Thursday, October 9, 2008

Interview with an Unschooling Friend

Special treat today! Jena, an unschooling mom who blogs at Yarns of the Heart, has allowed me to interview her here at The Stone Age Techie. Jena's 3 children have always been homeschooled, and now the oldest has gone to college and the two younger ones are of high school age.



Here's Jena and her family, on a recent trip to New York City:


From Fall Blog


I was so pleased that Jena allowed me to ask so many questions, because I love the idea of unschooling but I've been afraid to "let" my boys go without work in at least some subjects, like in writing and math.



Her ideas and experiences give me hope.



Stone Age Techie: Have your children always been homeschooled? How did you develop your unschooling philosophy?



Jena: Yes, we've always homeschooled. The only exceptions have been when Peter went to a private school in 9th grade that only met on Mondays and Wednesdays. Missa is doing public school for the first time now in 9th grade (because she really wants to). Meg has only taken art and choir at our local high school.



How did I develop my unschooling philosophy? I went to college to be a teacher and I never once thought I'd be a homeschooler. Homeschoolers were some weird off-breed of humanity who were outside my world. But when my first child was a baby, we attended a church that had a homeschooling family and they seemed pretty normal (this was around 1990). So I was intrigued. I went to her house to see what homeschooling looked like. They had desks in the kitchen and school work taped to the walls. Interesting! That got me thinking. So I went to the library and got some education books. I thought back to my schooling and it dawned on me: the purpose of education is to make "good citizens." That's not a bad thing, but I translated that to mean "good followers." I'd rather my child be a leader, a free-thinker and even a reformer. I didn't want him sucked into a system determined to maintain the status quo (I write more about this in The Socialization Question). That was the first serious push in the direction of homeschooling.



A few months later I attended a homeschooling conference (he was not even 2 years old yet) and realized this homeschooling thing really was a possibility. To think I could create my own version of school at home with my favorite students! That's heaven, in my opinion.



So now, how was I going to "do school?" It's true that humans are born learners and parents are their first teachers, so I just slid into this unschooling philosophy. My kids loved learning, and so did I. Why did we have to ruin it all with schedules and someone else's curriculum plans? I decided early on that my goal in raising children would be to "maintain the joy of childhood and the joy of learning." If my kids were interested in something, I'd help them get the resources they needed to pursue that interest, and it just kept going year after year.



There were times I'd pull in the reigns more, question this philosophy and buy a canned curriculum. But it never lasted. It would be fine for awhile, but after it drained the fun out of life, we'd abandon it. I didn't think any curriculum was worth keeping if it taught my kids to hate learning.



I liked to look at check lists (I had the Core Knowledge Sequence and other books by E.D. Hirsch). I used those once in awhile to give me ideas of what we could be learning about, what books or videos I could check out, what field trips we could take, etc. But if my kids weren't interested, that was OK. There's always something else around the bend.





Stone Age Techie: What was it like in the early days, before homeschooling was even on the radar for much of the country? Did you homeschool before Google, while the only Internet available was really, really limited? If so, what was that like?



Jena: This question is my favorite. It never occurred to me that homeschooing before Google would be of interest, but as I think about it, I understand. Getting information is so much easier now than it was ten years ago. Maybe that's why I felt so isolated in my schooling style. But here's the answer: my kids read constantly, especially Peter, and they played dress-up and created worlds on their own. We bought and borrowed books, watched PBS, went interesting places, and just did what seemed fun. That's about it.




Stone Age Techie: (Here are my own insecurities coming out) How did your children learn "academics," especially writing and mathematics? I favor the unschooling philosophy, but I still feel reluctant to do math and writing this way. If you did unschool even these subjects, could you provide some examples of what worked for different learning styles? I'm assuming 3 kids, 3 learning styles...



Jena: Math is a natural in the world of games. Anything that requires keeping score is addition and subtraction practice. Battleship teaches x and y coordinates. Yahtzee gives multiplication practice. Denise Gaskins produced a few little booklets that I bought at a homeschooling meeting. One is Gotcha! Strategy Games for Math and Logic. They are basically ancient paper and pencil games that make you think. Family Math and other books like it were also fun resources to try out once in awhile.



I did have them memorize the multiplication tables, complete with rewards for progress. But I'm not too good at forcing things on my kids, so it wasn't a complete success. Now Peter is in college and even in the 99th percentile in math on the SAT and ACT, he can't remember basic elementary math facts. But that's true of most everyone and that's why people buy calculators.



When Peter got to 6th grade I bought a math CD. That was his first experience with formalized math. From that point on, I tried to require daily math in a workbook or computer program. When he went to the private school in 9th grade he had a wonderful teacher and a class of only three kids, so it was basically a tutoring situation. It was perfect for him. Looking back, I think I should have been more of a dictator in this subject. Find tutors, computer programs, workbooks, videos or Internet resources to keep moving forward in math. It's just too hard to cram all of elementary and highschool math for college entrance exams. For more of the actual resources we used, I've compiled most of them here.



Writing/spelling/grammar is much, much easier. Have them read examples of good writing (books) and give them a journal to express themselves anyway they want. When their imagination creates wonderful worlds, have them write it down for "posterity," not as an assignment. The computer program will alert them to spelling and grammar problems that they will naturally want to fix. Then a couple months before the ACT/SAT, teach them about the five paragraph essay and have them practice writing a few. Probably before they graduate highschool, teach them how to write a research paper. But even this is not necessary. Colleges expect to teach freshmen how to write the way that institution wants them to. Blogging, MySpace, IM, email, all are great ways to practice communicating. My kids are constantly asking me to check their spelling and grammar when they do those things--they don't want to look stupid.




The key to teaching writing? Imagination and Conventions. They can learn conventions by being exposed to them in print (by reading) and through games and workbooks (sparingly). Imagination is best developed with freedom to be themselves. My favorite, very fun book on writing conventions is Woe is I by Patricia T. O'Conner





Stone Age Techie: Have you ever had to defend homeschooling to school officials, relatives, or schooled friends? If so, how did you handle it?



Jena: Yes, but not to school officials. Since I have a teaching degree, my parents thought it was fine. They did worry about socialization, but they didn't hassle me. And over time, they saw what great kids they turned out to be and now are very glad I kept them out of school. I find it best not to argue my point but let my life and my results speak for themselves. If someone really wants to argue, I just drop it, smile and thank them for their concern. Often giving them my philosophy--maintain the joy of childhood and the joy of learning--was enough to get them to agree with me! And as far as socialization goes, I'd just mention all the lessons and activities they were in. If your kids are nearby, have them talk to this person and they'll see that homeschooled kids are often better socialized than public school kids because they aren't afraid to talk to adults in an intelligent way.




Stone Age Techie: We have found homeschooling works well for our whole family, in terms of fulfillment of the spirit (spending time out in our community, reading and learning, socializing...), taking care of our home, the day-to-day cooking, cleaning, and nuts-and-bolts parts of our lives. Have you found the same to be true?



Jena: Absolutely. Life and learning involves all of us together. That's the most fun of homeschooling and why I think I'm missing Peter so much, this his first month away at college.




Stone Age Techie: Is there anything you'd like to share that I haven't asked about, regarding homeschooling, parenting, or life in general?



Jena: Unschooling works best when you communicate a respect and trust of your child's innate abilities to learn and succeed. This is crucial. Listen to your child and take her seriously. See the unique contribution she has to make in the world. If her conclusions and life-direction doesn't match up with your ideal, that's ok. That's great, as a matter of fact! Your child needs the freedom to be who they are and to discover the joy of life.



[Here's Missa, Jena's youngest child, as Spidey:]



From Fall Blog


If they can get through high school with their love of learning intact, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Someone who loves learning is unstoppable. When they face an obstacle, they will know how to tackle it, be that getting into college, preparing for a job, or starting a business. In fact, I just wrote a post about this, relating to Peter's experience in his Calculus class. School has to be more than learning facts. There is a world of facts out there, but what use are facts if you're sick of them or don't know how to find and apply them? A child raised to develop his or her passions will continue to pursue passions forever and be a happy, successful adult.

6 comments:

Jena said...

Hi! Thanks so much for the interview. I really enjoyed thinking through those questions and getting the answers down. If anyone has more questions, just let me know.

PoeticExplosion said...

A correction:

I never learned my multiplication tables. Mom tried to make me, but it never really happened. :P

Hasn't hurt me so far, since it's really easy to multiply quickly in your head once you figure out a few tricks.

-Peter Borah

Heather said...

Very awesome! I didn't learn multiplication, despite multiple teachers trying and my parents working on it for 4 years till last year when I got my kids Times Tales. I can now remember all the upper tables with the cute little stories and images they used (and all 3 kids learned in an hour--go figur, so much better than the traditional flash card method.)

Catherine said...

Great interview! Thanks.

Catherine

redhead83402 said...

AWESOME interview!!! Do you mind if I post a link to this on my blog?? I would love to post this link ~
~Red

The Stone Age Techie said...

Hi Red,
I would LOVE it if you'd post a link to the interview!
Thanks for visiting, and thanks too for your blog; I read about your plum tree with envy, and the rest of the canning post with empathy and enjoyment; we put up lots (though not all - yet) of our food ourselves, too.
Please, post away -
Karen