Saturday, June 9, 2012

What the crap is an unschooler?!

So I’m experiencing a bit of an identity crisis these days…or perhaps a bout of multiple personality disorder….am I a homeschooler? An unschooler? Kidding myself? If you ask my oldest child (a very wise 5 year old), she’ll tell you she’s in Kindergarten and attends Royalmont Academy….neither of which is true. (are you tired of the … yet? I’ll try to reel it in). At home, we have been doing some Kindergarten level work and even have a fair number of books and materials on our “school shelf”. We’ve been working on reading and spelling and math…and not enough on handwriting, but even that’s getting better. She learned to count to 100 while we were driving to visit a friend. She learned to count by 5s and 10s while she was helping Daddy build my gardens. She learned to count by 20s and 25s again in the car looking at a book about 100 that we checked out from the library. She thinks she attends Royalmont Academy because she screamed and cried her way through 5 days of Vacation Bible School there last summer. She told the volunteer lady at the zoo that everything she knows about mammals, especially manatees, she learned from watching “Wild Kratz”. Thanks, Dear. Even though one is not obligated to formally educate their child until the age of six (for those of you playing along at home, that buys us one more year of undocumented freedom since she won’t turn 6 until January and therefore misses the public school cut off…so legally, she doesn’t have to go to school for another year) in Ohio, she’s ready to learn and I’m ready to start. So here goes nothin. But goes where? Everyone has a default when it comes to educating their children. For most, they just assume they’ll send their kids to public school. Some assume they’ll send their kids to Catholic school. I grew up a public….all the way through college. I did test and get accepted to a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, but opted to stay with all my friends in the same district I’d attended since second grade. Rumor has it, I attended a very strict (ironically) Montessori kindergarten, but all I remember of that was walking a shoe polish kit back to the shelf as fast as I could manage because my nose was itchy….and that it was a rare occasion that we were permitted to color with black crayons. My mother loves to tell the story of the day I got suspended from said kindergarten for reading to another child (again ironic)…but apparently I was sneaking books (an offense I also was punished for in Jr. High) at an inappropriate time. As we start to think about formally schooling our first child, all of the strange things in the above paragraph keep creeping back into my thoughts. No black crayons? Being punished for reading? Itchy noses?  Anyway…those memories coupled with the timid, yet imaginative nature of my sweet girl gave me pause. I just wasn’t ready to throw her to the wolves. By the by…I know many wonderfully talented and amazingly compassionate kindergarten teachers who give their all and then some to the children in their care. But I worry that my kid isn’t going to speak up if there’s something she doesn’t understand. She can’t focus on anything else as long as she feels there’s injustice being committed (even if it’s the number of pretzels being given to each child at the table), and she’s super sensitive to being corrected. She likes to stand back and watch rather than dive right in…and I’m just worried that she’s going to get lost in the crowd. Worse yet, I’m worried that whomever is in charge is going to miss out on just how amazing she is. Then there’s the teaching that tells us that parents are the primary educators of their children. It just doesn’t make sense to me that the minute they turn five, we ship them away whether they’re ready or not and trust their education to someone else. My husband and I knew we were called to a different path. Our default was to keep our kids at home. So far, we’ve done a lot through “teachable moments”. Something comes up at story time or on Wild Kratz or on Cat Chat? Well, we talk about it. I ask open ended questions “What do you think he meant when he said that it was a sin to treat another person that way?” “What’s the difference between penguins and seals? They both live in the water but breathe air.” There may be a story that gets told or written and there’s sure to be a picture drawn. We talk a lot about courage when it comes to trying new things, and we spend time discussing what we do and don’t say to people we don’t know. Based on outside development and academic standards (which, sometimes, frankly, are arbitrary), I feel pretty confident that we’re doing ok. My five year old can read, write, draw people with (elaborate) features and somewhat to scale, count to 1000 and recognize numbers to 100 at least. She can count by 5s, 10s, and 20s without error. She can hop on one foot, cut with scissors, and recognize colors and shapes. We’re working on grouping numbers and place value as well as time words (yesterday, next, before). Enough with the laundry list of wonderful right? But my point is, we’re doing ok so far….but can we get away with continuing with this “method” of learning? I feel like we need to be “officially” in Kindergarten and that we need to have a curriculum and books….new pencils, a first day of school picture…the whole nine yards. Perhaps even a home school “uniform”…something we wear when we’re working that distinguishes between work and play time…but wait…*is* there a difference between work and play time? Does there need to be? I feel like we need to have some kind of phonics guide because, even though she’s reading just about anything she can get her hands on, what if there’s something we miss and then there are holes in her learning that we don’t see until it’s too late? But what if there’s not? Is it important that she can “identify the diphthong” if she knows how to say the sound each time it appears (except for the exceptions…and words borrowed from another language…and the made up words)? Does she have to be able to say “That’s the distributive property,” if she can do the math and understand that each problem set up that way is solved the same way? But at the same time…. I’m reading a book right now that is a collection of essays by Catholic unschooling mamas. There was one essay in particular that rubbed me the wrong way. She talked about a deal she struck with her son. He hated math….with a passion. She said he would (as I’m typing, I’m getting interrupted by my 3 year old who’s asking questions about different ways to count to 7) rather argue with her for an hour about why he shouldn’t have to do a math worksheet than use the 15 minutes it would take to just do the problems. The deal was, if he did well on his 5th grade standardized tests (which he did), that he didn’t have to do more math if he didn’t want to. She went on to say that the next time he “did math” was as an 11th grader when he was preparing to take the SATs. That does not sit well with me. Uneasy feeling #2: Many (if not all) professed unschoolers talk about following the child’s interests. If they are interested in mammals, that’s what we focus on. If they like art, we run with it. Great. In my world, my daughter came home from Church during Holy Week and spent seriously three hours writing and illustrating an 11 page book about the Passion of Christ. It’s beautiful. And waaaay more than I would have ever a) thought she could do and b) planned as part of our “school day”. And you bet your #2 pencil she learned more about the Passion of our Lord than she ever would have from anything *I* came up with and decided when and how she was going to do. Unschooler right? But back to the book I’m reading. In another part of the book, the writer talks about following the child’s interests and low and behold, her son wanted to know about communication…written and verbal…and how to interpret (read) someone else’s written thoughts and document his own. He was also fascinated by numbers and how to manipulate them. As far as she was concerned, they were covering the “Three Rs” and that was enough. But if they’ve never heard of multiplication, how do they know to ask about it? If they’ve never seen a fish, how are they going to want to learn about them? Don’t we have to do at least *some* manipulating of their interests so as to expose them to the unknown? The same woman said her oldest son had never memorized his times tables, but was working successfully as a programmer in a financial institution. I had a hard time sleeping the night I read that. And then I get to the parts of the book that remind me of my singular goal as a parent: to get my children to Heaven. My only charge is to form the souls of my children. Teach them to love God and serve others. It’s not my *job* to get them to college…or into the NFL. It’s not my job to make them the smartest kid on the block or to have them make the highest level select soccer team by their 6th birthday (thankfully). It’s my job to teach them the value of hard work, to respect life in all stages and forms, to treat each other with love and kindness and to seek out those in need. It’s my job to teach them about God and HIS plan for their lives and then to follow that with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. There is no curriculum for that. It would be nice if, at the end of this long, rambling post, I could present you with my conclusion all tied up in a neat (color-coded) bow with a highlighter on top….but I still have no frickin idea what I’m gonna do come fall. I had settled on a boxed curriculum that I was gonna do…and then the wind changed…and I was sure I was going to just pick a math program, simple phonics program and writing program (2/3 of which I’ve already procured) and let the rest fall as it may….and then there are days I think, we’re doing ok right now and if it ain’t broke….but that terrifies me.

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