What It Looks Like

People often ask me what form our home/unschooling takes, or if we’re doing a preschool curriculum (those people don’t know us, obviously), or some other variation on our education plans for Sam. And you know, telling them we believe in child-led learning doesn’t seem to answer the questions. Because that’s just not a concept most people get. It’s too far removed from normal, and too vague, and it implies that we take a totally passive role. But really, I think the terms homeschool and unschool are at least as awful and vague and I need a new word. Homeschooling is no good because we don’t do school at home, and unschooling is no good because we’re not undoing anything. I like life learning but again with the vague, plus it makes us sound like a bunch of long-haired hippies. (Oh, wait. I have the shortest hair in the family.)

So this is what Sam’s education looks like (you may have already seen these if you clicked through to Flickr on the last post and you’re my Flickr friend):


We went to Joshua Tree, as I mentioned, and Sam ran along paths and between cactuses like a little wild man. Occasionally he stopped and looked at something. He is full of curiosity, but also very matter-of-fact in that he just accepts his surroundings without needing much explanation or elaboration. But when his dad knelt down and looked at the sand in a dry creek bed, Sam immediately followed suit, experimenting with the way it felt in his hands and the way it sparkles and shines with bits of mica and quartz.

And then he ran off into the sun again.


Sam was playing with another little boy in the laundry room. The boy’s father asked me if Sam is in preschool and I said no. He asked if he’d be going when he turns three and I said I didn’t know yet (no sense in hitting strangers with the schooling philosophy whammy). And then he sort of scolded me, because “school is important so kids can play with other kids.” Um, you mean like they are doing right now? God I hate everyone.

This doesn’t make me like Rachael Ray.

Quickly, while Sam is driving his Matchbox cars around on a Playmobil castle–

Last night’s dinner was good enough that it prompted Will to ask if we can please eat like that more often. Which was totally a compliment except it made me feel like a rotten wife for not cooking like that all the time. But let me back up.

Several weeks ago I bought a ton of fresh chilies at the farmer’s market, insanely cheap, and made some chili with them by cooking them with an onion and I think some garlic and a beer until everything was soft. I then froze the whole mess. This weekend I put up a pan of pinto beans to soak, and yesterday I made the world’s hottest chili (and by hot I mean picanté). While I was prepping the sides, Sam asked to help. He wanted to sit on my back, but it turns out that doesn’t work so well in the kitchen (piggyback is how I carry him most of the time, now that he holds on). The Ergo was down in the car so I grabbed the sling and did this:

I just used the hip carry and swung him around. So easy. All I had to adjust was the fabric over my boob. I know, HOT. It’s comfier than it looks.

He stayed with me while I chopped up stuff for Cassie’s Southwestern Salad, which has corn and bell peppers and zucchini and other good stuff in it and is OMG delicious. I grabbed a small mixing bowl to use for my peels and stuff and I am a convert: Rachael Ray got one thing right. If you know how much her 30 Minute Meals annoy me, you know how hard it is for me to admit that. Now I guess I finally know who I hate more, Rachael Ray or Rachel Ashwell. Oh, who am I kidding–I still hate them equally. I just like the garbage bowl while I’m cooking.

We also chopped up some garnet sweet potatoes and fingerling potatoes (the French kind, which it turns out I don’t love as much as the Russian kind), which we roasted with olive oil, salt, and cumin. I added a little margarine when they were done.

The meal was insanely delicious. I roasted a chicken boob with some paprika for Will, and we both had some plain yogurt with our chili (so picanté) and it was really really good.

And Sam helped! Who knew a hand-me-down sling would come to so very much good use? (Thank you, Stephanie!)


We tried using sign language with Sammy when he was a baby, and while he clearly understood us, and responded appropriately, he never used signs himself so we stopped. (I think we figured, why sign when we can speak?) Unfortunately for us, Sam’s taken the same attitude toward spoken language, and rarely speaks when he can get his message across another way. I shouldn’t even say unfortunately, except that it gets frustrating sometimes when I just want him to tell me what he wants to eat so I don’t have to name every single thing we’ve got. But I know he understands the language and is capable of speaking it. He just doesn’t seem to feel it’s necessary.

(Actually, he talks all the time. In Japanese or Sindarin or something. He has a lovely, lovely voice that I never get tired of listening to. But oh, how I wish I knew what he was saying.)

In sixth grade I studied German after school. The materials used focused primarily on conversational language, which I think was very smart. (Amusingly, they were at least partially written materials.)

Seventh grade didn’t offer any language. The attached high school, which I never attended, offered French and Spanish. The magnet school I attended in eighth grade (my last year of formal education before college) taught Latin. A few years later I briefly studied French with a woman named Holly who’d met her Arab husband in Paris. At the time he didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Arabic so they conversed only in French. Their son was tri-lingual, but would answer questions in English no matter what language they were asked in. Later I studied sign language, but pidgen signed English rather than ASL (which has its own grammar structure).

I only speak English. I know a few words, songs, and phrases in other languages (kitchen Spanish, anyone?) but half the time I don’t really know what I am saying. Thank goodness beer is pronounced the same in so many languages.

Last week I decided that I want to go live in Germany. Some day. I don’t know for how long– anything from a month to a year, I imagine. I have no idea if we’ll ever do it, but I’m thinking of trying to learn the language anyway. I wonder whatever happened to my old textbook.

On Learning

This is a passage from the book Learning All The Time by John Holt. He is discussing ways of exposing children to the ideas behind reading (letters stand for sounds, letters put together make words) while letting them figure it out in a way that makes sense to them. He is specifically talking about writing out simple words whose letters make the sounds that make up the word (not all of them do, as he points out)–and he uses Sam as his example word! I think this passage applies to much more than just reading.

It is neither necessary nor a good idea to be too thorough about this. It is not a lesson to be completely learned and digested the first or second time. This is not how children learn things. They have to live with an idea or insight for a while, turn it around in some part of their minds, before they can, in a very real sense, discover it, say “I see,” take possession of the idea, and make it their own–and unless they do this, the idea will never be more than surface, parrot learning, and they will never really be able to make use of it.

Mr. Holt’s ideas about learning have inspired my entire set of educational beliefs. Honestly, everything he has to say is so exciting to me! And I think his books are wonderful tools in raising children no matter what kind of education you favor.

School Year Resolutions

Sam is only two, with school a concept he’s never had to consider. School starts next week for children in our city, while our days will continue on as they are.

I don’t like curriculum, or feel that it’s appropriate for a child Sam’s age. I know he can learn everything he needs to know simply from being in the world. I find myself asking, though, what I can do to make sure that all the world has to offer him is available when he needs it.

How can I expose him to people and places outside of his family life?

How can I show him new ideas and concepts?

How do I respect his comfort level while challenging him?

And how the heck do I motivate myself in all this?

I’ve got a few ideas.

We can visit the museum and the children’s gallery more frequently. There he can see art and also create it, and there are plenty of toys if he just wants to play. His membership is free and we can take the bus there and back for $2.50 total.

We can go to the zoo. We have a membership so it only costs us the gasoline to drive there.

We can read more. Lately I’ve been suggesting a book whenever Sam is not busy playing. He says no about half the time, but I think it’s good that he make his own decisions. And he says yes the other half!

We can start going to story hour at the library, as soon as I find out which libraries have story hours where he is welcome (they all seem to have age limits). I’m hoping there will be one in walking distance, but if not the Metro goes to the main branch or we can park there for $1.

We can go to the park more frequently. He loves the playground SO MUCH and it is only 1.3 miles away. I have no excuse for not walking there with him more often.

We can cook together. He loves to use his Cutting Food when I prepare dinner, and we should do it more frequently.

As for me, I will have to spend less time knitting and on my computer, and more time getting myself moving. It sounds so easy when I put it like that, but just showering can be a real challenge for me some days. I wake up slowly and most days the morning is gone before I know it. I resolve to really use the mornings more frequently, even if it hurts.

But not until I recover from the cold. It is really and truly kicking my butt. Maybe while I recover you could tell me about your favorite things to do with your children (if you’re a parent) or your favorite memories of things you did with your parents. Need not be “educational” as long as you enjoy(ed) it!

Thanks to Stefani whose lovely post inspired this one.

Best email exchange ever.

I may never check my email again, because it’s already reached its pinnacle.

John to Beloved Annika 8:48 AM
Subject: home schooling

Here’s my biggest concern…

If Will is working during the day, and you’re a girl, who’s going to teach Sam math?


Movies. Musicals. Malaise.

My reply:

Annika Barranti to John 8:58 AM

Television, John. Television.


a little parable.

Let’s say it was the law that children MUST be fed in restaurants, to ensure adequate nutrition. Any family who feels that this is too restrictive, for whatever reason, has the option to feed their children at home under the supervision of a restaurant OR declare their home a private restaurant. Then one day a family is taken to court for abuse and for some reason the case becomes about food. The judge rules that parents may only feed their own children if they are CIA-trained. By which I mean Culinary Institute of America, because the other one would be a little crazy even for this story. But restaurant chefs have no training requirements! Hmm, doesn’t this all sound insane?

Here’s the deal.

I love Christians (I married one!) but if the goddamn crazy fundamentalist ones don’t stop ruining everything for the rest of us they are going on my permanent shit list.

Pretty much everyone I know has emailed or otherwise brought to my attention the California court case from earlier this week (last week?) in which the judge ruled that home schooling is ILLEGAL unless the parent is an accredited teacher.

This is the most ridiculous interpretation of the law that I have ever heard.

According to California law (and I am not versed in legalese so I am going by what the Home School Legal Defense says) any family can become a private school. Private school teachers in California ARE NOT REQUIRED to be accredited.

You can see how the ruling contradicts the law entirely, can’t you?

The main problem seems to be that the laws don’t actually say ANYTHING about home schooling itself, leaving it kind of open for interpretation whether it’s allowed. But there are a number of things that definitely ARE allowed, including the private school option I mentioned.

The OTHER main problem is that the family the court case was actually about have been up for various charges of abuse for the past TWENTY YEARS, so it seems to me that this was not about the home schooling AT ALL. And of course, they are Christian.

So of course, every single article about this either focuses on why home schooling is stupid or on how ONLY CRAZY FUNDIES HOME SCHOOL. Which we all know is absolutely true, right?

I am not worried. For one thing, I am certain it will be overturned OR applied only to the one family (there is a legal term for that which I have forgotten). For another, there are four and a half years until Sam is required to be enrolled in school. The laws might change by then anyway, or we might move, or my entire philosophy might change, or… really, anything could happen. I’ll worry about it then.

(Links to come. And possibly some more angry ranting because I am seriously OVER being lumped in with the wackos.)

(Please don’t write to defend the rest of the Christians. I know this is not Jesus’ fault.)

UPDATE: The Governator wants the ruling overturned. I love you, Ahnold!

Learning happens everywhere

Two things, related.

One of the biggest issues I have with formal education is forced peer groups. While I do think that kids naturally gravitate toward other children around the same age, and I think that there is definitely something to be said for being on the same level developmentally as your friends, it seems to me that there is more value in mixed age groups, especially in a learning setting. Much as there is value in books above and below one’s reading level, there is value in being with people from whom you can learn (speaking very generally, people older than you) and who you can guide (generally again, those younger than you). A room full of people with the same experiences and knowledge can’t offer each other much. I think it’s pretty deliberate that school is set up this way, so that the teacher is the only one with new information to offer. I dislike it tremendously.

Sam’s friend Eamon is six and a half. Sam worships Eamon and loves to follow him around, copying everything he does. Six months ago when this started, Eamon hated it. “Mo-om, why is he following me?” and “Mo-om, Sam’s looking at me.” Eamon has a truck, similar to this one, that Sam loves to push around the room. This drove Eamon crazy, because it is his truck and he was just about to play with it (for the first time in ages). Then one day Eamon put Sam on the truck and pushed him around the room. He’d discovered that Sam’s annoying behavior was positive attention, and he found a way to get more of it. Sam laughed and smiled and basically treated Eamon like the greatest guy on the planet. Since then Eamon has delighted in showing Sam how things work and generally being admired. He still frequently gets frustrated when Sam messes up his things or looks at him, but they learn a great deal from each other. Since Sam is extremely unlikely to ever have any older siblings, I am extra grateful that he has Eamon (and Eamon’s big sister Eden, too).

Allison asked in the comments on my last post why we allow Sam to watch television. It’s a good question and I’m not sure if I have a satisfactory answer. While we have thought about it and discussed it, I’ve never tried to articulate it before. And frankly, I may feel a little guilty because I didn’t watch television as a child and I always thought I’d keep my kids from it, too — but I changed my mind. I’m also a little self-conscious about it because on the surface it’s inconsistent with the cloth diapering, breastfeeding, unschooling life we lead. But the fact is that every choice we make is thought out and chosen on its own merits, not because it fits the party line of some parenting style or other. (Not that I think anyone is accusing me of that. I don’t.)

The short answer is that TV is a medium that has value as any other does, and we are particular (sort of) about what he watches and how much. I think there is value in entertainment. It’s not a substitute for reading, ever. But it is not all bad.

We never watch broadcast television. Ever. We unplugged the antenna about four years ago, when Angel ended, and have only watched videos since. So Sam is not being exposed to commercials at all, unless you count the VHS tape of Beauty and the Beast, which opens with a coming soon preview for Aladdin (Sam is going to be very confused, because the announcer says “Coming to theaters this 1992 holiday season” and obviously that isn’t true). I realize there is some concern to be had over merchandising, but we’re not there yet — he is just not old enough to notice branded toys — and I’ll worry about it when we get there.

Except for this past week and a half, when I was sick and pretty much useless, Sam watches a limited amount of cartoons and musicals. He really likes The Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast, and the old Max Fleischer cartoons, especially Betty Boop. Right now as I type* there is a Popeye cartoon on. Sam is sitting next to me, cuddling and watching. He gets up frequently to climb up and rearrange the shelves of DVDs. When he is watching, he laughs at the funny parts (and his sense of humor is really a joy to behold, if a little bit disturbing since he laughs hardest when someone falls down — oh wait, he is just his mother’s son). I think we will have to be pretty conscientious as he gets older, because in a lot of these old cartoons racism and sexism run rampant and I don’t think that’s a message I want Sam thinking is acceptable. But again — when we get there.

He also likes to play video games with his dad. He especially loves driving around in Grand Theft Auto. Which–I know. But his hand-eye coordination is great! And I think that playing video games has value like anything else we do with our time. (I keep using the word value, and I wish I had a better word. But I can’t think of one.) It is entertaining, it makes us think/solve puzzles, it can be relaxing, sometimes there is nifty storytelling…

And frankly, video games and television are part of our world. Will and I want to write movies for a living. Wouldn’t it be a tad ridiculous to shield our child from the creative world of his parents?

(Tomorrow I am just going to post photos. All this typing is exhausting.)

*I typed this hours ago. Right now he is going to bed with his Dad.