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The Unschooling Closet

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Uh-Oh, did someone say “unschooling”?
Quick…what was the first thing that popped in your mind?
Let me guess….those kids and families they always show on Wifeswap? (not that any of us really will fess up to watching Wifeswap…lol!;-)Unruly, wild children with no boundaries, limits or rules? That family on Good Morning America last week perhaps?

Yep, that was what I thought too. Really, you know, unschooling is pretty much like the ugly step-sister of the homeschooling world. Often, folks are afraid to fess up and “come out of the unschooling closet” because of the reactions from family and friends. It can be harsh. The first thing people jump to (including myself once upon a time) is the sterotype of a lazy family that just doesn’t want to parent and just tells the kids “do whatever you want” or some similar story we have seen portrayed by the media. Why didn’t I realize that listening to the news these days probably wouldn’t be the best “resource” for learning what unschooling actually is about? You would think I would know by now. Once upon a time everything I thought I knew about homeschooling, but turned out to be totally wrong too. Why wouldn’t unschooling be the same?

So lucky me belongs to a great group of homeschooling women that hosted a presentation by the wonderful Jeanne Faulconer. See, one of the great thing about homeschooling mothers would have to be that we are always learning new things…just like our children. So I had to go! I had to see if maybe, just maybe, the stereotype that I had in my head was, indeed, not true.

So in walks Jeanne. Oh my…she changed my view on just about everything. Hands down one of the smartest woman I have ever come across. Her ability to share her story in a way that was intelligent and common sense was just amazing. I wish I could bottle her up and share her with the world! But until I figure that out, I will simply have to settle for sharing some of the knowledge she passed onto me.

{The very first thing that I loved

She has two older children and both are in college! Meeting any homeschool/unschooling parent with children in college will always automatically lead to this feeling of relief for any mother who has spent any amount of time second guessing every homeschooling decision she makes. So seeing that you can indeed unschool and have successful young adults that are thriving in a college is fantastic!

{Stop filling buckets and start lighting fires

I so get this one. Let me first let you know that for the last two years I have followed a good old fashioned curriculum each year (I have actually followed several…lol). After all, that is what you are “supposed to do” – right? I have known for the last 2 years that what my children are actually retaining is the knowledge they have asked for and sought out on their own. We spend the first half of everyday deep in a curriculum and the second half on field trips, playdates and sports etc… It never seems to fail. They will always recall and tell you anything you could possibly want to know on the subjects that fall on the second half of their days. The field trip half especially. They can rattle off nature and history facts like it’s going out of style, with excitement! It never fails – if they are not interested in something I have told them they “have” to learn, they just do not retain it with that same excitement and vigor or knowledge of the subject.

Do we all grow up to become “generalists” who know something about everything and use it everyday in our lives or do we tend to be “specialists” and do one thing or job? I am a photographer and have yet to see an algebra problem in the last 20 years. I can remember the shame and disappointment of bringing home that D to my mom and just how badly I felt about myself. Oh, if only someone had told me that my life would go on without Algebra. If only I had been allowed to take the photography/yearbook class, but my mother thought that was just a waste of my time. The fire she could have lit, instead of trying to stuff my bucket with Algebra. And yes, I do hold a grudge…lol;-)

{Strewing

I love this one. So the idea is for the child to find interest in a subject and seek out further information. Oh, I hear you out there! “My kids would search out video games and television.” I can attest to strewing working big-time in our house. I have tested it even further in the last week and can tell you it works. Basically, you leave things strewn about your children’s environment that you would like them to learn. The hope being that they pick the book/subject up and find interest.

An example for us: Last week, I laid out an insect encyclopedia at the breakfast table. The kids come down to breakfast and find the book. They pick it up and by 9:30 am they have grabbed tons of mason jars and lids out of my canning closet and have run outside to find every bug they can. They bring them all back in and then proceed to find each one in the book and learn about each bug. Not to mention, my youngest is reading because she is dying to know about these darn bugs! By noon, they had a whole “bug club” going and microscope out as well. All this merged into a trip to a little pond to gather tadpoles and into learning all about tadpoles and amphibians.
Strewing can make a day full of learning.

{Facilitate pursuit of interests. Then facilitate some more.

I LOVE this one…LOVE. Basically, allow your children to find their passion. I hate nothing more than hearing a grown adult tell me “I have no idea what I am good at”. Why is that? Somewhere along the way, “interests/creativity” were probably placed below test scores and math facts. This doesn’t have to be the norm. This is something any parent can do. No homeschooling required. Give your child a chance to shine where their interest truly lies. Guess what I loved as a child? Children, animals and cameras. Guess what I do as an adult? Professional photographer for children (an occasional animal) and I teach my children everyday. I believe even the smallest child can indeed tell you what they may like to be when they grow up. Give them a headstart and a little help. Feed that fire.

Oh I could go on and on and on…but let me instead give a few resources that Jeanne shared if this post on unschooling has piqued your interest. I will be spending my summer reading her booklist she shared and really trying to get the hang of how to fit it into our family a bit more. Obviously, unschooling is not for everyone, maybe not even for us, but I definitely think of it differently than I used to. Will we ever call ourselves full unschoolers? I am not sure…only time will tell :-)  As always we will take this adventure of learning one day at a time. As long as our children continue to grow and thrive we are happy.

Unschooling America

The Odysseus Group

John Holt

Psychology Today (they have many great articles on their studies of unschooling children.  Very interesting)

Jeanne Faulconer works with Home Education Magazine as their articles editor and you will often find her sharing her wealth of knowledge speaking at conferences, homeschool groups, education groups, and parenting groups on homeschooling and family life. If you would like to have her do her presentation for your group feel free to contact her at Jeanne.Faulconer@gmail.com

“In the end, the secret to learning is so simple: Think only about whatever you love. Follow it, do it, dream about it…and it will hit you: learning was there all the time, happening by itself.” -Grace Llewellyn

About Tisha


Tisha often refers to herself as the most Un-traditional Traditionalist she knows. A homeschooling, gardening, color-loving, photographer - Tisha currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children. Her fabulous work can be viewed on her website, Tisha McCuiston Photography.

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  • Alyra

    Saying that ONE woman having a couple kids in college after homeschooling is proof that unschooling is great is as foolish as saying that because Grandma chainsmoked and died of something else is proof that smoking is harmless. Jeanne is the only unschooling parent so far, out of tens of thousands, if not more, who can claim her kids went to college without actually enrolling in remedial classes to get caught up before going into mainstream college classes. Her children are an anomaly. By percentage (so as to negate that there are fewer unschooled students), far more homeschooled and public and private schooled kids go to college. If college is the litmus test of an educational system, then private schooling is best, followed by public schooling, homeschooling, and, bringing up the far rear, unschooling.

  • http://worldschooladventures.com/ Amy @Worldschooladventures

    We are in our second year of unschooling and have no regrets. Unschooling has been portrayed horribly by the media but the reality of it can be amazing. If you love your children and truly want to be INVOLVED in their education then unschooling can work!

    My six year old son has a love of animals that has so far been unstoppable. We read books, books, and more books, watch documentaries, visit zoos and petting farms when we can….He is learning so much because he is so interested and I help and encourage him to pursue this knowledge.

    Good luck in your journey!

  • R.

    P.S. I really enjoyed this post—- wish my mom could have read it ten or fifteen years ago! =)

  • R.

    Like ANYTHING, homeschooling can be done beautifully or horribly. If you ask my mother, she’d say she “unschooled” me and my sister through jr. high/high school. I’d say we were just drop-outs with no lessons, no curriculum, no educational field trips. We were avid readers who taught ourselves whatever we found interesting, but I wish we’d had structured lessons even part-time, like Jeanne or Tisha’s family. I also wish we’d been exposed to a broader range of subjects.

    To be fair, ours was a very poor, single-parent household, and my mother didn’t have the energy or means to create an ideal unschooling environment. She did what she could.

    I got a GED and went to college (making mostly A’s but taking YEARS longer than other students), but my little sister chose to skip both.

    I DO believe that unschooling can be rewarding for families and academically successful, but it’s definitely not foolproof.

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  • http://www.homemadeliving.net Brandie

    Wonderful, wonderful post!

    Brianne: Detailing your school year to a school district can be done – because your child will be learning all this subject matter, they will just be learning it in a “different” way than a traditionally homeschooled (or schooled) child. Your just explaining it using the terms that will match your life. Here’s a link that might help: http://www.sandradodd.com/unschoolingcurriculum.html

  • Brianne

    I have been homeschooling for 2 years and really, really want to try unschooling. I believe that unschooling would be the best method for my children. The only major thing holding me back is the thought of trying to explain it to my school district. We have to detail everything each year in our homeschool plan and then show that our plan is being followed by filling out a weekly log in four subjects (math, social, language arts, science). I\’m worried that if I were to take everything out and simply try to say that the children would be guiding their own learning, that they would refuse me!

  • http://www.tishamccuiston.com/ Tisha

    God Bless ya Sheena! I love a happy ending :-) What a fantastic and inspirational education experience!
    Thank you so much for sharing! :-)

  • http://sheenalashay.com Sheena

    My mother has tried all those methods and more in the 15 years that she has homeschooled all of her children including me. And she must be doing something right because 5 years ago I graduated from Wheaton College in IL where I had a full ride scholarship of over $125,000 for my academics and community service. Some days were unschooled. Some days were very heavy into the curriculum. Some days I took a questions and let that lead me on an adventure. There were all kinds of days.

    I am so glad my mother had the patience and understanding to homeschool each of us.

  • http://www.tishamccuiston.com/ Tisha

    Paige~ Each day is full of opportunities for you to allow them chance to learn! Just taking some time each evening and on weekends to expose them to knew experiences can really light that fire! :-) There is no rule saying that learning only takes place between the hours of 8 and 3. Even just taking an hour each day to really sit and listen to your child and what they are interested in (and help them find all the info you can on it) not only will help them learn but it makes your own relationship and bond within your family so much stronger!
    Jeanne brought up the point that a disconnect between child and parent naturally happens with the daily separation during school and work hours to the point where the parent honestly may not know what their child’s interests may even be. I really think it is so easy to get wrapped up in day to day life and totally forget to take the time to actually listen to our children.

    Rana~ That is awesome! I am totally going to stalk your blog :-) I feel like I am learning new things everyday and I love it!

  • http://Freetolearnanlovinit.blogspot.com Rana

    We are unschoolers and are in our second year. Like with anything there are ups and downs. Before I got started I found every book I could on unschooling and went to every web site and blog that was talking about it. The more information you have the more comfortable you start to feel about the choices you make. You are right not every family can or should unschool. You do what’s best for your family. I posted some of my favorite books on unschooling at my blog if you are interested in taking a look.
    I hope you have a great time in DC. We are heading there in the middle of May to visit family and do just the same ramble through the museums and see where we wander to.

    http://freetolearnanlovinit.blogspot.com/2010/02/my-favorite-unschooling-books-that-keep.html

  • http://www.tishamccuiston.com/ Tisha

    Marci~ Me to. I am finding it so interesting learning more about it myself. I will be spending most of my summer going down the “mom” reading list Jeanne shared with us :-)

    Kirwin~ I hear ya! It can be a crazy topic because it really does seem to have many meanings. For me personally I think unschooling means allowing the child to have more of a hand in the choices/topics that they would like to really focus on learning. Not necessarily following a rigid classroom “you must learn this at this very moment” schedule. For me, I am just realizing I really need to read and read and read some more on unschooling and that it the definition I had gathered from the media wasn’t even close to what unschooling actually can be.
    Check out the Pyschology today links. They really have been taking the time to study unschooling and the the outcomes. I could spend days reading the articles…

    At the end of the day though you have to find what fits your own family. If a 3 day charter school fits your family than that is great! :-) For many though the reason they homeschool is to teach their children in a different way than a traditional school setting/method feeling that real learning doesn’t typically happen in a classroom sitting at a desk. (the whole filling the bucket versus lighting a fire) Don’t let it bother you if others don’t understand because at the end of the day you know your children and how they enjoy learning and this may be the perfect fit for your family :-) My son loves a rigid schedule…my daughter is completely opposite. I have two different styles of teaching going on over here…lol!

    Robin~ I think that is going to end up being what our schooling looks like too! They both scored 99/98 on their end of year testing so I know they are “on target” for a traditional school but I really want them to know so much more about the actual world at large :-) My favorite part of homeschooling is hands down the field trips. We are hitting DC on Friday and have zero game plan. We are just going to go and ramble from monument to museum and where ever the kids would like to go. Even kids need to have adventures!

  • http://www.picturepaiges.com paige

    Oh how wonderful this learning would be for my ADHD child. I guess this makes me think the best thing for him is to find his own way and encourage him the best way I know how in a public school system. =)

  • http://www.martinzoo.homeschooljournal.net Robin

    Excellent summary! I heard Jeanne speak at the convention and I was eager to hear her again. She is so good at inspiring confidence. And having a good end product (children in college) is proof positive on the effects of her kind of homeschooling.
    Cade and I do a modified form of unschooling. We use a curriculum/field trip type of schedule for 2/3 of the year. But mid-way through March he has finished all curriculum. So we take our end of year tests and become unschoolers for the rest of the school year. It is, literally, his favorite time of the school year. And it is a good incentive for him to master his traditional curriculum. This is the way I can satisfy my need to see that certain areas are covered, while also letting him have the freedom to truly immerse himself in subject matter that he is passionate about.

  • http://www.gracefulcreative.com kirwin @ Graceful Creative

    This was a great post — very inspiring. I’m still a little confused about the difference between “homeschooling” and “unschooling”. Sorry, it’s probably just me. I’ve never researched either of them (although they do intrigue me.)

    I recently heard about a charter school that is located in the area where we’re going to move to. The kids go to school 3 days a week, and then you homeschool them the other 2 days, continuing what is taught in the classroom. I really love this idea. When I mentioned it to my friends here, they were all horrified. I was surprised that they weren’t even “on the fence” about the program. They were all adament that they’d never do it.

  • http://www.overcomingbusy.com Marci@OvercomingBusy

    We homeschool and I am intrigued by unschooling. I\\\’ve just never known how to do it successfully. I agree that the kids learn easier and more enthusiastically when the subject matter is something they really enjoy. Thanks for the links and the info. You make me more interested in unschooling!