Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
It has taken me a while to truly define what it is we do around here. Part of my hesitation has come from the fact that we are relatively new to the life of homeschooling and I was waiting it out to see what method(s) seemed to work best for my family. Part of my hesitation on labeling the relaxed style that seems to be our norm has been that we are in the early years of schooling…isn’t it supposed to be about fun? Won’t it change later when we hit the “hard” subjects? People have asked me what curriculum we use and, well, we don’t. The funny part is that I honestly never considered that this, in and of itself, is a big indicator that we might be an unschooling family. You see…I put A LOT of time and effort into prepping whatever subject we might be getting ready to take part in, often in a unit-studies sort of way. This year, I am even trying to lay out a very loose guideline for the entire year. (Recognize that this is a near-impossible task for my impromptu, last-minute personality.) I have pretty much picked out a few key subjects and hope to cover them from A to Z over the course of the year. For example, careers…A for architect, B for Botanist(?). Okay, so I haven’t gotten very far yet, since I haven’t even nailed down what I want to do for each letter, but you get the idea. (This perfectly illustrates why we usually just dive into a subject without much planning. Even when I have a “plan”, it is very loose.) I have also spent a great deal of time organizing our homeschool and play places, as you can see in these blogs here and here. All the while I am doing this, I know that we will only spend maybe a third of our time in these areas and the likelihood of following any set schedule is about 0%, maybe 0.5%. So, what does this mean? Why do I spend all this time organizing and planning if I know that I’m not going to stay organized or strictly follow any plan? What does that make me, as far as homeschooling style goes? I generally considered myself an “eclectic”, borderline unschooler. This definition could probably suffice, as I see merits from multiple philosophies and often implement aspects of many of them. For instance, I believe if a child can read, then the world is opened up to them, so Charlotte Mason, this book’s for you. I also think, especially for the younger ages, that themes are a great way to focus attention and engage their minds, while (secretly) imparting knowledge across a broad range of subjects, so Unit Studies it is, then! But wait, don’t we also have a lot of hands-on, real world learning-based fun? Doesn’t that mean we follow the Montessori style? We certainly seem to do a lot of Montessori-type things. I guess that’s it then. We’re a Montessori family, for sure…right? Whew. Who knew thinking about this could be so tough? My definition might be pretty accurate then…or so I thought. Now I am beginning to reconsider our “category”. As I look around at other homeschoolers’ sites and see what styles they claim and I begin to truly recognize some of my own traits and habits, I am questioning what it is we really do. I ran across an article the other day: 10 Ways To (Not) Sabotage Your School Year. The article was interesting to me because it is on a (purportedly) unschooler’s website, and yet it outlined, pretty accurately, what our approach has been all along. The author even has a book in print, which I suppose gives tips on how to make a plan that stays flexible. You can see the link to that here. (Note, I haven’t actually read this book, so I’m just guessing here.) In any case, let’s take a look at the facts of (our homeschool) life:
1) Flexible planning is pretty much what I’ve been doing, isn’t it? I make a plan and might semi-stick to it, but there are lots of tangents along the way, often where some of our best days of learning evolve. I like to have a general idea of a potential direction, but am pretty comfortable with changing things up when needed.
2) The idea of buying, reading, studying, or following a set curriculum feels…well, wrong. I truly understand the appeal for others and often wonder why I put myself through so much trouble when there are full curriculum sets out there that have already done the work for me. It tells me what to do, how to do it, where to find it, how long it takes, etc. Wouldn’t that be great? Yes, except that, apparently, it completely goes against my grain. It feels too canned, no matter how “outside-the-box” it might be. I just can’t seem to force myself to follow any set guidelines to structure the kid’s lessons. Maybe the key word here is structure. I don’t seem to operate as well in someone else’s defined structure, but somehow always manage to create my own structure and do just fine with that. (Is that because it is easy for me to push the boundaries of my self-imposed structure?) Here’s something else to ponder. I’m a Sagittarius-Capricorn cusp. What does that mean? Maybe nothing, but if there is anything to astrology, the important part I have gathered from it is that I have two distinctly different personalities at war inside me. True or not, it certainly would explain why I have this insane need to have everything in it’s place and organize our lives with charts, lists, and the like…and then so loosely follow the plans that an outsider might wonder if there was ever a plan at all. Organized chaos. (It might explain a lot of other inconsistencies in my personality, too, but that’s a whole other blog.)
3) I have been continuously amazed at the amount of absorption that takes place in my little sponges. On numerous occasions they have reminded me that they are listening and learning, even when I don’t think they are paying a bit of attention. They bring up topics and details of things I said in passing months earlier. They ask thoughtful questions after watching seemingly mindless cartoons. In short, they are learning all the time and I’m just lucky enough to witness much of it. I don’t think this is because my indoctrinated, panicky side would have one child sit down and “write something, for goodness sake!” or have the other look at alphabet flash cards, because it is more likely these things had a negative impact, if any impact at all. In fact, I am very aware that my kids do some of their best listening when they don’t seem to be listening at all. When I am reading something to them and they are allowed to play or draw or build something all the while, they are more likely to “get” what I’ve said than if they were just sitting in a desk being forced to listen to some lecture. I, myself, used to listen to music while studying or I would doodle during an entire lecture…even in my Master’s program. So, yeah, I get it and I am so happy they aren’t tied to a desk for 8 hours a day! So, what has this taught me? I know my kids will learn when it’s best for them and I have no doubt that they will learn all they need to be successful in whatever they choose. I think this will happen even if I did nothing at all. No, I really shouldn’t say that. I think that, as a parent, I am responsible for keeping their environments rich, for facilitating exposure to new things, and for helping them to understand the world around them, but this does not mean I need to dictate what and when they need to learn for the next 18 years of their lives.
4) I generally let the kids lead already. I introduce a subject that they might be interested in and we go with it until it seems to run its course. Or, more often than not, Tater Tot or Boo Bear will ask a question or show some interest in something that will provide a direction for the moment. Hmm. “Direction for the moment”. I like that. It might just be my new phrase to describe what it is we are doing at any given point in time. Like a compass, we have direction for the moment and it can change in the blink of an eye, but no matter which way we go…we are still pointing somewhere, right? My kids lead me in many directions (often more than one at once) and sometimes I am not fully prepared for where the day takes us, but that’s okay, because I want us to enjoy the journey, as much as I am concerned about the destination.
Do I have to fight that side of me that wants to see immediate, documented proof that learning is taking place? Do I have trouble ignoring the societal “mandates” that dictate when every child in the country should have a specific task mastered? Well, yes, I am a product of the compulsory schooling model, after all. I mean, what if a random government official were to unexpectedly (and unconstitutionally) drop into our house for a review of our educational milestones? I need them to stay on track, don’t I? I don’t want my children to be considered “behind” or “slow” or for me to be labeled as incapable of teaching my children what they need to know. I don’t imagine anyone wants those burdens. However, my heart and my conscience and my sole observations have led me to believe that all these things that go through my mind are inconsequential in the grand scheme of my children’s growth. These worries I have are put on me by a society I don’t even really agree with at it’s core value level anymore, so why should I give them credence? My children are amazing beings with amazing intelligence, each one. But each will have his or her own special way to shine and I have decided my sole job as their mother and as their teacher is to help them each achieve their individual greatness. I am a fairly logical being, so I realize this will look different for every one of them. Why would I design a canned curriculum around such a variety of personalities, each with individual likes and dislikes, motivations and desires, dreams and conceptions? Yes the only real full-blown, stick-to-it plan I have, and probably ever truly had, is to love them all unconditionally. Beyond that, we mostly just wing it. Really. I guide a lot, to be fair, but quite often, we are learning as we go, with little more than a single question we want answered to spark us on our momentary learning path. When something becomes a struggle, it’s nixed…maybe revisited at a future date, maybe not. I want my children to love learning and to see the possibilities in themselves and in the world. I wholeheartedly believe that this can best be achieved if the kids are allowed to find their own ways. I believe in unschooling. I believe that there will be days when nothing seems to happen, but I also believe that days when things do “happen” will completely make up for those days where nothing does. The benefits of a child who truly enjoys learning will pay off in spades over time…an unchartable; glorious end, where the means matter, but not the measurement of those means. Who needs silly timelines and societal mandates when you can get a kid to love learning? If that means reading at 10 instead of 6, who cares? Really. Why does it matter? I, for one, have decided to give my children a lifetime of fish. So, what does this make us? Unit Studies? Classical? Traditional? I still believe we use a bit of everything and anything, so eclectic is not a bad catch-all. However, in my heart, I know we are unschoolers, because it’s how we go about using any one of these things that makes the difference. We use them when they seem appropriate for the given child and the given time. We use them as tools, but unschooling? That defines us, as I believe it is a way of being, more than a teaching style. After all, each child should “learn to fish”, but everyone’s fish-catching technique might look a little different. I’ll leave the details up to them. I’ll just be sure to keep the pond well-stocked!