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.

32 thoughts on “What It Looks Like

  1. Mary

    January 13, 2009 at 10:10am

    Look, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it is a known fact that children learn better when shoved into overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers, and are separated according to class. Only then can they be bored enough to absorb the curriculum of constant memorization one needs to become a great consumer!
    You are such a hippie!

    Mary’s last blog post..A New Year’s Riddle

  2. B

    January 13, 2009 at 2:14pm

    What Mary said.

    Seriously though, I’m still flabbergasted that 2 year olds are expected to follow a curriculum.

    B’s last blog post..Update from Germ Central

  3. Katherine

    January 13, 2009 at 2:22pm

    Don’t forget the heavy metal run-off from mining that Tom pointed out that made us all go, “Ewww!”

    Katherine’s last blog post..Anime +1

  4. Jess

    January 13, 2009 at 3:04pm

    I find myself so excited by your parenting ideas that I want to tell people about them all the time, so I often get weird resistance second hand that way. I can’t imagine what it’s like when that’s your life and not just a choice to enter into a conversation about parenting.

    Jess’s last blog post..Been a long time

  5. liz

    January 13, 2009 at 10:51pm

    Open learning? Community teaching? Free discovery? I bet if you said Sam goes to the school of hard knocks you’d get a whole different bunch of people comfortable with the idea.

    I also bet he’ll remember the geology of California better than any kid looking at a lecture chart.

    liz’s last blog post..Turkey: Istanbul

  6. Nana

    January 14, 2009 at 7:06am

    See if anyone catches the irony if you tell them you are teaching him to be an autodidact.

  7. Stephanie

    January 14, 2009 at 9:08am

    My take on the word unschooling. In the absence of school, if we lived in a world where everyone did what we do, what would you call what we do? Well, nothing. It’s just living and I guess you might say just “learning,” maybe “growing up,” but probably not. Probably you’d just not refer to it at all, because it’s a part of life, like breathing. So it’s not that we’re undoing anything, it’s just a word that is a reaction to a world that has school in it, a world that pretty much expects all children to do this learning and growing up thing by attending school. We live in that world, so we’ve got to give this thing a name, to differentiate.

    Stephanie’s last blog post..Oh hai. I has a belly button.

  8. Annika

    January 14, 2009 at 9:27am

    As usual, I totally agree with Stephanie. My objection to the words is really a desire for a simple way to convey our ideas to people who have only been exposed to convention ideas about education. Like, in one or two words. I know it is unrealistic.

  9. Cindy Lou

    January 14, 2009 at 12:06pm

    When Sam is ready to experience snow, he should come visit Miss Cindy in Michigan. We have lots of the damn white stuff.

    Cindy Lou’s last blog post..Healthy, Wealthy and Wise

  10. Lucretia

    January 14, 2009 at 1:20pm

    I find your unschooling ideas really interesting and positive, Annika.

    However, I thought Mary’s comments were perhaps a little unfair. I possibly read them wrongly, so feel free to correct me, I don’t want to ruffle feathers.

    I have teacher friends who do a fantastic job. I have applied to train to be a teacher (for 5 – 12 year olds). I don’t think any of my friends came off too badly from being “schooled”.

    Um … school obviously didn’t do me much good because I’m not explaining this well!

    How about this; school ain’t perfect but it’s not necessarily the “worst” choice.

    You all possibly agree with me so sorry if I’m coming across as antsy (I worked for 12 hours today).

  11. allison

    January 14, 2009 at 2:26pm

    I love how you are “larnin'” Sam. I know he will grow up to be a curious, insightful and (dare I say it?) well-educated adult.

    As a teacher, I completely understand the challenges of meeting each and every child’s needs in the confines of a classroom. Quite honestly, often we fail. Not always disastrously, in fact, I see teachers every day that astonish me with their commitment and caring to children, but when you have 20, 25 or 30 plus kids in one room, there is no way to individually tailor the learning. We try, but it is pretty much an impossible task. Kids fall through the cracks, only to emerge in later years as failing in math or reading. Bright kids get bored with teachers having to teach at the slower learners’ pace and become a behaviour problem. And that doesn’t even to begin to address the issues that come up when you are teaching a child who hasn’t eaten, or slept in a bed the night before, or is being abused or any of the terrible things that happen to children.

    Many parents don’t feel comfortable with the idea of being responsible for their child’s education, but sadly, ultimately, they are far more responsible than anything I can do in the classroom. Their support, encouragement and involvement is what makes a child able to learn; inside and outside of a classroom.

    This is a whole lot longer than I intended, but I fully support your decision on how you will manage Sam’s education. Sam has loving parents in you and Will and I know you will help him to choose whatever is right for him, help him to learn the things that he needs to be a successful adult and the help him discover the things that make him joyful. Lucky Sam.

    allison’s last blog post..What the…???

  12. oslowe

    January 14, 2009 at 2:57pm

    Wow, Allison just made me feel all Empowered and stuff. I might have even teared up a little.

    Lucretia: I’m sure Mary didn’t mean to cross over your Class barriers- she meant to say “seperated by age”. We “larnin” types know no class barriers! ;p

    I don’t speak for Mary (or annika for that matter) but I am sorry if you were ruffled/offended by her enthusiasm for our unorthodox parenting choices- sometimes us “Free Range” parents get a bit giddy when we shout support for each other; probably because a lot of the time we feel like we’re getting judged as hairy freaky hippie people who are letting their kids play with knives and pot, or that we are weird “hipster slackers” who think that Teachers suck and school makes kids into Facists- or (my favorite) that because we choose not to put our kids into the System it is due to Not Enough God and Fags Are Evil morals being taught therein…

    Truth be told, we admire a number of teachers. Both Annika and I had teachers who were friends, teachers who we remember with respect and love. We have a lot of friends who are teachers, and respect/admire what they do. While there are some shitty teachers out there, that is a universal “duh”, as there are crappy Everybodies out there.

    So we don’t have an issue with teachers. I think that we DO (and again, I can’t speak for Mary, because she is doubtless unable to speak due to being chased by the Moth Man or Moonshine Hillbillies at the moment) have some issues with the System. Whether it’s the compartmentalization of kids according to age, or the “leave no one behind” laws our exciting President has championed, we got a lot of issues with education in this Country.

    That said, it did wonders for my sister. Me? Not so much. School is like many other important things (drinking, fucking, movie genres of choice): It’s important to You to figure out what You are comfortable with. It isn’t a blanket statement about Every Single Person out there- and if I make a statement like that, I need to be slapped in the head.

    Our choices are our choices, we try hard to make the right ones because, as parents, it’s our unenviable job.

    We also try to keep things light and fun, and sometimes we all (even Mary) say things that may come off as mean-spirited, sarcastic or judgemental. We hear a lot of it, us Free-Rangers, so sometimes we throw it at each other in sarcasm.

    Well, that sarcasm and humor will get her in trouble. That is why I sicced the Moth Man on her. That’ll teach her.

    oslowe’s last blog post..2,000 Bullets

  13. Holly

    January 14, 2009 at 5:50pm

    Uh, isn’t Sam 2? What 2 yr old has a curriculum?

  14. Annika

    January 14, 2009 at 8:45pm

    Yes, Sam is two. Preschools (not all of them! I hope) are starting children on a “school prep” curriculum as early as 18 months, and typically starting at two and a half. Granted, it is mostly play-based, but it’s still a curriculum.

  15. Amy

    January 14, 2009 at 9:15pm

    Incidentally, does Sam call Will “Paw”? Because these pictures make me feel like he should.

  16. Annika

    January 14, 2009 at 9:22pm

    Oh, I wish he did. He calls him “Daddy.”

  17. Annika

    January 14, 2009 at 9:23pm

    BTW, Lucretia, I pretty much agree with everything Will said so nicely. Except where he called Bush “exciting.” I think he meant “exiting.”

  18. oslowe

    January 15, 2009 at 10:16am

    well, Bush has been pretty exciting, you gotta admit that…

    oslowe’s last blog post..2,000 Bullets

  19. Lucretia

    January 15, 2009 at 11:53am

    oslowe (and all);

    Sorry if I came across as grumpy, and everything you said totally makes sense. Thank you. I didn’t want to be a pain in the arse on someone else’s blog. A blog I really like!

    In addition, I laughed like a drain at Annika’s Bush comment. Then worried that I sounded like a drain.

  20. Holly

    January 16, 2009 at 6:10am

    Would you please explain what a preschool’s school-prep play curriculum is for a 2 yr old? This is new to me. (Referring to Will’s comment)
    I have 2 kids in public school (5th and 7th grades), one homeschooled (1st grade) and one in preschool.
    I enjoy this blog. I don’t share many of your viewpoints, but we do have a few in common.
    To me, the common conception that preschool is necessary and should be mandatory for all children is ludicrous. It can be a positive thing in a child’s life, and beneficial to both them and the parent(s), but is it necessary for success? Hell no.

  21. Holly

    January 16, 2009 at 6:11am

    Forgive me, it as Annika’s comment I was referring to.

  22. Annika

    January 16, 2009 at 6:42am

    Well, you’ve got me there. I don’t know. Not having a kid in preschool, I have thankfully avoided all contact with it. (That’s not meant as a dig! I am fine with other people having their kids in preschool; I’m just not fine with the idea that you HAVE TO.) All I know is that a bunch of the preschools in my area advertise their academic prowess, which I think is ridiculous. One has the slogan “here today, college tomorrow!” Gah.

  23. Katherine

    January 16, 2009 at 10:39am

    Preschool “curriculum” as typified in Head Start programs usually refers to providing the kinds of activities that kids would get at home (being read to, counting games, nature play, kitchen science, etc.) but don’t. This is basic, good stuff and was developed in order to help level the playing field for kids whose parents basically don’t know how to parent.

    I only have peripheral knowledge of non-Head Start “curriculum” but it seems to mostly involve rote learning of calculations, words, colors, animals, etc., which is a good party trick and can be helpful in early grades, but the advantage of that kind of learning doesn’t last long and doesn’t help with reading comprehension and problem solving which are the BEST skills a child can learn & develop in school for life long learning.

  24. Holly

    January 16, 2009 at 8:11pm

    I feel a condemnation of preschools from the comments about preschool curriculum, and from what I’ve gathered nobody who made said comments has any firsthand knowledge of so-named curriculum? That’s interesting.
    I am all for hands-on learning at every age, it’s the best kind in my opinion. But, rote learning has its place too (tell me a better kind for spelling or geography, for instance).
    I’m standing on a soapbox here, so I’ll climb down and go back into lurkmode. I just bristle at unfounded blanket statements.

  25. allison

    January 17, 2009 at 8:34am

    Although there are kids and adults who can learn to spell that way, in my opinion there are definitely better ways to teach and learn spelling than rote memorization. There is a reason so many kids have trouble spelling when they get into the higher grades, and that is the reliance of giving kids a list of words to memorize. Explicitly teaching letter and word patterns, emphasizing typical phonic sounds and then the variations, and working with a child to hear and say all the sounds in a word helps them far more than rote memorization. Sure, there are irregular words that require simply remembering, but if you rely on just memory for spelling, odds are you will not be a particularly good speller.

    As for geography, I personally learned much more from connecting places to the stories I read, then looking them up on the map and tracing with my finger. I think when people have connections to make to places, they learn better strategies for learning where they are and what they are like. A strong visual learning style often helps with geography too. Kids who don’t have a strong sense of spatial relations can have difficulty with geography and need other strategies.

    In short, I am not a fan of emphasizing rote memory without understanding.

    Rant over. :-)

  26. Annika

    January 17, 2009 at 8:48am

    I am SO not trying to argue (I really have no interest in making anyone feel alienated) but the best way to learn to spell is to read. And while I am not arguing, I studied geography in school and learned about the middle east, and East and West Germany. I’m just saying.

    I’ve admitted that I have no first-hand experience with preschool, but I also have no firsthand experience with war and I know I don’t want to go fight in one. (That’s a ridiculously dramatic comparison, and I’m sorry for it.) I also read a lot about education–I recommend John Holt if anyone is interested in the basis for my educational philosophy. Yes, I feel quite strongly about my beliefs, but I’m not trying to force people to agree with me. I only insist that people respect my right to do it my way and to discuss it here (which I feel pretty sure everyone has, and I am thankful for that).

  27. Anne

    January 17, 2009 at 8:50am

    I just wanted to pop in and say that I love the term “Free Range” parenting. I don’t know if you guys came up with it or not, but I think it’s a great, descriptive phrase.

  28. Katherine

    January 17, 2009 at 10:26am

    Holly – I just want to make it clear that I am NOT knocking preschool. But I am dubious about the benefits of any kind of schooling for toddlers, especially rote learning.

    In my experiences with mothers who work outside the home, I think that some “preschools” are daycare facilities with “value-adds” like “curriculum” and “classrooms” so that the parents feel like their kids are “getting something” out of being away from home and family all day.

    And I am NOT knocking daycare or working moms. But I have a lot of opinions about this stuff as someone who spent a chunk of her own education studying learning and educational systems, and as the child of an in-home daycare provider and a teacher, and as the wife of a teacher.

    But I LOVE Head Start programs. That’s good stuff – because it’s about engaging families in the process of a child’s development and helping kids get the resources that they can’t get at home. Plus, it’s fun. So is kindergarten. It’s before and after that where I think you have to be really careful.

  29. Holly

    January 17, 2009 at 1:28pm

    I have enjoyed this discussion. My views on childcare, daycare, preschool, public school, private school, homeschool, unschool, etc have all evolved as my children have, and the world with us. And I must say that I believe we share a lot of the same opinions, maybe not on the exact same page but at least the same chapter. :o)
    I, too, am a firm believer in reading as the basis for all learning (spelling, geography, math, what have you). I also think that a combined approach (phonics w/rote learning) is a good way to go, especially if you can combine more than one sensory track to reinforce the way it comes into the brain.
    In short, I thank you for letting me spout off a bit, and I appreciate the respectful tone of this discussion.

  30. allison

    January 17, 2009 at 2:39pm

    Oh, Annika, I absolutely agree that reading is the best way to learn spelling naturally. A lot of people figure out spelling rules and how words work that way. It’s fun to talk about how words work and the basis of language too!

    Because my students are middle-schoolers with learning disabilities, I tend to get caught up in a bit of a fix-it frame of mind. The kids I work with, didn’t and don’t read, mainly because it was a mystery to them and has been for years. They have little or no understanding of how language works, so it’s really important to teach them explicitly.

    Children who learn to read easily and well, will rarely have that many problems with spelling, although some of them do benefit from being taught specific language and word patterns. Just my two (or four) cents!

  31. rachel

    January 18, 2009 at 4:06pm

    I don’t think Annika was criticizing any other type of education program. She was just giving us an example of how she and Will educate Sam. Thanks for sharing, Annika, without bashing traditional schooling.

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