Home Education Magazine
March-April 1998 - Articles
Unschooling or School-At-Home?
I didn't start out to be a home schooler. Nope, I was going to "give up" seven years of my career for the sake of my children, then jump straight back into the workforce and lead "my own" fulfilling life as soon as both kids hit school age. The change crept upon me slowly, from having a homeschooling friend whose enthusiasm was virulently infectious to finally interviewing the principal of my daughter's would-be elementary school and asking him how the school would deal with a child who was still quite hyperactive and destructive, even at the ripe old age of four and a half. "No problem," the principal told me with a smile. "We'll just put her in a class for behavior-disordered kids and get her on medication and she'll be fine."
"Not my daughter, you won't," I announced, and at that very moment, I became a home schooler.
The principal's shouted, "Well, I have to protect my teachers, you know," just added fuel to my newly stoked fire.
So I went home to see if we could do it.
I hang my head in sheepish bemusement to recall how I sat my preschoolers down on child-sized chairs while I knelt beside a child-sized blackboard and even (gulp) used a pointer to begin their first week of lessons. That week was a dismal failure. Somehow, I just couldn't seem to get either child to sit still!
At that point, I didn't know that school could be anything other than the classroom type of experience my husband and I had endured all of our schooled lives. I'll always be grateful to a friend who gently directed me to the John Holt section of the library. She also introduced me to confident, homeschooled teenagers who happily answered all my questions. It's a good thing I was blessed with resilient children, too. They were the ones who ultimately had to teach their parents what education is really all about.
So, armed at last with a headful of unschooling book-learning, my family relaxed and just hung around together. We hiked, we read, we went to museums and art galleries. We cooked, sang and painted. While my husband and I worked on home remodeling projects, the children handled real tools and learned what they were for. Unschooling was the way to go!
But then we moved to a new school district and my daughter absolutely begged to go to kindergarten. Having come full circle, my husband and I truly believed in the unschooling philosophy and couldn't imagine why our daughter wanted the prison-like atmosphere of school. On the other hand, we had to admit that Emily thrived on structure, while the rest of us simply don't live that way. Figuring school might fill that gap in her life, we let her go. While Emily did enjoy the predictability of her day, she didn't like being told what to learn and when to use the bathroom. She especially didn't like being set aside with a pile of busywork while the teacher taught the other kids their colors, letters and numbers-things that Emily had already known almost half her life. (When she was two, she had me read Dr. Suess' ABC so often that I could recite it in my sleep. At two-and-a-half, she started sounding out words on her cereal boxes at breakfast. I'm all for delaying academics, but I believe it's even more important to listen to nature!)
After five weeks of kindergarten, we discovered that Emily was learning that "I am different and different is not okay." The teacher, principal and school psychologist agreed that she would be better off homeschooled. They offered all the resources and support we could ever have asked for.
Back home, Emily insisted on maintaining a school-like routine. Balking a little, I went along with it. She loved it! So did our son, who was almost four at the time. It didn't take long, though, to slip into a pattern of interruptions, field trips and "special situations" that precluded getting our routine done. Thus, we began a years-long yo-yo ride: chaos was fine until I succumbed to peer pressure within the homeschooling community and decided the kids needed to be able to write as neatly or recite history as well as their agemates. We'd return to a structured approach only to sink back to merely living life. Whining and bickering would then besiege our un-"school" and the kids would once again insist on doing school at the table like we used to. Even when fights and tears ensued, we'd stubbornly hold our course until everybody was so miserable that we had to step back and re-evaluate. Deciding to pitch the schedule and just keep to a loose requirement that something academic be accomplished every day usually led to a great, collective sigh of relief.
And guilt. "Oh, so you don't really do anything," a librarian once observed. "You just keep your kids home." But since the compromise between total unschooling and rigid school-at-home seemed to be working, we stuck to it, convinced that we had finally found our family's best method.
My son made his view of the situation perfectly clear when it was his turn to find out for himself what went on in that big, brick building up the street. One of his first assignments in second grade was to write about his previous education. "In homeschooling," he wrote, "I do math and stuff and mostly just try to keep from getting bored." He got a check-plus on top of the paper. I felt as though I'd gotten a D-minus.
After a year of school, Reed and I were dissatisfied with the quality of our son's education and made the decision to continue homeschooling. How was another question. What, I asked myself in the middle of many nights (the only time when many a homeschooling mom can complete a thought) is the correct method of homeschooling for our particular children? I could see all kinds of benefits to the unschooling philosophy. Why, then, did my children yearn so for classroom education and demand structure at home, even to the point of wanting spelling tests and, even worse, having them graded? "No, mom," my daughter once told me, "I don't get to try again, you just mark it wrong and put minus whatever at the top." Note that I said, "once." The notion that mistakes were permanent and uncorrectable rather than helpful tools for learning just didn't go over too well with ol' Mom.
Experiential learning is the kind that sticks. It also lends itself to extrapolation into other fields of knowledge, according to numerous studies on how both adults and children learn. The self-taught tend to be more creative, innovative and motivated, better organized, and happier with themselves and their world. How could I not want those benefits for our children?
On the other hand, I can see plenty of advantages to the school-at-home style. Some things, for instance, can only be learned and improved upon with practice. Take piano, tae kwon-do and sign language for instance. Even long division is a skill that gets rusty without regular use. Foreign languages are still most easily acquired by the young, so it makes me nervous to wait until the children develop their own desire to learn one. Memorization is thought to stimulate the growth of gray matter-the usable stuff-in the brain. That, too, is a feature most true of a brain that is still young and developing. Memorization of rhythmic, rhyming poetry instills an innate math sense, something especially important to my daughter, who has an awfully hard time understanding the relationship between numbers. She's not too keen on memorizing, however. Brushing her teeth doesn't thrill her either, but what kind of a parent would I be if I didn't insist on brushing now to ensure better health later? Then there are the studies of schooled children that have shown that gifted students who are not intellectually challenged tend to actually lose IQ points over time.
Both extremes of educational style have merit, though I have to admit I still lean toward the unschooling style. It seemed most logical to sit down with each of the kids, talk about all of the options and hear what they had to say. Both of them wanted structure. School at home.
All right. If structure was what the children wanted to "try to keep from getting bored," structure they'd get. I, being the one to stay home most of the time, really tried.
The trouble is that in life, interruptions happen. If the chickens get out in the middle of a math lesson, they need to be put back in the pasture before we can give much attention to what three eights make. If a friend needs emergency babysitting, then loving service to others takes precedence over a page of grammar exercises. If the snow is going to fly tomorrow, the garden gets taken in today. If the kids have been involved since dawn in building a complicated series of cardboard stables, who am I to suggest that they adjorn to the table to do measuring exercises on paper?
Eventually, the books lay forgotten in the dining room under piles of other, more immediate projects and concerns. Once again, guilt struck. They wanted structure. They said so. They begged for it! Why, oh, why couldn't I be a good mom and provide it?
Then again, they didn't look unhappy.
My son asked me one day when he accidentally caught sight of a semi-buried math book, "Shouldn't we do some schoolwork today?"
"Yeah," chorused his sister. "We haven't done any for days and weeks!"
"Well, I'm not so sure about that," I said. "Remember when we were out walking the dogs and had that big discussion about space habitats?" They nodded. "Science," I said. "And you know all those space ships you've been building out of Legoes? That's math."
The kids thought about that for a minute and liked what they heard. For the next week or so, they assured me they were doing Lego math and didn't need to do anything else. Just when I thought I had them convinced that they could unschool, they wanted lessons at the kitchen table again.
A great light of realization finally broke through my barriers of guilt and set us all free. The homeschooling method that works best for us is to bounce back and forth: Unschooling until creativity wanes and boredom sets in. School at home until that has satisfied the moment's need and created a desire to relax and do something else. Balancing chores, information, service, art, household projects and work so that everybody's needs get met at least some of the time. "A change is as good as a holiday," someone once said.
How very true!
© 1998 Chris Sims
Chris Sims has been homeschooling for five years, officially. Ten, if you consider that her children began learning the day they were born! She lives with her husband, two children and two dogs on a miniature farm in Vermont where they raise goats, chickens, herbs, vegetables and perpetual chaos.
....(articles list) | columns list)
HEM General Information
Subscribe to HEM