Remarkably, the best homeschooling advice I received came when my first child was a baby. My friend Barb, an experienced homeschooling mom who loaned me stacks of Home Education Magazine and Growing Without Schooling, told me that to homeschool I only had to “provide a rich environment, involve children in everyday living, and help find answers to their questions.” That sounded very simple, and it is; the challenge is in trusting that such a plan is enough.
Having started homeschooling as a relaxed eclectic sort, it isn’t surprising that I was attracted to unschooling and slowly moved in that direction. I have never been the kind who needs a lot of pre-planned structure, preferring to cruise with the current and enjoy the blossoms along the way. Still, my journey toward unschooling has been fraught with eddies of doubt: Am I doing the right thing? How can I tell if my children are learning? And where are those interests unschooled children are supposed to follow with excitement?
Although my heart and instincts told me Barb’s advice is true, it has been difficult to un-learn what I was taught about education. Through school and culture I had learned that education is something done to us, the reason and timing determined by experts. Also, education must be pursued in a neat, linear fashion, is necessarily cut up into numerous subject areas, and most of all, learning is drudgery!
My poor first daughter, Caitlin, was my experiment and my teacher. I tried diligently to interest my then only child in various subjects – whether or not Caitlin felt any attraction at the time. Every question she asked was my opportunity for a “teaching moment,” and I rushed my little girl to the library if she expressed even the slightest curiosity about a subject. I look back and laugh at myself now.
Caitlin taught me well when she was still quite young. The toddler raised a palpable wall whenever I started pontificating. With that barrier in place, my child didn’t absorb any of the knowledge I was so generously bestowing upon her. Even with the obvious response, it took me quite a while to let go of my need to “teach” and to realize I was wasting my breath.
Sometime after the birth of my second daughter, Laurel, I discovered that the trick is to answer a child’s question as simply as possible. Offering only tidbits of information – or asking questions of them – often piques children’s curiosity more than does giving a dissertation. They need us to leave something up to their imagination, to keep a question open for them. Otherwise, they think we have told them everything there is to know about a topic, or at least, all they care to know.
I was proud of all I had learned, but there was still much more for me to unearth. Because my state requires homeschoolers to provide “proof of progress” for math and language arts, I purchased workbooks. Perceiving the booklets as new and different, my children delved into them for a while, then lost interest. Out of concern that my children wouldn’t measure up if they didn’t do the work, I entered a phase in which I coerced my children into using the workbooks daily. This lead to some very unpleasant scenarios, until I realized those pages didn’t interest Caitlin and Laurel because it wasn’t their work, and it had no real life meaning for them.
Fortunately for all of us, I’ve let go of pressuring my children to learn according to my expectations, which improved our relationship. The trust works both ways. I trust that they are learning what they need; what their inner guides tell them, and they trust that I am worthy of knowing their dreams, imaginings, feelings, thoughts and concerns. I treasure nothing more.
Ironically, providing my state’s annually required “proof of progress” also increased my ability to trust. We used a portfolio assessment for a few years, and avoided the standardized tests that are also an option in my state. During that time I paid attention to the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL), checking off the items my daughters completed, insuring that my children would not “lag behind.” I worried that unschooling might not give them “all they need to know.” Slowly I realized the absurdity of my fear that each of my daughters’ education wouldn’t measure up to someone else’s idea of what every child her age – no matter their interest or abilities -“should” be learning.
When our portfolio evaluator became unavailable two years ago, we had little choice but to use a standardized test as proof of progress. To my relief, it verified what my instincts told me; the test results reflected what I already knew about my daughters’ strengths and weaknesses.
Since then, I have come to view testing time as simply the means to jump through the state’s hoops. My husband and I stopped trying to measure our children against some externally and arbitrarily determined standard. We asked ourselves what we really want our daughters to receive from their education, and found the answer isn’t “academic success.” Rather, we want them to achieve less tangible traits, such as the ability to get along with others; to keep their love of learning; each knowing herself really well, self-esteem, strong character, and more – so much more than a standardized test could ever measure. We know that our children are learning, because we are with them every day, and can observe and interact with them in ways that assure us of their progress.
The latest hurdle has been learning to avoid comparisons, which always cause needless concern. I know some homeschooled children who expressed very obvious interests and talents quite early in life, and found myself unable to resist comparing my daughters. The girls have dabbled in theater, Spanish, drama, music, crafts and more but neither has found inspiration to focus on any one area of study. Caitlin, at 10 Ohm, mostly reads historical fiction of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Colonial periods – plus other eras to a lesser degree, and has lately expressed a rising interest in writing. At 7 Ohm, Laurel has no clear interests yet – except for fairies. She draws a lot, reads to herself, makes up songs about everything, sees fairies, and wanders through the fertile garden of her imagination.
I’ve finally stopped expecting my children’s interests to take hold according to my objectives. I realize their fascinations will pique according to a calendar we cannot know, and the best my husband and I can do is to keep offering our children a full smorgasbord from which to choose, and see which morsels whet their appetites.
At last my husband and I are able enjoy the luxury of viewing our daughters as unique individuals, seeing the wonder of what each is absorbing and accomplishing. We provide a rich environment, involve our children in everyday life, and help find answers to their questions.
I mostly trust that natural learning works, but sometimes I question my choice. Unschooling is a process, and I’m still working on setting myself free from the ideas ingrained through my years of public school education. It has taken a great amount of patience, this waiting for unschooling to work.
Shay Seaborne writes and homeschools in Woodbridge, Virginia.