Category Archives: Unschoolish

Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?

The polar vortex is striking again, and schools have been closed for two more days.

When talking to friends who have kids in school, it’s clear that, even for those who enjoyed a couple of extra days of holiday break, enough is enough.

Danny, don’t tell me they cancelled school again

I had to confess to some of them, eventually, that I was feeling some relief in hearing stories of screwed-up finals, AP classes falling behind, and a general anxiety about when all this missed stuff would get done. By comparison, our own challenges in getting back to a routine this month seem pretty tame, and it is certainly easier for us homeschoolers to make up “lost” time in the summer than it is for a whole school of teachers, staff and students. By comparison, we are doing OK.

Recently, I’ve also had several friends with kids in school talk about the struggle to get teachers to accommodate individual students’ needs—but not too much. Without giving away details—and without pretending to know what the right answer is—I was struck by the way teachers and parents use (and fail to use) not only IEPs and 504 plans, but also individual, informal exceptions to deadlines, time limits, even the amount of homework due. Some parents have been frustrated with a teacher’s unwillingness to follow the official, agreed-upon accommodations, but others have wondered aloud whether a teacher had gone too far in making an exception for their child, rather than providing an opportunity to learn from problems or mistakes.

I promise, I mostly listen to these stories with the intent of being a sounding board and source of support. But part of me, when I hear a similar tale repeated across several families, thinks, “so you have to deal with this in school too?”

As a homeschooler who has drifted among various levels of formal learning and child-led-ness over the years, I’ve never held an especially principled stand on the right amount of accommodation to allow a kid whose hormones, deficient attention, lack of interest, superabundance of interest, or something more serious causes them to deviate from a path we had previously agreed upon. It’s not hard to come across people who will tell you “I’d never make my kid . . .” or “I’d never let my kid get away with . . .” Probably it makes more sense to move back and forth between requiring compliance and letting things slide, even if that means getting it “wrong” sometimes.

But the fantasy that I could put my kids on the big yellow bus and make that someone else’s problem has appealed to me at certain times. More than one tempestuous afternoon has included a parent (possibly me) hissing behind closed doors to another parent (who kindly listens as though I weren’t a broken record) that these girls just need to go to school and learn to be responsible and accountable to someone, to meet deadlines and be punctual, to do their math sitting up in daytime clothes and stop Skyping between paragraphs.

What my friends’ stories about IEPs and unmonitored iPads are telling me is that school is not a magical place where kids snap to it, and no one there has quite figured out the best way to keep them off Tumblr during study times either. Yet again, by comparison, we’re doing fine—maybe not better, but no worse.

All of which led me to think: exactly who am I comparing us to, anyway? Where did I get this expectation of what “enough” should be?

When I started homeschooling, I had to work my way past comparing myself to all these wonderful Internet denizens. Maybe some of these will look familiar to you:

The unschooling family with their quirky, silly, pajamas-all-day photos on Facebook
The competitive family with kids excelling in several organized activities
The holy family and their never-ending supply of activities pegged to the liturgical calendar
The prodigious family, whose kids have started charities and small businesses before turning 12
The I-couldn’t-care-less family who can’t stop talking about how much they don’t know what their kids are doing

I’ve learned something from all of them, but none of them have cracked that secret code for “rightness.” (Trust me – I’ve met most of them in real life.)

The tricky bit is that it looks like I might have replaced them with an even more unattainable, ever-moving standard that is Totally. Made. Up.

So while I’m sorry for my friends who have struggled with closed schools and computer access, I have to thank them and the polar vortex for cluing me in. Choose your yardsticks carefully, use them sparingly, and crack them over your knee when they no longer serve you.

Now get inside and make some cocoa. You look cold.

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Filed under education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, Unschoolish

Ziggy the Pinhead

Somehow at dinner tonight the kids got me talking about teachers that didn’t like me and the trouble I got into in school. We had a lot of tangents, but the best was this:

Me: and I had a binder with Ziggy on it . . .
14yo: you had a Ziggy the Pinhead binder?!
Me: no, that’s Zippy the Pinhead. I had Ziggy . . .
10yo: you had a Ziggy Stardust binder?!
Me: no, but I wish I did

I really don’t like it when parents foist their hipster signifiers on their kids, but it still made me smile to think I have a family where these

are more obvious cultural references than this:

No offense to Ziggy. Anyone who can go 40 years without wearing pants is alright with me. And lest I come off like a GenX foister, let me confess that my 10yo spent much of the afternoon having a marathon session with this:

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Filed under raising girls, Unschoolish

Summer School

Not a week goes by without someone asking about online support for homeschooling high school — where are all the conversations we used to have back when the kids were younger?

I suspect they are happening in our own minds as we drive to endless rounds of activities — even my relatively antisocial teen seems to spend a surprising amount of time socializing, yet she still can’t drive.

We took a lot of time off of various studies during the fall and winter, and then the spring was so snowy and gray it took all of our energy to stay alive and not go Hunger Games on each other, so a little bit of summer study here and there is in order.

Violet has started precalculus, so that when theater and other things get too hectic she feels free to take some time off. She’s using Thinkwell — our first time using Thinkwell for math — and generally finds Ed Berger entertaining.

I have been sitting with her and knitting for most of the lectures and problem-solving — and I admit every once in a while I get too excited and say “but couldn’t you do it like this?” and grab a pencil and solve part of a problem myself. Let’s call that modeling enthusiasm and collaborative effort, shall we? Anyway, after last fall didn’t go so well I realized that it’s important not to mix up independence and isolation. So I sit in a comfy chair near the laptop and knit and check in periodically, and the whole process of catching up with math feels much warmer. Also, I really like watching her solve problems — as much as she doesn’t like math, she is pretty fluent with it, and I imagine even artistic unschoolish 14yos need an experience of feeling competent, logical, and rational at least once a day.

She’s also working on Chinese and drawing drawing drawing, and I keep trying to slip her new books so she isn’t *always* reading something she read three years ago.

Victoria, now 10, blew my mind last week when she told me she would be worried about going back to school because she thought she was “slow” and didn’t know as much as other kids. Lori Pickert touched on this aspect of homeschooling in a recent blog post, as if she had been reading V’s mind.

I really didn’t know how to respond to this. I don’t like to make a big deal out of test scores with the kids, but — girl, have you seen your test scores?!?! In any case we are keeping up with Singapore math and some history reading. We ditched the Sonlight history readings about the world wars — the light really seemed to go out of her eyes as we read day after day about trenches and fronts and artillery. I know some kids really dig that, but it was turning her off after many years of loving our history reading time, so I set the Usborne World Wars book aside.

We’re trying to get in the habit of compacting all this into two hours or less, so we have lots of time to enjoy the sunshine. Luckily (?). there hasn’t been a lot of sunshine so we’ve been able to approach that goal gradually. Then again, if there were more sunshine maybe I could get the kids to get up and dressed before noon.

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Filed under education, gifted education, homeschooling high school, Unschoolish

World Nutella Day, and some projects

Oh my gosh, has it really been more than 2 weeks since my last post? Too many things happening.

Want proof?

Since last posting about Project Based Homeschooling I took some time to make some space for creative activity around the house. I confess, I did not do as much as I’d hoped. I moved some furniture around in the breakfast nook to make the shelves more accessible, and I labeled all the cups holding the pens and pencils and sorted them by type.

These are two of my favorite projects that have appeared since then:

Project Based Learning 2

I came into the kitchen to find Victoria, my youngest, painstakingly painting old seashells with paints she found in the shelves somewhere. To be honest, I don’t know how she found either of them or what made her think of putting the two together, but there it is.

Project Based Learning 2

This is Violet, my older, preparing to sew. She loves the webcomic Homestuck, because she is 1) an aspiring comic artist and 2) a teen. She found the hat-making tutorial, made a list of what she needed, and then dove in. She even made the horns (see below) twice, because she didn’t like the first set. And she did it cheerfully. And all I did was drive to the fabric store because I still don’t really know how to run the sewing machine. I’d venture to say this is the first time she’s used the sewing machine in 2 years, and that was for a pillowcase.

Project Based Learning 2

Every time I say to myself “why is she unmotivated?” I need to look at this picture. (And every time the kids give me crap about taking their pictures, I’m going to say that Lori Pickert said I should — though they won’t believe it because I’ve always taken too many pictures.)

Project Based Learning 2

I’ve also cleared the decks to do Journey North with Victoria, which we’ve never done before. I’m being sensible and letting someone experienced show me the way, following along with Melissa Wiley. This is the kind of project-y stuff that always screams “homeschooling” to me — working together, combining disciplines, posting up cool graphs on the fridge. I have no real educational aim in doing it except increasing my joy in homeschooling by participating rather than directing.

Project Based Learning 2

With joy as our goal, how could we resist World Nutella Day, which is apparently a real thing. (There is Nutella inside those whipped-cream covered crepes.) Appropriately, a friend sent me a message today with this quotation attached:

Life is meant to be a celebration! It shouldn’t be necessary to set aside special times to remind us of this fact. Wise is the person who finds a reason to make every day a special one.

So we make crepes, or hats, or painted shells, and I try to get comfortable with nudging that towards the center of our day instead making it stay on the margins. I’m still adjusting, leaving more of my own work until late at night now, which means it doesn’t get done or it gets done very slowly. Still, I make myself sleep in and whenever possible try not to push us very quickly in there mornings. There are only so many days to take fuzzy good-morning pictures like this:

Project Based Learning 2

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Filed under art, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, raising girls, Unschoolish

I’m Reading a Book!

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I read tons and tons of books about childbirth, child rearing, child development. Like many young women, I knew I was ready when I was sick of all the expert advice and couldn’t stand to read any more.

Something similar happened with homeschooling. I read books and discussed curriculum and scoured the internet, and then — I didn’t. I just did it the way I wanted to do it, and the umpteenth time someone wanted to talk about math curriculum I would try very very hard not to slide under the table.

But there has been a buzz around a new book, so I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I got a new book about homeschooling.

It’s Project-Based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert, formerly of the Camp Creek Blog, and now blogging at Project-Based Homeschooling. I’ve read most of it but am looking forward to going through it a bit more slowly and also talking it over with friends.

My one disappointment with the book thus far is that it is mostly oriented towards younger children. She does speak about adapting ideas to older children and teens, however, and I will be spending some time thinking about how to do just that.

Regardless, I like the book for the same reason I assume people often like certain books: it says things I already think, but in much better ways, in more affirming ways — in this case in gentler ways — and it brings that vision of what I wish I were doing that much closer to reality.

Here are a few tidbits from the introduction that made me so happy I bought my first homeschooling book in years:

Surprisingly often, people will champion self-directed learning for children but not allow those children’s parents the same freedom and respect. . . . Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they’ll eventually learn everything they need to know. You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else.

So true! How easy it is for any of us to slip from advocate to browbeating zealot. I loved this more solicitous approach, inviting you to give some of these ideas a try from a sense of generosity and helpfulness. So much easier to listen to than hearing that your children are in danger of failing academically or having their tender creative souls squashed like helpless bugs unless you shape up.

And then, this:

The freedom that we have to create a life that works for us, our children, and our families is priceless. We should never trade it in for a handful of magic beans — a purist approach that comes with a set of pregummed labels, a rule book an inch thick, and threat of eviction from the tribe if you deviate from the center of the path. As you explore new ideas — in this book and elsewhere — about how children learn and how we can help them learn, I hope you keep a firm grip on your own opinions and values. You can build a life customized to your beliefs and prioritizes. Don’t settle for off-the-rack.

So true again! It can be disillusioning that the most countercultural groups can demand the most conformity, and anything “alternative” is co-opted so quickly as a product sold back to you: everything you need for a brave new lifestyle, all in this convenient package.

I’ve written before that homeschooling our kids made us aware, as adults, of how wide-open our choices really are. That doesn’t mean radical change is always in order: one happy result of our sense of freedom was realizing that we love living right where we do. And if I’m being honest, sometimes I would choose the feeling of “doing it the right way” over waiting to see where an uncharted course takes us.

What I like about Project-Based Homeschooling is that it is more like a companion on the journey than a map. Lori Pickert writes in a way that accomplishes just what she’s advocating: she’s a resource, an encourager, a hands-off mentor, never forgetting that the project of being a homeschooling parent belongs to you.

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Filed under Books, education, Homeschooling, Unschoolish

New Year’s Learning Notes

And we are back to school, whatever that means right now. (Longer post required)

For Victoria, who is 9, she likes the reliability of subjects that we do regularly. Math, history, and French. But she also likes to make, and do, and sing. I am in love with the Klutz paper dresses kit she got for Christmas — she cracked that thing open and started making the most adorable little outfits you ever saw. After the first one was a little crooked, she had the concept down and there was no stopping her.

Totes Adorbs

Totes Adorbs

It’s so funny, because she also recently started participating in a little engineering club (BEST — Bridging Engineers Science and Teaching — ps can we agree no word-person was consulted in the formation of that acronym?) and she is so intimidated. How can a child who figured out, after about 2 minutes of advice from a Sewing Idiot (i.e., me), how to draw and cut out her own sewing patterns on paper by measuring a doll form and calculating seam allowances, cut out the fabric pieces, and sew them together feel intimidated by a few wheels and a battery-operated motor? And for that matter, why is attaching a motor to some wheels “engineering” while navigating the complexities of constructed clothing is “crafty girl stuff”? (Longer post required)

will sell for 2 dollars (observe the giant Tardis that has come to Hogwarts)

will sell for 2 dollars (observe the giant Tardis that has come to Hogwarts)

Violet, 13, is just drawing and drawing, lots of sketches for a webcomic she is plotting. She has memos on her phone and text files on the computer–the planning, I think, is the best part. Apart from the drawing.

Drawn on the computer/tablet

Drawn on the computer/tablet


She continues to study Chinese and linguistics in a pretty-much self-guided way. She’s staying with her chemistry course and keeps saying she wants take AP Physics next year. (Apparently physics will be “easy” because studying chemistry is so incredibly painful and physics is fun.)

And — knock me over with a feather — she said to me yesterday, “I think I need to start doing some math. I feel lazy not doing any math.” She has not formally “done math” in quite a while. Last year she was taking both physics and chemistry, and that seemed like enough math for any 12yo who doesn’t really love math. This year she was perfunctorily working through some geometry but we abandoned that — the level of perfunct seemed to guarantee that next to nothing was going to be retained anyway. One thing we are learning is that there is a degree of presence required, not only from her, but from me, to make things happen. Oddly, trying to be more unschooly seems to require more presence — of a certain sort — from me rather than less. (Longer post required)

We haven’t yet figured out what “doing math” will be. She wants to review before starting the Thinkwell Precalculus we bought, and maybe in the end we’ll put that aside for something else anyway. In any case the next two months, for her, will be all about Julius Caesar, her first performance in a Shakespeare play, unless you count the staging of parts of Midsummer Night’s Dream we did during her 9th birthday party. And all about drawing.

Experimenting with the new markers

Experimenting with the new markers

Throw in some fencing for Victoria and piano for both girls and lots of reading and trying to get some outdoor time in the winter and we are full-on back to something is that not quite vacation, even if it isn’t really school.

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Filed under art, gifted education, Homeschooling, homeschooling high school, raising girls, Unschoolish