activities.

And, frankly, money. Our first choice for D's elementary schooling was, ideally, to have him go to a montessori school (for all the same reasons stated above). However tuition is too expensive, and so not an option, and it was when we realized that that we started seriously considering homeschooling instead. However, even at his montessori preschool he wasn't always thrilled about school-- he would do the work, but complained about not liking it. He's been averse to reading chapter books with me, I think partially because he felt so bored listening to the chapter books his teachers read to them at school in the afternoons. So I wonder, even if montessori had been an option, if we still would have given homeschooling a try anyway.

Why unschooling:

The thing about not wanting to fight over homework? Same goes for a curriculum. I don't wanna have to force my kid to work on specific academic subjects when he isn't interested in them yet. That may sound like me being lazy or copping out, except that I also believe that there's no need to go along with a set schedule or curriculum, that he will learn things when he wants to or sees a need for it.

I look back at my time in school, and what I've done in the years since then. I honestly remember very little of what I learned in classrooms at school-- there is some that was impactful, but a lot that's been long forgotten. I learned a good deal from my Montessori training after college, although a LOT of that learning was from the reading I did, and hands-on practice with materials and "on the job" experience. I actually think our training would have been much better if we'd spent more time working with kids in a real classroom, and less time in lectures learning theory (which is important, but learning how to apply that theory is even more so). And now as a parent... this is easily the most important and most difficult job I have ever taken on, and ALL of the learning for this gig has been hands-on, and through my own reading and searching for advice and information and just living it.

Many people will freely admit that the most important learning you do is on-the-job as you begin your work. So it makes sense to let my kids learn that way, too-- in life, hands-on, searching for information as it becomes interesting or relevant or necessary to you. And there's a good bit of evidence supporting the ideas that having plenty of unstructured time to just play, and letting kids explore (with some, but not too much, guidance or direction), may actually be the best way to learn stuff in a way that is meaningful and lasting.

The world is changing rapidly, and much of what we were taught in schools is now obsolete or close to it. I feel like what matters most now, and my best guess for the future, is not necessarily knowing specific facts but knowing how to find things out-- how to identify what you need to learn for a particular goal, how to go about finding that information, and complete your goal. Whether that's figuring out how to build a lego transformer, how to beat a level on a new game, how to make a movie, whatever, I don't really care as long as he's learning and practicing how to figure shit out.

And lot of it comes down to how we want to live our lives. I like getting to spend time with my kids, and don't really want them away at school all day. I love hearing their questions and seeing them create things, wonder about things, come up with new stories and projects. I like getting to be a part of that. I don't want a school schedule to rule over our lives. I don't want to have to fight my kids every day-- I am fairly certain that if D were going to school we'd have to drag him there in the morning a decent amount of the time, and then hassle him about doing his homework when he got home. Life's too short for that, especially when I don't think that being at school or doing homework is even all that important. I hear so many parents talk about how busy they are, spending hours every day shuttling their kids to and from their various schools, seemingly hardly having time to breathe. We are making a conscious decision to live at a slower pace.

I don't say all this to condemn school or people who send their kids to school. Many homeschoolers seem convinced that public school is nothing more than a tool by the state to brainwash kids and that everyone who comes out of that system is forever flawed and broken. Frankly I feel that having a high-quality public education option is imperative to any society-- I do happen to think that should probably look very different from what our public school system does today, but I do feel strongly that one should exist. Not everyone is able to or even has any desire to homeschool their kids. There is no one-size-fits-all solution (or even one solution that is forever-- who knows how long we'll homeschool, or decide to do something different down the line). These are just some of our reasons for going this route.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cool Things This Week


  • We had a party to celebrate Q's 4th birthday this weekend. I baked the cake myself, but the boys loved making the frosting, and had fun playing with friends at the party itself. 
  • My mom is in town for a week, so that's awesome and fun. We are enjoying her presence very much.
  • Q got an early birthday gift of a small indoor trampoline. It's been quite a hit with both boys.
  • D came up to me a few days ago with a sudden desire to build a lego transformer, that really transformed. We did a little googling and found a youtube video with instructions, and built our own version of Bumblebee. I was pretty proud of both of us.
  • I read a suggestion to use streamers to make pretend lasers going across a hallway for kids to go through as like an obstacle course, so we tried that this week. D then got the idea to make a whole training course through the house, using the small orange cones we have for outside play, as well as blankets, pillows, small beads (as bombs) and whatever else he could get his hands on.