Friday, June 7, 2013

Unschooling Support from Within

Well, to be honest, it's not the unschooling that needs support, it's the parents' nervous systems. We can't really just break out of the system we grew up in without a serious amount of fear, so... we come up with solutions that help us grasp at the nothingness of our plans without steering the kids too much.

Yes that's right. I said the nothingness of our plans. We have no plans. We just have kids.

That's what's so bloody scary!! We were raised on plans! We need plans! Alan Watts had nothing on our plan-toting teachers and their threats of loser-hood and failure!! So, just to soothe our sorry selves a bit, here are some of the things we do. Of course, they're not so much recipes as new ways to look at things, and organizational choices that help us feel less neglectful. But they works for us. At least they do when we get it right and do these things before panicking.

These are our ideas. They`re what work for us, because they come from our hearts.
Your successes will come from your hearts.

We love our books. We have piles of them. Literally 3 libraries full: kids fiction, adults everything, and kids non-fiction, which is slowly becoming so interesting to us parents that it's basically the most frequented library, now... We don't feed our kids the books, or even 'strew', as I understand some people do, but we do make an effort to buy interesting books when we come across them.

And there they are. Cool books. It is amazing to me how many times the kids can read the same book. Tal has read a couple of his favourite novels about 5 times... but just when I start to worry, he seems to have broken into his father's programming books, or old comics, art textbooks, or obscure books from the recesses of our forgotten shelves. And these books spark the most interesting curiosities and adventures!

I don't have to do anything about this, of course. The books begin the adventures and the kids finish them. But I admit I love to join them for the ride, sometimes.

Art Area
Every home should have an art area. For us it was the dining table for a long time; sometimes the kitchen floor, but recently we've managed to make it part of Rhiannon's bedroom, which means a LOT more freedom, since it doesn't have to be cleaned up so often, for meals.

The key to a good art area is having an open space with free-range and plenty of good supplies. And by good, I don`t mean expensive, I mean well-chosen. Good supplies are open-ended. They're materials that can be used in any way, and that don't limit the imagination. Bad supplies are things like colouring books, stickers, and other gimmicky things, which basically inject too much of the manufacturer's imagination into our creation. Good supplies are practically anything. We have an entire shelf of different types of paper (LOTS of discarded office printouts on white letter paper from Pappa`s work), cheap felt for sewing, origami books* and other such inspirational things. In a drawer we have a bunch of extras, including strings, sewing supplies, tapes, and some of the messier things like paints and modelling clay, and in a rotating caddy in the middle of the big table we have a really huge assortment of felt-pens, pencils, rulers, scissors, glues, etc.

The kids aren`t the only ones who make use of this excellent area, and when their inspirations take them further than their supplies or area will allow, we either move outside or into my professional studio, where the rules are stricter (to protect some of my equipment and half-finished art) but there`s some access to different supplies.

*I think origami books, while they are still instruction books, can be good if we lead by example in taking the instructions and playing with them, so that they're more a jumping-off-point for discovery, than a recipe to a particular end.

We do have a fair amount of equipment - useful tools for open ended creation and exploration: shovels, rakes, hoses, aquariums, microscopes, telescopes, cameras, pots, bowls, and pitchers... etc. It's important to have the basic tools. Some people have access to these tools through learning centres and other such organizations, but where we live is a bit rural, and we find it useful to have these things at home. We don't spend much money on things like new clothes, toys, or dining out. We spend it on good quality used equipment that can help us with our exploration.

Rhiannon helping to build the new porch joists
Work and Rewards
We have the usual amount of house and yardwork, I think, and I`m honest with the kids about it. I don`t like being the one who does all the work, and I expect them to help out with the garden, the housekeeping, the animal care, the cooking, etc. It doesn`t always go the way I hope it will, but for the most part I think they understand that a family is a group effort, and the the lifestyle we all love is our mutual reward. Like strawberries. Yes. Strawberries. Those are worth a whole lot of weeding and watering! Hugs from the dog? Worth feeding her. Having clean clothes worth doing some laundry. These are real rewards. And often just sharing time working together as a family is a reward in itself.

TV and Movies
We don`t have a TV, actually, but there are some seriously good shows out there, and we have watched a few of them online. Same, of course, with movies, documentaries, and YouTube channels. When we find things that we like, we watch them, and, unless we`re having 1:1 parent time, the kids are welcome to join us. Sometimes we even join them for their shows!! We learn the most interesting things about the world, this way... things we`d never have ventured out to discover on our own.

Take The Kids to Work!
Not everybody happens to have an artist for a parent, but most parents have some sort of shareable interest, "hobby", or work, and I do believe that bringing the kids along for the ride - letting them see our own inspiration and process - is one of the best things we can offer them.

One beauty of this is the physical work we do, as parents, but another is the ideas we share with them. I can't describe how irritated I feel when people tell their kids they're too young to understand, or that certain topics are 'grown up things'. I don`t shelter my kids from ideas - no matter how complicated. And yes, some things go right over their heads, and others are upsetting. But I like to think that if they asked me the question, they deserve to receive the best answer I can give them. I take my son to university lectures when he wants to attend them. Sometimes the topics are completely over my head, and I'm sure he has very little understanding of what`s being discussed. But he loves them. And that's what matters.

Rhiannon at her guitar lesson with Corbin.
Outside Influence
Obviously we don't want to be completely isolated in our journeys. So we take our kids on social adventures, and also enroll them in programs. This not only gives them some input from non-parent community members and a chance to experience organized group activities, but it also gives us all time to experience the world apart from each other... which is very important for our personal development and relationships! The activities/programs that seem to work for our kids are, of course, child-directed, taught by inspired and thoughtful people, and chosen by our kids. The two mainstays are music mentoring (which I've written about, before), and their acting school, where the teachers favour process over product, and guide the kids through theatre games and the development of a play to performance, so that they really take ownership of their work and contribution... as well as their journey. In addition to this they participate in various field trips with local community organizations, and sometimes another group or class that interests them.

To-Do Lists and Would-Like-To-Do Lists
To do lists are for me. They give me some structure and help me remember what needs to get done. They also help the rest of the family see what I do with my time, and they help me feel accomplished as I check things off. I've suggested the kids make them, but they haven't really jumped on the idea.

Would-Like-To-Do lists, on the other hand... those are cool.
Yes, they're my suggestion, but the kids enjoy them, and frequently take me up on this suggestion. They don't even always keep them, but writing them out is inspiring, already, and helps them process their ideas of what is important and interesting to them. And when they do keep them, and look back at them (sometimes months after writing them) they're both an interesting glimpse at a time past, and an inspiration to get back to some things they'd forgotten about. And sometimes... just sometimes... they come in handy when the bored-nothing-to-do monster is hanging around.

Tali as Toto in the Wizard of Oz
Giving Up
Oh I just give up on my kids, I say nonchalantly. (Ha ha ha...)
As in... "What? You want me to help on this costume, and you haven't done anything yourself? Sorry. I'm busy." Yes, I abandoned him on the costume he had to make for his play, when he'd left it to the last minute, and had no idea how to make a dog mask. And neither did I.
So, Tali grumbled away to the art room, got out the white felt and cardboard, made a truly awesome dog-mask, and finally came to me for help with the ears. He'd been much more imaginative than I think I would have been, and also came up with some seriously good-looking facial-features, as well as a well-fitting base. And he made it himself.
Sometimes parents giving up gives kids the freedom they need to go do something great.

Giving up control is, of course, the main tenet of our unschooling path. As Alan Watts says,
"Let's see what you're going to do."


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.