A Day in the Life of an Unschooler

I get asked most often about what we do all day as an unschooling family, and the answer is always ‘it depends’. There really is no typical day, and there is no format to follow to unschool. But that’s not really a satisfying answer, I know this because before we started on our unschooling journey it was the question I asked and googled most often!

So we figured we’d semi-regularly post our Day in the Life to give a general idea of what our unschooling life looks like. By the by, check out this post on the Quick Start Homeschool blog about the term ‘unschooling’, which I found by reading the informative twitter feed of Laini Liberti. Timely as I write this and cringe a little every time I type the word because I know people are confused about school equating learning and education. Unschool sounds like un-learning, un-educated, to many who aren’t more informed about the philosophy and practice. Really why wouldn’t it? Mainstream institutionalized education is mainstream for a reason, it’s all most people know.

I jotted down everything that occurred yesterday, and here it is for better or worse!

    A Day in our Lives

Morning: We wake up. This can happen any time after 6 and before 10 depending on what we did the night before and what we’re doing that day. Today it just happened to be around 8:30, because we all stayed up a little late to read the night before, then I stayed up to watch Revolution on tv.

Breakfast happens, my husband eats first as he’s got to get to a morning class. We all come around in our own time, our youngest doesn’t like to eat right way, while our oldest needs food and yesterday! Usually we have toast with honey, or oatmeal or eggs. Today it’s soft boiled eggs with toast for dipping, a glass of almond milk for the kids and coffee for me.

Recently the kids have taken an interest in birds and birdwatching, so right after breakfast we perch on the seat in front of the window and whip out a pair of binoculars to start watching. We see bluejays, chickadees, juncos, and a new bird that looks a little like a sparrow. After browsing the bird identification guide we think it’s a Northern Waterthrush .

After birdwatching, we go outside for a bit of fresh air. It’s misty and rainy so we don’t stay out long. The kids do try out their bird call whistles and practice different calls. We talk a little about birds, weather, migration and habitats.

We come inside for pot of tea and to read. Everyone reads their own books, then I read aloud to the kids, we’re reading a couple of books at the moment but today it’s Shakespeare Can Be Fun: Hamlet for Kids . They always choose what to read, depending on what they are interested in. Recently we read some history about William Shakespeare and they continue to be interested in his life and work.

Afternoon: Lunch time, and we want something hot because it’s a cold day. Soup it is.

A few days ago we went for a walk and discovered a well maintained pioneer cemetery dating back to the mid 1700’s. This provoked a lot of discussion about what life must have been like for people in those days, and how it compares to our life. We talked a lot about things we do that are similar, and things that are very very different. A big topic was how the people from hundreds of years ago ate, and the food they grew and made.

Today, continuing on with the discussion I suggested we try our hand at making butter. So we got some cream, and we made our own butter! It couldn’t have been easier and the kids were delighted. The conversion of the liquid cream into a butter solid by whipping and draining was fascinating to them. We’re also baking a fresh loaf of bread and tomorrow they want to look up a pioneer recipe and recreate it, preferably something candy-related.;) I’m thinking molasses taffy might be tasty.

Later, our oldest wanted to do some calculations regarding his anticipated savings and current financial situation. He sat down with pencil and paper and worked out how much he would have by the end of the year, taking future allowances and expected purchases into account. His sister decided to join him in this and emptied her piggy bank, counting up all her pennies and nickels. She also wanted to talk about what the money from different countries looks like, so we researched this online and also got out Daddy’s coin collection. Oh and she made this nifty picture of a shark:

pennies aren't just for counting

Both kids then decided they needed some time to play a video game, currently Pokemon on DS. This gave me some time to clean up my studio and get ready for working on a new piece. I’m exploring a couple of new ideas and recently set up a new studio space with more light, more storage and room for larger canvases and supports.

Next up, some planning for Halloween! We made a list of what we’d like to do for decorations, and started getting the house and front yard ready. We love Halloween. A quick trip to the store procured some black paper for bats to cut out and hang everywhere, and we got a couple of fresh pumpkins for the front steps. We live in the country and probably won’t get many trick or treaters, but it’s nice to make things look a little spooky. My favorite part of Halloween is waiting until the kids are asleep, raiding their candy and watching a scary movie by the glow of the jack o’lantern.

Decorating evolved into conversation about the origins of Halloween. We looked up some info online and talked about celtic festivals, where the tradition of trick or treating comes from, why we carve pumpkins, and what does a turnip have to do with it anyhow?

Evening: Supper, in keeping with the talk about jack o’lanterns and Halloween, is homemade roasted pumpkin soup. More holiday and halloween talk ensues during dinner, and the kids tell dad everything they did today.

After supper someone wants to watch tv, someone wants to play a game, and I go to the studio to get a little work time in. There’s a documentary on about volcanoes that the kids ask to watch, so they do. Then one of them sneaks away to watch a cartoon online.

Almost bedtime, and we read a story together curled up in bed in our room, then the kids go to their own beds with books to read to themselves. The youngest has a beautiful book about dragons, and her brother is reading The Fire Within by Chris d’Lacey, though he starts out with a Pokemon book from the library first.

Eventually they sleep. 🙂 My husband and I pour a glass of wine and relax before heading off to bed ourselves.

So there it is, one day in the life of an unschooling family. No two days look the same, and the next time I do a ‘Day in the Life’ I might only have three sentences to write, and will attempt photos too, but I hope cumulatively it might give an idea of what it means to unschool, at least for us.

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Swimming Upstream

It’s what happens when you choose to live according to values and beliefs that are not those of mainstream culture. Choosing to think for yourself rather than allowing authority figures to make your decisions for you is a surefire way to face passive aggressive or in your face discrimination regularly. We encounter it all the time, because we are home learners, because we question vaccine safety, because 3 out of 4 of us are vegetarian and don’t eat processed food, because we practice natural preventative medicine, and today because we use natural toothpaste.

This afternoon, a routine trip to the dentist turned out to be an antagonistic, stressful event. This is bound to happen when you can’t find a holistic dentist in your area and you are a parent who has made the informed decision not to expose your children to fluoride. When our daughter told her dentist that she would rather brush with plain water than use a toothpaste the dentist admonished her to always (always!) brush with toothpaste, Crest or Colgate preferably. When our daughter told her dentist that she doesn’t want to have sweeteners in her toothpaste, the good doctor vehemently argued that toothpaste did not have sugar– guess saccharin is ok though? The dentist also made sure to tell our daughter to try and eat healthy foods and drink lots of water, making sure I overheard her. It must be noted that as a family who doesn’t buy processed food, drinks water not juice, and eats organic produce, we had this one covered, but thanks doc. Good to know!

No Fluoride

Now if we were typical mainstream parents who didn’t refuse the fluoride treatment option, and who swore up and down on the Proctor and Gamble bible that we always brush our teeth with Crest, well it would have been an all smiles, happy dentist day. Instead it felt like an attack on our beliefs, values, and quite frankly our intelligence. The minute the dentist asked what grade G was in and she didn’t respond (because we don’t do ‘grades’) and I had to fill in that oh, we are home learners, there was a distinct shift in tone. As an aside, why is it that they only question an adult ever asks a child has to do with ‘how is school’ or ‘what grade are you in’. And when they get their answer they feel content that they now know everything about that child.

Back on topic though, what is frightening is that people are not informed, and that a parent who actually takes the time to examine research from many sources is regarded as misinformed or ignorant. We are supposed to accept that our doctors and our dentists are authorities and question them not. Well the fact is that while medical and dental professionals are expert at medical and dental procedures, they are absolutely not experts on the effects of toxic substances on the human body whether through toothpaste, vaccines, treated water or food. Most doctors receive less than one week of education during their entire time at medical school on the subject of vaccination, and any new information they receive comes to them from the pharmaceutical companies and drug reps. Dentists are absolutely not authorities on how much fluoride can cause increases in bone cancer rates and thyroid problems. They are dentists, not scientists after all. Some may not even know that toothpaste is not necessary for good dental hygiene– simply brushing with water or water and plain old baking soda is just fine and even recommended by some dentists, because it’s the abrasive scrubbing action that prevents plaque build up.

So we continually swim upstream, against our conformist culture that is content to listen to so-called experts and authorities who are often manipulated themselves by parties with incongruent interests. Ignorance is truly bliss, and it would be so much easier to just let ourselves go with the mainstream flow, however it increasingly appears that if we did our lifestyle would be more in line with what most benefits government and corporations rather than our children. No one else in this world cares more about them then we do, as their parents. So why is it so hard to believe that we might actually know what’s best for them? Parents are too afraid to trust their instincts and their intelligence anymore, because they’ve been told they know nothing if an authority figure doesn’t validate it for them.

It makes life a little harder, and it’s stressful, and sometimes it gets overwhelming, but once you have opened that box you just can’t close it again. What keeps me hopeful and willing to continue on, along with my love for my children, is that more and more people are opening the box of information and knowledge and maybe eventually no one will be able to close it on us again.

Write it Down

When we first started home education we weren’t obligated to notify any particular authority or submit records for review. It was wonderful, simple and organic without the pressure and stress that I now understand comes with all the measurements, record keeping and reporting. At present we live in an area that requires notification, and reserves the right to demand reports on a whim so things have changed a little and there’s not a lot I can do about it, but I do have a couple of things to say on the matter.

A few things happened when I started to record the minutia of learning and growing, the day to day of ‘education’. First, something positive., It was reassuring and to any outside observer would simply be astounding to see just how much learning a child will do on their own, without prompting or pushing. Recording every learning opportunity on a daily basis provides us with justification and proof beyond doubt that child-led learning at home works, and works well. But unfortunately, having to write down everything the kids do re: education, and writing down what we as parents are doing to facilitate that education, along with the resources we are using and the categories each educational experience slots into (critical thinking, language arts, math etc etc.) had a stunting effect on the natural progression of our day and I believe it’s detrimental to the children. They don’t need records to be sure they are learning something, and when they see me dutifully logging a particular activity under it’s appropriate curriculum based category it seems to undermine the innate joy and effortlessness of learning.

The hard part though about keeping daily records of learning ‘at home’ (anyone who home educates will laugh with me at the at home bit) is that eventually there will be a day when the page will be blank. When it will feel like you aren’t doing enough or anything at all. Then you start to doubt. I had one of those days today. We’d planned a library trip that went bust, and my first thought was ‘Geez, now there’s nothing to log for today.’ I needed to give myself a shake and remember what I tell everyone else who asks: learning isn’t planned, doesn’t need to be scheduled, and happens anywhere and everywhere. Like when we left the library parking lot and instead just wandered downtown for a while, seeing interesting people, reading shop signs and enjoying the crispness of early fall in the city. And then when we stumbled across a very cool display at the biology dept of the local university, and saw some taxidermy including a very cool Greater Albatross and a Scarlet Ibis, a Peacock and a Blue Crane. When we cut though a small greenhouse we looked at hibiscus trees and cacti and aloe vera plants. Our oldest surprised us by identifying a tree and telling us about it’s large papery cones that have a sticky substance to attract ants- where they then drown in the water collected inside. How he knows this I’m not sure, it’s not in the log book. 😉 It’s certainly not something I knew about, and I’ve got a full public school education and a couple of stints at post-secondary edumacation in my records.

So our day was essentially spent doing nothing, yet nothing could be less accurate. True we didn’t sit down and do anything at a desk. If I’m honest I remember very little of what I did as a kid sitting in school at a desk, writing industriously in my workbook. But what was experienced by my kids today will be remembered, simply because it wasn’t education, it was learning.

Speaking of Education, I just purchased this documentary film “Schooling the World” and can’t wait to view.

N is for Neville

N is for Neville

Who died of Ennui

Poor Neville suffered the fate imagined by many children while they languish in grey and brown concrete buildings, the drone of an uninterested teacher wafting over an unengaged classroom. You can’t really die of ennui, or boredom, can you? Physically probably not, but creatively, emotionally, intellectually? Most definitely. Imagine what 12 long years of ennui must do to the spirit, to the joy we as humans feel innately when learning.

Edward Gorey was a masterful illustrator, and this drawing from his macabre series The Gashlycrumb Tinies perfectly illustrates the ennui and desperation for the clock to strike 3pm that we all felt in school, that kids continue to feel. Neville looks out the window, desperate for anything interesting, anything real, to reanimate his bored to death brain. Alas, for Neville it was too late.

Most young teachers I’ve spoken with tell me that everything they were taught in their teaching program goes out the window as soon as they get their first real classroom. The methodologies they study, the techniques and practices they test for, everything just doesn’t apply when faced with living breathing children from every kind of situation imaginable. Teachers I’m sure have the very best of intentions. The problem is that the traditional method of institutionally educating children doesn’t work. Following a cookie cutter one curriculum fits all for each age and grade level does not work. Rote memorization and standardized testing might achieve  right here right now success, but lays the groundwork for failure, lack of creativity and individuality for the future.

The more serious issue is that institutional education creates all kinds of situations of harm for children. Bullying is rampant, despite what everyone spouts off about non-bullying policies and initiatives. Anyone who proudly boasts that their students are safe because their school is a ‘bully-free zone’ is either a moron or a liar. Read Lord of the Flies please. As a culture we are hardwired to bully. The school system provides a fertile ground of bullies to thrive, despite initiatives to such abuse. Teachers bully. Teachers in Bully-Free Zone schools bully. The parents of the children in the schools bully. Politicians, CEOs, and celebrities us the benefits of being a bully. It’s never going away and to think it can is delusional. The only way to stop bulling–for real–is to stop sending children away from people who actually care about them–for real–to a room in an institution with 30 other children where they might never encounter a single soul who honest and truly gives a crap.

But back to Neville and his Ennui. One of the primary reasons we chose to educate our children at home (and there are MANY) is that they have the opportunity to discover who they are and what they are interested in, not what a teacher at the front of a classroom believes is best for all 30 children. It’s individualized attention, tailored to one child. It’s each child being excited to wake up and learn, every single day of the year, not laying in bed with the covers pulled up, hoping for a freak storm to cancel school so they don’t have to go through all that for just one day please. It’s our oldest learning to read by choosing books that he genuinely is interested in and can’t wait to turn the pages, rather than an assigned text that meets bureaucratic criteria. It’s our youngest wearing a tiger costume all day for two weeks, and in the process learning everything she can about tigers, sub-species, diet, and habitat which then leads to a geography discussion, which organically turns into talking about the dwindling numbers of tigers in the wild and how a species becomes endangered. None of this was ‘taught’ with the grown up at the front of the room and the children industriously taking notes in their lined notebooks. It was learning, facilitated by parents, and it happened naturally and easily.

And no one died from ennui.