Wednesday, September 3, 2008

School of Sardines - Back in Session?

Even though we don't have a school year where we stop and start our learning (it is like breathing, after all), many of the activities we participate in tend to follow the school year. So we still have the feeling of "starting school" lessons, music lessons, Odyssey of the Mind, Girl Scouts....

So, what does that look like for us? First of all, let me explain a little bit about unschooling. Does it mean the kids run wild all day long in total mayhem? Sometimes. Does it mean vegging out in front of the television or video games all day long? Occasionally. But for the most part, it just looks like normal life. If I were to peek in the boys' room right now I'd see (by the sounds of it) one boy having a sword fight, living out whatever little scene he's just created in his miniature LEGO world...and a teenager obliviously reading in his loft bed, unconscious of the battle being played out beneath him. Both of these things are learning. Both are engaging. Both are getting creative juices flowing.

If I were to peek in Ellie's room right now, unschooling will find her looking very much like a school kid - as she pours over a Critical Thinking textbook, taking notes, iPod buds in her ears...she is a 10th-grader taking two college courses through community college.

If I were to peek in the little kids' room (based on fleeting images I've had from my sedentary spot in my chair) - there is an active game of dress-up going on. Camille is now singing LOUDLY - Jasper is wearing his PJ's and a hard hat, with a mask literally taped to his face.

Typical school day for us. And yet, somehow, the three older ones all learned to read and are voracious readers. They all have fields of expertise based on intense interests in things of which I know absolutely nothing about. They are interested in their community and the world around them and will often silently whip past me on their way to examine the globe...."What are you looking for?" I'll ask. "Bolivia..." they'll absentmindedly answer, obviously lost in their own thoughts....or recently I've heard, "Georgia...or Russia...or Afghanistan..." And yet, people still ask me how I know they're learning anything. How did I know I was learning anything? I received a report card with relatively good grades, yet I know not a fraction of what was on those ancient tests I obviously passed. Was that learning?

Their school friends labored over summer reading lists assigned by teachers. My kids were perplexed. Why was this seen as a problem? "Don't you like to read?" they'd ask. Their friends were like, "Yes, we like to read. But these books are awful..." and then they'd go on to list some of my kids' favorite books. One of Ellie's friends was assigned The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. "Wow!" I thought to myself. "What an awesome assignment!" I was impressed. It is a favorite of mine and Ellie's. But her friend was hating it because he a)HAD to read it and b) was forced to write a paragraph summing up each chapter. blah. We have no summer reading lists, here. We have a house full of books, and kids who find reading to be very entertaining. No summation paragraphs required.

How does Unschooling differ from regular Homeschooling? Well, that distinction isn't always made and certainly isn't always needed. In the beginning of the movement (60's and 70's) all homeschooling was unschooling. Unschooling was a product of the anti-establishment movement. A few families began pulling their kids out of government-sponsored schools to teach them at home. They didn't try to emulate the schools at home. They learned through various methods, and on their own timetable. In the 80's, Christian fundamentalists began pulling their kids out of schools in large numbers. The Homeschooling Movement came out of hiding as these numbers swelled, and capitalism being what it is, a huge industry cropped up to meet the needs of these families. Suddenly, you could buy everything a regular classroom had, and do "school at home". So homeschooling was more and more a smaller and more personal version of "school", and unschooling, learning through living and interaction with the community, became a faction of homeschooling.

Today these two groups often overlap each other, families mostly are pretty fluid year to year in what they use as their needs change, and a large number of families wouldn't even begin to know how to fit themselves into any kind of slot.

Unschoolers will have times when you cannot tell they are unschooling...looking at their day might reveal structure, textbooks, workbooks....but it is what you can't see that identifies them as unschoolers; the motivation. Sometimes a family turns to schooling due to a child's request to "try it". Because it is a natural consequence of the child's curiosity and desire to explore, using full-fledged curriculum in this case would be total unschooling. Sometimes the appearance of schooling is the result of pursuing specific goals. For example, Ellie wants to go to college, and she's pretty sure she wants to go to a really good college. So her life right now is revolving around meeting admittance requirements for several small liberal arts schools. This means textbooks, preparing for the SAT, etc.

Unschooling is simply child-led learning - on the child's own time table. What if a child doesn't want to learn the "necessary" things? Well, then they aren't necessary. People learn BEST the things that are necessary. Jules found it necessary to read to play the computer games he wanted to play. So at 9, he began to read. Joel found it necessary to write legibly to fill out the Odyssey of the Mind forms he needed to hand in last year, so he focused on handwriting for a month and has beautiful handwriting. He is almost 14 - but obviously, until now, legible handwriting simply hadn't been necessary. But how will they see the need for things like algebra, you might ask. Well, for most of us algebra really isn't necessary, is it? However, if you want to go to college, it is necessary in order to gain admittance. So you take it, because it is necessary for you to reach your goals. Ellie has just started algebra II not because she is interested in it, but because she realizes it is necessary. Since she has not been forced to memorize and regurgitate unnecessary and irrelevant information throughout her entire education, this is not a big deal. She is not numb to it. And because she is totally unfamiliar with the "memorize it and spit it back out" method of learning, she is actually trying to learn it - because that is the only way she has ever learned anything.

Jeff and I practice Attachment Parenting. Attachment Parenting implies physical attachment (baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) but it also about responding to the needs, both physical and emotional, of children and respecting that those needs will be different for each child. The idea is that when you totally meet the needs of a child, the result will be a very self-confident and independent teenager/young person/adult. With our family, this seems to be working out very well. Unschooling our children is an extension of Attachment Parenting. Just as we didn't question whether or not a child was hungry or sleepy and trusted that they knew that way better than we did (whether the clock said they should be or not) - we don't question what they need or want to learn. Who says you have to learn the layers of the Earth's crust during a certain year, or memorize the steps to the scientific method? Isn't more relevant to know that there are layers and there is something called the scientific method and why? And where to find the information when it becomes relevant?

There is too much knowledge in the Universe for someone to sit down and map it all out very neatly on a timeline and decide to "teach" it. You simply can't get it all to fit! Even if you lived to be 200 years old, you could never learn everything. So to the "Aren't you afraid you're going to leave holes in their educations" question...I say this: We all have holes in our educations, obviously. The danger is having a society where everyone has the same holes.

Well, back to school! I have important things to oversee...must go find the little fishies, first.

Sardine Mama

1 comment:

  1. i absolutely loved this comment:

    "So to the "Aren't you afraid you're going to leave holes in their educations'" question...I say this: We all have holes in our educations, obviously. The danger is having a society where everyone has the same holes."

    brillant - i'm gonna post it on my blog. :)