Thursday, July 31, 2014

Finding Our Homeschool Niche

Ohmygosh it's august! 
Which means it's time to start reflecting about last year and setting some new goals for this school year. Our first year of homeschooling was really all about figuring out what in the world we are doing. I think I may have mentioned before on here about our choice to go with K12, the online public school system. The curriculum was ok but I was more relieved just to have things planned out for me, a system to hold me accountable, and a teacher who could help keep track of our progress. We're continuing with the program again this year, mostly because not having to pay for curriculum and all of the discounted field trips are so nice but next year, as we go into 3rd grade, I think we'll probably venture out on our own.

You see, as we've gotten more and more accustomed to this kind of lifestyle we're starting to figure out the best ways that we as a family learn. After all, when you have two children you're trying to teach simultaneously, it's not just about how each child learns, it's about how all of you learn together. Which is why homeschooling specifically seemed so ideal for us. Now, as we're starting to adapt, shift, and evolve, we are leaning more and more towards not just homeschooling, but unschooling. 

Unschooling, if you're not familiar with the term, is the idea that in a rich environment, children will learn without actively "teaching" them anything (somewhat similar to Montessori but with a greater emphasis on learning from life rather than being in a classroom.) Of course, "teaching" and "learning" are such vague terms. I would say that any time you share information you are teaching but in this instance I am using the term "teaching" to mean the kind of instruction you typically find in a classroom. Unschooling, at it's basic level, is more about doing than abstract learning. In our modern culture it does seem that people sometimes lean on traditional forms of learning, when very few people learn that way. I just read this funny story in one of Dave Ramsey's books: 
"A friend of mine made $40,000 selling in one summer. Upon returning to class in the fall, his marketing professor gave him a C on a sales presentation he did in front of the class. My friend, being immature, asked the professor what he made in a year. After some goading, the professor admitted to an income of $35,000 per year. My friend walked out and, sadly, he quit school. He will be okay, though; his income last year was over $1,200,000."
 I know Dave Ramsey isn't anti-school, but his point is well taken. You don't necessarily need a finance class to be successful in finance, or whatever else. Unschooling doesn't necessarily equal homeschooling. The Sudbury school in Mass. is a brilliant example of what school can be. If you have a free half an hour please please please go and watch Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk. It's the most viewed TED talk of all time and for good reason. And if you then have even more time I would suggest reading Peter Gray's new book Freedom to Learn. There are a lot of people (including my husband) who are a bit skeptical about this but if you just look at anetdotal evidence around you you'll see ample examples. Whether it's someone who loves gardening so they learn all they can about it, how babies learn to walk without parents needing to teach them, how all teenagers can type and work on computers (and even hack huge protected databases) without taking a computer science course, or the famous experiment of Indian children who had free access to a computer, where there is incentive (like everyone else can do it), an interest, and a little bit of encouragement, children are capable of learning as much as is available to them.

I would never conclude that unschooling is for every one, just as I would never suggest homeschooling is right for every one either. I have an aunt who homeschools as more school-at-home and her children are wonderfully well-rounded and intelligent. I've also met people whose parents did very little teaching in their homeschool lessons and they all were very smart and have created successful careers for themselves. And of course there are many people who went to public or private schools.
The point is, you figure out what it best for your family and your children.

We have a little boy who is...quirky, to put it nicely. At this point in his development, there is about a zero chance he could sit in a classroom-like environment and be successful. Earlier this morning I said something about school and he gave me a worried look and said, "I'm not doing school am I?" and I said of course not, while laughing maniacally inside thinking about how often he "does school" when he has no idea he's actually doing it. It's like hiding vegetables in your kids food.
He gets hyper-focused on things and especially like tinkering. He can spend all day fiddling with things, playing on the computer, or planning out and digging a baseball stadium in his sandbox. He likes math and will sit and work through math problems with me. We spend a lot of time playing language games where he tries to guess how to spell a word or where we look up all the ways to say a certain word in other languages. This is what he is good at doing and it would seem like, "hey, he sounds pretty smart. why wouldn't he do well in school?" Simply put, he does not like people. Or at least doesn't get them. He hates when people do unpredictable things and wouldn't go to his swimming lessons because the babies in the pool could do something hazardous like splash. School would be a huge cage full of loud noises and crazy people with no one he can trust around. I can feel a meltdown coming when I just mention school. We have daily struggles managing his anxieties and it is virtually impossible to force him to do anything, especially anything that he sees no purpose in doing. He needs a lot of quite time away from other people to learn.

My daughter on the other hand would probably do fine in a regular school environment. Or at least she would be the kind of child teachers love...quiet, placid, polite. She's flexible and amiable and ready to please. Unfortunately, she really struggles with thinking for herself. We took her out of the classroom for the opposite reason most people do; not because she couldn't succeed but because she could succeed too well. She's very good at parroting, at giving people what they want, but in many ways I find she is less mature than her little brother. She is daydreaming and doesn't enjoy focusing on anything. Things float in one ear and out the other so, as I said, I think she would do very well in school but would probably be in for a rude awakening when she graduated. With her, I work on having her do things herself. I don't help her figure out her hand positions in piano, I don't help her figure out the fastest way to add two figures, and I will wait as long as it takes for her to sound out a word by herself. 
Unlike her brother, she doesn't tinker or mull over things, she plays. I would say she easily needs twice as much time to play as he does. It is simply how she learns things. We spend a short amount of time on school and then she plays the rest of the day. A lot of the play is based on things she's learning, especially since we learn about whatever she's currently interested in, and it helps things stick in her head in a way listening to someone tell her about it never would. 
I totally get it cause I was this way too. I played with toys until the end of my freshman year of high school (yes, that is true), and even continued to play imaginary games another year or two after that. For both of us it takes forever to do the smallest task because we get caught up playing. Sweeping out the garage becomes mucking out the barn for our horses. Changing the sheets on the bed becomes being a Sherpa hiking up Everest. I remember so clearly doing those things when I was little. I would take little toys with me every where and hide them in my desk at school where I would create little houses and play when the teacher wasn't looking. In high school I would design elaborate floor plans for imaginary buildings while half-listening to lectures. I have to play to learn.

So our children are very different and even though the way I teach both of them is similar, it is still individualized. Each is pushed a little bit out of their comfort zone and then allowed to happily retreat back into it to complete their learning process. I think this is the most wonderful part of homeschool. There is no way that they could get such diverse learning plans if they were in the hyper-structured setting of school. Time will tell whether our efforts have paid off. However, the other great benefit with homeschooling is that it can be so adaptive. As they get older I would expect, and will expect, exactly how they learn will evolve as will how we respond to it. They will be expected to handle a more typical adult-like structure to their days. The only difference is that we will wait until they're ready for it instead of forcing it until it eventually clicks. It's like potty training. The "experts" agree that it will happen only when your child is ready for it and so you can either spend a year or two forcing it or you can just wait. Except for some unfortunate children school isn't one or two years trying to figure it out but 12 years of an intense sense of failure.

I've talked with a lot of people who have had very different ways of being brought up. There are very few of them that I would say do not have a good and successful life now. Unfortunately, some of them have had to go through very hard times, especially through childhood and teenage years. The biggest goal in any plan for your family's education, or life in general, should be to figure out how to enjoy life at every point. I hate when people say the end justifies the means because that never has to be true. If you think it's true it's only because you're not being creative enough with your means.

I was telling my sister the other day that while some people complain that everyone these days has some diagnosis, some disorder, I find that to be a wonderful thing. Although we probably shouldn't call them disorders. It's just great that people are really looking into the way they are, the way they learn, their strengths and their weaknesses. And most people find that there is some way in which they are not "normal" (in fact, statistically speaking, it is impossible for you to be normal in every thing. Cue my husband saying, "well I guess I'm just a statistical anomaly then"). 
I sometimes get a bit worried about my son and once when I was going on and on about it my husband said, "You act like somethings wrong with him. He's just a normal little boy," and I was like YES! That's just it! All little boys and girls have trouble adhering to what people say is "normal" in some way. So they are really normal in their abnormality. 
So when you're thinking about your family's niche don't worry about seeming hippy dippy because you aren't normative. You're not being unusual, you're just being smart and realizing that knowing yourselves is half the journey to success. 

Howards End is one of my favorite books and while rereading it this summer I was really struck by this statement by Margaret Schlegel:
"It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don't fret yourself Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all-- nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others--others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don't you see that all this leads to comfort in the end? It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences--eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey."
-Howard's End

Oh jeez, beautiful literature makes me cry. Yep, yep, here come the tears. I'll have to end this here.

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