Friday, April 10, 2009

What an "unschooling-ish" day looks like

Standard Disclaimer: Lest anyone feel that I'm somehow saying that homeschooling is superior to public education, let it be known that that is not at all what I'm saying. Not one bit. I think there are many, fabulous aspects about public education and it didn't hurt me or Mark any. This is simply our preference. It's our chocolate to some people's strawberry. We look at it as the option we choose that works for us, not as one that makes us superior to those who do not (because that's simply not true). That being said . . . here's my post on this. This is our way to share a little of what we do day to day.

What is Unschooling?

We loosely follow a classical education curriculum and we lean more and more toward unschooling all the time. When I first heard about "Unschooling," I assumed that was code for "lazy homeschoolers." But people who truly unschool are constantly reading, learning, doing. And it's FUN to boot.

The VERY basic gist is that we learn naturally. Children learn (like crazy) before they ever set foot in school by simply asking, experiencing, exploring, talking, hearing, seeing, reading. Adults continue to learn well past college by asking, experiencing, exploring, talking, hearing, seeing, reading, researching. When we want to know something, we look it up, we get a book on it, we talk with others. And we learn. It's not always (though it can be) about taking a class or being formally taught/talked to.

So, the basic idea behind unschooling is that the way we learn before school and after college and graduate school is quite simply, the natural way to always learn. That rather than follow a set curriculum, you study what you're interested in. It's inherent in all of us--that curiosity, that thirst for knowledge, that desire to know more, read more, write more. If you think about it, school is more a construct of society over time.

A Classical Education

I'm too uptight to ditch formal curriculum altogether, so we follow a classical education in a college-style approach. For the most part, except for math (which we do more often and regularly), we approach each subject one-at-a-time (history, science, grammar, etc.) by really focusing on it and spending time delving into it.

We like The Well-Trained Mind as a guide for the basic what-to-dos (though we think they're a little over the top in parts and could stand to loosen up a bit). Their format is classical education set up as the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric). Basically, you learn all subjects in chronological order from the beginning of time onward, repeated 3 times (elementary/middle/high school). Every time you repeat it, you read more advanced writings, eventually using almost only primary sources and novels (so rather than learn about the great depression from a text book, you read, for instance, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and rather than read a textbook about early presidents, you might read David McCullough's John Adams and The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson).

We've always been drawn to the orderly, chronological aspect of this approach--all your subjects flow together. So, you're not learning about dinosaurs in science, modern literature in reading, the civil war in history, and the Renaissance in writing. You're learning about the same time period in all subjects. This just makes sense to us! And by repeating them all 3 times (every 4 years), they are reinforced with more and more emphasis on reading and writing and speaking.

The elementary years are the grammar years--basically, as you study history (and all other subjects), you're mainly focusing on picking up the proper mechanics of language and absorbing information. You don't need to sweat knowing every little fact, just learn as much as possible. Kids are sponges and learn like crazy in this stage quite easily and naturally. You're answering a lot of "who" and "what" and "when" questions in this stage.

The middle school years are the logic years--essentially, as you study history (and all other subjects), you're focusing especially on the mechanics of thoughts and analysis. You're reasoning through the material and making sense of it. You're answering more "why" and "how" questions here. You are reading more and writing more.

The high school years are the rhetoric years--as you study history (and all other subjects), you're focusing on the use of language to instruct and persuade (debate, writing, communicating, adapting learning to circumstances, etc.).

Blending the Two Approaches

So, we like that approach. But we also watch ourselves because we're not homeschooling so that we can replicate a school classroom at home. We're homeschooling for many reasons (most of which simply have to do with the fact that this suits us and our family and we love it) and we are not the types of people to hole up our kids in the house and not interact with others and the world around us. And that's where unschooling comes in. The world is our classroom. We can do anything, go anywhere, read anything . . . any time we want!

Unschooling helps us follow our children's leads and learn naturally. In the past few weeks, we've had more and more of this:

* The other day we were working on some grammar and penmanship and our grammar book had a quote in it by Edgar Allen Poe. This lead to a discussion about him and his works. We then listened to The Tell-Tale Heart (yeah, much creepier than I recall) on audio and looked up pictures of him and learned a bit about his writings and that time period.

* Another day, we were reading a story together. It mentioned a spider. Thing 2 started asking questions about spiders. We grabbed a couple of different encyclopedias and read interesting facts about spiders. This lead to even more curiosity. So we visited the library, did more research, watched a DVD about them, made a lapbook about arachnids, drew several arachnids, and visited a pet store to check out the scorpions.

* The other day while sitting down to do more grammar (that's been our recent focus), the mail arrived, so the kids ran out to get it. As the kids sat down to do some writing and workbooks, I quietly read one of the postcards and said, "Wow!" They asked what it was. I explained that it was a medical practice in Michigan trying to recruit Daddy to join with some pretty incredible incentives, most of them monetary. They initially freaked out at the idea of moving. After I reassured them that we are not moving and that we get these kinds of postcards all the time, they settled down.

But as they tried to grasp the idea of the salary and benefits, the conversation turned into an impromptu 45-minute discussion about money, budgeting, and finances in general. We talked about saving (they're pretty pumped that the bank pays us to keep money there) and checkbooks and mortgages and even interest on credit cards. They kept peppering me with questions and were totally interested in all the things we talked about. By the time we were done, there were pieces of paper all over our kitchen table with various numbers on them, illustrating what we'd discussed and the kids were begging for checkbooks (which we'll do as they get a little older).

* Every day we check the Enchanted Learning Calendar and see what we're recognizing/celebrating/commemorating that day. Whenever something strikes our fancy, we do the accompanying activity. We have so much fun with this! The other day, we celebrated Bach's birthday. We read about him, filled out a sheet about him, and then played on YouTube for a good half hour--there are some fabulous computer videos put to many of Bach's organ pieces! We were mesmerized by the colors and rhythm and themes. They were so excited to recognize some of the pieces. Then we played some on the piano, too.

I like that the curriculum and taking various classes helps expose us to ideas and topics that we might not know about or learn about otherwise (and it helps that we have a fabulous homeschool group and community that gives us so many classes and clubs to take part in). But I also like that unschooling balances that out with really considering the kids' interests and desires and following their lead which always, always feeds their natural excitement and curiosity.

I love seeing our kids wonder about something and jump up to "look it up" or "find out!" That's what we do, isn't it? I know that when we're watching movies and I say, "Who's that actor? Where have we seen him recently?" that I generally jump up and check (if my husband, who seems to have a serious affinity for all things trivia, doesn't already know . . . he generally already knows. It's uncanny!). Or when something is bugging me, I look it up in a book or on Google. Well, kids are no different and I love that we can encourage that and nurture that instead of either ignoring it or tiring them out or forcing them to sit through hours of what may or may not interest them or, gag, "teaching to the test." Every educator I know hates that.

And you can take ANY interest, any, and learn all manner of things. Believe me, we've done it with trains, superheroes, Star Wars, Harry Potter, American Girl, Legos, etc. If there's a hobby or interest that gets your kids all excited, you can learn all manner of things in any and all subjects. Just incorporate it. Voila, unit studies! It's fun, because you get to be creative and have fun all as part of learning. We have done reading, writing, math, cooking, history, philosophy, religion, and science all with Star Wars. No kidding. And it's fun.

For Physical Education, we've decided to focus on a different thing every year--exercise or soccer or tennis or Tae Kwon Do or gymnastics or rock wall climbing or swimming or yoga or biking. The list goes on and on. There are TONS of opportunities around here. We also study music and the arts as we please--sometimes it's classical and sometimes it's the Beatles and sometimes it's studying what is meant by the American Idol phrase "make it your own" (thank you, YouTube).

The other fun thing about this is that we can incorporate everyday skills into our learning, too--budgeting, cooking, cleaning, nutrition, exercise, laundry, service, home repair, volunteering, shopping, money management, the list goes on and on. And we get to read and write like crazy. And see plays, visit museums, enter contests, attend performances, take classes, and so forth (often avoiding big crowds by going during school days when most kids are in school). We get to play games a lot. We get to read and write TONS. And we get to simply hang out together. I just don't tire of it.

Do we have days that are challenging? Yes. Do we have times that it seems really tricky to get everything done? Oh yes! But the life skills we learn as we work together to do this are invaluable--getting along, knowing when it's time for some down time, enjoying quiet time, balance, communication, chores, working together, learning together. We absolutely love this. And it totally suits us. I'm so excited that we have this option and get to choose this! We've met so many fabulous people through this and just in general, we simply love it. Plus, daily I'm freaked out by how quickly time flies. The kids are growing up so fast. I love that we can enjoy so much together.

This is how our kitchen table sometimes looks after a good morning of learning

Sometimes school looks like this

Sometimes it looks like this

Sometimes when the weather is nice, it looks like this--our friends and neighbors (who also homeschool) come over to play and skateboard and generally hang out


Sometimes it looks like this (at Theater Class, no less)

Here are Thing 1 and Thing 2 busy at work in the clinic--they are both employed and earn money by helping out with things in there

Thing 2 especially enjoyed helping put together binders for my anxiety group/class

Sometimes school looks like this (this box has been a rocket ship, a simulator, a house, a time machine, and even a place to campout/sleep at night in their room--it wasn't so comfortable)

This one cracks me up--we made these for St. Patrick's Day and Thing 2 decided to celebrate diversity by making his leprechaun black

Sometimes our fridge looks like this. See that flat guy with the blue magnet on his head? That's Flat Stanley. The kids' cousin Andrew sent us Flat Stanley so we can take him on an adventure and then mail him back so he can share the adventure with his class in school! We're so excited to show Flat Stanley a good time!

Tracing Thing 2 for our fun project

Some days aren't so productive and some days are more of a challenge. But some days totally click and flow and are SO much fun. Today has been one of those days. People ask me what a typical day is like. They vary from day to day (some days we're home all day, some days we play outside all day, some days we are with our group all day, some days we do playgroups (we probably get together with friends in one way or another 4-5 days/week), some days we have writer's group, some days we visit museums, some days we run errands, some days are a mix . . . ), but this'll give you a basic idea. Here's what we've done today:

* We got up and got ready.
* We tried a new recipe--breakfast pizza (delicious to me and Thing 1, not so much to Mark and Thing 2 as it was too egg-y for them) and the kids kept trying to get us to sit on a whoopee cushion
* Thing 2 is reading really well and so we're reviewing sounds and writing by doing the letter of the day (today is D) - we review writing uppercase and lowercase Ds and then the kids go on a treasure hunt with buckets to find 3 items that start with the letter D, then we do a mini Show and Tell with said items, then we do a craft that we've been working on (we plaster a page with the letter "D" on it with various pictures, magazine cut outs, stickers, and drawings that begin with the letter D), then we have a snack that starts with the letter D (Thing 2 suggested we cut an apple in half and call it a "drum" and hit it with pretzel sticks and eat both--sounds great!)
* Thing 1 and I worked on the proper way to write a thank you letter (and one of our blog readers will be receiving that in the mail in the next few days) and address an envelope, we reviewed state abbreviations, and made sure we have our own address memorized.
* We had fun coming up with homonyms, homophones, and homographs (various papers on our wall)
* We had fun coming up with compound words (also on our wall) -- we have time lines, maps, various fun things on our walls . . .

Our fun time line - we add our own flair to it

* We filled our bird feeders and used our bird book to identify the first few visitors to our bird feeders (a GORGEOUS cardinal -- did you know that only the males are bright red?--and several finches so far). Thing 2 loves the bird book. We also follow birds on webcams online. He especially likes to check out the Bald Eagle (let me know if you want a link--it's pretty cool). Mark and Thing 2 listened to bird calls online, which totally threw Thing 1 and me (we excitedly called them to the kitchen so that they could hear what we thought were the birds telling each other about the bird seed. We couldn't figure out why it had stopped. The boys burst out laughing that it was them listening to bird calls online in the other room.)

I took this picture at night - click on it to see it bigger. The cardinal is so beautiful. Colors like that only appear in nature. Gorgeous!

I took this one earlier today - see the little finch on the feeder?

The brain, heart, and bones
(we'll keep adding to it as we keep learning and researching)

* We did some math lessons and computer games
* We talked nutrition at lunch (just came up in conversation)
* We did a fun human body project where we got a big roll of paper and Thing 1 traced Thing 2 on it and then we taped it to a door. We're learning about the systems of the body and drawing and cutting out various organs and bones and such and gluing it to the paper as we do. Today we researched the brain, the heart, and bones.
* We watched a bunch of Schoolhouse Rocks clips (we LOVE these--Mark's brilliant idea to purchase it and have it on hand . . . we use it a lot!) and sang along to some of them.
* We made a "Contests" folder with calendars stapled to the front and rules of various writing and cooking contests inside the folder (Thing 1 can NOT get enough of writing contests and also loves to cook--we're especially inspired that a 10-year-old in our town recently won $25,000 and several trips to NYC to be on the Today show, Rachel Ray, etc. for winning a national cooking contest--the only rule was to use 3T of peanut butter in the recipe)
* Mark gave both kids piano lessons

-----We did all this by early afternoon--------- (People often ask how long it takes to do school at home--again, this varies, but no matter what approach you take, you can do it in a matter of a few hours really due to more focused attention . . . ideally, it's simply part of your lifestyle--easier said than done sometimes)

* We started our week by celebrating Palm Sunday with friends--we reenacted paving the road with palm leaves and cloaks.

Palm Sunday

And a friendly game of croquet

Today we studied both Maundy Thursday (a day of service, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane) and Good Friday by talking about it, looking at pictures, and having pita bread and grape juice together.

Learning about Judas

We're having fish and soup for dinner and driving downtown to see the beautiful big wooden cross that a church down there puts out every year--they drape it with a big, deep purple cloth and it stays there all week. On Sunday, they replace it with a white cloth. It's really beautiful. We're also attending an Easter Mass on Sunday. I've been itching to attend a Catholic Mass since my Dad died. I've just felt drawn to it, feeling nostalgic for seeing what my parents experienced growing up and what I did, too, as a child.
* Thing 1 and Mark are making dinner as I type this. Thing 2 is playing Harry Potter on the computer. We're going in to help in a bit. Oh, Thing 1 is done and is now watching "I Love Lucy."

Now, confessions: our house is pretty messy and we haven't done much cleaning today (or this week in general), we have a ton of projects to do both inside and out, I got to some emails and calendaring today and managed to wrap a couple of birthday presents and start working on the lesson I'm teaching next Monday to my anxiety group. Haven't gotten to much beside that. That happens, especially on full days like this. This is our usual homeschool group day, but since many in our group recognize Good Friday in various religions, we decided to postpone our field trip for today. Several of us were going to go to DC this morning to see the Cherry Blossoms (peak week), but decided not to because of the rain forecast. I'm kind of miffed, because it hasn't rained at all. Hmph. Anyway, I think one of the most challenging aspects is trying to get to everything and keep up. But still, it's totally worth it to us. We love the flexibility and eventually, stuff gets done.

But there you go. An idea of what it's like. It's fun and we love it.

Here is a bonus video for grandparent and aunt and uncle types. Here is Thing 2 reading me a book about Transformers--he's doing such a great job!


emily said...

that black leprechaun is AWESOME.

Jagged Rocks said...

Looks like your kids have a lot of fun with "school".

Chelle said...

Fascinating! What great memories and relationships you are creating for your kids (and yourselves as well). I admire your dedication and your approach. You always seem clued into the best resources and I don't know how you do it.

Your confessions made me laugh. That's just how life is. We have to decide what our priorities are for the moment, day, or week and the things that get pushed to the backburner will eventually inch their way forward. I figure that everything worth doing will get done at some point.

Bravo to you!

Dr. Mark said...

Thank you for writing this great post. I don't know that I could have captured it any better (or even nearly as well, to be honest). One of the best things about homeschooling for me is getting to be at the "point of learning," seeing the lights go on first hand. I'm just glad my schedule was clear on Friday to be such a part of it.

I especially liked all the faces of homeschooling. Thanks again.

Em said...

Thank you for sharing your day. With four kids I feel like I am going a million different directions all the time. I love the time we spend together as a family and the diversity of what we can study and do. After having kids in 'school' for several years I also like all the hassles that no longer exist for us. I enjoy hearing what others are doing and remembering to not worry about everything all at once. Thanks for sharing!

D'Arcy said...

I just made my sister read this with me and we are in awe! I looked at her and was like "What's a homograph again?"

You guys are awesome!!

Lindsay said...

Very cool! Nice job guys...

J Fo said...

You guys are so well rounded and BUSY!!! I love how excited the little guy got when he finished reading. What great times you have together!

terahreu said...

I love your ideas and philosophies about learning. What I especially love about homeschool is it is flexible for your child's needs. What might work for one kid, won't necessarily work for the other. It gives you a chance to follow the interests of the child.

Great post!