Thursday, September 08, 2005

Our Journey to Homeschooling Part 3: The Unschooling Experiment

Part 1

Part 2

During the years which we prepared to become parents and homeschoolers we studied up on unschooling. The only other homeschooling technique I knew about was correspondence school or a pre-packaged curriculum, and we were adament that we didn't want other people to make up our children's curriculum. We devoured unschooling books, subscribed to Growing Without Schooling and prepared to be facilitators, not teachers, of our children. We would not be tied to a schedule, but follow their interests.

The Goddess must have been laughing her head off.

I will confess that after a few years of reading about unschooling I began to have a niggling doubt bothering me which asked, "Is it really true to say that there is nothing you know that is important for your child to know? After all, you knew when to teach them to feed themselves and go potty. Might there not be something else that you know is important for them to learn about at a certain time? You can safely say that a certain type of structured schooling is bad for all children. You can safely say that no child needs to have his or her learning completely structured. You can safely say that certain children are best off being completely unschooled.
But to derive from those premises that unschooling is best for every child is an overgeneralization." But I ignored it. Everyone said that every child loved unschooling so of course my children would love it too, and that was a good enough reason to stick to it.

So I filled our house with books, learning toys and learning manipulatives and let my children at them. I read to them every day. They loved it! They blossomed like flowers. I was patting myself on the back that, just like with Bradley classes, breast-feeding, co-sleeping and attachment parenting, I had made the right call.

Then Brighteyes turned three.

She was already memorizing words and baby books, but the process was slow. She knew there was more to reading than that. I tried to hang back, watch, let her figure things out for herself and just give her help when needed.

My actions made her furious. In her eyes, teaching her was part of my job description. I had showed her how to hold a spoon, dress herself and comb her hair. I was not getting out of showing her how to read. When I tried, she got in my face and screamed, "TEACH ME NOW!"

You can't get a more explicit child-directed directive than that.

Then we went through a phase where she was constantly barraging me with requests to drop everything and "Teach me X right now!", "Teach me Y right now!", "Teach me Z RIGHT NOW!" about a dozen times a day no matter what I was doing. "Um, we do lessons in the morning and arts and music after tea-time," I pleaded in self-defense, before realizing to my horror that I had just reinvented the much-dreaded "schedule". But I can't handle dropping everything and changing direction several times a day. I don't have time to follow her around constantly ready to help when needed, and I don't think it would do her ego any good. So I set aside specific blocks of time when I'm available to answer my children's questions and help them with their projects. At other times of the day I may be able to help or not, but those times are reserved for their needs. Setting aside a specific time of day when the girls are promised my undivided attention for academic learning and another period for my undivided attention for arts-and-crafts projects makes everybody a lot calmer.

Most homeschoolers I've talked to approve of this arrangement and use something like it themselves, including many unschoolers. A few die-hards expressed disapproval, but with 24 hours in a day one or two hours of structured learning in the morning shouldn't interfere with the girls' ability to teach themselves the rest of the time.

Brighteyes enjoys figuring out many things on her own. However, if I shirk in what she sees as my job of teacher,she accuses me of cheating. She is very energetic and ambitious. Right now she trusts me to come up with ways to channel her energy and ambition into beneficial activities. If I don't she'll find them herself and her choices often involve Catastophic Diagnostic Deconstruction, but right now she trusts me to find neat stuff to do. I have since met other homeschooling parents of children like her who tell me that their children also hated unschooling when they tried it.

That was three years ago. Brighteyes is reading at a fourth or fifth grade level now, and writing and spelling at a second grade level. Sunshine appears to be showing more interest in unschooling than Brighteyes did, so we'll see how well it works for her. I figure we'll try unschooling with Brighteyes again when she's old enough to spell unaided, probably next year. She might be more interested then.

When asked, I encourage every new homeschooling family to try unschooling. It's clearly a perfect match for those families who love it. When unschooling doesn't work for a family that has tried it long enough to get past any bad habits left over from the school system, figuring out exactly why and how it doesn't work is a good first step to finding a homeschooling method that will work for that family.

Concluded in Part 4: At Home With the Classics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Schedule, schmedule. There is a difference between being flexible about what gets learned during a particular hour (or on a particular day), and letting the kids dictate the way you run your day. You, being the parent, are still in charge around there.

Sure, there is a balance to be struck. If it's not convenient for you to have a table filled with glue and confetti right before lunch, so be it: "art time will be at 2, not now." On the other hand, if someone is having an off day (or an off hour), maybe forgoing math lessons in favor of extended P.E. is a good idea today. On the other hand (there are always more sides to an issue than there are hands to hold them), there is a certain amount of value in at least occasionally enforcing certain aspects of schedule, whether it's brushing-teeth-time or insisting on tackling that history lesson which has been pending for two days now.

Congratulations on having developed (okay, lucked into) a voracious learner, who actually wants to hear what you have to offer as a teacher. I think that the one thing that unschooling offers, pretty much universally, is that it tends to leave the child wanting more, rather than wanting recess.