Thursday, October 20, 2011

Typical Unschooling Day? No Such Thing.

I've been asked to share what a typical unschooling day is like in The Can.

First of all - a little back story - we didn't start out as Unschoolers.  We started out as Actual School People, but Joel didn't fit the school very well and so we decided to homeschool.  Initially, we did everything the school did (School At Home) and because we are slow, were surprised to see that it didn't work.  Joel and his learning disabilities forced us to do things differently.  And since Joel was (and is) such a curious kid - an active kid - and a hugely entertaining kid - his days were pretty filled with his general Joel Activities and we found that there was very little time leftover for any kind of schooling.  And amazingly, he was learning anyway!  Like TONS AND TONS of stuff!  And since I'd already decided that the kid might not ever read and that I needed to be okay with that, I focused on finding ways to help him, as a non-reader, navigate the world.  He learned brilliantly and eagerly and all without reading. And since he'd learned nothing in the 2 years he'd been in school for kindergarten and first grade - and was now learning by leaps and bounds - I had to trust him and his natural curiosity to get the job done. It was Unschooling.

It was Radical.

Turns out, it was Radical Unschooling.  The word Radical has now been placed in front of Unschooling for some folks - to show that there are Unschoolers and then there are UNSCHOOLERS and you don't want to confuse the two.  Radical Unschoolers are radical (!!) and their kids typically learn without the aid of adults, textbooks, classes, or organized or structured ANYTHING.  Once the kids became older, we found ourselves becoming less and less radical (!!). We still don't make anyone do anything (and I realize that might sound radical) but we do encourage them to do the things they've already identified as necessary for achieving their own goals.  This means that Joel - aged 17, who finally began reading independently at the age of 11, no longer has the entire day free to chase tadpoles.

Here are some recent unschooling questions I've been asked, and remember, I'm answering about my own family - so if you consider yourself a Radical Unschooler to your 3-year-old - please don't begin defining Radical Unschooling for me and telling me how I don't fit the label. 

Sardine Mama, do you have a set time when you Unschool?  Like, do you schedule it in along with other things?

I don't schedule in school time.  I don't call the kids to the kitchen table for "school."  We do have some school-ish books...and sometimes Camille (9) and Jasper (7) enjoy filling in blanks and connecting dots. But it's an activity for fun - not a true method of learning.

My teenagers do have some schedules - but these are in accordance with goals they've set themselves. And the Official Schedule usually goes something like this:  At some point in time during my conscious hours I will finish a set of math.  

How does Unschooling change as the kids get older?

It changes a lot (for us).  Our younger kids are totally free - they have nothing at all that they must do.  We do participate in a Homeschool Co-op that meets in our house - and they are both taking Spanish so they might have a little Spanish homework to do every now and then - but it's fun and they're the ones reminding me that they need to get on the computer to do it.

Our teens appear to be less Unschooled.  They might be taking distance education classes or working math problems. But it's because they've decided to do these things in order to attain a goal.  And the fact that they've not been doing schoolwork for years and years already means that they're not bored to tears by the very thought of it.

How do your kids adjust to book learning after years of Unschooling?

They adjust just fine.  Like I said, it's kind of a novel approach for them.  I can honestly say that their run-ins with textbooks and syllibi have only cemented the idea of natural learning for them, though.  Because they are used to following their interests as far as they like, for as long as they like, and using as much technology as they like - they find courses and textbooks to be extremely limiting.  In Unschooling, you follow a subject until you've exhausted it or lost interest - not for a specified amount of time - at the end of which you turn in your book and consider yourself educated.  In Unschooling, the answers to your questions are found everywhere and anywhere you want to look, not just between pages 116 and 119 in "the book."  I'd say that's the biggest challenge for Joel - he already knows so much about so many things - it is always hard for him to limit himself to the medium the course requires. 

This textbook frustration began for him when he was in 5th grade. We bought, per his request, an Actual American History book. He challenged the very first sentence about North American exploration. He had a vast working knowledge of Vikings at the time - and the book, he said, was simply wrong.  A brief Google search proved him correct and he's been very dubious of textbooks ever since (and he never opened that specific one again). 

The same holds true for the high school courses he's taken via distance learning - he's on the Internet so much and so intensely curious - that he's painfully aware of how outdated all of his textbooks are.  He never sees anything as an Absolute Truth - because he's fully expecting that tomorrow - some new truth will be discovered. He's currently reading Lies My Teacher Told Me and it cements his opinion about the uselessness of textbooks when a world of constantly changing information is at our fingertips. 

Learning is a continuum that never ends - not a checklist to be completed.   I love that my kids know this.

Can you give an example of a typical Unschooling day?

There is no typical, but I'll do my best.

Camille and Jasper are up by 8.  The two teens left in the house do not tend to get up unless they absolutely have to - and they're very likely to sleep through lunch.  I don't like them sleeping through lunch, but there is research to support that this type of sleep cycle so common to teens is actually beneficial to their neurological development.

But for Camille and Jasper the day begins with Jasper letting the chickens out of the coop and feeding them.  Then he will usually stay outside and play, often joined by Camille, until around 9.  Breakfast is often made by Camille - and might include pancakes, fresh eggs, etc.  She likes to play restaurant and will distribute homemade menus she's written out herself (ummm...that would be spelling and grammar and math, thank you very much).  After that, there might be some television (yes, we're one of THOSE families).  As I type right now, I can hear Spongebob's irritating nasal voice.  There is also a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle out and Camille stops by it constantly - spending a minute or two - before flitting off to do something else. 

They might pass some time playing computer games (they both like Minecraft).  A day doesn't go by that they don't make a huge mess by making something craftsy - yesterday, for example, they used a kit I didn't know we had to make their own paint.  They built a set of bunk beds for Camille's dolls - they made finger puppets and a stage for a puppet show.  This was all done with no input from me - they never asked permission - they never asked for help. 

Now that the weather is cooler they spend a lot of time exploring in our fields - something their older sister and brothers grew up doing, as well - and this results in them coming in with all kinds of treasures like petrified wood, bones, clay, and rocks.  They build shelters and hideouts and stare through binoculars.  On my camera right now is a lovely recorded short film of a dung beetle rolling a dung ball through the tall blades of grass on the macro setting.  This was not of my doing.

Around lunchtime I'll begin the process of reminding the sleeping boys that they're running out of daylight - and they'll usually get up.  They typically hit facebook first - and then they might spend the next couple of hours on You Tube, laughing loudly at animated videos.  Joel is working on a animated short movie at the moment - so he can easily kill several hours on that.  He's had to learn how to animate, of course, and that began with Manga art in middle school years - now he actually uses animation programs.  He's buying a camera because he wants to try his hand at live action shorts - and he and his cohorts have already been writing scripts.  When he watches television or movies he's taken to pointing out camera angles - movie making is never far from his mind.  In our co-op he's taking Art - actually paying close attention to design elements - because he thinks it will help him in movie making. 

Because college hasn't been ruled out - he's taking a distance education Biology class.  He's learned how to outline chapters - that's probably about all he's getting out of the course - and so he tries to devote some time everyday to the biology textbook.  He doesn't see much relevance in the subject matter, nor does he appreciate the fact that he has to learn things within a specific order, so it seems to be a rather painful experience for him.  But guess what?  He does it anyway.   

The evenings might find him reading or playing video games. He's a Halo fan - and that includes all of the Halo books, as well.  And speaking of reading, he's reading a Great Books anthology that kicked off with Giglamesh.  Joel already knew the basic story of Giglamesh (he loves ancient literature and always has) but had never read the actual translated version.  It is absolutely filled with SEX.  He finds it hilarious - and will toss me the book and say, "Read the second paragraph," with a huge grin on his face.  Let me just say that we've got nothing on the Ancients.  They did it ALL.  There was even a phrase that went, "She let him in through her back door..." and Joel about died.  A favorite line was "And when his brothers saw his penis they knew you'd done something heinous."  Now this kinda makes me wonder about the translation, you know?  I mean, in English it quite obviously rhymes.  Surely it doesn't rhyme in Akkadian?  It was written on stone tablets in cuneiform!!  Don't you think it is too much of a coincidence that penis and heinous rhyme? The whole thing is highly suspicious and smacks of teengage boys posing as ancient history scholars. 


So he is enjoying Giglamesh and I'm afraid that Prometheus Bound (which is probably not a bondage story) might be a disappointment after Giglamesh.  Prometheus Bound is next in the anthology...

On NPR Joel and I heard an interview with a man who wrote a book about Bananas.  Joel was enthralled.  Not only did the author sing the Chiquita Banana Song (Joel loved it), he also talked about the violent, bloody history of banana farming in South American, the United Fruit Company and the atrocities it committed - its relationship with Dole - the fact that it was at one time considered coarse and crude for women to eat bananas (due to their ahem...shape)....this was a book Joel could not pass up.  So we ordered it - he read it and loved it - and now knows all kinds of useless information about bananas, which we no longer eat, by the way - because Joel says they've got blood on them.

Jules spends his days taking care of his turtles, playing with the two younger ones or hanging out with his brother - he seamlessly goes back and forth between the worlds of childhood and teenager-dom.  I love this and want this for him right now.  He has a couple of good friends who might call throughout the day - usually to discuss video-gaming.  He wants to be a scientist - but doesn't want to put in the effort to make it happen.  He's currently on a math bender, though - doing several sets a day (Teaching Textbooks).  When he gets his fill he'll go months without touching it again.  He will sit through an entire disc of Through the Wormhole - and I think that is what is inspiring him with math at the moment.  He's fascinated by time travel and alternate realities.  He's reading a Great Books Science Fiction Anthology and loving the hell out of it.

So a typical Unschooling Day looks like what your day would look like if you could spend it doing the things you love. For us it means we're reading Giglamesh and watching Beavis and Butthead. We're talking about String Theory and learning to sew.  We're learning to tolerate doing the things we don't love in order to do the things we do love.  We're laughing and arguing, working and playing, and living life as if we only had one go at it - and for us - that has meant staying out of the classroom and going into the world - be it real or virtual or something in between.


  1. WOW! I was unaware(and please read that as ignorance, not sarcasm) that you could even do something like unschooling. I think Jules and I have something in common in that I am fascinated by anything to do with time travel. I really learned something in reading your post. Hope you have a great day and enjoy pursuing the things you love.

  2. For God Sake, what about the rules??? You know how I love 'em! I really wish Fred would do this but now with Johnny doing better, socially and academically, he'll never go for it. Plus, we don't have a field full of dung for the kids to play in during the day. Honestly, with Ellie doing as well as she is/has, you simply have to refer to her to prove your point. In fact, if anyone ever questions your method, just show them Ellie.

  3. Perfect. I so hate when people ask me to describe "unschooling" (I am not sure I like that word either). Now I can respond with a link. THANK YOU. Too bad we don't live closer or I would bring you some not-schooled, kid made, questionable ingredients, delicious brownies!

  4. Niiice....the world could learn a lot from you & your family. I'm impressed.

  5. If only I would have the courage to be a bit more like you...
    Thanks for another lovely and above all, interesting post!