Friday, June 7, 2013


This is a guest-post from my dear friend Suki Kaiser, who is currently living on a sailboat on the pacific ocean with her family. She describes the journey from public school through homeschooling to unschooling so beautifully! Do go check out her blog, The Wet Edge.

Let them lead the way...

This last term, we ran an experiment on our kids.
I know, you're not supposed to actually ADMIT it,
that you don't know what the heck your doing...
that even though you may love them with all your unconditional heart, 
parenting still seems to boil down to a whole lot of finger crossing and best intentions.

If you really want an acute dose of this feeling... 
take up homeschooling.

Just mention the subject at a party, and observe how it immediately puts people who would otherwise get along, on opposite sides of a (nonexistent) fence.

Of course, we all know, that no ONE method of teaching is perfect,  the same thing can't possibly work for every individual...
So why does everyone get so flustered about it?
Easy. No one wants to mess up their kids.

Everyone wishes their child will grow up, bright, curious and well rounded, with enough skills to carve out a successful future.
We fret that our cherished little people, will also survive the war-zones of elementary and high schools and emerge with their fragile self-esteems in tact.

Every parent wants these things.

The issue with homeschooling is, there is no set-in-stone way to do it. Naturally, this breeds uncertainty and self doubt...
and geeze, isn't that a fun place to parent from!

The second you start to take responsibility for your child's education,  you have to actually THINK about how to teach them.
This is a really, intimidating prospect. Highly educated, PHD- wielding professionals have spent whole lives devoted to researching and experimenting this subject...
and even THEY haven't worked out all the kinks, yet.

So how on earth, are YOU not going to blow it?

Jon and I,  have experienced all of these feelings and more, during the year and a half  we've been experimenting on our poor, unsuspecting children.
We're not experts or anything but I gotta say...Holy Cow.
It has been an eye-opener.

When we first looked into withdrawing our kids from school in California, it was the middle of the year,
Kai was halfway through fourth grade and Hunter was in second.
They had always gone to public schools and could read and write and were good we knew we had that going for us.

When I looked up HOMESCHOOLING  on the internet, the first thing that came up, was how illegal it was in the State of California if you went into it willy-nilly. We needed to go through a whole bunch of red tape and this "tape" required us to reinstitute them into another system of education, immediately.
-but we weren't even sure what we wanted yet or what would work for them. We didn't know the first thing about how to teach our kids, never mind teach them on a sailboat...
For, that matter, we didn't even really know all that much about sailing a boat to Mexico...
it was a lot to take on.

So, we did what seemed safest.

We signed up with other home-schoolers, loaded up on books and downloaded curriculums based on their grade level.
Safety in numbers. Stay with the herd.
Luckily, we had friends who were already blazing the home learning path-and we even knew a few, radical folks who were into this wacky-sounding"UNSCHOOLING" thing... 
A"new-age"-sounding, learning style, which gave me mini-spasms of fear, because it just seemed NUTS to stray that far from the path of what is 'known". What kind of tye-dyed wackos lead a child into an abyss of Do-it-your-own-way, with no state-run-testing-or-formal-structures-to-guide them?

-I have since been converted, wholeheartedly, to this learning concept but we all must leap before we fly :).

We started out by sailing and schooling, sticking to the familiar structure of certain hours of the day devoted to various subjects.
We compared notes with every cruising family we met, 
(and secretly compared our children to theirs; "are they smarter? Do they keep more regular school hours?)
Monday to Friday, spelling tests, math pages, Rosetta stone, grammar, write in the journal every day, projects for social studies, science and art...
We worried incessently, that they might fall behind.
We were strict. Well, we were ridged, really...
which was a bad fit for us. 

The result was... 
we fought all the time,
with the kids, with each other, 
and homeschooling became a nightmare.

We tried all kinds of fixes.
There were "star charts',  reward systems,  "Buddy systems" 'Special days"...invariably, we ended up dolling out reams of "consequences" more often than prizes.
It all sucked.
We felt like we were failing....
the two most important people in the world, to us.

So, eventually, we did what any good parent would do;
we gave up.
No, really. We gave up and decided to try this "other" kind of home-school notion...
the one that also included that sneaky, patchoulli-smelling "unschooling" thing.

Here we were, out in the wild blue, doing all this crazy stuff.
Jon and I were always busy and learning ourselves, 
so why not trust that kids would, too?

We leapt into the unknown...
dragging our kids with us.

Which brings me to these end of the year report cards;

For the past four months, we have kept no regular school hours.
We never made the kids crack a text book-unless it was something they wanted to do and were feeling curious about.

What we did do, was provide as much support as we could for whatever interest they were showing the most enthusiasm for.
Discipline was enforced. 
We live on a boat and there are chores galore and the kids were expected to share a fairly hefty part of those.
They were taught to preform tasks that were within their abilities  --and we expected them to do these well.
We counted on them as crew and gave them responsibility.
Work ethic. Responsibility. Completing tasks-
this was homeschool.
If they chose to do schoolwork instead of cleaning the dingy, that was fine but they would still have to do the dishes and sweep the floor. 
The boat stayed reasonably clean we finally had help( and weren't so stressed out ourselves) and the kids learned how to do a lot of mature boat tasks, like care for a dingy and it's engine, provision water and fuel, and bake and cook some things for themselves.
"Cool. Responsible. Tidy" 
Words we all felt should exemplify a boat-kid.

Kai and Hunter felt pretty great about their accomplishments-and so did we. 
We told them how much we appreciated all their help-all the time.

They learned how to be better sailors WITH us.

When we looked up things in books, they were right there, over our shoulders, reading and learning and experimenting.
We made them part of the conversation, whenever possible and when it wasn't possible to engage them, we told them to beat it.

They crawled into their bunks and read and read and read and read and read....or watched a movie on their computer.
( which is not a bad thing, so stop sweating it, if you are. Just let them watch better stuff, so they can talk to you about it, after)

They wrote facts about the ocean for the blog during the crossing and discovered that they really liked to write for an audience.
(and there was no more fighting about doing journals)

Manners, chores, reading, activity, quiet time and limited exposure (but not NONE) to electronics...

We set them free to absorb everything they wanted, as they wanted...and we let them be.
There was much less fighting.
Everyone had a good time.

Then came the report cards.

Honestly, we were so proud of them and all the amazing things they had accomplished as people this year; crossing an ocean, learning to scuba dive, speaking new languages...
even despite the usual growing pains that we all expect from pre-adolescence (lippy, lazy, slobby, surly, catty), they were both awesome, hilarious, caring, gentle people that we love to be around.
Yet, there was a niggling fear about how they would measure up with those pesky grade tests, because that part wasn't the KIDS responsibility any more... 
it was totally on us.


"Your report cards are due..." said We, in ominous undertones.
"since we haven't been doing school the 'normal' way, we were just wondering, how do you guys feel about your progress this year?".

The kids looked to one another, uncertain.
There was a chill in the wind, maybe it was a trick question.

"Ummmmm? Ohhh-kayyyy,  I guess?" said Kai, raising his eyebrows, in a hopeful plea.

(my stomach was breeding 'bad-parent' butterflies, at this moment)

"Should we take the end of the year tests in the curriculum books to see how you do?". 
It was just a suggestion.

The kids looked a little worried.

'Don't worry". 
We assured them.
"We take full responsibility for this. If you don't know something, it's OUR fault. We will teach it to you. But at least we will all know where you are, in relation to other kids in your grade."

This took the pressure off the kids and once they knew this, they took it as a sort of "challenge"-in a good way.

We spent a few hours a day, for three days doing all the tests in their grade books.

It ended up, that we chose a few tests from the middle of the book-where they had left off- but they did those so quickly and with no problems, so we jumped them to the final tests.
We were shocked, frankly.
The kids did amazingly well.
We can't take any credit, for it either.

Everything that we have been doing for the past year had sunk in.

Their amazing brains hadn't just figured out how to do fractions by baking and times tables (because it was occasionally fun to work on them) or grammar and spelling and reading comprehension ( all  a breeze because they do it all the time anyway and read so much),
and science, is a joke because they already know more than I did, when I was in college...
they ALSO picked up everything that went on around them in their daily life;
navigation, understanding where a storm cell might from, repairing the heat exchanger on a diesel engine, figuring out why the fridge won't work and how to fix it-which means you learn about the difference between alternating and direct current-learning to shop, live and make friends, in a foreign country-where no one speaks your language-converting imperial to metric, studying wildlife, reading poetry, playing guitar, rebuilding the second stage regulator on a scuba tank...
it was ALL in there and more.

Taking away the stultifying, bullying, daily-bludgeoning-session that had become our  botched attempt at structuring  homeschool like 'conventional' school..
and they blossomed.
They bloomed.
Our kid's minds were free to explore and a few months into it, they were CRAVING information and seeking it out.
We watched carefully, for clues of what they were into and then pounced on the opportunity to teach them what they WANTED to learn...but we did it with soft, fuzzy mittens-not boxing gloves.

Our kids did their grade tests WILLINGLY.
In fact, they got off on it, because they liked that they knew so much. Kai and Hunter even took it upon themselves to relearn anything they felt vague on.

Jon and I carefully looked through everything they were supposed to know for their grade level-they had learned all of it and so much more. Totally shocking. Wasn't expecting it...

But that is what happened.

We wrote them out honest report cards with honest grades and sent them to our home learners program.

This was was a week ago.

Since then, they have been so monumentally impressed with themselves and their leaning abilities, they have been downright obnoxious.

They have spent  evenings quizzing each other ( and us) about subjects we didn't do much of.
US history, algebra(?!) 

When Kai got a consequence for not remembering to recharge his Nook ( living on solar is a bitch sometimes) he picked up SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE.

"That's a good book" I said.

Kai turned it over.
"What's it about?" he asked.
The world "SLAUGHTER" has potential, for an eleven-year-old boy...
"It's about this guy, who goes back and forth in time and sometimes he's in a really awful war and sometimes he's living with some aliens that kidnapped him..."
(bless you, Kurt Vonnegut, for making a masterpiece with a a log-line that good)
Kai read it in a day.
When his Nook was finally charged, he didn't want to go back to his other book.
He passed up watching a "kid-movie" with his sister, to finish it.
When he emerged from his room at eight that night, I asked him what he thought about it.
He said he liked it a lot but some of it was confusing.
Then he talked about it for two hours, about the second world war and how writing can be simple and deep at the same time.
He asked us what other good books there were that were like that.

Hunter( who has gone farther than any of us in her a Rosetta stone programs because its what she does for fun) got sick of all this discussing something she hadn't read and wanted to know if we could have a spelling contest.

So we did.

This was our experience.

These are kids we're talking about though, 
so in a month, the game could totally change....
and when it does, we will, too.

Whatever works.

So the next time, someone says..
"How is homeschooling going?" 
and you feel like you want to throw yourself on the floor sobbing?
We totally, feel ya.

You are not alone in the fear that you might screw it up.

It can be scary out here, 
on the dimly-lit path of homeschool, un-school, fun-school...
but just keep reminding yourself,
"there's no brighter light than Love",
trust in it to guide you...
and keep your fingers crossed.

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