Involving Your Student in the Planning Process

So I was getting a little stressed out.  I never planned to be homeschooling.  In any form.  When I found out that we had to “qualify” for pre-k here in Texas, and that we wouldn’t qualify, I thought, ok well, I can teach pre-k.  It’s not like I don’t have the experience.  Or we could just put our kids in a private pre-k.  But that was before.  Before either of our kids was born.

The journey we’ve taken the last three years with Becca has been incredible.  We never expected all the challenges that come with being her parents.  But we wouldn’t change a thing.  Even the homeschooling first, second, and third grade curriculum at age three in the middle of the summer because she doesn’t ever want to shut down or take a break from learning.  I wouldn’t change it, but it is definitely enough to stress ya out.  Believe me, ya’ll.  I was about to lose it.
And then I saw a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Colleen (from Raising Lifelong Learners), about this class called Bloom.  It’s made for homeschooling moms and actually says in the title that it’ll help me find my SANITY.  And boy.  I kept seeing her post that Alicia from Vibrant Homeschooling was doing this Bloom registration for her class, and I kept seeing the word SANITY.  But I kept telling myself I’m not homeschooling.  Not really.  I mean I call it unschooling, but seriously, I’m NOT a homeschooler.  I was fighting it tooth and nail.  Not the homeschooling itself, but the title.  The “stigma.”  The looks.  The comments from, well, everyone who isn’t a homeschooler.
But then I gave in.  And realized that whatever label I put on it, I am teaching school at home.  And I realized I was flailing around out there in an ocean, looking for a life raft.  So I decided to grab the next one that floated by, and I joined the Bloom class.  After only completing two classes (of eight) so far, I’m already breathing sighs of relief.  Sanity is possible!!!  Talking with the other ladies in the group, watching the videos, getting encouragement, all of it has really started making an impact on how I focus on teaching.
And, I realized that I know some things about Becca.  She does NOT thrive on specific curriculum guidance.  She needs to have the flexibility to follow any little rabbit trail she comes across.  A daily lesson plan might be much more comforting to me as a former public school teacher, but for her, it would never work.  Because she sees a random cardboard box, and that makes her want to research how cardboard boxes are made.  And we might spend all day on that.  Or we might see the moon in the daytime and spend the rest of the week learning more (and more, and more, and more) about the moon!  I seriously know more than any mom of a 3 year old should ever know about the moon, ya’ll.  It’s kinda scary.  But, I guess if my daughter is “someday gonna put a Texas flag up there on it,” I should know all this stuff.  (Her words,not mine!)  I also know that she is very opinionated.  Once she feels like she knows everything she wants to know about a topic, she is done with it.  And I best not bring it back up.  Not because she’ll misbehave or throw a fit, but because it’ll be pointless – her mind will be somewhere else and I’ll be wasting my breath.
Realizing these things about her was a huge breakthrough for me.  I knew these things, but somehow sitting down and thinking about them not as flaws but as character traits that impact the way she learns has made a huge impact on the way I approach teaching her.  So I decided to sit down and make some lists of things that she might want to learn about this coming school year.  (If you follow my Facebook page, you’ve seen a preview of this a few days ago – here’s the backstory behind the photo I shared.)  I made a list of items from various subjects that I felt she might be interested in… but I wasn’t sure.  So I decided I’d just ask her, and then we could sort of go through the lists little by little and cover those topics.
I’m always so fascinated to see how her brain works.  When I went to talk to her about the theme topics, we were in her bedroom, and I sat on the floor. She was all over the room all the time.  As she got more excited about the topics she wanted to learn about, she moved faster and faster.  She was eventually spinning in circles next to me.  (Enter her Proprioceptive need for input…aka Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD)  She read the lists aloud over my shoulder and would say “yes, I want to learn ___” or “no, I know enough already about ____.”  When we were talking about science topics, she kept going.  “I want to learn about ____ and I want to learn about ____ and about _____ and then what about _____?”  We ended up with an amazing set of lists of theme topics she wants to learn about, art projects she wants to create, and some physical stuff she wants to try, too.
It was a super productive meeting time, and she and I both left the room really excited about what all we’re going to learn about together in the coming school year.  Then she hit me with a curveball.  She basically asked me if we could start “tomorrow.”  We talked about it, and agreed that this summer we will definitely do some things on her lists, but we’ll wait and pick up on the more “schoolish” things  (math, according to her is “kind of schoolish”) this fall.  I’m totally fine with that.  Until such time as she’s actually behind in a skill for her age, I will totally let her determine what she wants to learn, and when she wants to learn (which of course is everything / every minute of every day).
I honestly don’t know how long this homeschooling thing will be right for us.  I hope and pray that we can get her IQ tested next year and then advocate for the school district we are in to advance her to the appropriate grade level for her skills once she hits age 5 and should start kindergarten.  But that may not happen.  And it may be that we need to continue some form or combination of home, private or charter education to ensure that all of her needs are met.
We have to take each day at a time, and I have to be ok with the flexibility of all of it.  This isn’t something that I can really plan ahead.  I have to learn to roll with the punches.  (Which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done thus far…)  But here’s the SANITY portion of this!!!!:  By letting her select and tell me things she is interested in learning, my curriculum won’t fail.  And I won’t spend tons of money on themes she isn’t interested in!!!  I know I’m guaranteed to have a happy, intent student who is eager to learn about the selected topic.
I would highly encourage other moms (homeschooling or not) to  talk to your kids about what they want to learn.  Don’t just assume they are interested.  Ask them open-ended questions.  Start the discussion by simply saying – what do you want to learn?  And then sit back and be ready to listen.  REALLY listen.  And then be prepared to follow through!
Share some feedback – I’d love to hear from you!  How do you involve your kids in their learning process?  Do they get to help select their curriculum if you are homeschooling?  Do they get to select topics of extracurricular study/activity if they are in another school setting and learning additionally at home?  What works for you?  I’m always eager to learn from others and get new ideas!!  This was a first for us, and happened to be very successful, so I wanted to share.

A Visit To Our “UnSchool”

I typically don’t make posts on the weekends, but this one has been brewing in my mind for a while, and has been sitting in my drafts folder for several weeks.  So here it is, finally!visit to our unschool

Welcome to our UnSchool – a place where Becca learns what she is ready to learn – which usually revolves (or should I say “orbits”) around the Solar System… with her latest math interest being in fractions.  Later this month I’ll be sharing the fraction game that is shown here, including the free printable to make your own! 🙂

As you know from reading my “About Me” page, I have a background in public education.  I swear by public education.  But I also swear AT public education.  It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.  I think it’s so important for kids to have experiences that challenge them to the root of their existence.  I think it’s important for them to debate their religion, and to stand up for what they believe in.  I think it’s important to have a teacher who gives you a hard time about, well, anything.  It’s important to have peers who befriend you and peers who make fun of you.  It builds character.  I certainly turned out just great by going through 3 years of private and 15 1/2 years of public education that culminated in a Master’s degree.  As a student, I was always a high achiever who pushed myself to be my best, and stood firm in who I was as a person – both in my theology and my politics.  And as a public school teacher, I know that I helped LOTS of kids deal with social pressures and saw lots of light bulbs come on as I taught them how to read, how to add, how to subtract, how to explore and question.  As a teacher, I was a huge proponent of public education.  I was perhaps even brainwashed into believing that public education was THE BEST and ONLY way to TRULY educate.  (Despite all my frustrations over standardized testing and the lack of differentiation for the kids in my class who didn’t conform to any set “norm” due to whatever reason…which was most of them…)

So I want you to know that had anyone told me ten years ago as that soon-to-graduate, ready-to-conquer-the-world and teach every kid, idealistic college student that I would sit down today and write a post titled “A Visit to our UnSchool”, I would have said, “WHO ME?  HELL NO.  I’ll NEVER HOMESCHOOL MY KIDS!”  And honestly, I can say that I have no idea where I’ll be this time next year, much less ten years from now.  And I have no idea where or what my kids will be learning this time next year, much less ten years from now.  They might be in a public school.  They might be in a private school.  Or, {gasp!} they might be right here in our current UnSchool.  (I predict, however, that if they are both here in our UnSchool in ten years, I probably will be bald or entirely white-headed…I am NOT a patient person, nor do I foolishly believe that I will always be the right person to teach them…)

But, I also would never have believed it ten years ago if you would have told me I’d have a child like Becca.  Being a mom pushes you to the limits of your existence.  And EACH parent has to do what is right for THEIR CHILD at that time.  (I will take the opportunity to insert right here the fact that YES, there are people who simply say they are homeschooling and let their kids run willy nilly and never teach them a thing and let them sit in front of the tv all day.  And YES, there are people who could be considered “religious fanatics” who keep their kids home because they believe the public school is literally “evil” and will ruin their children.  And YES, there are moms who just can’t let their little babies away from their nest because they have to shelter them and monitor their every move.  Yup.  Wouldn’t be stereotypes if there weren’t people who did it.  Just being honest, those people drive me nuts and I have zero understanding for where they are coming from, but to each their own.)  However, there are many many moms that I’m finding who are faced with the same situation we are in… they’ve got a kid who just doesn’t “fit” with the “normal” public school mold, and as a parent, they are doing whatever it takes to help their child.

For example, let’s look at Becca.  I don’t know of a single 2 1/2 year old who is ALLOWED in a regular school classroom.  If I walked into any public school in this great country of ours today and tried to enroll her in first grade, I would be looked at like I have two heads.  Seriously.  And, if they only observed her socially or physically, where she is right on track with her age, they’d never agree to even letting her sit in on one class.  She also probably wouldn’t perform very well on a standardized test because, let’s face it – she can’t even write her own name.  She can’t draw any shapes other than a circle (which really comes out more like a swirl because she doesn’t stop with one time around).  She can barely put on her own shoes.  She’s not even potty trained, for goodness sake!  And then there’s that little problem of the meltdowns at sudden loud noises.  I shudder to think what a pencil sharpener would do to her psyche at this age when she hasn’t fully learned how to cope with her unique set of sensory needs.  So what am I to do?  Yes, I have worked with her over time, but the VAST majority of what she knew in that amazing brain of hers by age two was learned through osmosis – picked up in little books we’d read, or in videos she’d watched on tv, or in games she’d played on our phones.  Because that’s how her particular brain is wired.

You see, Kindergarten curriculum has been accomplished.  She knows how to spell her name.  She knows what city, state, and country she lives in, and can identify the flags.  She knows all of her shapes, all of her colors, knows her letters and their sounds, knows some basic sight words and is learning more by the day, knows… knows… knows…

So what am I to do today?  I could simply let her be 2 1/2.  Or I could get her a curriculum and start teaching her how to fill in all the blanks.

This time last year, I was at a loss.  I was faced with an almost two year old who didn’t want to quit learning.  And I had no clue what to do.  She would not allow me to just let her play by herself and have fun.  Because her type of “play” and “have fun” involved file folder games and math games and reading games and… and… and… she never wanted to stop.  Constantly needed to soak up more and more information.  An insatiable thirst for learning (that hasn’t stopped!).  I already knew then that because of the way state laws currently exist, when she reaches age 4, we will not qualify for pre-k based on our level of income (public pre-k in Texas is only allowed if you fall below a certain income level).  So I knew that I would be homeschooling her for pre-k.  But at that point, I still was very resistant to ever considering myself a “homeschooler.”

I didn’t want to buy a curriculum.  I didn’t want to set up a school in my house (although, really, I already had done a lot of stuff simply because being a teacher is in my blood…).  I just really did not want to be a “homeschooler.”

And then I read an article about UnSchooling.  And I was appalled.  I can’t find that original article, but I was just sickened by the thought of this woman, who basically let her kids live like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and she was proud of it.  They never did anything they didn’t want to do, and they ran all over the country side and as long as they came home for dinner, she was happy with them.  I certainly never wanted to be associated with a theory of schooling like that – raising hoodlums.  But something in me kept saying, there has to be more to the story.  This can’t be right.  Are there seriously people that think that it’s ok to let their kids grow up as cave people and never formally teach them anything?  And I began to question.  And I began to research.  And what I found was simply amazing.

This woman was the far extreme (there are ALWAYS extremes, folks.  ALWAYS).  But the general concept behind UnSchooling is a really fabulous one – think about totally molding your child’s education to fit THEIR INTERESTS!   I think whoever named it UnSchooling was looking for attention… and probably negative attention, because really, it is honestly a horrible term for a wonderful thing.

Interest-based education.  Thematic Units.  I learned how to do this in college!  The ideal is that every single item to be learned gets wrapped up into a theme or a unit that is based on what the child is interested most in!  Got a history buff who is addicted to the Civil War?  Travel to those locations, read books about it, learn about the people involved, and extend it by doing math story problems related to it, and even science exploration such as geology and geography while in those locations to understand why the battles went the way they did.  Oh wait.  That’s exactly what my mom did with me to extend my learning beyond the regular public school classroom!!!  I CAN DO THIS!!!!!

And honestly, it has been the very best thing I could ever imagine doing for Becca.  She does enjoy a some-what normalized schedule for her day, so we try to maintain that schedule.  But everything she learns is based on what she is interested in at the time.  If she’s on a dinosaur day, and wants to add, then we do dinosaur math.  I didn’t have to buy a specific curriculum (but then with a Master’s degree in curriculum development, that would sort of be a waste of money anyway…), and she is HAPPY.  She is OBSESSED with the Solar System.  Thoroughly obsessed.  She’s discovered that books at the library have lots of information about outer space, and she wants to check them out and re-read them over and over until she has them memorized.  She is interested in Copernicus (I think maybe I have a science teacher in my past who would be appalled to hear me say this, but I seriously never remember hearing or knowing about the man until yes, I read about him in this library book with Becca… and she’s now super interested in “that Cap guy”).  She’s interested in the Apollo missions.  She’s interested in Orion, and  swears she’s going to Mars.  She’s recently stated that she is also going to the moon, and is going to put a Texas flag on the moon.  “Because the moon needs a Texas flag on it.”  (Preach it, sister!)

solar system fact folders

Later this month, I’ll be sharing more information about our Fact Folders, including how to set up your own and a free printable.  She has really enjoyed working in these folders, and has even started gaining some confidence in her abilities to draw, and really impressed me by writing “sun” on her own.  She’s also become more willing to let me hold her hand to help her write, since she gets very frustrated that she can’t make her hand do what she wants it to do.

In our UnSchool, there is no need to force her to read, or to force her to count beyond 20.  Instead, I can encourage her by playing little word/picture matching games, and going on number hunts with the number grid where together we find 53 and 89 and 67 (she LOVES number hunts!).  When she wants to learn the time on the clock, I can sing-count by 5’s to “o’clock” and eventually, she’ll get it.  But there is zero pressure.  She is, after all, 2 1/2.

learning through guided play

She loves to sit at her little “school table” and play word/picture matching games, sort letters, work puzzles, do art projects, pretend, imagine, and learn- through guided play.
(She gets plenty of un-directed independent play, as well.)

Do I think that UnSchooling is right for everyone?  NO.  Do I think that saying you are UnSchooling is a reason to let your children live like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?  NO.  Do I think that we’ll forever UnSchool?  Most likely not.  Because I think the thing every UnSchooler, HomeSchooler, PrivateSchooler, or PublicSchooler has to keep in mind is simply this – THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN CHANGE.  I think the hardest part of being a parent is knowing that I might make a mistake that adversely affects the future of my children.  So every year, we’re gonna have to make decisions for our kids based on where they are at that time.  And the crazy thing is – they may not both need the same type of education the same year.  That could end up being very challenging.  But, that’s part of being the very best parent to every single, individual child you have – be that one, or twelve.  And just like that decision is not easy, being an “UnSchooler” isn’t easy, either.  It’s probably the most challenging thing I have ever done to meet her where she is and transform everything she wants to learn about math and science and reading into her chosen theme-mold of the Solar System (seriously, ya’ll, I do a lot of Googling after we watch “This Week at NASA” because I know the questions are coming… I love science, but wow.  This is stretching me in amazing ways, and I feel sure one day soon she will surpass me in knowledge…)  But, if she wants to figure out how many more or less days it takes than Earth for a planet to go around the sun, ok, we’ll do that.  And I’ll find a way to teach multi-digit subtraction to the child who refuses to count out loud beyond 20 (“is nothing needs to be counted beyond 20” truly came out of her mouth last fall, and she still holds firm to that belief, though I’m slowly seeing her start to come around).  Because right now, meeting her needs means working to her theme, and letting her brain create the challenges for both of us.

I’m learning more than I ever thought possible in our “UnSchool”… so perhaps a better term would be ThemeSchool or ChallengeSchool or Mommy’sBrainIsGonnaExplodeSchool.  But, no matter what you call it, thanks for taking a little time to visit our “UnSchool,” and learn why we do right now what we do right now.  I’m interested to see where we are 2, 4, 6, and 8 years from now.  I’ve learned to never say never, and to quit trying to predict.  Because if her brain grows as much in the next year as it has in the last year…

IMG_4652 3Please take this away from your little tour of our UnSchool: throw your stereotypes out the windows, folks.  EVERY CHILD is unique.  And EVERY CHILD needs to be met on their level.  It’s up to us as parents to meet that need – no matter what kind of school that ends up happening in.  (And ya know what, I’m totally preaching that to myself, too.)