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Our Homeschool Approach: Classical meets Unschooling

Little Man, taking in the High Museum of Art’s Mo Willems Exhibit

When I first started envisioning homeschool, I was in college, and I had a highly romanticized view of what it might be like. I’d taken a few education courses, and was working as a nanny for a sweet family with a son in elementary school. Celia was still a baby, and as I sat helping my little charge with his homework, I imagined doing the same with my little munchkin as she grew. This was at the height of “No Child Left Behind,” and I learned in my classes that education is not exactly the grown-up version of “playing school” that I imagined. I really hated all the goals/objectives that were determined by politicians and interest groups without assessing the needs of the students first. I also knew at that time that my child would have unique needs for the rest of her life (Celia’s autism was an extremely early diagnosis), and I didn’t see a way the current system allowed for that.

I also saw what turned me (and what turns many others) away from teaching: a bureaucratic stifling of creativity and passion. In my career in human resources, one of my signature skills was teaching. I loved taking the complicated and making it simple and more efficient, trading on my team’s individual skills to create a well-working machine where everyone can excel first independently, then collectively. When I started as an education major, I imagined myself a female John Keating from Dead Poet’s Society, young, energetic, and inspirational. I felt like so many of the men and women in my classes were full of passion for educating students, with ideas and visions of what they could do to help develop young minds. And I didn’t see a system that encouraged that type of thinking. What I found was that I couldn’t handle my vision being stifled. I just couldn’t deal.

Ironically enough, that’s the same feeling I found when I tackled our homeschool strategy. A pre-made system just wouldn’t work for me. There are literally TONS of curriculum-in-a-box options out there, and I HIGHLY recommend them for the first year of homeschool (you have to start somewhere, and creating your own curriculum with zero experience is just tough). But after a year, we gravitated toward the things that worked for us and ditched the things that didn’t. My ultimate landing place is a blend of classical education and unschooling, which gets a bad rap but is actually AMAZING. Here’s a quick briefing of each:

Classical education is based on the trivium: three stages that include grammar (lots of repetition and memorization of essential skills and facts), dialectic (developing a better understanding of those facts), and rhetoric (taking an analytical approach to those facts). Right now we’re in the grammar stage (which lasts till about 3rd grade), and doing a lot of work with memorization and repetition, in math and spelling especially. I use Memoria Press for classical curriculum, and will even start my preschooler on a blend of their Preschool/Junior Kindergarten program this year.

Unschooling is child-led education. It basically means not using a strict curriculum (or possibly any curriculum at all), and just following the child’s interests in pursuit of their education. An important note: Unschooling is NOT un-parenting. The parent is still the teacher, and still in charge of the child’s education. (That little tidbit is what let me open my mind to the idea of unschooling to begin with!)

So how do we blend those two, which seem so contrary to one another? It’s probably easier for me to show you a glimpse of our homeschool routine:


We start off each morning with the classical work: math and spelling.

Math: Miss Co, who is in first grade, does two pages from her math workbook each morning- a blend of fact repetition (about 15-25 problems of addition and subtraction, some measurement and fraction identification, and a word problem) and introduction of new materials. Each day builds on the current skill set, so she’s always revisiting what she’s learned throughout the entire year.

Spelling: This part is easy for her. We use the Spelling Workout curriculum from Houghton Mifflin, and it uses word groupings based on word structure. (Last week we did oy sounds, so her words included “noise” and “buoyant.”) Each day features a different spelling game that uses all 10 of her spelling words, and helps both with repetition and also understanding how different combinations can create similar word sounds. Very typical classical approach.

Then we shift into unschooling mode: reading, science, and social science. I’ve found that while we do reading absolutely every day, science and social studies vary each day. Some days are heavier in social studies, and some days are heavier in science. (When the weather was bad, for instance, we spent the vast majority of our day learning about weather systems and how they impact whether or not we have snow, sleet, or rain.)

The beauty of unschooling is that it takes us down roads I may not have expected. That day of digging into weather actually led us to talk about the Atlanta Snowpocalypse, and why it is that people in Detroit can get 60 inches of snow and continue with regular life, and why in Georgia 6 inches of snow could be crippling. We actually looked at disaster-preparedness, assessed our own ability to handle unexpected weather, and talked about how our government has had to change the way it deals with weather emergencies. Cool, right? (I’ll add that I had prepared for us to talk about polar bears and the Henson/Peary expedition, but since the conversation took us down this path, I shelved Henson and the bears for a later date.)

A few other unschooling examples:

We kicked off Black History month by watching some animated shorts from StoryCorps. I love YouTube for my homeschool plan, and StoryCorps is an amazing resource. Nobody tells the story of America like Americans. Check out this video:

After watching this with Miss Co, we talked about the right to vote, and perseverance when people stand in our way. We researched where our polling places were, and talked to our librarian about how we register to vote. We saw how easy it was for us, which made her ask questions about why someone would make that hard for someone else. It fit in perfectly with the picture books I set aside for us: The Story of Ruby Bridges, My Brother Martin, and If Buses Could Talk. I figured we would read each of those over the course of the month, but Co decided we needed to read them all in one day. Of course, that put a wrench in my plans for Black History month, but it let us enjoy more of the Roswell Roots Festival, so we’re not complaining.

Another awesome example: we’re currently reading The Borrowers, and just finished the chapter that introduces families with surnames like “Overmantel,” “Harpsichord,” and “Rain-Pipe,” all derived from where the characters live. This prompted a discussion around where our surnames came from, and a look at how and why families developed last names and changed them as they came to America. That conversation in turn took us to a picture book about Ellis Island, and a look at New York harbor on a map, tracing the journeys from where our ancestors originated. Totally unexpected, but a fun little detour that had us looking at information for hours.

Are we in our pajamas here? Maybe. Hidden benefit.

The trick with unschooling is that I actually do have a plan every day. I’ve been a voracious reader since my childhood, and my girls both love reading, so that’s my starting point. Over the summer, I bought several lots of used children’s books on eBay (an awesome plan to homeschool on the cheap) from retiring teachers. This let me build a really solid collection of classic children’s books and educational books. We have a broad variety of subject matter, but I always try to have us working on a chapter book for literature, and incorporate picture books or subject-specific books that go along with the literature.

We do other things too: I use the Memorial Press art cards to expose her to classical art, and let her sketch her own versions, while we listen to a composition by a composer who was writing at the time the art was created. (That’s in the MP lesson plans, I don’t make that up myself.) The lesson plans call for this to happen every week, but I honestly only do it once every couple of weeks. It’s not a deal-breaker for me. And we do cursive and print handwriting practice, although half the time that practice manifests itself in the writing of thank-you notes or grocery lists, because I like efficiency.

Because we’re not tied down to a strict curriculum, I’m not frequently buying supplies for projects or printing off worksheets or grading papers. Yes, I review math problems and look at spelling tests and handwriting practice, and yes, Cora has a notebook where she takes notes on things that stand out to her. But ultimately, our method grants us a lot of freedom and flexibility to learn in a variety of environments, not just home. We’ve gotten tremendous value out of memberships to museums and art centers around town, gone to fun classes at our local library, and spent days doing work in the park. It’s not perfect, but the good days far outweigh the bad ones, and most importantly, Co has discovered that she can learn absolutely anything that interests her, so long as she is inquisitive and diligent in her pursuits!

Up next, I’ll run through the list I call “learning the hard way, and how you, too, can be like me!” Stay tuned…

xoxo~ LWH

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