Diving into Unschooling

diving into unschooling

I wrote my first post about unschooling and how we were thinking about ways to homeschool a little less than three weeks ago, and pretty much right after I wrote that, it became clear we would be jumping in head first, sooner than later. As the testing began and the pressure rose for our first grader, her days became more miserable and her nights filled with stress and anxiety. We found ourselves thinking (again), surely there must be a better way. So we took the plunge and pulled her out of school.

To her school's credit, they reached out through her teacher to offer to "work with us" to keep her there. But how could we explain that it was the fundamental nature of the school—and the system—that was pushing us to try something else? In the last two weeks since we've begun our unschooling adventure, here's what's happened…

As I read in this article, much of what we've been grappling with the last couple of weeks is unlearning. My wife and I have our own school experience to let go of and unlearn, and our child has to come to terms with the fact that we're not her new teachers—at least not in the "traditional" sense. She's learning that adults don't have to provide the lessons or guidelines or answers. She now gets to play an equal, if not greater, part in what she learns, how it's structured, and what the guidelines are…and all of this has been difficult.

For my wife and I, it's been a roller coaster of fear, frustration, and uncertainty. Fear that we're not doing enough or that this whole thing will fail and we'll let our kid down by not providing enough of an education for her to make it in the world. Frustration with not having the answers or knowing how to communicate with each other about what direction(s) to take. And uncertainty about nearly everything. So from what I can gather, we're right on track.

For our first grader, the last couple of weeks have been a major adjustment. Mostly she's been happier and more relaxed. We try not to bring it up without her lead, but on the occasion I've asked if she misses school or her friends there, she replies, "No, not really." in a very nonchalant way. She has been a little more emotional than usual, but with such a big change, we expected that. The trick for us is being patient—with her and with ourselves.

So what has learning looked like so far? There's been a lot of playing. With her younger sister or on her own. Sometimes it's outside making mud pies or building forts, sometimes it's just around the house or playing games on the iPod. She goes to preschool with her younger sister on Monday and Friday mornings, something I struggled with at first. Is it a regression? Is it "below" her? What will other people think? But in the spirit of following her lead, we let her go. She never went to preschool regularly before going on to kindergarten, so maybe it's an important missing link for her. The school is mostly an open format where the kids play and create, so it seems like a good thing so far. Plus, we're lucky that we don't have to pay extra for her, probably because she helps entertain the younger kids. There's been some reading on her own, but it's hard to say how much. Most of the reading still happens before bed time, and she hasn't shown much interest in writing (which may be partly attributed to her healing broken arm).

My wife has been taking the lead with most of this, so this is just what I've picked up while working from home and checking in with them. We also had our first "curriculum" meeting yesterday. My wife and I sat down, just the two of us, and brain-stormed ideas for sparking learning. Again, we don't want to provide too much structure or come across as being the "leaders," but we also want to provide enough so that our child feels supported. Here's a list of ideas we came up with, many of them directly from our child:

  • Music (Tuesday/Thursday) [this is my area of expertise, so we’re scheduling this in order to work into my lunch break]
  • Building obstacle courses
  • Building/painting/art
  • Trips: Oso de Oro park, Woodward Park, Millerton Lake, Shaver Lake
  • Reading time
  • Writing station/opps. to write/illustrate
  • Journal to write observations/things of interest/whatever
  • Writing silly sentences and drawing a pic to match
  • Activity Wheel that has stuff to do on it that she spins, like a game
  • Making puppets, storytelling
  • Running list of topics/projects that are out and open to see for everyone
  • Magazine/collage
  • Learn Japanese
  • House tasks [she actually really enjoys doing dishes and laundry]
  • TV/video game opps., what are the limits?
  • Cooking projects

We're always picking up new ideas—from our first grader and everywhere else—but this list came out of a short (30m) meeting where my wife and I had dedicated time to talk about what was happening, how things were going, and what each of us can be responsible for. For instance, she'll be looking into the affidavit we have to file to become a private school, and I'll be researching funding that we may be able to get to help pay for supplies or field trips. We're also looking into ways to learn Japanese (something the whole family wants to do). We both thought it was a great meeting, especially as a means to sync up, so I think we'll be making it a weekly thing. We may also see if our first grader wants a similar meeting.

So that's where we're at. Although it feels like we've been at this for a while now, it's still very, very new to all of us. This last week especially, we've been reminding ourselves that it's a major change, that we don't have to have all the answers, and that we have to be patient. More to come…

  • tellio

    We unschooled our kids. We made every conceivable ‘mistake’. If we can help, let us know, but your own love and attentiveness will pretty much cover it. Are your schools open to working with you? Sometimes they are. Our schools were pretty much indifferent at best, maybe yours might actually help. I also recommend Clark Aldrich’s book Unschooling Rules for decent advice and encouragement. And remember–experts on tap, not on top.

    • luhoka

      Thanks Terry, this is very helpful. I’ve added the book to our list of resources and it’s nice to know someone who’s done this before! I’ll be sure to holler if I have questions or just need support.

  • Kim Douillard

    I actually had the opportunity to teach my youngest son in my multiage class for two years (second and third grade)…it was wonderful and difficult, and I learned a tremendous amount about schooling and teaching and learning that continues to inform who I am as an educator.

    No programming (scratch jr?) or other digital tools on the list? Science inquiries? Sewing?

    Good luck on this adventure! I know that Terry is right, love and attentiveness are the essentials…not curriculum. I see it everyday in the classroom. And I love the focus on unlearning–we have to work to de-school ourselves, so our kids can experience the joys of learning. That’s what I’m still working on in my public school classroom.

    (I’m also happy to help or listen if you need a hand or an ear…)


    • luhoka

      Thanks Kim, I really appreciate the support. Those are great ideas and I’ll be sure to add them to our running list. Part of the field trips we had in mind were to inspire those questions of science, too. A trip to a local park the other day prompted some questions (and subsequent research) into granite and how it got there. Our little garden has been a great learning opp. for curious minds, too.

      I’ve often appreciated how many Writing Project teachers, such as yourself, look for new ways to support learners and make learning fun, even within the structure of a public school. I will definitely reach out as needed!

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  • Sarah Nguyen

    Luke, what a brave and scary move! But I think you are doing what’s necessary to get your child out of unnecessary stress. I’ve never heard of stress for a 1st grader before! What are they doing to kids in school these days? I’d love to read the follow up with unschooling. Do you think you would put your daughter back IN school? If so, at what grade level?

    • luhoka

      Thanks for the comment, Sarah! This school year is wrapping up and we’re reassessing. As with most things in life, the path is not clear. Based on some other factors, we may be re-enrolling her in the fall, but at a different school that doesn’t push test performance and scores as much. Alas, you can’t really escape the testing machine in public schools.