Unschooling Update

Apparently it’s been a minute since I’ve talked about our homeschooling style. So I’m getting on that. If you haven’t visited the blog before, these are our three kids. Aidan is 11, Audra is 9, and Austin is 8. And yes, they are those weird homeschooled kids you may have whispered about. It’s okay. I like my weird kids. ūüėČ

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It’s our fifth¬†year of this lifestyle, although it’s ever-changing. Whenever I tell someone that we homeschool, I immediately ask¬†them to take whatever stereotype they’re picturing and imagine the opposite. Because we do not fit any mold. We are liberal atheists, for one. We homeschool to expose our kids to more things, not less. And we don’t ‘school at home’. We absolutely adore education, and I appreciate the core subjects as much as the next mom. But I take a different approach to learning.

We didn’t just wake up one day and believe in this hippie unschooling concept though – it took years before we felt confident in this approach.

I remember dreaming about being a homeschooling mom when the kids were just tiny little things. But back then, I thought only strange¬†people did that. (Depending on who you ask – that may or may not still be applicable. Ha.) However, by the time Aidan was of school age, we weren’t in a position to make it happen. I was working full-time, and James wasn’t prepared to take it on among his other responsibilities.

So¬†Aidan attended Kindergarten at a brick and mortar school, and it was after that year that we gained the courage to homeschool. He just wasn’t flourishing even though his skills and knowledge were well beyond the standard. He didn’t learn the same way the other kids did and the quarterly check-ins¬†did not reflect his intelligence. He got excellent grades on spelling exams, and he listened quietly during story time. But he refused to color papers, and he struggled to ‘sort’ or ‘summarize’ when given vague instructions. It was frustrating.

So we kept him home the next year, and we were pretty laid back in our efforts. We did workbooks here and there, and he read short books. His math was excellent as was his grammar.

But by the start of his second grade year, I was a little worried about his education. Was the laid back approach enough? Would he fall behind? So we decided to enroll both him and Audra¬†(for Kindergarten) in an online public charter school. Some don’t consider it truly “homeschooling” (eye-roll), but the parent still does teach the children. They are just guided by certified public teachers in the process.

That year was rough, but it did the job. We got our fill of ‘schooling at home’ although every thought I had about ‘normal education’ was confirmed. Our children were just being taught enough information to pass the required tests. But they weren’t retaining much. And my relationship deteriorated with Aidan because I was micromanaging his every move and he didn’t respond well to that.

Still, we decided to stick it out another year and we also enrolled our youngest son, Austin. That year went much better because I stepped back from Aidan. I talked to his teacher and we agreed to let him do his own thing. We did have him tested for Asperger’s because I was insanely concerned about the state’s standardized testing he would have to participate in for third grade.

It turned out that he has Pervasive Development Disorder (not otherwise specified) plus ADHD with an emphasis on the overactivity. (He likes to move. Constantly. But he can focus on anything for hours.) So he’s on the Autism spectrum but he’s incredibly high functioning. And when I asked the psychologist if I was putting him at a disadvantage by homeschooling, he was emphatic that I was not. He actually said that if he was in school, he’d still hang out alone. He’d just be surrounded by other kids. And the chance of bullying would obviously increase.

But back to my story. Audra and Austin did just fine that year, and Aidan got straight As. All on his own. Not only did he do just fine on the standardized tests (without any intervention), he got a perfect score on the IREAD – Indiana’s reading comprehension exam – which determined if he could move onto the fourth grade. I was elated. But exhausted.

He had spent the entire year practicing for those stupid exams – time he could have spent learning actual things. And while the other two handled the textbook-workbook-test situation just fine, we were all just getting through our days. So we decided to make a change for the following school year.

Indiana¬†was difficult for us in that we didn’t have a homeschooling network. The charter school hosted field trips often, but we rarely interacted with the other families. Audra was in a homeschooling girl scout troop, and they all gave soccer a go. But it wasn’t enough. That fear every parent has about socialization was coming to fruition. My kids had no friends, and I wasn’t doing my job to fix it.

But then we moved to Hawai’i. And our lives completely changed. I mean, completely. I discovered this entire corner of the world that exists on Facebook for homeschoolers! I live on an¬†itty-bitty¬†rock¬†and our island-wide, all-inclusive homeschooling group has over 800 members. And people, that is¬†just¬†moms. Maybe a few dads. But that doesn’t account for the kids. There are SO many of us. I had no idea!

And while I felt kind of alone at first because of our family’s differences¬†– I have found a whole network of like-minded homeschooling families as well!¬†Although there is that one huge community, there are several smaller ones scattered around based on interests, age, gender, and location. While it’s entirely possible to feel alone anywhere you go,¬†it’s pretty difficult here. Once you figure out how to find all of us that is.

I have friends – like LOTS of them – and the kids have friends! And even Aidan – who still struggles in large groups – has really made some great connections here. And the moms here are incredible. They are constantly organizing classes and workshops and field trips. I don’t have those skills at all, and I don’t have to! In the last week, all three of my children have learned physics through building paper rollercoasters.

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And the beautiful part is that I can find classes that fit my children’s needs. Whether it’s based on the amount of children involved or their ages, I can make sure my kids are getting the most out of any event they participate in. Aidan needs a small group of kids, and that’s available! Audra needs girls her age – and I can find that. Austin just needs dirt. And sticks. And other boys (or girls) who enjoy the same thing.

So socialization? Not an issue. Not anymore. So while my kids may be weird, it’s not because they aren’t out and about in the world. It’s most likely because their public-school-educated parents are weird.

Okay, I went off on a few tangents. But let’s talk about unschooling. There is no one universal way that people do this, so I’m giving you my own version. Essentially, James and I believe that our kids will absorb and retain the most information if they learn things as they become interested in them. So we don’t necessarily agree that they need to memorize the presidents in the third grade or study¬†Egypt¬†in sixth grade. Because if we shove something down their throats when they couldn’t care less, they won’t retain it. They simply won’t. So it’s pointless and a waste of our energy.

However. (And this is a big however.) Our family puts a lot of emphasis on critical thinking, reading, speaking, writing, and math. Because of that, we require that they read an hour per day. I don’t care what they read. At all. And if they start a book and hate it, I encourage them to find another. Reading should be fun! Some favorites in our household are The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and anything Judy Blume.

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And recently, we’ve been having them do something else educational for an hour. That could be one of those big workbooks from Costco, or a typing class, or a coding program online. Or of course, if they take a class with other homeschoolers or we go on a 5 hour hike, that counts as learning time.

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Some¬†unschooling families have no rules because they believe that their children will learn anything they need to learn when they need to learn it. And I love that! I don’t judge them at all – we just approach it differently. Our kids have to do standardized testing here in Hawaii in certain years, so we are choosing to put some emphasis on the core subjects.

Thankfully, math comes quite easily to my three. It’s always been a love of mine, so I easily infuse it into anything we do. We talk multiplication facts on our walks, and we work on fractions in the kitchen. We speak about money frequently, and we spend time doing problem-solving without the kids ever realizing they’re doing schoolwork.

So after our first year of unschooling, we stepped back and evaluated how they were doing. Austin had gone from barely reading three-letter words to easily absorbing books. Aidan was understanding percentages without any formal instruction, and Audra was watching the news with me and making critical thinking connections that some adults haven’t mastered. They were doing just fine. And we found that little things here and there inspired their learning of particular subjects: A trip to the planetarium changed the way we approach our nighttime walks and our snorkeling adventures cultivated an interest in sea creatures.

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But the key with unschooling is that you have to be ready to drop everything and do research. Austin asks the most random questions at the most random times, and you have to figure out the answer. And sometimes we know it, but often times Google comes to the rescue. Because if you really think about it, how much do you remember from elementary school? I was a great student, and I didn’t retain much beyond the basics.

That’s become the basis for my belief in this system. How much should they really know? Can you really compare my children to the “average” public-schooled child? What does that kid even look like? My three have been raised in the same household and they couldn’t be more different!

There is no average child. There just isn’t. So while I would never proclaim that every family should homeschool or that every child would benefit from this lifestyle, I like how it’s working for us. For now. Audra is very interested in attending school in the future, and if she doesn’t change her mind, it will likely happen. I would hate for her to graduate with regrets about what she might have missed. Austin likes to follow in her footsteps, so that could mean he’d join her. But I think Aidan will always dig the home thing. For him, we’re even considering a curriculum for next year (sixth grade). While the other two easily find varied interests, he can easily become obsessed with his iPad. He seems to thrive on having¬†a bit more structure. And that’s okay! We aren’t homeschooling for a certain principle: we’re homeschooling to help our children have the best upbringing we can possibly provide!

So we’re currently wrapping up our second “school year” of this laid-back, child-led learning approach, and I’m still feeling pretty great about it! As I mentioned above, the state requires standardized testing at certain grade levels, and our older two are at those points. There is an online test that many local families have recommended, and it’s the route we’ll be taking. I’m not at all worried about how they’ll do on the exams, because I know they’re learning. I know they comprehend just as much as any other child their age, and that’s the biggest thing right? Teaching them HOW to learn – not WHAT to learn? I think so anyway.

If you’ve ever checked out The Wandering Five (our family’s adventure website), you’re probably not wondering how we keep our kids active. But in case you haven’t, we do put a huge emphasis on that. When I began my weight loss journey five years ago, I was able to sustain it because I knew I had to teach them how to live a healthy lifestyle. So it is absolutely something we focus on daily. Our kids are required to get 10k steps a day, and they do it! (As do we of course!) And we hike as often as we can. And just a month ago, we finished a half marathon together.

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So that’s how this whole unschooling thing works in our family. There are plenty of others just like us, but I guarantee that we all do it differently. We all have our insecurities and doubts about the process here and there, and we adjust our lifestyle accordingly. But at the heart of it, we¬†guide our children to develop a love of learning, and we trust that they’ll take it from there. And so far, so good. Their interests are different, but that’s irrelevant. As long as they constantly want to learn something new, I think we’re doing just fine!

Lastly, I know many moms say they couldn’t do this for a myriad of reasons. But the truth is that you could. If you wanted to of course! (And there is nothing saying you should.) Me? I love it! I love being with my kids nearly 24/7, and it gets easier every year as they become increasingly independent. They aren’t perfect, but neither am I. And we all need our alone time, and that’s okay. But they are amazing kids, and I will treasure this experience for the rest of my life. (I hope they will too…buuuuuut I’ll be the first to admit it if this sends them into lifelong therapy!)

One last note…I’m finding that I’m enjoying this experience so much more because I’m developing myself as a person outside of being a mom. Yes, I unschool my children, but it’s not all of who I am. I’m a wife, a college student, a hiker, a writer, and soon I hope to be a coach to other women. This is just one facet of my life, and since discovering that, I’m able to be a much better parent and person.

Comments

  1. Ann says

    I love this approach- I often feel like students (myself included!) might learn some very specific facts about a topic that we’ll never use but miss out on life skills. I graduated high school knowing what sediment in the Mississippi River was comprised of but not how to do taxes, balance a checkbook, even safe sex. My parents just assumed school would take care of all that.

    What will the kids do when they’re approaching junior/ senior year of HS and looking at colleges? Will their applications be the same? I know that you could easily schedule ACT/SAT tests, but how would a college rate their GPA for admissions? What leadership positions could they fill?

    No judgement, just honest curiosity. The standardized education world is lacking, but when it’s time for them to move back into it (for college or other things) I would be afraid that a major university would cast them aside because it’s too hard to figure out how they “compare” on the scale of other applicants. A lot of that is GPAs and those sorts of things.

    I love your blog! It’s changed my perspective on life and myself. Somehow it inspires and kicks your butt as you read it. :)

    Much love, Ann

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