Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Unschooling: Between Always and Never

We always never have a first day of school.

When the kids were very young and at the beach, they made some friends who were amazed that they had never been to school.
"How do you learn things?" they asked.
My oldest, probably around 8 or 9 at the time, replied, "Well, we are always learning things.  Don't you learn things outside of school?"
The blunt reply was, "No, never.  Why would we want to do that?"

We always never separate life and lessons.

Clearly, there was a communication gap.  The other kids equated learning with lessons in a classroom.  And that was something they did not want to do all the time.

But that's not what learning really is, as homeschoolers find out rather quickly.  Learning is an ongoing process; it happens everywhere and all the time.  We don't have a set school time every day in our house, nor do we have activities or books or lessons which are "school" things specifically, only to be used for lessons at a desk.  Oh, I suppose the kids would point to the several math books that float around as the most schooly books in the house, but even they are always never opened at a specific hour.

I have been homeschooling for 18 years, and my view of homeschooling has changed dramatically.  Full of enthusiasm after my first conference, I brought home tons of books and supplies and manipulatives, and other things that would make my homeschool ultimate.  Most were lost or never used as intended, especially the busy work from a popular curriculum provider.  I understand that curriculum providers and umbrella schools are a wonderful and necessary resource for many families.  But none is a good fit for us, so we (since that first year) always never use one.  Even those who use these resources know that learning is bigger than the box the books are shipped in.

And we always never use desks.

I once bought a school desk at a yard sale.  A desk!!  It has never been used for lessons, but has alternately held a printer, ink and paper, or has served a just-another-horizontal-place-to-put-stuff.  Mostly, it has just been in the way.

I quickly learned that the most important piece of furniture in my homeschool is the couch (or a comfy chair, as the kids get older and spread out).  The most important resources are those the kids love--good books, online resources, good people we know, and most of all, the great outdoors.  I began collecting real books, and gave the school books away.

The oldest child is always the guinea pig, suffering through all of the mistakes.  Fortunately, my oldest was also my best teacher, and she frequently let me know what wasn't working.  The others followed, each with his own way of learning.  These were lessons for me, and I was quickly learning that learning happens all the time, to all of us.

I always never fail to learn from the kids.  Usually.

A friend once asked T* how he learned geography.  He replied, "I have maps on my walls, and I look at them."  This year, on his way to college, he did most of the driving and all the navigation between here and California.  We never had a lesson on "how to get across the country" or even, "Which way is California?"  The same boy, at 17, planned and executed a three-day solo bike ride up the Hudson River Valley, passing through Manhattan, over bridges, and even sleeping outside, completely on his own (though he was aided and greeted at his destination--he is blessed to have good friends in far-away places!!).

Corollary:  We never always know what are kids are capable of doing unless we let them try.

That is not to say that lessons always never happen.  Sometimes a kid needs help with learning to read (but we don't have to do reading daily at 9am), or learning to measure (why not do that while baking a cake?), or  with visualizing glacial geology (time for a hike!).  As my kids can tell, you, I can certainly lecture when necessary. I try not to bore, and I pray I am successful.

So, when the bells ring in the school yard a few blocks away, we won't jump to our books. For us, there is no first day of school. We don't have to start learning, because we never stop; we are always learning.  And somewhere, between always and never, the kids grow up, find their own way, and their own interests...and leave for college.

I always hope they never forget they are learning all the time.

*Quick disclaimer:  T did go to high school.  I have not held that against him, nor does that preclude him from being a homeschooler...once a homeschooler, always never not a homeschooler.


Cay Gibson said...

Bless you for writing this, Macbeth. Bless you twice for sharing it. :-)

Jennifer in TX said...

What a lovely outlook on life and learning, MacBeth! :)

Chari said...

I know I said that this was the article I would have written had I thought of it.....

....well, I just realized this morning that I DID think of it.....and even began writing it a few weeks ago....but never finished.... As usual for many of my blog posts. That being said...YOUR version is most definitely better than the words I was choosing :)

Blythe said...

Great article. Exactly why I homeschool my 3!

melody said...

This is wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time to put it out there for those of us who need it before we order our books for the new year. Sharing this everywhere when I get a moment...

Allison said...


And thank you for sharing your ALWAYS NEVER. I love all the voices in homeschooling and that the beauty of it is making it suit your family's particular needs.

Gina said...

Thanks so much for this post! It was very inspiring! We also used couches (and still do!) ALOT even when we were more structured with our homeschooling. I used to feel guilty that we didn't make it to the table to write or to do math. It also used to be difficult for me to get my kids to do their work at a certain time of day; it always took me all day to keep redirecting them to their school work. Now that we are more relaxed, I still do read to the kids in the morning and have them do some math, but now I am fine with the rest of their learning taking place anytime and all the time.

Stef said...

I'm so glad you bumped this (somewhere on FB? I can't remember where I saw.... one of the groups perhaps :D) but it's one of my favorite blog posts on homeschooling/unschooling! Will share on my FB page too. :)