Friday, March 25, 2016

Using Evernote with unschooling

I had only vaguely even heard of Evernote, before reading about it from Sue at Stories of an Unschooling Family. Her posts were so convincing, though, that I started using it soon afterwards, and I loved it right from the start. It's been so helpful in keeping track of my kids' projects and interests, and in calming the various niggling worries that crop up from time to time, when I wobble and feel like there might be a little too much "un" in our schooling :)

So, in case you haven't come across it yet either, what exactly is Evernote? Well, it's an app, which works seamlessly across all devices. It works on your phone, your tablet, your computer, and indeed any random computer you happen to be using, since you can always log in via their website, even if the app isn't installed. (When on earth might you need to do that? For example, I've sometimes stumbled across great books while browsing the catalog at the library, for example, and have wanted to add them to the appropriate folder in my Evernote.)

And what do you do with it? Well, you take notes! There are zillions of note-taking apps and programs, of course, but there are two main reasons why Evernote works so well for me. First, that it's so EASY to make a new note, and second, that it's so easy to sort, search, and find your notes later on.

For example, the other day, my kids were working in the project room. My younger daughter solved a harder puzzle than she had ever managed before, while playing with Chocolate Fix - click! I took a quick picture-note with my phone, over her shoulder, without even interrupting her concentration. My older daughter added more to her current story on the computer - click. As a picture, it was no work of art, but that's not the point. I just wanted a quick image to remind myself of what she had been working on. A little later, I noticed both girls helping the baby to build a town out of blocks around his train set. Awwww, sibling harmony... click!

That's all I did, in terms of note-taking, while the events were actually taking place. I don't like to interrupt the flow by trying to take written notes myself, but our days are so busy that I'd never be able to remember if I waited until later. But with Evernote, the note-taking only takes a few seconds.

Later on, usually while I'm waiting for the kids to fall asleep at night, I open Evernote again, and browse through my new notes. For each note, I first add some "tags", including the name of the kid, and the topic or topics that their work related to, if it's an ongoing area of interest. Then, if there's any following-up to be done, seeing the note reminds me to do it. For example, I might order a related book I think they'd like from the library, check prices on art materials I think they'd find helpful, or add an item to a list of possible birthday-present ideas to keep in mind later on.

The beauty of this system, for me, is that it's so easy to look back and see what's been happening. For example, if I want to know what Basbusa has been doing over the past month, I can search for all notes tagged with her name, during that time-period. If I get worried that we're not doing enough science, I can search for all notes tagged with "science," and reassure myself that we've actually been doing way more than I realized.

Tags can be useful for non-academic things, too. Last year, for example, the winter was long and cold, and I felt like we weren't getting enough time outside. So I created a "playing-outside" tag, and then I could easily track our progress by checking that the number of notes with that tag was steadily increasing. Same thing with the "sibling-harmony" tag - I find it so encouraging, after a bad day, to look back and see all the concrete examples of my kids helping each other, teaching each other, being patient with each other.

I also find Evernote very useful when it's time to write the annual progress report for filing with the school district, and for writing the plan for the following year. What math-y things did we cover? How about writing? Science? It just takes a few clicks. And looking back at the trends helps me think about what direction we're likely to head in the future.

There's a paid version of Evernote, with lots of handy features, but my homeschool budget is tiny, and I've only hit my monthly usage-quota once, over the past two years, with the free version. Hope you find it as helpful as I have!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A day in our life

The day I made notes on for this post was actually a while ago: it was Thursday, January 7th. Why Thursday, January 7th? Well, because I actually managed to wake up before the kids and exercise a bit, while listening to NPR. This has been a goal of mine for some time, and as the baby gets better at this whole sleeping-at-nighttime thing, I'm actually managing to do it once in a while... but it's rare enough that I thought I'd seize the chance to make myself look like a productive and efficient homeschool mom by choosing that day to share for this post. And just as well I did, too, because it has only happened one more time since, and it's almost March! Oh well, some day... :) 

My eldest, who goes by Basbusa on this blog, was seven and a quarter and in 2nd grade; my middle child, Kunafa, was five, and I guess would technically be in pre-K; the baby, Qatayf, was 20 months. 

So, after bounding energetically out of bed at 6:30, and catching up with what's going on in the world while I ran two miles.... hmmm, yeah, I can see why this doesn't happen very often... I heard the kids waking up, around 7:15. I nursed the baby while spending about ten minutes memorizing Quran with each of the girls. The routine is that one girl gets dressed while the other does Quran, so we're theoretically all ready to start the day afterwards. 

Today, that actually happened, so we were upstairs having breakfast by about 7:45. The kids played with each other and with my mom until 9:00, and then we headed to our project room. We more-or-less unschool, so I give the most wide-awake part of our day to whatever the kids might want to spend time on. Today, Basbusa wanted to work on sewing a doll for her best friend, one of the two on the cover of this book:

This book is fantastic, by the way - all kinds of projects, explained so clearly that children can follow them without help, and using fabrics and techniques that mean almost no time spent on hemming and prep-work. 

Kunafa, meanwhile, wanted to make a puppet theater for the puppet she had made a few days earlier. 
There was quite a bit of problem-solving in getting this to come out the way she wanted. First of all, we didn't have paper big enough, so she stuck four pieces of paper together before painting it with water colors. Then she changed her mind on the color of the door, so she cut it out, carefully measured around it, painted a new, blue one, and stuck it back into place. In order to reinforce the "windows" where the puppet would appear, she used the plastic frame that had enclosed our new insurance cards, and added another layer of paper behind that section of her stage. I don't know exactly how I would categorize all this in terms of academics, but all that thinking has to be a good thing.

Meanwhile, in addition to helping out every so often when the girls needed me, I was entertaining Qatayf. We read about nineteen thousand truck books. and played with blocks for a while, before he got involved in exploring our "inventing supplies" and reorganizing those drawers as he saw fit. 

We went back to the kitchen for a snack and to chat with Grandma for a while around 11, and then I went downstairs to put the baby down for his nap. Basbusa had her nose buried deep in a book by the time I came back upstairs - she's currently absorbed in the Septimus Heap series, among others - so  I took Kunafa back to the project room to do some formal academics. 

We did a little bit of Arabic phonics (literally five minutes of it), and then moved on to math, which she loves. I'm having a bit of trouble finding the best way to approach it with her, though. When her older sister was this age, we started off with Right Start Level A, and did half a lesson at a time, twice a week. It worked out very well for her, and we continued on methodically, spending about 30 minutes per week, up to Level C, which she's doing now. Easy for me, thorough for Basbusa, and quite adaptable, especially as I've gotten more confident about skipping a bit of repetition here and there if she's finding it boring. 

With Kunafa, though, Level A was just too easy. I think it's partly because math is something that really interests her; partly because she has been overhearing her sister's math lessons for years; and partly because, as I've gotten more experienced with this curriculum, I've become more comfortable skipping bits of it (in Level A, for example, I don't really bother with the months of the year, or with telling time, because I've found that kids figure that stuff out by themselves eventually, just by living in the world). So about a month into the school year, I found that we had already finished Level A, and I was a bit stumped as to what to do next. I tried going right on to Level B, but found that the lessons were too long for a just-turned-five-year-old. Since then, we've been dipping in and out of things, playing games of Rat-a-tat-cat, Sum Swamp, and Sleeping Queens, and every so often, as a special treat, I give her a ... drum roll please... worksheet!! Just a random, colorful, perforated worksheet from a book she spotted at the dollar store and begged me to buy, and which is apparently the most fun thing in the entire universe...?? It's mystifying. But so be it. 

When Kunafa was finished, I went back to the kitchen to try to drag Basbusa away from her book. This is the kind of situation which makes me doubt, all over again, whether I should delete the "-ish" from our unschool-ish homeschooling, and just go ahead and unschool. Basbusa isn't vehemently opposed to math, and can do it fine when required to, but given the choice, there's no way she would choose arithmetic over Septimus Heap, at least not at this particular point in her life. And as for Arabic phonics, well, she thinks it's pure torture. We only get through the lesson with constant reminders of how little she actually has to do, and how soon she would be finished with it if only she would just co-operate and read her eight or nine words. (Basbusa started reading chapter books in English before she turned 4, but however it was that she taught herself, it definitely wasn't by using phonics! Phonics make no kind of intuitive sense to her. But we just don't see enough Arabic in the world around us for her to figure it out by herself, by whatever method she used for English. So we struggle on. Sigh.)

With lessons finished and the baby awake again, we had lunch, and then headed to our local ice rink for a skating playdate with some friends. Afterwards, we stopped by the library to return one teetering stack of books and check out about twenty new ones, and got home again around 4pm. Basbusa plunged into her books while Grandma (bless her!) read to Kunafa and Qatayf, and I made dinner. Then the kids and I headed out the door again, for Basbusa's Irish dancing class, which runs from 5:45-6:30. 

Home, dinner; the kids played with Baba for a while as I tidied up; then twenty minutes of cartoons in Arabic (my only concession to screen time, most days); then a chapter each from their current read-alouds, and bed, by about 8:45. 

That's our day! Hope you found it interesting, and I'm looking forward to reading about everybody else's, on Simple Homeschool's blog hop!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Tour of our Project Room

I'm always interested to see how other unschoolers set up their learning spaces, so I thought I'd share ours, in case anyone else is curious. The main challenge I found when setting it up in its current configuration was how to make everything accessible and visible to my girls, while still keeping it out of the little hands of the baby. The girls, now aged 5 and 7, have had lots of experience with all these materials, and are well past the stage of making giant messes to investigate how it all works. The baby, however, at 20 months, is just discovering what a joy a glorious mess can be... and he doesn't necessarily differentiate between a mess made with popsicle sticks, and a mess made with the popsicle-stick creation that one of his sisters had been working on carefully all morning! So, a little separation of zones came into this set-up.

My other main consideration was making it easy to tidy up, for me and for the girls. I find that they don't go as deeply into their work when it's hard to keep track of all the bits and pieces under the clutter, or when there's so much stuff strewn over the floor that their attention keeps jumping from one thing to another. So far, this configuration has been working really well - I've never spent more than ten minutes getting it back in order, and the girls have been helping much more too.

Here's the view as you enter the room. It's a bit stark in this picture, because I had just that morning taken down the past year's-worth of artwork and filed it away. But we're already filling the walls up again with new creations.

The floor is partly covered with a carpet, which is in turn covered with plastic (I bought it in the fabric section of Walmart, years ago - I think it was intended to be the waterproof backing for outdoor table-cloths?). That way, it's easy to clean up the girls' sawdust, and any glue, paint and playdoh that the baby has been exploring.

Going around the room clockwise, first there are the shelves and the workbench:

In the tote bag, we keep our math and Arabic textbooks, so that we can quickly grab them to take to the playground, the woods, or wherever we might happen to decide to go hang out that day. Next to them is the bookshelf, with some of the baby's board books on the bottom (the majority of them are on other shelves in the kitchen), and picture books for my 5-year-old. (My older daughter's teetering stacks of chapter books are on the windowsill by her bed.) Beside that is the "paint" shelves; then the woodworking shelves; and then the workbench. 

Although we call them the "paint" shelves, these shelves are really more multi-purpose:
On the top we keep liquid watercolors, temperas and white glue, still (just about) out of reach of a certain little somebody. On the middle shelf we keep a box of ribbon-ish things of all lengths and textures, a tub of legos (more because I keep hoping that my kids will play with legos than because they actually do!), some spiro-graph things, and  bunch of fancy-edged scissors. On the bottom are some toys for the baby: his little train set on the left, a box with his cars, trucks and balls in the middle, and a set of books that came in a nice box, which he enjoys taking out and putting back in again. 

Next along are the "woodworking" shelves;
On the left is a set of stacking-cubes that I super-glued together for holding various bits and pieces like q-tips, paper clips, etc, and a tub of popsicle sticks (which needs replenishing in this picture - we go through them pretty fast!). Beside them is a cup with rulers, pipettes and syringes. The rest of the top shelf is for projects-in-progress (in this picture, it was a rainbow-loom and some kind of paper cut-outs that my younger daughter was using, and another rainbow-loom, some knitting, and a bag full of perler bead supplies for my older daughter).

On the bottom level we have a little dustpan and brush, a tub of playdoh toys, and then (partially hidden) the woodworking supplies: a hand-drill, a hammer, and some scrap wood. We keep the saw hanging up high inside the closet, out of the baby's reach, and the nails and screws are on the art table, for the same reason. The workbench itself is my dad's. It's old and heavy and very stable, and just the right height for the girls when we keep the legs folded up. 

On the opposite wall, in the back corner, is the art table:
More rainbow-loom supplies on the left, in front of the scrap paper, white paper and colored paper. next to the paper we have two sets of miniature drawers, stacked on top of each other. The bottom one has woodworking supplies, like screws and nails, and the top on has crafting supplies - beads, sparkles, pompoms, etc. On of the whole lot is a little container of googly-eyes. 

The blue drawers under the table hold our "inventing" supplies. More on those in another post!

Next along towards the window (kind of hard to see in the picture, I know), is a jar with spare glue sticks for the glue gun, a pose-able drawing model, and the glue-gun itself. Then there are the boxes of oil pastels and crayons (and usually markers, too - I don't know where they had gotten to in this pic!). Finally a jar of pens/pencils/scissors, some tape, and (not really showing up, behind it) a stapler. 

On the other side of the window, we have the board-game shelves: 

From top to bottom, you can see Rat-a-Tat-Cat, Swish Jr (in the grey pouch), Forbidden Island, a dot-matching puzzle card game whose name I can't remember, Sleeping Queens, Hiss, Set, Obstacles, Cat and Mouse, Outfoxed, Pengoloo, Rush Hour Jr, Sorry, Hare and Tortoise, and (tucked away on the bottom in the yellow pouch) Chocolate Fix. 

Beside the board games is the loft, custom-built by my very kind husband. Just beside it is the door to the closet, where I keep my extra homeschool supplies. 
We intentionally spaced the "ladder" rungs quite far apart, so that the girls will have a space to keep their most precious things out of reach of the baby, until his legs get much longer :) This is their area, on top:

Basbousa has the three drawers on the right; Kunafa has two of the big drawers on the left; and I have the third big drawer. We all share a very small bedroom, so these drawers in the Project Room is where we keep our "stuff." (My rule is that when your Stuff no longer fits in your drawers, then that's when you need to figure out which things you no longer need!) The wicker basket is full of yarn, and underneath it is the Snap Circuits set. 

Underneath the loft is Qutayf's zone:
His desk (which he uses more for climbing on than for writing on at this point), his blocks, a marble run, and his mega-bloks. 

The last part of our Project Room isn't actually inside the room, but hanging just outside the window: 

We have a bird-feeder there, just inches away from the window, and all three of the kids regularly check to see who's visiting us. We initially had great hopes of getting to know each squirrel individually, but so far... hmmmm. It turns out to be pretty hard to quantify degrees of tail-fluffiness!

So, that's where we spend a good chunk of our time! Hope you enjoyed looking around :)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Busy-ness and balance

I find that one of the biggest challenges in homeschooling is learning to how to say "no" to many of the wonderful opportunities that come our way. The sheer number of things available for homeschoolers to do, frequently for prices that are a fraction of the cost that the rest of the world pays, is almost uncountable. (I know this, because I tried to count them. A while ago, thinking it would be a handy thing if our area had a website that kept track of everything that's going on in the local homeschool world, I tried to make a listing of all the institutions, museums and people that offer homeschool classes. I had well over 300 organizations on the list, and was nowhere near finished, when I realized that I was never going to get the site up and running before the arrival of Baby Number Three!)

I had always consciously tried to make sure we had plenty of free time in our schedule. Or at least, that's what I thought I was doing. After all, look how many amazing activities I had decided against doing! Just look at how empty our schedule seemed, compared to the calendars of kids who are in school all day, and then have afterschool and weekend activities!

And yet, somehow, our schedule didn't feel very open. It always seemed that adding just one or two extra playdates would make us too busy, so that we kept finding ourselves in rushing-out-the-door mode. ("Where are your shoes? Quick, could you run and grab some more socks for the baby? You go fill the water bottles while I brush your sister's hair. You're not finished eating yet?!?" Whew! I don't know how school families manage it!)

But it wasn't until a few months ago that I really found the balance that works for us. Until then, we had been spending most of two days at a nearby indoor playspace. (Well, we were there from 10am-2:30pm, which counts as "most of the day" in my world!) Our co-op met there one day a week, and I had organized a homeschool meet-up there on a second day, with sports classes, free play, board games, etc. My kids loved that place, and I could check off all kinds of mental check-boxes by spending time there. Lots of physical activity? Check. Opportunities to practice being brave and daring? Check. Plenty of unstructured social time with good friends? Check. Classes that they enjoyed and that I could afford? Check. A chance for me to spend time with other homeschool moms? Check! What's not to like? And we are (mostly) unschoolers, after all. It's not as if we had stacks of curriculum to wade through, demanding hours of time at home.

But then suddenly - poof! - the space went out of business. Just like that, we had blank days all over our schedule. And it was wonderful!

The rushing stopped. Stressful mornings no longer set the tone for the day. Even more importantly, I found that my kids were doing all kinds of interesting things with their new free time at home. When they could work at something for several hours at a stretch, and pick it up again the following day to keep doing more, they started undertaking more complicated projects, and seeking new kinds of challenges. My five-year-old, for example, spent many hours over several days designing, cutting out, and sewing a tiny and fiddly party dress for her doll. At the same time, her writing suddenly took off, as she started writing all kinds of signs, lists, labels and emails. My seven-year-old started writing two long stories, and picked up an old interest in rainbow-loom crafting. Suddenly, she was not just following tutorials, but creating her own designs, and making video tutorials of her own.

I enjoyed our new freedom so much that I've actually managed to stick to it, planning no more than two busy, out-of-the-house days in the week. On Monday mornings, we still have co-op, and I try to schedule any extra playdates on Monday afternoons. On Fridays, we spend the morning rock-climbing and swimming, and then head to a board-games meet-up at a nearby library. But on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, I try not to schedule anything before 2pm. We have a leisurely breakfast, followed by plenty of time for the girls to work in the project room, a snack, and then a few minutes of Arabic and math while the baby naps. Then lunch. Only after all of that do we head out into the world, for a late-afternoon playdate, a trip to the playground or the library, or activities like Kunafa's daisy scouts or Basbusa's dance lesson.

As I keep reminding myself, this change has made a huge difference to the pace of our lives and to the quality of the girls' learning. I keep reminding myself, as I pry my fingers away from the "send" button, which would have registered my kids for a fantastic outdoor survival and exploration class in our local arboretum. I keep reminding myself, as I listen to enthusiastic recommendations for a free theater class being held at a library only ten minutes away. I still can't quite repress a wistful sigh... until Basbusa runs to the kitchen, showing me the miniature, pose-able princess-doll (complete with several outfits, and comb-able hair) which she has just made for her doll. And which she has tucked up beside her doll, in the bed she built for them both out of wood, under the blanket she knitted for them, on the mattress and pillow she sewed and stuffed for them.

It's good to be home.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Unschooling Ordinary Kids

I seem to be taking a very long time to get around to actually talking about our unschooling experience! There's really is lots to share, and it has been wonderful. But what I want to talk about today isn't the various things that my kids actually spend most of their time doing, but rather the faint, lingering worry I still have, about things that they're not doing.

I've said before that there are still a few specific areas which I'm too nervous to un-tether; hesitant to let them to float off in whichever direction the unschooling breezes may take them (or not take them, as the case may be). Arabic and math, for now, are still tied to pens, pencils and curricula. 

But there's also one thing that I still haven't completely resolved in my own mind, about unschooling in the big picture. I can see how unschooling would be a perfect fit if your kid is a genius (as is clearly the case in one of my favorite unschooling blogs). I can also see how unschooling would be wonderful if you child had a very clear passion, a particular interest or topic which he pursued in such depth that he covered all kinds of skills along the way. (All topics, as far as I can see, end up being interdisciplinary when you really go deep into them.) 

It seems to me that it would be easier, as the mom, to have an idea of where your child's education was headed, which surely must be reassuring. Either you can see that she is clearly ahead of grade-level in everything, in which case she is clearly doing just fine setting her own course; or else you can see that she is headed towards becoming the world's leading authority on car design, or endangered reptiles, or the history of the Aztecs. In which case you can probably predict what general direction her education is going, and what kinds of skills she'll likely pick up along the way. 

But what about - well, just regular kids? Kids who are bright and enthusiastic, with plenty of interests and hobbies, but no clear, burning passion that illuminates their learning path? Kids like mine, in other words. Sara, at Happiness is Here, recently wrote a wonderful post highlighting the advantages of unschooling in ordinary, childhood life, but I find I don't have quite Sara's faith when it comes to the future. I can see that each day is full of learning, exploration and growth, but still, I do sometimes find it unsettling that I have so little idea where we're headed. 

Neither of my girls, for example, has ever shown any particular interest in any non-fiction topic. For years, I have artfully strewn fascinating picture books on every conceivable subject, from science to history, from the familiar to the exotic. Occasionally they have shown mild interest,  but they've never picked up a topic and run with it.  We've explored science museums and taken nature walks for years,  without ever sparking  strings of questions that they can't wait to find answers for. They don't wonder aloud about why the stars twinkle, or what our neighborhood looked like long ago. 

So, if we're not going to be covering history or science or geography or social studies in a  traditional curriculum...  then what will they end up learning, and when?  I do  trust that they eventually will  want to find out more about these areas, and that they'll ultimately learn more that way than they  would if I took the reins and decided for them where their interests should lie...  But just in the interests of  full disclosure, before I start describing the joys of our unschooling adventures, I wanted to admit that yes, I do sometimes  worry. A bit. Not much. Less than I used to. But I haven't quite perfected the art of enjoying the ride to - well, wherever it is that we're heading to :)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Unschooling French, with little kids

So I can happily report that the most unschoolish approach to language-learning, straight up immersion, is working just fine :) We've always spoken to our kids in my husband's native language, Arabic, while they get English from their grandparents and the rest of their world in general. All three kids chatter happily away in both. (Reading and writing in Arabic, however is another story.)

In fact, despite the fact that they hear me speaking English with my parents practically every hour of the day, both of my girls have gone through phases around age 2 when they assumed that I don't speak English at all - I guess because I never speak English to them? - and they would helpfully translate into Arabic whatever my mom had said in English, so that I wouldn't be left out of the conversation!

However, this year, we have a new challenge. My elder daughter's best friend just started first grade at a French-immersion school. My daughter, therefore, decided that she was going to learn French too... which left me wondering how best to go about it. I did take quite a bit of French in high school, and my mom (whom we live with) was a French teacher, so we do at least have some background in the language. But I was pretty sure that sitting the girls down with a textbook and doing traditional lessons would turn them off the idea quite quickly. They're only 5 and 7 years old, much younger than the age that most textbooks, online and computer programs are aimed at.

So, in case anyone else is pondering how to unschool languages to little kids, here's a quick summary of what has and hasn't been working for us so far.

  • Apps: I did a bunch of research, and ended up with these two iPad apps that I really like. My girls have learned quite a bit of vocabulary from one, through playing games, and my 7-year-old has gotten quite good at French phonics through the other. The disadvantage of this approach, though, is that I'm pretty far toward the end of the no-screen-time spectrum. My girls only get to use the iPad once in a blue moon, and when they do, they're quite as likely to choose one of the math or programming games for their precious 20 minutes as they are to choose the French ones. 
  • French Songs: This is the most successful tool so far. We have three CDs of children's songs in French, which we have been playing on repeat in the car since September. The songs themselves are pretty good, so it's not too maddening to listen to, and by now even the baby can sing "un, deux, trois, cha-cha-cha!" They don't always understand everything they're repeating, but they're picking up on some of it, and I figure it's good practice in any case for getting used to what the language sounds like and how to pronounce it. 
  • Breakfast in French: The only meal where we're consistently sitting down with my mom (our resident fluent French-speaker) is breakfast, so we've been intermittently applying a policy of speaking French at the breakfast table. My mom speaks in French, and the girls insert whatever French words they can remember into their English, as appropriate :) This goes well - when we do it! The same words and questions come up over and over again, in a natural setting. The only hitch is that I'm just not running at full operating speed at that hour of the morning, so I haven't been as enthusiastic in promoting this strategy as I could have been. It's on my to-do-list!
  • Picture books in French: I was expecting my girls to love the many wonderful French picture books that we can request via our library system, but actually they haven't been a big hit. They find it frustrating not to be able to understand what the text says, and they find that explanations of the language slow down the plot too much. 
And how much have they actually learned? Well, since we started five months ago, the girls have learned to count to 100, the colors, a bunch of animals, various hello/goodbye/thank-you words, and the lyrics, in various states of clarity, to a bunch of French songs. I figure it's a good start, and they're still enthusiastic about it, so we'll keep on going. And try to be better about breakfast. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why the "-ish"?

So, "unschool-ish homeschooling" - why sit on the fence like that? Why not just go ahead and unschool?

Unschooling, just in case anyone isn't clear on the distinction, means that the child's education is completely driven by her own interests, questions, and passions. If your child happens to want to divide her time pretty equally among typical academic pursuits, then unschooling will look a lot like ordinary homeschooling. If your child wants to spend all his waking hours observing beetles in the garden, for example, then it will look very different! In either case, though, the unschooling mom's job is to pay close attention to what the child is interested in, and support those interests as best she can.

The theory behind unschooling is that kids will learn everything they need to know, in the sequence which is most meaningful for them, if they just follow their passions. And that there is very little point in making kids study things which they aren't interested in, because even if they obediently comply and learn the material, it won't stick in their heads long-term anyway.

I buy this logic. I really do. It's certainly been true when I look at the things I've learned in schools and out of them, and I can see the enormous amount that my kids are learning without direct guidance and instruction from me. The inspiring blogs over there on the right offer example after example of blissful and brilliant children achieving astounding things, all of their own accord.


I do still have two small areas where I require my daughters to follow my agenda, rather than leaving it up to them.

One is learning to read and write Arabic. For this one, I'm clear and confident (in my own mind) about why I'm teaching it traditionally: it's important to both me and my husband that they be able to do it, and since we're not living in an Arabic-speaking country, they're not going to pick it up by themselves. I do completely believe that kids will learn to read by themselves when they're ready - my oldest was reading chapter books when she was three, and my middle child is starting to read now, aged five, without my ever having given either of them a reading lesson - but in Arabic, they're just not exposed to it enough. Arabic-language picture books are rare, expensive, and often have appalling plots. My kids aren't seeing street signs, commercials, subtitles, or grocery lists all around them, the way they would if we were living in the Middle East. So, we do ten minutes of Arabic reading lessons, maybe three times a week.

The other area where we do formal schoolwork is math. Or at least, not even Math - that wide and glorious field in which the beauty of patterns is explored in all kinds of intellectual ways - but the plain, store-brand math which has been drilled into schoolchildren for generations. Arithmetic.

I try to choose appealing curricula, and we only spend maybe 40 minutes per week on it with my 2nd-grader; but still, I require it, even though that's not how my daughter would choose to spend those 40 minutes herself. She doesn't hate it, and she can do it fine, but she's just not all that interested.

So why do I make her? Because ... I don't know. Part of it is that I want her to be confident in her ability to ability to manipulate numbers, so that tasks and fields involving numbers never seem intimidating or unfamiliar to her. But part of it is definitely something to do with my awareness of what people would think, if they met a sixth-grader who couldn't add and subtract, or a high-schooler who struggled with multiplication or had never covered fractions.

I think maybe it's because a student's math skills are so often assumed, in our culture, to be a good indicator of how smart or well-educated she is? I don't want my kids to have to overcome assumptions that they are dumb or ignorant, when it can so easily be prevented by a few minutes a week of arithmetic practice. And honestly, I know it's about me, too. Even close family and friends would think I wasn't being responsible about my children's education if they couldn't do arithmetic more-or-less on schedule, and I'd really like them to be enthusiastic about our homeschooling, rather than have to defend it continually against their (very well-intentioned) worries.

So for now, what we have is unschooling, plus thirty minutes a week of Arabic, and a little more than that of RightStart math. But it's the unschooling that's the interesting part. That's what I'm planning to talk about from now on :)