We are into our fourth week of our 7th year of homeschooling (if you count our son’s preschool year as our “starting” year). My son would be entering grade 5 and my daughter grade 2. Anyone who has read past articles of my blog knows that we a) started homeschooling in a very traditional, school at home approach complete with workbooks and textbooks and b) that we have hopped curriculums more than… well, honestly, I’m drawing a blank for an appropriate analogy. But, something that hops a lot.
Why have we hopped around so much? Because like everyone else following a more traditional approach to homeschooling, we have always been looking for the “perfect” curriculum. We have wasted probably thousands of dollars on curriculum on this quest for perfection. We wanted something simple, easy, open and go, something with lessons all planned but that allowed flexibility, something engaging, that brought learning to life, that was hands on but not so hands on it required a lot of work, something that challenged them, but not too hard, so on and so forth. The list of criteria was endless and changing depending on our circumstances and needs at the time. No wonder we could never find a perfect match. And one need only to spend five minutes on any homeschooling group to know that our struggle is a common one.
Originally, in all of my curriculum-hopping, it did not ever occur to me that we were struggling so much because quite frankly, formal, forced learning is not how my child, or any child, learns best. Gradually, through the years, I started seeing comments online about topics such as delayed academics and unschooling, I saw people talking about the importance of following physiological, neurological and psychological development. I became curious, and thus started a roughly two year journey of reading and research.
Initially, what I learned and focused on in my reading and research, was that early academics (formal learning through workbooks, textbooks etc… before the age of 7), is actually shown to do more harm than good. (Interestingly enough, both Waldorf educator Rudolph Steiner and Charlotte Mason, knew this to be true, well before science was able to prove it.) This research has been backed up time and time again with studies dating back to the 1920s, and yet is being ignored in public, private and homeschool education. Public education policy makers and homeschool curriculum publishers alike are completely ignoring what is best for the children, and instead pushing their own agenda and profits. Parents, ignorant of what research actually shows, are just following along like a herd of sheep, under the impression they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. I was no different, and even though I read and believed the research, I confess, that I was still too scared to let go of the only educational model I had ever known.
However, the more I read and learned, the most I started second guessing what I was doing. In fact, I could see the harm I was doing, as by grade 3, I had a son who absolutely despised math, and who by grade 4, truly was no longer enjoying “learning”. It was just something he had to do. But, hey, I was told by many parents that this was normal, and that really I just needed to teach him to “suck it up” because “that’s life”. That ultimately, if I didn’t teach him the important lessons of, “You Have to Learn to Do Things You Don’t Like” and “Life Isn’t Always Fun”, I would be doing him a disservice. And of course, what better way to teach him this lesson than through education?
It wasn’t until the late fall of 2016, when I really started to see a need for change in our homeschool. I was asked to cover a film screening for Waldorf-educator Kim White’s film, “A Time To Play”. The assignment led to a feature article discussing the decline in children’s play and it’s consequences. In doing research for the article, I came across the writings of Peter Grey, and I started to learn more about the history of unschooling, and what’s more, the evidence supporting it as being the most natural and arguably the most effective way that children learn*.
But, being perhaps the densest person on the planet, I still wasn’t ready to let go. We continued on our trudge through education through the winter and into the spring, as my son increasingly complained about “school time” and as my daughter had tantrum after tantrum during reading lessons. Week after week, we all became more discouraged.
At this point, all we were doing for lessons were the 3Rs – Math, Reading and Language Arts, because quite honestly, that was all we had left in us to give. We were using a very traditional workbook program (Christian Light Education). The lessons were so long and boring, that my son found it hard to stay focused. Consequently, it could take us 2 hours just to get through those subjects.
He had also started talking about using “lessons” as punishment for wrong-doers, and about inventing a robot that would do his lessons for him, so he wouldn’t have to. In hindsight, the signs were right there in neon, flashing in front of my face. Finally, one day he broke down crying, “Why do I have to do this? It just takes so long! It makes me so tired. I don’t want to learn anymore, it’s not fun.”
I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut, ripped my heart out and cracked me over the head, all at the same time. I had effectively crushed his joy of learning. The one goal I had in homeschooling (okay, one of the goals I had) was to instill a love of learning in my children. I had completely failed. Talk about a wake up call. I grabbed all the children’s workbooks and pitched them in the garbage, and declared summer vacation, despite it only being May. I vowed that I would not crush my children with education. I would find a better way.
Fast forward to August. Despite everything that had happened in the spring, I found myself shopping the Christian Light website once more. What can I say? Old habits and insecurities die hard. I was afraid of breaking free from the traditional mold. I was afraid of my children falling behind. I was worried about what people would say if we went to a non-traditional approach.
I was also feeling emotionally overwhelmed, having just been through a very physically and emotionally draining summer, dealing with my father in law’s serious illness and helping with his care. We had also found out that major surgery was potentially looming on the horizon for our daughter, and that she was to be hospitalized the following month. At that particular moment in time, breaking free of what felt familiar and secure to me, was just not something that I could fathom. I felt in need of something open and go, that would “hold my hand”. The idea of anything more parent-intensive was more than I felt like I could take on. I thought I was taking the easier route.
We made it through two full weeks, plus 5 minutes of the first day of the third week. Every day was a fight. Every day there was a fit from our daughter at some point, during lessons. Her anxiety was through the roof during lessons. Our daughter has high functioning Autism, as well as health issues, and struggles with anxiety. She has always had very low coping abilities for new material, anything that presents as a challenge for her, or for making mistakes.
Needless to say, our “school” was nothing like what I had envisioned for the year. All three of us were stressed out, my son often having to take his work upstairs to his bedroom so he could try to focus. Once again, we were merely muddling through the 3Rs, never getting to the “extra” subjects like science, history, literature and art – the subjects that are supposed to make education fun and enriching.
Finally, on the first day of our third week, what I am now calling our Homeschool Apocalypse, happened almost immediately after beginning lessons for the day. My daughter had the meltdown of all meltdowns during school. Ultimately it lasted two hours, was heart-wrenching and infuriating at the same time, ended with both my daughter and I in tears, and with me calling the local schools to find out information on enrollment. I was done. I could no longer do this. I was not going to completely disrupt my son’s education or my sanity any longer. Clearly my daughter had no respect for me as a teacher, so I would send her to school where someone else could teach her. Essentially, I was a failure and I was quitting. I sobbed for an hour.
That was without a doubt the lowest moment in our homeschool ever, and possibly in my ten years as a mother.
The storm passed, and I started to process everything logically, thinking through our options. Of course I couldn’t and wouldn’t send her to school – it was in no way what was best for her. But, neither was how things were going right now; they were not best for her, nor the entire family for that matter. Something had to change. I could see that clearly now. I was going to have to let go of all my insecurities, my hang ups, my worries and have faith in God that He was leading us on a new path, and that it would be okay.
I was talking to a friend of mine about the events of the morning, trying to pick her brain. She finally asked me this question, “Why not just unschool?” I mulled it over in my mind. Why not, indeed? I went online and started searching, and finally stumbled across a Facebook group for unschooling with special needs. As I read through, I felt a sense of peace come over me. This was it. I was home.
Here were thousands of other parents who had dealt with similar struggles, who knew there had to be a better way to educate their children. Here were thousands of other parents who had decided to put their family and relationships first, before the almighty god of academia, that is so worshipped today. Here were thousands of other parents who were eschewing the check lists, multiple choice questions and rote learning, for something deeper.
In hindsight, I can see how God has been preparing me for this for quite some time, I was just too scared to head down another new and unfamiliar path. Choosing to step out of the box and homeschool is scary enough, let alone choosing to do so in a very non-traditional way. Initially, I was leaning towards full-blown unschooling. I could see for myself how children can learn on their own, when they have the desire. Examples that I had been noticing over the last year in our own home included:
- My daughter teaching herself how to play piano. She is now almost halfway through her Primer books. She can’t even read the instructions, yet she is figuring it out through the pictures. She loves to play the songs she has learned for us.
- Likewise, I can already tell that she will teach herself music, in general. My mother (a now professional, completely self-taught singer, drummer, guitarist and harmonica player) gave her a guitar last year for Christmas. My daughter will sit up in her room, writing songs and trying to put them to music on the guitar and harmonica. No one has told her to do this, or showed her how to. It’s just something she wants to do, and is figuring it out.
- In keeping with music, my son has a completely unprompted desire to learn to play the saxophone, and in fact we are buying him one for Christmas. We’ll provide the means, he’ll teach himself. He also loves to sing, and has an amazing ability to memorize melodies and lyrics alike, which he then loves to perform for others.
- My son has a fascination with all animals, but especially birds. It is amazing what he has taught himself through his own self-driven interest. He is currently working through a 700-paged encyclopedia of North American birds, and we call him our little ornithologist. He can accurately identify upwards of 100 different species, and what’s more, tell you about their habitats, whether they’re scavengers, predators etc…
- He is teaching himself how to draw. He pours through How to Draw books, will seek out examples of animated art online and then try to recreate them. As a result, he has a natural, budding talent as an animations artist. He also has developed incredible visual-spatial skills and the ability to reproduce a drawing with perfect accuracy in varying scales.
- My daughter loves math. Of course, being on the spectrum, that can be a common “trait”. She loves discovering numerical patterns, and from an early age has loved playing with numbers. Consequently she has taught herself addition, subtraction, skip counting, money skills, time etc… Quite honestly, it has never ceased to amaze me how much she knows already, without having been taught.
I had believed that my children hated learning and the traditional academic subjects. After all, my son would be the first to tell you that he hated math, and my daughter would tell you that she hated reading. But what I’m realizing is that they hated them within the context of “school”. When you removed that direction, that pressure, that idea that it was something they had to do, suddenly, I was seeing a very different story. For example:
- My son who hated math, absolutely loved playing math games on the computer. He also loved a unit study I had found called “Zoo Math”, where he was given a budget and was responsible for setting up and maintaining a zoo. The same child who would balk at having to do numerous math problems in a workbook, would add up golf and bowling scores for the entire family without batting an eye. He and his friends would easily do large number addition and subtraction when playing Yu Gi Oh. He loved being the banker during board games like Monopoly and Life.
- My daughter who hated reading, absolutely loved to look through books. In fact, she preferred chapter books that were well above her reading level. She would sit and go through them page by page, running her finger along every line, seeking out the words she knew and challenging herself to try to figure out new words. She would constantly try to read the words that she found around her in life – whether on a sign at a store, or in the Missal at church.
What I had come to realize is that when those subjects had meaning to my children, when math or reading had a purpose, or when they were driven by interest, my children would eagerly engage. But when it was forced upon them, when it was just another new concept that had no particular meaning to them, or something they were not interested in learning at that time, they became disengaged and learning became something akin to pulling teeth.
I have always believed that interest-led learning was the way to go when it came to subjects like science and social studies, based on my own experiences in school. As an adult, like so many others, the only thing I remember from those subjects in school is that which I was interested in, or that which applied to my life. Children learn best and deepest that which they are interested in. So why is it so easy for us to believe this and follow this approach for all the “extra” subjects, but not the core subjects of reading, writing and math? Why do we trust children to learn some things, but then feel that others topics must be pounded into their head?
That was not what I wanted for my children. I didn’t want my children forced through rote learning. I want my children to desire learning about subjects because they could see the worth and value in their lives, because they have meaning to them. I wanted learning to be something we could enjoy doing together as a family, I wanted it to be something that brings us closer together – not something that tears us apart.
Ultimately, I wanted what my original vision of homeschooling was so many years ago: I wanted it to be a warm, engaging time together as a family. A time where we curled up on the couch together reading, where we explored interesting science and history topics together, where we engaged in meaningful art projects, learned to appreciate nature and music, learned handicrafts and homemaking skills.
As I read more about unschooling, as I continued to talk to other parents who had made this choice, I was starting to see an education that no longer involved rigid workbooks with right and wrong answers that would stress my daughter out. Likewise, no more excessively long lessons that would make it hard for my son to stay focused. I saw a education of freedom that would allow my artistic and creative son to integrate his passion with his learning; that would allow us to support my daughter’s budding interest in music and handicrafts. In short, for the first time in a long time, I was starting to catch a glimpse of my original vision. Welcome back!