When I was first homeschooling, I had already been to several homeschool conventions and decided I was going to stick to the classical method. The basics of the classical method are exposing children to facts and using guided memorization, so that later, when their studies delve deeper into heavy topics, they will have a very superficial knowledge of facts and terms already embedded into their memories. True story: I LOVE the classical method. But other true story: I am the WORST at sticking to someone else’s lesson plans.
For background: I withdrew my girls from public school 2 days after giving birth to baby #4, when I also had a 15 month old baby at home. Yes, I am borderline insane. But also, it should give you a window into just how bad our public school experience was. My oldest was in third grade, and while she’d had tons of genuinely amazing teachers up to that point, we just had a really rotten experience with a special ed teacher who, admittedly, was just burned out and ready to retire. And my kindergartner at the time had a similar experience. Here’s the conversation that teacher had with me in the conference that acted as a tipping point:
“Your daughter is reading ahead, and we’re not encouraging that right now. She also continues to ask questions, and if I answer all her questions we will never get through the material. I’m going to need you to get her to sit quietly and observe without talking or asking questions, or we’re going to need to look at moving her to another class.”
Why do I share that here? Because I wound up saying the same thing to her when I tried to stick to someone else’s lesson plans. It’s true. I know what that teacher said is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what any of us wants for our children when it comes to their education. They should be hungry to read until their interests are satiated! They should be asking questions! They should be able to discuss and learn through conversation and story telling, and they should push us to learn more so that we can reinforce that learning is a life long pursuit. But when I was trying to stick to the plans laid out in that curriculum-in-a-box, I found myself stressing that we were spending too long on certain subjects and not long enough on others. The classical method really emphasizes a superficial knowledge initially, just to expose children to a HUGE volume of facts while they are young enough to imprint mass amounts of knowledge on their memories. And to be really successful, a parent/educator has to be okay with moving on and letting them delve deeper later on. But my kids wanted to know more details, and in truth, I wanted to give those details to them. I honestly couldn’t stick to the lesson plans and give my children the education I wanted and the one that they were asking for.
And so, an unschooler was born. One of the greatest truths I learned about unschooling was from a parent in a homeschool convention:
Unschooling does not mean un-parenting.
As an unschooler, I don’t use curriculum. I just don’t. I’m too flexible a person to stick to someone else’s schedule. And while I know there are literally tons of curricula out there with flexible lesson plans that allow you to input your own dates and tailor it to your own schedule, even those are too rigid for me, because I need the room to follow the rabbit trails that my children’s interests (or sometimes my own) take us down. Having said that, I am absolutely not without structure. I have goals for each of my children each year, and I adjust those goals based on what I see in their performance and abilities. I also recently discovered the beauty of Charlotte Mason’s method of homeschooling, and have incorporated a good bit of her structure as well. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education series, which was genuinely life changing for me. I use her books and Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well Trained Mind as my guides, but I curate all my own resources and create a rhythm that works for us. I also participate in Classical Conversations, a classical christian homeschool community that allows us to meet weekly for 24 weeks out of a year to practice memory work and conduct science experiments and art projects together.
What about common core? Or state standards? How do you measure progress?
I am fortunate enough to live in a green state, which means our state government has little to no regulation when it comes to home education. There are no requirements for me when it comes to time of instruction, learning objectives, lesson plans, or testing. So for me, measuring our progress means watching for growth. I have one child with clinical anxiety, and I’m not going to pressure her into testing just for the benefit of knowing what we need to work on. I can spend a fairly limited amount of time playing math games with her to assess whether or not she knows the math facts that are appropriate for her age/education level. I can watch my son and see if he needs extra help with reading or writing (the latter of which is definitely the case), and I can see my younger son’s level of interest in our school time and tell that he needs another year of just playing and listening to stories.
**If I were genuinely concerned that we had an issue, like an older child struggling to read beyond just a lack of interest, or if we weren’t connecting on math facts, I would definitely partner with a local testing agency to rule out any challenges like dyslexia, or to get extra help in overcoming stumbling blocks in math. And for true developmental concerns (like those faced by my child on the autism spectrum), I’d partner with her therapy team to identify the best resources for us.
So with no curriculum and no lesson plans, how do you stay on track? I’d be worried that without those I’d really have a hard time.
When I was working, we used the Strengthsfinders test to identify our top five strengths as leaders, and my #1 strength was discipline. So I’d be lying if I said I struggle getting things done every day. I live for getting things done. That’s probably why unschooling works for us. It’s definitely very easy to just let go and hope that everyday life experiences count as their education, and I’m sure that some families do that as their version of unschooling, but that’s not what unschooling looks like for me.
For me, unschooling means hitting a variety of topics each day with a targeted rhythm in mind. And where we go within those topics depends on us each day. Here’s what that rhythm looks like for me each day:
- Morning time with a hymn, a prayer (that we recite in english and Latin), Bible verses for memory, one or two poems, and background on the art period we’ve selected for the month. I keep several poetry books in our morning basket so the kids can choose a few for us to read through if they like (we love the Poetry for Young People series), and several art anthologies with selections for the art period we’re studying.
- Bible time, which is an easy one to postpone if we leave it for later. By starting the day with our Bible story I feel like we set the tone of where our family’s key focus is. I love the Golden Children’s Bible, and our readings from each week correspond to the weekly scripture reading that we follow according to our faith.
- English/Handwriting. I have a lovely vintage textbook (seriously, from 1888) called Exercises in English by H.I. Strang, and we do exercises from it each day. The exercises are simple but so effective- identifying and correcting common errors in English grammar. I can use these with even my littlest guys, and they are a painless way to work through grammar orally. And I have minimal writing tasks- tracing for my youngest, early letter formation for my 5 year old, and cursive writing of one of the poems, scripture verses, or prayers we’re working on. Eventually I’d like to incorporate famous speeches into this for her as well.
- Math. I use Saxon math curriculum, but I don’t keep to it exactly. I use their worksheets and their teacher instructions/scripts when I feel like I need the extra help, but I mainly love it because it’s an excellent guide for building a strong foundation in facts and concepts. Saxon also utilizes a spiral method that revisits the concepts that were learned previously, and this is hugely successful in my house. My degree is in finance and economics, with a minor in mathematics, so I put a huge emphasis on strong math skills with my squad.
- Science. This is where my kids’ interests really come in. We do a nature study here based on what they’re interested in, and I use a variety of vintage books and encyclopedias to help answer our questions about a wide range of topics, from the human body to mammals of the arctic. I choose a topic for each month, but I’m flexible with following what my kiddos are wanting to know.
- Latin. I love the idea of learning Latin, but I also want it to be practical. So our Latin lessons involve learning the Latin words for whatever we’re studying each day, along with some basic vocabulary and everyday sayings. We memorize a series of Latin parts of speech and Latin grammar rules, but I don’t emphasize the whys behind those. I’d rather these just be a low-key foundation that’s imprinted on their memory without much else.
- Geography and History. For these I use a variety of maps, including a vintage pull-down map, a few different children’s atlases, and placemats ordered through our Classical Conversations bookstore. I have my kids point to, outline, trace, (or my favorite, put a toy or small snack food on) the countries or landmarks we are studying in history. Then we read through the chapter in our history book together and talk about it. I let them ask questions, and we look at books we’ve checked out from the library or encyclopedias we have at home to answer whatever questions we don’t know offhand.
- Reading. This is my favorite way to end our school day. We have a novel that we read at bedtime every night, but we also have the option to read some of this during our reading time. However, my usual go-to during reading time is to read through the read-alouds I’ve checked out from our library (or our own collection) that correspond to what we’re learning in science and/or history. This can be short or long depending on what we’re reading and how we’re responding. Lots of days we wind up reading for hours because we just can’t get enough. But there are also plenty of days when mom has read enough, and they can just look through books on their own.
Does that look like a lot? I promise it really isn’t. And when it comes time to plan it, I use that structure to help me coordinate everything pretty seamlessly. The freedom to follow our kids’ interests is well worth the time it takes to curate all the material, and honestly, with a library card and a few trips to the thrift store/antique malls, I have no trouble putting together a huge volume of resources to allow us to accomplish all this.
How do you have enough hours in the day? I feel like all that would take forever.
Truthfully, I spend about 4 hours a day, more or less, actively teaching something to my children. The rest of the day is their option to play outside, read independently, build or create worlds with their toys, or do some other form of creative play. Now that my oldest is older, and I have a wide-spread age range (my oldest homeschooler is 10 and my youngest is 4, plus the baby) I find my actual teaching spreads over the course of a day.
The best way for me to keep from losing the day to interruptions like laundry and nap time is to allow for breaks for outside time. We typically wrap up math time right at the time the baby needs his nap, so I send the bigs outside with a snack and a mission to come back with something for us to identify or a question to answer in our science time. I let them stay out as long as they want, and that gives me some time to move laundry over, wash up from breakfast, and gather our science materials. We follow the same idea for lunch- we typically have lunch after science, and I have the kids eat outside or on our enclosed back porch if the weather isn’t ideal, and use that time for creative play so I can feed the baby and get whatever laundry was started before folded and put away. (Can you tell that laundry basically runs my whole life?) Afterwards babe goes down for his second nap, and we all come in to finish the day with geography, history, and reading.
My goal is for us to be wrapped up by 4:30 every day so I can have dinner on the table around 5:30, but that’s honestly hit or miss. Some days we breeze through the school work with no trouble at all, and some days I actually just abandon the workload and say we’re spending the day outside or at the park or museum or with friends. In total transparency, I struggle a lot with mental health, particularly with OCD and negative self-talk, so it’s really important for me to identify when things aren’t going according to plan and give us the space we need to recalibrate our expectations or change course. I am constantly reminding myself if my children are learning, I am doing a great job. They don’t always have to be happy- life won’t always be happy for them- but they do have to always be trying to learn, and they have to respect that it’s me who’s in charge and not them. That’s it. Those are my guidelines.
Ultimately, my goal as an unschooler, and really as a homeschooler in general, is to develop my children into functional adults who are responsible and kind, who know their worth and value others for their differences, and whose knowledge of the world around them and the people who’ve come before them points them toward the God who created them. I want my children to be adults who can provide and care for themselves, and who can help those who cannot do the same, and I want them to be able to navigate tough circumstances and disappointments without being destroyed by them. I want them to be able to identify what they’re responsible for and what they’re not, and I want that knowledge to help them forge positive relationships and leave toxic ones. Those skills won’t just come from reading books and learning facts. They’ll come from our interactions with one another and with our communities. And for me to be able to guide and direct them through those, I have to be flexible enough to seize opportunities and offer myself as a listening ear and voice of truth and reason. I’ve found that unschooling is the best way for me to accomplish that, but that doesn’t minimize any other method. The best homeschool method is always the one that works for you and your family.