January 14, 2010

Intentional Unschooling

My definition of unschooling, at its heart, is letting a child's interests lead his education. We teachers don't impose a schooling "to do" list that gives the false impression that jumping through hoops makes an educated individual. But I also believe that setting goals and sneaky teaching are the backbone of unschooling.

Here's what I mean. A friend emailed me today, wondering if she could really unschool, worrying about everything her child might be "missing." I ALWAYS worried about that and was constantly monitoring their activities to make sure I thought we were moving in the right direction. I didn't want them to look stupid at a family Thanksgiving meal, not knowing who the Pilgrims were, or something. So I had some "non-negotiables." My kids were going to know their times tables, basic American history facts, and basic grammar (subject/verb) and punctuation. I'd do this through games, field trips, videos, anything that I thought would be fun for them. Now that Meg is a senior in high school, I've stopped being so sneaky, and blatantly drill her on American history dates, just to make sure she'll pass into adulthood with those pegs in her timeline:

1776 Declaration of Independence
1861 Civil War
1914 WW 1
1941 WW 2
1963 Kennedy Assassination
1960's Viet Nam War
1980's Reagan

We also work through a math textbook that she hates, and do little elementary math reviews once in awhile. She's very patient and indulges mom in these teacher-obsessive moments. On her own, she reads and watches videos about psychology, sociology, and art. Plus, she's an accomplished music theater professional (yes, she's been paid), knowing the ins and outs of all the jobs required to put on a show.

When the kids were little, here's how our life flowed:

In the fall, I'd have goals for each child and stacks of books to go with those goals. I'd usually have "formal" school days for about a month to get them used to going through their books, or following a schedule of reading before playing, etc. This was always fun for them because their friends were going back to school, and it made them feel grown up. Meg liked to have a checklist of what she needed to do. The other two were much more free flowing and that was OK with me. Meg would often do her checklists all year, getting through the goals I set out in the beginning. The other two really didn't care about my goals, but I was watching and invisibly steering them when I thought they needed it.

Every couple of months, I'd think through what they might be neglecting, then spend some time on it, trying to make it fun. Anything can be a game, and rewards can work wonders. Whenever Missa would give me trouble about doing 15 minutes of math, I'd say, "How much time do I actually REQUIRE you to do school things? You can sit here for 15 minutes and just do it." She usually would agree.

Karen over at StoneAge Techie reminded me that music is important in the young years. Yes! Give your kids a chance to see if they are musically inclined. The younger they are allowed to develop, the better chance they have to be accomplished musicians. We did piano and violin lessons starting around 6 years old. As Missa showed interest in the drums and guitar, we got her the instruments and lessons. Meg took cello for awhile, and has always had voice lessons, it seems. All this doesn't have to be expensive. Buy or rent used instruments and find teachers at church or at a local college. And if your child really hates it, don't force it. A true musician will be drawn to the right instrument and will love it.

Just remember to keep your goals simple. They will be learning tons of interesting things as they follow their interests, but feel free to stop them once in awhile to do some math, or ask them to pick out the subject of a sentence as you read to them. I am a hopeless grammar nerd, so sticking to simple subject/verb discussions never happened. We always got into more detailed stuff, but I knew when to quit, especially when the eyes started rolling.

So, once again, keep your goals simple: math, English, basic history facts, maybe geography too. If your child isn't grasping those things in the normal course of pursuing their interests, sprinkling it in once in awhile will be quite painless for everyone.


Penny said...

Thanks for sharing this. We are at a place right now where we're focusing a bit more on the 3R's than we have for several months. It feels fine...no one is complaining and been very rewarding for all of us! It doesn't mean bookwork will be our focus everyday but right now we're enjoying it!

Rana said...

I appreciate you sharing this. I know that in time my kiddos will learn what they need to know. It's just nice to have that check list of goals to strive for.

Karen said...

We do a small bit of this, but our subjects are totally different, which I think is really funny!
My feeling is, they'll learn math facts through playing games (Mythmatical Battles is one we love), and dates are (slightly) less important to me than the boys' understanding of the whys/hows of history.
But, for example, my husband and I think there is a window for certain things, like music, and that window's gonna start closing as the boys get older. So they have a music lesson each week on our keyboard, and our 9-year-old practices most nights for ten minutes or so.
Thanks for a great and thoughtful post!

Franbles said...

Thanks for this. We are partially structured. I suppose a little like you. I love the idea of unschooling but go into meltdown when I think about letting 'everything' go! Mine are young though (5 & 7) so we do a few basics and the rest is driven by their interests.
I like to read how others do it. It all helps.

Jena said...

Great thoughts everyone! I agree with Karen, music and foreign language need to start as soon as possible. I didn't think of that because we are a music intensive family--my husband teaches music theory and aural training at our local college. So the things I focus on are the things our kids might miss.

And yes, math really is taught best through games and life experience, but those times tables--I don't know, I just like my ability to whip them off, and wanted that for my kids. :) But in reality, they don't know them very well, even my math genius son, and he does great in those extreme upper levels in college. He'd probably disagree with me about times tables. :) Are you out there, Peter?

So thanks, Karen, I would add music and foreign language to my goals. They say if a child is born with perfect pitch, if it's not developed and exercised at a young age, they lose it. And if your child can learn a language from a native speaker before puberty, they'll be a native speaker too. I always thought it would be cool to raise my kids in another country so they could do that. :)

Lori said...

You have no idea how much better this makes me feel about our home schooling! I started as a very structured home schooling parent, mainly because my daughter requested it. Then we went more casual and I will find myself wondering occasionally if we're missing something. Now I pretty much do both. We're structured about some things (what I know will be necessary for passing a GED) and very casual about 3/4 of the time. I've enrolled my daughter in art classes at a local museum because it's something she's interested in, and she is taking piano lessons from my son, plus she taught herself to play the ocarina, using musical tabs. She loves animals and we use that, but I do push some things that I know she'll need (even though they are things she isn't interested in) when she goes on to higher education or when she starts working. Thank you so much for this post!!!

Cammie said...

I am so happy you wrote this. I am just beginning to venture into the world of unschooling. Your post really encouraged me and gave a little direction. Could you post some of the games you played or fun learning activities?

Jena said...

Lori, yes lessons and classes are great. They give our kids some experience with more structured learning environments. And I've found that having a teacher other than mom once in awhile makes them appreciate us more. :)


What a great idea! I should do that. Thanks for the idea. And congratulations on taking the plunge!

Unknown said...

I love this. I know I'm a little lat to the party! I have a friend and know some others who completely unschool and I sort of think that is hindering the child. We had a friendly debate about teaching reading. I pointed out that when I taught (in public school and home school) there was no magic to teaching reading. Present the material and MOST kids start reading. They had no words! Probably didn't want to become unpleasant. The difference is that my nine year old can read virtually any book she wants to obtain info and her nine year old is limited to video or mom reading to him. I love intentional unschooling!

Anonymous said...

May I steal this for the Carnival of Unschooled Life?

Aimee said...

i love the title "intentional unschooling" b/c so many think that is an oxymoron! I like some parameters/tracks for us to run on and there are moments of structure/formal, but that is the exception not the rule. good thoughts on music and foreign language. Must now discuss with my husband!

Mr. Avery said...

Thanks for posting the Student Math Movie banner on your site! We're so happy to be able to share this with others. I hope others are able to find some use out of it or are inspired to make math videos with their own classes!

Shawn Avery

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