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 :)

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Welcome! I'm glad you're here!

Why? Well... because it's nice to share thoughts with somebody! And because I hope it will be helpful to someone someday, even in some small way, to read about my experience almost-unschooling with my kids.

It's not that I think I have anything exceptionally profound to share. There are so many fantastic homeschooling blogs out there already that the community is hardly suffering for lack of one more. And it's not like I'm a wise, experienced veteran, either - my kids are only 7, 5 and 1 as of when I started this blog.

But I've learned so much from reading other people's blogs - you can see my list of favorites over there on the right - that I'd really like to give back in the same way, if I can. I'd like to share what has worked for us, and the challenges that crop up along the way.

I also feel like interest in unschooling is increasing all the time. Other homeschoolers routinely know what the word means nowadays, and quite often even non-homeschoolers have heard of it, at least vaguely. But many people find themselves a little hesitant to adopt unschooling completely, and let all parent-led instruction fall by the wayside - no matter how much they love the idea in theory! Maybe we'll get there some day. But for now, I'm pandering to my internal "what-ifs" by keeping a tiny amount of "schoolwork" in our schedule. So, in case anyone else out there is wondering what life would look like if they are almost ready to take the plunge into unschooling, but still want to wear their floaties... well, I hope this blog will give a picture of how it works for our family.