Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Criss-Cross ... Applesauce

On one of my homeschool groups over the past few weeks, there's been a very long (apparently too long ;) discussion about what unschooling is. The original conversation was spurred by some recent news stories, and then, there were some people on the group who really wanted to know what it meant, but were having a hard time really grasping the concept, because too often those trying the hardest to find a definition degenerate into a "what we don't do" conversation, and then, there's a lot of confusion, like "so, unschoolers don't use math books and don't make their children change their clothes, wash their hair or brush their teeth, and unschoolers don't have any rules, and unschoolers ...." All of which is just a bunch of crapola.

There always seems to be a desire to neatly define it by what we do or don't do, like our actions can even come close to defining the concept.

Unfortunately, giving a quick and easy, in one or two words, definition is just not that easy. It's like ... well, try to explain what it means to be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Jew, or .... It's like that, because unschooling is a philosophy - not an educational philosophy, but a life philosophy. We call it "unschooling", because most of the people who choose to live this way are also homeschoolers, but it really isn't so much about what we teach or don't teach, but about the way we live.

Deus Ex Machina and I chose to homeschool our girls, and as we started the process, we started exploring some different ideas and concepts and looked for ways to tackle the issue of educating our children that fit with our basic parenting ideals. We are both very hands-on parents, and from our daughters' very first days, we have always been child-led. When I was breast-feeding, my daughters would tell me when they were hungry, and when they were hungry, I fed them - wherever I happened to be (and, yes, there were times when we were driving somewhere and would stop so that I could nurse). I had the luxury of not needing to put them on a schedule. We chose to co-sleep, too, which means that our daughters slept with us for the first few years of their lives. I didn't teach my children to walk or talk, and for the last two, I didn't even potty train them. They were both cloth-diapered and had older siblings. Using the toilet was just something they learned to do. Believe me or not, it's true. Precious, the youngest, was potty trained before she was two, and she did it herself. I know this to be true, because her gift on her second birthday was "big girl panties" of her own so that she didn't have to wear her sister's hand-me-downs.

Homeschooling our children was really the only option for us after the way we spent their early years with them. The idea of giving them over to some institution was very scary for us, and unschooling just felt like a natural extension of the way we'd been living with them from birth.

So, when someone asks me to supply a quick and dirty definition of unschooling, I can't, because it's not about ... not just about ... education. The education portion of it, that is, the academic things my children pick up, is just a side effect of living the kind of life we have.

So, yes, my children can read, but not because they've been subjected to rote exercises. Really. We read to them. We have lots and lots of books and magazines and computer stuff. We expose them to the written word all of the time, every day, and we show them what sounds this letter or that letter makes, and at some point, the little lightbulb went off, and they could understand the symbols on the page or on the computer screen, and form the words.

They can also do simple math, because sometimes they need to know those things - like when they have a candy bar and they need to split it equally between the three of them. That's math, right? Isn't chocolate all about math?

They know the difference between a mammal and a reptile and an insect, because we have cats and dogs and rabbits, and we had an iguana, and there is a plethora of insects right outside our door on the milkweed (and they know what milkweed looks like - and tastes like - too). They can explain the life cycle of a monarch butterfly, and if you explain that a butterfly is an insect, they could then, apply what they know about butterflies and explain the life cycle of all insects.

Today, Little Fire Faery and I were working on her 4-H project. Our group is doing a presentation at the county fair on sustainable living, and Little Fire Faery was tasked with discussing food preservation.

I asked her to tell me about canning, and she did.

I asked her to tell me about some other ways we preserve things, and she talked with me about how we dehydrate herbs and gave me a list of other things we've dehydrated.

I asked her to tell me some other ways that we preserve food, and she mentioned that we keep squash in our bedroom, and she knew that the reason the squash is in our bedroom is because it's the coldest room in the house.

She also talked with me about the fermentation process. She knew that it needed warmth and that it had to be airtight.

She may not know, exactly, what's happening in that bucket while the apple juice is becoming cider, but she had a pretty good understanding of some of the very basic principles, and I was completely impressed by how much she had understood without ever having been formally instructed in the process. At some point, we'll go into more detail with her, and perhaps she'll be a wine-maker in the future, too.

The biggest part of her project is about making applesauce. She told me, step-by-correct-step how it's made, and I'm confident that if she had to do it by herself, she could.

That's unschooling. It's trusting that they will know what they need to know, when they need to know it. Little Fire Faery needed to know about preserving food for her 4-H project, and while I've never forced her to help me in the kitchen during the months and months I'm canning our winter food supply, she's seen enough and experienced enough to know how it's done.

Now, how does one say all of that in ten words or less starting with unschooling is ...?


  1. Very good answer, Kaye, and I've actually used it before. The problem is that the conversation will often go something like:

    "What is unschooling?"

    "It's just living our lives."

    "Yeah, but what do you do?"

    And that's where it gets too complicated to describe in just one word. We "live", true, but how does that make us different from the other six BILLION people on the planet?

    I think the misconception people have about unschooling is envisioning our lives as being an endless "summer break", which it isn't, but it kind of is, but it's definitely not, and how do we explain how it's not like an endless summer break in just a few words?

  2. I have to tell you Wendy, we talked about never sending our children to public schools but when the time finally came we didn't have the faith in ourselves. If they ended up a mess it was going to be our fault!

    This year with Sissy in public school has been one of the most traumatic years I have ever faced as a parent. We are soooo ready to pull her out... But then there is that doubt again.

    Two weeks ago Sissy came home an absolute mess, the only way to calm her down was by rocking her like a baby. Finally she went to sleep and I walked outside. I stared up to the sky and thought "God, what were you thinking leaving these two kids in my care"... I should have never sent her to public school. I had really messed up by trusting someone else more than myself.

    Reading others experiences of unschooling homeschooling is so similar to what we do already. Hearing those experiences puts that faith back were it belongs.... in the home.

    Enjoyed the post.

  3. Leigh - Just so you know, all of us, even us hardcore unschooling gurus, go through the doubts ALL of the time. You'd be a very poor parent if you didn't.

    I won't tell you to homeschool or not to homeschool (although if you really asked my opinion, I would suggest you visit this website ... *grin*), but I will say that it doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. You can decide to try out homeschooling - in whatever way works for you (and there are about a million ways to homeschool from very rigid curriculum-based school-at-home programs to the radical unschooling approach in which nothing, at all, from food choices to bedtime routines is structured) - and then, if it really is not something that works for your family, you can always send Sissy back to school.

    It's just ... if things are that bad for her and for you, perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing to keep her home for a few years.

    I don't recall how old Sissy is, but just FYI, you should check the compulsory attendance laws in your state. Here in Maine, we are not REQUIRED to send our children to school until they are seven (State law requires children be in an "educational program" from the age of 7 to the age of 17), which means that here Kindergarten and 1st grade are actually optional. If she's under the age required by your state's compulsory attendance laws, you don't even have to register her, and you don't have to consider yourselves homeschoolers, either :). Perhaps you have a couple of years to really need to make the commitment to one or the other ;).

    Drop me an email if you'd like. The address is [my name] the at symbol [my blog address before the .blogspot] dot com

  4. Hi Wendy. I have a question, are you required to have your girls take any kind of standardized tests, etc. from the state to evaluate their educational process. Not judging, just wondering. My DIL is homeschooling (K) this year, but she is doing a very structured environment with her little one, has a room set up as a "schoolroom" etc. The other grandson has started kindergarten this year and loves it.. he is an only child so really enjoys the other kids, etc. Each child is unique, I was just curious about regulations where you live

  5. Allison, Per Maine's educational laws, I am required to have my children's progress assessed each year. I can chose to do so in a number of different ways, including, if I wish, standardized testing. Whichever way I choose to do the assessment, it must be done by a state-approved "professional" (i.e. a certified teacher), and the results of the assessment are forwarded to the State education office.

  6. Wendy,
    I will send you an email shortly. I would love to pick your brain a bit. :)

    O and unfortunately Tennessee state attendance law starts at 5 years old. Which I personally think is ridiculous. I think many children aren't ready by then and even more so it is putting little boys at a disadvantage. Boys be slower to mature, therefor many aren't ready by age 5. My son will be a prime example. He is 3 but is very much a baby. Its hard to picture him in just two years having to be in a classroom setting.

    I could go on with my concerns but I wont litter up your comment column. Ill drop you an email soon.

    Thanks for the advice. ;)

  7. Leigh - This is what I found on TN compulsory attendance laws: "Children entering kindergarten shall be five (5) years of age on or before September 30 of the current kindergarten term." TCA 49-6-201(b)(3).
    "However, a child does not have to enroll in school at five years of age, but enrollment must occur no later than the child's sixth birthday. The compulsory attendance law also applies to five year old children once they have attended school for six weeks. "[A] child may be withdrawn within six (6) weeks of initial enrollment without penalty."

    If your daughter is not, yet, six, and will not be six until, say, the summer, she has not had six weeks of school, you could pull her out of school TODAY, and nothing would happen. By law, she is not required to go to school until she is six. The caveat is that she would have to go to Kindergarten as a six year old, which would make her chronologically behind her peers.

    Most kids here in Maine start school at the age of five, in Kindergarten, but what I think most people don't understand is that compulsory attendance laws do not require us to send our children to Kindergarten when they are five. We can wait, if we want to.

    I'll look for your email :).

  8. Wow, what great information. I've been thinking a lot lately about homeschooling, preschool, kindergarten, all that mess. My daughter has just turned 2 and it's all starting to loom ahead of me. Unschooling really appeals to me, so I'm glad to hear it works for you. I would be so nervous that I was putting my child at a disadvantage, depriving her of her peer group, etc. that it's really hard to know what to do.

  9. Diana - you definitely have some valid concerns, and certainly things that homeschoolers think about all of the time. I'm curious, though, why, if you chose to homeschool, you believe that you might be "depriving her of her peer group"? My children have many friends - both children who homeschool and children who do not. They do a lot of outside activities with other children, including being very involved in formal dance training.

    I guess my follow-up question is how do you define "peer group", and do you mean same-aged or just a multi-aged group of youngsters? I ask, because my "peer" group is comprised a wide range of ages. I'm in my early forties, but my husband works with a young man whose wife I would consider my peer. She's in her early thirties. My neighbor, whom I'd also consider my peer, is in her late fifties. If we were all in school, we wouldn't have become friends, because our ages are too far apart, but that's the thing about "real" life, and about what makes homeschooling, and unschooling, in particular, so appealing for us. Our children have "peers" - that is people with whom they have a common interest - who are all ages, and when it comes to relationships with other people, I don't feel they are deprived at all.

  10. Wendy, you're a brave and energetic soul to post about unschooling to a more general audience. I've been burned enough trying to explain how we parent and why that I'm both leery and tired of explaining it to non-unschoolers, but I recognize the value of putting the concepts out there for others to discover and ponder.

    Do you have a community of unschoolers where you live? We have one other family in town who actually unschools, and several others who think they do in that they don't use set curriculum but otherwise parent coercively and controllingly.

    I'm always thrilled to run across other unschoolers, virtually or otherwise!
    Our kids are almost 12 and almost 9 and we're fascinated and delighted by the people they are and are becoming. Unschooling, which also flowed naturally for us from early alternative parenting choices, has shifted so many paradigms for us and always for the better.

  11. Sue, there is an incredibly active homeschooling community where I live, and there are a number of unschoolers in the group as well.

    It is very exciting to find like-minded people, which is what has made the Internet such a god-send for me ;).

  12. homeschooling is one on one with a passive enabling encouraging teacher with real life as the curriculum.

    i know i still didn't get it but it was fun to try.