Monday, June 7, 2010

When They Don't Know It's Algebra

Ju Ju Chang, an ABC news correspondent has been very busy for the past couple of months, interviewing families who homeschool, but not just homeschool. She's on the witchhunt for parents who are unschooling their children.

I have, now, seen two of her segments (and I will assume that there are only two, thus far), and I have to say, as an unschooler, I think she really misses the point. For instance, in the second segment, the mother mentions that she has forgotten a great deal of what she learned in school, to which Ju Ju Chang's holier-than-thou voice over quips, things her children may never have the chance to forget.

What's funny is that the reaction from the homeschooling/unschooling community is that Ms. Chang has just given the public school system a new tagline: "all the education we could ever forget."

Of course, the funniest comment I saw on my homeschool board had to do with the dietary choices of these radically unschooled children, which, according to the piece consisted of "nothing but noodles with peanut sauce", to which the homeschoolers in my group asked, "Have these people never heard of Thai food?!?"

I thought it was pretty funny, because I wasn't thinking about it being Thai food, but I was thinking, "why is noodles with peanut sauce bad?" Especially given some of the things children are fed in school lunchrooms.

What's sad, though, is that Chang really does miss the point, which is, there is no comparing going to school with unschooling. It's apples and oranges.

Traditional schooling is about providing instruction (usually in a lecture format) in specified subjects with goals and objectives which the children should achieve by a specified period of time (before we argue this point, please note that I have B.A. in English with a minor in education, and I taught high school English in the public school system). It's not about lifestyle choices. It's not about philosophies. It's not about belief systems or integrating life experiences and building the puzzle of who we are and what our purpose on this planet might be from the pieces we're given as we grow and mature. In fact, it's the opposite of those things, because our schools can not (and should not) delve into those topics. Can you imagine having a teacher ask the question, and then try to give the acceptable-by-school-standards, politically correct, generic answer, "why are we here?"

Unschooling is family-centric, and it is about lifestyle and philosophies and belief systems and integrating learning with living. For my family of unschoolers learning is an every minute every day activity, and we don't organize our blocks of time into this hour is learning math and this hour is reading and this hour is recess.

When my children want to read, they grab a book and do it, and when something in the book they're reading sparks a thought they'd like to share, they come and tell me about it.

When they want to go outside and play, they pull on their shoes and go, and while they're out there, they might learn about a caterpillar that only eats milkweed and becomes a Monarch butterfly, or they might observe the difference between a tree frog and a garden toad, or they might just hang upside down from the trapeze bar until all of the blood rushes to their heads and they feel dizzy.

My daughter received a Betta fish as a gift from her friend. She's decided she wants to breed Bettas. So, she started doing some research, found what appeared to be the most conclusive resource available on breeding the fish, and I purchased a copy of it for her. She read the entire book. She's learned about their natural habitat and how Betta fish differ from other types of freshwater fish that has enabled them to live in much shallower water than, for instance, the common gold fish. She's researched their habits and personality traits and what they need to be healthy in captivity and how to breed them and how many fish she could, potentially, get from a breeding pair during each "cycle." She wants to make a business of it, sell the baby fish back to the pet store, and earn a few dollars.

Today is June 8. She received the fish on May 29.

Ju Ju Chang is incredibly worried about what unschooled children don't know, but what she fails to see is the things that they do know. Like the eleven year old boy who bakes bread ... by himself, no less.

She mentions such important knowledge as cultural experiences, such as reading Shakespeare and Mark Twain, but my not-yet-high-school-aged children know about Shakespeare. In fact, they've seen his entire body of work, as performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

But they've also seen Much Ado About Nothing, which is probably one of my favorites (gotta LOVE Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson ... and sweet, baby-faced Leonard ... and Keanu Reeves as the bad guy ... and we can't forget Michael Keaton as the village idiot. Too, too funny! And very well done!), and several others that we own (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, etc.).

Maybe Chang would believe that my children didn't really get the full experience of Shakespeare, because they're not reading Shakespeare, but I would have to argue that point with her. See, when I was in graduate school studying for my M.A. in English, I had to take a British Literature course, and I chose Shakespeare, taught by a professor whose Dissertation had been on Shakespeare's work, and this professor told us on the first day of class, that as much as she enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Shakespeare was not meant to be read, it was meant to be watched. We, in the learned society that we are, treat some of our greatest dramatic works as if they are literature, and force our students to read something was not meant to be flat words on paper but grandiose gestures on stage.

My children, for all of their "not" getting an education like most of America believes children should, are experience Shakespeare the way it was meant to be experienced - as a dramatic work ... and, frankly, it's a lot more fun that way for me (who loves reading Shakespeare), too.

Chang was also pretty worried that unschooled kids won't learn more advanced math, and her favorite thing to do to those unschooled kids is to start quizzing them. Like with most things, there's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. My daughter is learning algebra, only she doesn't know it. She's learning to solve equations like:


The letters represent numbers, and it is a math equation. So, 4o=t, which means that 4o+1=o (because no two letters will be the same number), and 4t=h ... but 4o will have to be a two digit number, and so will 4o+1=t. As such, 4t+1 will equal h.

See? Algebra.

And she figured it out, almost as quickly as I, who studied algebra, algebra II, geometry, trignometry, and analytical geometry in high school.

Today I asked her to solve this problem for me:

I am dehydrating greens for soup during the winter. I estimate that I will use 1/4c of greens per pot of soup, and that I will make one pot of soup per week for the thirty weeks of the non-growing season. How many cups of greens will I need to dehydrate?

The bonus question was: if I can get 1/2c of greens for each dehydrator load, how many loads of greens will I need to dehydrate?

I left her the questions and went about my day.

At some point, she solved the questions and wrote her answer on a piece of paper, which she folded in half, taped closed, wrote "Mommy" on the outside, and left beside my desk in front of the printer. I found it this evening.

She wrote: The answers to your questions are: you will need 7 1/2 cups of dried greens to last thirty weeks with one pot of soup a week. In order to dry that much, you will need to fill the dehydrator fifteen times.

No ... pencils
No ... books
No ... teacher's dirty looks

She's never been to school. She's had no formal education, and yet ....

Maybe we don't need school, as much as "school" needs us.


  1. I believe that the media looks for an interviewee that will cause concern; i.e.: one who will make the viewers object to the subject. Imagine the average citizen watching an interview with a homeschooling family who had spent hundreds of dollars on a curriculum, studied the courses, prepared the portfolios (which are handed in to the state), and attended activities with other homeschoolers in the area as extra-curricular studies. They’d be impressed. But that type of reporting doesn’t *sell*.

    I have a high school education (class of 1972), and took a few college courses in my early 40’s. I work with 20-somethings who have college degrees. When each of these folks started working with me, I had to teach them how to convert kilos to lbs!

    Last week these educated folks were grasping for the word for a person who sets out a gentleman’s clothes. I said “valet”. They told me no, that is a car attendant. I told them to look it up online, which they did ;) Brick and mortar schools just don’t give you the educational experience that they did *back in my day*.

    So keep doing your good work. Your children will benefit from it!

  2. Very well said Wendy, It's inspiring for me, as I send my girls off to public school....

  3. Farmgal: I know that what you say is true - Chang was going for the sensationalist angle, but seriously, watching the piece, these families are just ... ordinary. She's trying to paint them as some sort of fringe subversives (because they don't go to school or have rules, which isn't entirely accurate), but if we look beyond what Chang is saying, and pay attention to what she's showing, then we can see how remarkable those children really are (I mean, the baking bread from scratch - I've spent time online reading about adult women who are just learning to bake bread, and this was an eleven year old boy! Pretty cool!). I hope more people will *see* what's really happening in the piece and ignore the words they're hearing that actually contradict the images. It's like showing scenes from beehive and declaring that they are unintelligent, chaotic and disorganized insects, when just a few minutes of careful observation reveals something completely different.

    Rowan - thanks :). Hey - how'd you like the brew, by the way?

  4. I frankly wish unschoolers would stop doing these interviews. The reporters have no desire to do it right and I worry about backlash from school systems that have seen these reports. I have no desire for anyone to start looking at what we are doing.

  5. Wendy,
    Your very last sentence nailed it right on the head!

  6. Shhh... Don't tell Ju Ju about The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. Apparently, I received my BA* from the un-college.

    *BA in The History Of Political Marketing- try getting one of those at your local state school.