Thursday, August 28, 2008

Deciding to Homeschool & starting to become an unschooling family

Ideas have been swirling in my head for a week now, I've even tried writing them down and it has been very fragmented. Piecing together our journey to where we are now educationally is hard because it was gradual and slow and often I wasn't conscious of the belief shifts that were happening. For photo entertainment in this long, wordy post I have Dinoguy & Trainboy shortly after Trainboy was born. Aren't they precious?

I think homeschooling my kids was always an option in the back of my mind, even before they were born. I remember hearing about the sexuality lessons being taught in California kindergartens in my education classes in college before I was married and thinking boundaries were being overstepped, that it was the right of parents to determine what they heard on those topics at that young age. But I also recognized the difficulty of setting arbitrary age limits and guidelines on such topics and also that morality lessons were going to happen in school simply from social interactions. At the time, the best answer to me was active parental involvement in the classroom.

Later, I remember driving home from a visit to my husband's family and discussing schooling with Fixitman. Dinoguy was just a babe, sleeping peacefully in the back seat of the car while I had an anxiety attack in the front seat about how to best educate him. I'm sure it was triggered by something, but I don't remember the trigger, I remember the discussion. I was overwhelmed by where to start and what to do. I didn't know how to go about homeschooling. I was trained as a math teacher to older kids and teenagers. I was not an elementary teacher and knew nothing of their world and that concerned me. I was viewing the idea through my lens of teacher training that defined my interactions with kids at that point. Interactions with my sweet baby did not alter my beliefs about older children, I did not know much about interacting as an adult with young kids and preferred middle school aged kids over young kids.

When Dinoguy was a few months old, I was asked to teach the five year old class at my church. I agreed to do so timidly, not sure at all what to do with five year old children. They had told me Fixitman could stay with me and help me as much as I needed so I was counting on him to know what to do. When he left after the first five minutes of class, I thought he was returning. When he didn't return, I managed to not lose it in front of the sweet group of kids and make it through the next half hour. Fixitman will tell you he was in a lot of trouble for abandoning me though and I remember crying about it on the way home.

I really had no confidence in my ability to interact with kids at this point. I did not have a strong identity as an adult, having barely left my own teenage years, and I wasn't really sure what appropriate interactions were. I may also have had from some post-partum stuff at the time, as I remember feeling horrible that I didn't know what to do with my own baby as well as my husband did.

I tell you this to try and explain my mindset as a young mother considering homeschooling and feeling no confidence in my ability to handle my own child as he grew, much less be responsible for his education. Nevertheless, here I was fretting at my husband about how I couldn't do it, though I didn't think I wanted to send him to public school.

Fixitman can be very level headed and calming and good for me in situations like this. Ultimately we decided that it wasn't a problem that needed solving right that minute, or even that week, as Dinoguy was still working on basic motor skills like sitting, and that as it got closer to the time when he would be school-age, we would figure it out.

In my student teaching I taught at a small private school and my work included one class of fourth graders as well as my normal middle school and high school classes. This was unique and different from most student teachers but worked out very well for me. I had a lot of fun playing and working with the fourth graders, though I had to do a lot of work to know what they were supposed to be learning. (And no, that wasn't given to me by my supervising teacher like it probably should have been, but lets try and stick to the slightly pertinent info instead of revisiting my student teaching in its entirety.) I gained from this experience the confidence that I could interact with younger kids without being like my vision of elementary teachers. (Who are wonderful people, but I don't have the same temperament.)

Like any first child, Dinoguy's life was full of learning experiences for me that have shaped me into a better mother and hopefully not caused too much damage. I was terrified of letting him do much at the playground and hovered constantly. I tried to maintain a spotlessly clean house and would clean up toys before he was thru with them. I wouldn't try painting with him for fear of the mess. I tried various schedules and discipline methods to shape him. I know that I need to let go of things that I now look back on and feel bad about, but it is hard. However, all of them shaped me. Interactions with other parents and their kids have taught me and shaped me. They still do. But these early learning experiences brought me more confidence in my ability to interact with my child, even some of the things that I feel badly about now.

When Dinoguy was three, I did a co-op preschool with some friends who also had three year olds. It was an awesome experience for me. We did whatever topic we wanted for the two hours the kids were over. It was a planned out play date in some ways. I would choose a topic and get library books, look up songs, games, activities, crafts and foods that related to that topic and we would play. It was so much fun and the kids loved it. As moms we thought we were getting the great deal of having some time off without our kids while they got fun time with friends, but the real gain I got from it was the confidence that I could play and interact with little kids on their level and they were learning and having fun. I loved hosting the kids at my house and planning for my turn. It was so much fun!

In my own personal education, I had finished my undergraduate and graduate school courses and just had a thesis to finish up. I had gained a lot of teaching experience with older teens and even adults and had some confidence in my abilities. I also had a large amount of skepticism about accepting things without questioning in the realm of mathematics education. I started to despise textbooks and canned curriculum, not as a torture device for students, but as a inefficient and watered down means of automating the job of teaching when it should be personalized for every student and class. I know that these experiences laid a foundation, though I didn't realize it at the time. I hadn't questioned or really considered that other aspects of education might also have serious issues like I had with math.

I also worked part time that year at two different places: a charter 6-12 school and a night school division of the local college. The difference between my classes at the two schools was striking. At some point I remember saying to myself "Education is wasted on the young." I spent the day classes feeling like a performer, trying to interest them and prove that math was useful and fun and trying to cajole them into doing their work regularly. Then I would go teach my night class and have a classroom full of people who were working full time during the day and going to school full time at night. They hung on my every word. They took copious notes, asked thoughtful questions, and tried as hard as they could to succeed in a subject that had burned them in the past. And they were paying to be there while the kids during the day got me for free. It was ironic and funny to me that society was forcing these kids to listen to me when they didn't want to and telling me to make them learn a topic that I knew was relevant and helpful to them but they were convinced was boring & hard. Then that same society made it hard for adults to obtain that same education years later when they desired and craved it. Something was wrong with this picture.

The summer we went to Wisconsin while Fixitman did an internship was the summer we "officially" jumped on the homeschool wagon. Dinoguy was 3.5 and while he still had 2 years until he would be eligible for kindergarten, he was being asked if he was going in that fall, probably due to his height. My standard response changed at some point that summer from "No, he has 2 more years before he is eligible." to "No, we are going to homeschool."

I can't pinpoint the exact thing that caused the change, but I have discussed it with Fixitman and we agree we were undecided before that summer and definitely homeschoolers after that summer. What I can tell you are about events that shaped me that summer.

First was my baby brother. He was coming out of another not great year at the elementary school (large age gap between us!) and my mom was really struggling with him and what to do. She was thinking about homeschooling him using the K-12 virtual school curriculum that next year, things were that bad. My parents are huge public school advocates, so realize that this decision was a big last resort for them. There were social issues, teacher issues, school issues... I listened and helped her as much as I could but also sat and watched and wondered if similar things could happen to my sweet baby and how it could be prevented.

Second was the new friend I made at the pool. She had young kids close in age to mine and was wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater. I was drawn to talk to her, though approaching strangers is not normal for me. We ended up having a couple play dates and talking a bunch about schooling. She was a big fan of the Thomas Jefferson education method and insisted on giving me an old copy of Oliver DeMille's book. I am already a book lover and devoured the book. It was fascinating reading and gave me tons of food for thought. She also invited me to attend a presentation she and her husband were doing on Thomas Jefferson education at the local library. The book and presentation made me hungry for more and I started talking about it all the time to Fixitman. I hadn't realized that homeschooling could be more than replicating the school environment at home. I started doing more research on homeschooling methods as a result, telling myself I would make an informed decision and pick the absolute best method for our family.

Thomas Jefferson education recommends some books for parents to read to start understanding the basic methods of discussion that are central to it and Anne of Green Gables was on the list, so I re-read the Anne series. I already loved this series and hadn't read it in a long time so it was enjoyable. This is actually the third shaping event, because when Marilla refuses to send the twins to school until they are 7, feeling they are too young and should play longer, it made me question why kids are sent off at 5 now. I had taken history of education and knew that kindergarten or "children's garden" had not started out as just another school grade, but hadn't questioned the idea that the younger we start kids on formal learning the better. Suddenly that became something to question, along with a thousand other things.

In my research into methods I found a small blurb about "delight directed learning". It was intriguing and went on my short list along with Thomas Jefferson education and the Charlotte Mason method. I couldn't find many books on delight directed learning or "unschooling" as it sometimes called, so I turned to google and found many more fascinating things to read. I read John Holt's "How Children Learn" and "How Children Fail" and was fascinated by his observations and interpretations and thoughts on things I would not have noticed. I read more books and I read more on the internet and I talked to Fixitman about it all the time. He was supportive and seemed to trust me and I kept going deeper.

I decided that while I liked Charlotte Masons' nature observation ideas, the rest of it was too structured and stressful in my opinion, not to mention changing topics all the time was one of the things I considered a weakness of school - constantly following an arbitrary schedule and forcing kids to stop learning about something they are fascinated with in the name of the Schedule - just to go on to the next class and start the cycle all over again. (No it isn't a problem solved by block scheduling either.)

So I was between Thomas Jefferson education and unschooling. Thomas Jefferson education breaks up the learning periods of a childs life in to three big parts. The first is the "Love of Learning" phase and is from birth to approximately 8 and has the goal of instilling a love of learning in children and helping them gain the basic skills, like literacy. The second is the "Learning to Learn" phase and is approximately ages 8 to 12. This is when the child is helped to learn HOW to learn like a scholar and things are modeled and done with parents. The third phase is the "Deep learning/Scholar" phase and goes until the kid goes to college or goes on for life, depending on how you look at it. The ages are approximate as each kid is independent. Fixitman and I looked at the first phase - the "Love of Learning" phase and felt that it was pretty similar in suggested style to unschooling and decided that was what we'd do for now. In other words - pick both but use one label and see how it goes.

I joined some yahoo groups to talk to other unschoolers. I subscribed to a magazine about unschooling by unschoolers. (It is defunct now.) I read. I tried to be more active and involved with my kids and activities. I started viewing things differently and trying to see things the way they did. Our approach to discipline started changing naturally as a result and we started learning more about "gentle parenting" and "respectful parenting" and that led to more books and I had more fascinating things to read.

And before I knew it, I had changed. I was miles away from that lady who had an anxiety fit over homeschooling when her child was a baby. I wasn't necessarily totally confident yet, but I was feeling good about the choices and we figured we had two years to experiment before it was "official". If I did start to fret about what would happen if they weren't thriving and if they weren't learning anything and Fixitman would say "If it isn't working out, we can always do something else" and I'd calm down.

We have been thriving as unschoolers and I don't know if we will see a need to change later. We take it one day at a time. I think this post is long enough now and I can ruminate about change and thriving and more in another post another day. First I have to go have Fixitman tell me again that we are taking things one day at a time and I don't need to stress about when Dinoguy is a teenager and how our relationship will change right now because it is over 7 years away. Bye!


Christa said...

Great post! Isn't that interesting how things evolve? I am thinking about brewing up a post about our journey...

Mel said...

I love this post! I enjoyed reading about your journey. It is interesting to me to "see" how people's minds work. Thanks for sharing this with us! The pic of the boys is adorable ;)

St. Andrew's Community said...

Your mother says..
What a beautiful, intelligent and caring daughter I have. Having watched you go through all of what you desribed, I am in awe of your courage to stand behind what you know is right for your family. Your Fishing Gramma always. always.. says. Take One Day at a time. Let Go and Let God drive you. It a lesson to learn over and over again.
Thank you sweetie. I envy your ability to do this. And even though we have your brother back in public school, I am always considering other alternatives. For now, the best scenario is what it is. One Day at a time.
You have a very smart, caring and loving mate.
The second Fishing Gramma. :)

Tiffany said...

Thanks for sharing this. I often go through minor anxiety attacks about what to with my boys and schooling. Maybe I'll read up on some of the things you listed. And super cute picture of the boys!

Roni said...

What a fabulous post!!!

Thank you so much for taking the time to think & write that all out to share with us!!

You are such an awesome Mama!!
And, kudos to Fixitman for being so supportive & for saying the right things at the right time!

**Love the picture of the boys!! So sweet!!!

mariann and Tory said...

Thanks for the insight. It is interesting to read about your journey to unschooling. I think if we lived in California we would probably be forced to home school. We are blessed to be up in an area where our values are being taught in our school system. Good for you for doing what is best for your family. Tell my brother he is awesome for being so calm and supportive!

Holly said...

Homeschooling has always been a thought in the back of my mind. After reading your post, and some visits with friends who feel the same...I am going to be looking into homeschooling. I have never thought of myself as a homeschooling person but now I'm thinking--Why not??!!

Rachael said...

That was really good to read. I can totally see myself as a mom when you talk about your early fears of not knowing what to do and feeling the need to always have a clean house, etc. I wish I could get into a co-op teaching situation as well - I think that would help in my confidence with my own kids. Kudos to you on this path!


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