I haven’t written much about our homeschooling life lately, and it’s feeling like a good time to do that. After all these years, living and learning with kids feels like the most natural thing in the world to me. It is a seamless process, without artificial distinctions between “learning” and “everything else”. We’re all learning, all the time. My job is to create an environment that nurtures my kids’ desire to learn, to provide balance and boundaries when needed, to know when to step in and when to get out of the way.
Sometimes learning looks very organic and natural, particularly when kids are young. As they get older, sometimes learning looks more formal or traditional. There are an infinite number of ways to live without school, but I’m sharing what it looks like in our family. We are not very structured, I have no desire to recreate school at home, but we do have a rhythm to our days and I’m willing to do whatever seems right for my kids without worrying too much about labels.
I see a spectrum of homeschooling, from radical unschooling to school at home, and we fall somewhere between unschooling and relaxed homeschooling. There is great disagreement over this in unschooling circles, with many unschoolers claiming that there is no real gray area, that you are either a radical unschooler or a relaxed homeschooler. If anyone is reading this and has no idea what I’m talking about, try to imagine some other group of people that share common values and ideals or hobbies, something that brings people together yet also divides along ideological lines. Say, Christianity. It’s a big tent, really, but there are some bitter divisions and disagreements over what it means to be a Christian. I consider myself to be a (very) liberal Christian, and my parents wouldn’t have acknowledged that there is any such thing.
It’s not so much that I have a problem with saying I’m a relaxed homeschooler, but my life and the way I raise my kids are so imbued with unschooling philosophy that it’s not quite accurate to leave that part out. I have ideals that guide me, but I also want to remain open to change, to new ideas and ways of doing things, to the fact that my kids are not me and I need to respect their journey without putting too much of myself and my own past into it.
Parenting is a work in progress, and each day has something to teach me if I’m willing to listen. My younger boys are very different from me in some ways, from the child I was and the adult I am now. I was calm, quiet, easily entertained, independent, a model student. I didn’t need much guidance when it came to learning. My older two were a lot like me, and I figured it was just the normal way to be. Then my younger two came along, and life got interesting.
It’s still interesting, but it’s getting easier. They need a lot more input from me, and they do better when we maintain a consistent rhythm, when they have an idea of what to expect. We have eased very gradually into formal learning- for Nick at age 10 it is only a small amount of math and writing. He reads well now, despite being my “late” reader, and he loves to read. This is another area though where I’m not completely hands-off, not even close. I let them both come to reading when they were ready, and I didn’t push at all, but I read to them all the time. It was a huge part of our life, so books and language were already an integral part of who they were, long before they figured out the mechanics of reading.
Now, I pick out books that I think they will like- I actually spend a lot of time doing that. Nick is reading the Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Jesse is reading the James Herriot books. I’m thrilled that he’s reading the Herriot books because I loved them so much. We still read aloud, typically a more challenging book that they might not be eager to read on their own. I’m reading a Landmark book about Abraham Lincoln to Nick (here’s a great link if anyone is interested- I just discovered these recently and found that I can get many of them through interlibrary loan), and The Red Badge of Courage to Jesse (he isn’t crazy about it, but I can get him to sit still for a chapter occasionally).
Jesse has started to talk again about going to high school, which would happen next year, so I’ve agreed to help him prepare for whatever it is that he wants to do. Full-time public school is definitely not my preference, but I’m going to focus on one day at a time and trust that it will all work out. In the past he’s been resistant to doing more work to get ready for a school environment, but lately he’s gone through a big period of growth in all kinds of ways and seems to be willing to do more academic work.
So he’s been getting up early each morning, doing what I suggest without too much fuss. This is the thing about unschooling- Jesse knows what unschooling is, and he specifically says that he doesn’t want to live that way. He wants to feel that he is on par with his peers, that if he were to choose school he would be okay. And I understand that. I think unschooling can work just fine for teens, and they can study certain topics when they become relevant to their interests, but if they decide to go to high school they will benefit from having certain skills in place. I’m not worried about my boys and reading, if anything they’re way ahead there, and their math ability is good. Better than mine ever was, despite years of good grades in school. But they rarely write- it’s just not something they’ve developed an interest in. I don’t get it- I’ve always loved to write- but I think it’s okay to push a bit as they get older because it’s an important skill.
Jesse is doing Thinkwell math (8th grade). We’ve used a variety of math curricula over the years, and this is our first time trying this. So far, so good. He was doing Teaching Textbooks but it was a little too easy for him, and this program is more challenging. Nick is doing Singapore math, but at a super relaxed pace. He didn’t do any formal math until he was about nine, and I still let him explore math in his own way most of the time. Jesse is doing Easy Grammar Plus. It’s his first time studying grammar in a formal way, and I really like this book. He’s also doing a workbook called Wordsmith. He fusses about doing it, but he’s not been very receptive to all the other ideas I’ve suggested for writing either (writing prompts, letters, journals, stories), so I think sometimes a straightforward approach works better.
Nick does an Italic series workbook to practice handwriting, and Jesse is watching Crash Course history videos. I’m not rigid about any of this- some days they just do what they want, and they always have the option of saying no. Ultimately, I don’t believe learning can be forced upon anyone. You have to want it, and it has be meaningful. You have to be able to put it in context. So much of what I learned in school was quickly forgotten, nearly all of it. I was being the good girl, doing what I was told, pleasing the teacher. I didn’t even mind the academic side of school, but I can’t say that it was deep or meaningful learning. Real learning is something different, and I’d like to think that I’ve given my kids the opportunity to understand that difference.