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The Winding Road to Unschooling

Like many who are homeschooling or are thinking about it, I headed down this path for several reasons. Regardless, of what lies behind that decision, we all have one worthy goal in mind – to foster a love of learning in our children and to help them develop the tools and knowledge they will need as adults. While one of my biggest frustrations was the methods of institutional instruction, I did exactly what so many others before and after me have done and continue to do – I simply brought school home. I followed the school routine exactly. It was, after all, what I knew.

You will get up, straighten your room, have breakfast and be ready to start school at 9AM. We will take a lunch break at Noon and continue “learning” until 2:30. We will study language, math, science, social science, etc.

My daughter had different expectations and her frustrations with the same old system grew into all sorts of acting out – just like she did every day when I picked her up from school and the next morning as we got ready to go. What was I missing? I was pulling my hair out and busy looking for answers. We tried different approaches and different curriculum to no avail.  There had to be a better way. Even I was incredibly frustrated by the chopping up of subjects into unrelated bits of information crammed into kids heads. We tried taking one subject a day and that worked a bit better. We could concentrate a whole day on one thing, following leads and distracting tidbits as long as it related to the main topic. That worked great until we got to those days with topics we didn’t really enjoy – like math. So, we continued to struggle. She knowing that she didn’t like it and me knowing there had to be something better – a more holistic approach to learning.

While I was continuing to research teaching methodology, I was also working towards an education degree. My frustrations soared! On one hand, I’m struggling with finding a learning methodology that keeps my now two homeschooled children wanting to learn and on the other I’m being taught how to manage, reprimand and train school children to sit down, shut up and “learn”. My brain nearly exploded with the irony of it. I switched my undergraduate degree with an eye towards a Master’s in Education where I might begin to make a difference and I started looking very seriously at alternatives to conventional education for my children and others who are struggling with the status quo.

My research led me to a promising “un” methodology as it were – unschooling. The definition some years ago was so very vague. While it initially sounded quite intriguing, Google revealed a very simplistic explanation at best. To unschool meant to pretty much leave it all up to the kid. Uh. No. How could they possibly learn anything?

Back to the drawing board.

We continued in this way until I was offered a consulting job with my friends in the NOAA Ocean Exploration office – an offer I didn’t want to turn down. So three days a week I commuted to NOAA and my Dad watched the kids. Three days a week there was no official homeschool. For a year and a half. Guess what the kids did? Well, at first there were videos and anime and lots of manga reading and building things with legos. I suppose you could tell which kid went to which activity? I wanted to panic, but I was too busy and too tired. Then they started asking questions, requesting specific books, asking for technology tools to develop their own books, stories and videos. Asking for help developing a web site, working on a business plan, applying for a business Ag loan, asking for special trips to this and that relating to something they were interested in. I was floored. They were learning and creating. All on their own. Without me. We, they, were unschooling. And. It. Was. Amazing.

When I described the phenomenon to a friend of mine, her comment was “well, of course your kids would go all academic.” She didn’t get it. Mine are no different from any other kid. At first they just burned up Netflix and legos. But something caused a spark, a question, and it didn’t take much to become a forest fire. Kids, all of them, are hungry. They just have to remember it. That is what happens when you leave behind the established curriculum. That is unschooling – finding that tiny little spark of curiosity and puffing gently on it until it takes hold and starts to burn. Then you get out of the way, except to encourage it, make appointments with more people who can fan those flames, drive them places to keep it going. If it burns itself out, you look for the next little hint of it and repeat the process.

At the moment, I have one child with a market goat business who is studying genetics, monitoring breeding, learning herbal remedies and natural care, keeping her own business records, and working on a website to help with marketing. She’s also interested in wolves (that’s her forest fire) and wolf conservation. At the moment she is torn between becoming a veterinarian and a wildlife conservationist. The other child is an avid Indiana Jones fan and together we study all things archeology. This eight year old held a 40 minute conversation with a high school religion and mythology teacher a few weeks ago. He’s a philosopher and loves to study culture, religions, mythology, and more. He’s also big into mine craft and is making his own “let’s play” videos and has started his own Youtube channel. A website is probably next for him, but he isn’t reading yet. That’s coming.

They may sound special (and perhaps to me they are) but these kids are no different than yours. The only difference is how they are allowed to learn and what they are trusted with. I had a lot of bad training and brain washing to let go of. But I get it now. Trust this process and give it a try yourself.

 

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