Posts Tagged ‘unschooling’

For the unschoolers out there, here’s a great website which I found when I was looking for ways to make an inexpensive weaving loom with Jay. Lots of crafts and science projects.

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I Have A Son….

….who plays Scrabble with a group of senior citizens every Thursday night.

Not to be kind, not as some sort of civic duty, not to rack up volunteer credits. Just because he loves playing Scrabble.

How cool is that?

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I started homeschooling when the oldest boy was eight, after three years of trying to fit him into a school system that wasn’t designed for the way he learns. He’s ferociously bright, in a way that was obvious from the time he was born. I’ve been dragged along by this child, forced to research everything ever written about giftedness and gifted education, driven from morning till night by his relentless quest for challenge.

He taught himself to read when he was 18 months old, he was asking about fractions by the time he was two.  I saw him devouring the non-fiction section of the library while he was still in diapers, and I worried about how he would adapt to kindergarten. He was thrilled at the idea of school, where he imagined himself sitting at a desk being taught algebra. When he was four, he found a book called “101 ways to do better on tests” and read it from cover to cover in anticipation. He was four-and-a-half when he started kindergarten, and I did everything I could to prepare the school in advance, but what could they really do with a child who was immersed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy when the classroom was set up for learning the alphabet? He was okay in kindergarten because it was mostly play and it was only half a day, leaving him plenty of time for working on his own stuff at home, but by grade one there were problems. He balked at the idea of “circle time” and outright refused to participate in most of the activities, preferring to read at his table. He went to the grade 6 classroom for math and novel studies. The class worked on building models of structures, and he brought in his styrofoam model of a water molecule, nearly in tears when none of the other kids were interested in learning atomic theory. By grade two, he had been in the grade 6 classroom for math for two years, and a grade 11 tutor was brought in to teach him algebra, but it wasn’t enough of a spark in a long day of tedious drudgery, and the little boy who used to vibrate with excitement when he discovered a new concept slowly dwindled away. I saw him shrink, curl in on himself, and plod his way through the day. Even at home, he seemed sad, withdrawn, forlorn.

I saw it, but the teachers didn’t. They saw a polite, kind, thoughtful, considerate, well-behaved boy who was able to work at grade level. The adminstrators told me that they were doing all they could, and we would have to be satisfied with the “enrichment” he was receiving.

It seemed like such an enormous decision at the time, taking him out of school. It seemed like such a dramatic step. I worried that I was overreacting, doing the wrong thing, depriving him of an ordinary childhood. I worried that he would be isolated, that he would feel different, maybe even in some deep and dark way, wishing he wasn’t so different. In the end, I made the decision not so much for academic reasons, but for emotional ones. I imagined what it must be like to feel so unseen, so unheard, so misunderstood and so powerless. Sent every day to a place that provided nothing by a parent who insisted it was okay. Forced to endure endless hours of tedium with no escape. When I allowed myself to feel the pain and the sense of betrayal he must have been suffering, I realized how abandoned he must have felt. It pains me to this day to think of it.

That was a long time ago, and in retrospect, homeschooling seems like it was the obvious choice, but it sure was a difficult decision at the time. It’s really hard to go against what “everyone else” is doing, what society has deemed correct, what the “experts” say is right. I listened to the principals and the teachers and I tried hard to convince myself that I wasn’t seeing what was right in front of me. I went to meetings, helped design “individualized educational programs”, volunteered in the classroom, nodded, smiled, ingratiated myself. I was careful not to offend anyone, I was modest about my son’s achievements, I went out of my way to avoid seeming like a pushy mother of a hot-housed child. I thought that I could tiptoe my way through the system, and still get my son’s needs met. It took me a long time to stop and pay attention to what my child was trying to tell me, and to put his actual needs ahead of my own need for him to be “normal”.

This post is not a rant about schools, or educators. It’s a little story about my experience with raising a child with differences, and of the mistakes I made along the way.

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nov 4 2008 005

None of my kids are particularly artistic. This is a picture that Tee crayoned when he was about six, or maybe even seven (on what I’m guessing must have been a gloomy day). Note the lack of detail, the wing-like hands extending directly from the trunk, and the missing facial features.

That being said, I don’t think that many people are born artists.

Outside of the few people who do seem born with natural drawing talent, I think that most of us get good at drawing or painting in the way that we get good at other things. By practicing. Kids who are interested in drawing do it more than kids who aren’t, and they get better and better at it. They’ll be the ones that are more likely to take art classes, and they’ll get better still, which will spur them on to practice even more. A lovely positively reinforcing circle which leads to artistic skill.

When the kids were homeschooling, I used Drawing With Children to teach them a bit about art. I was surprised at how quickly their drawing improved, even with just a few small pointers. Once the lessons stopped, their drawing skills stagnated, and they didn’t progress much at all, but the experience cemented my belief that if there’s something you want to do, just go ahead and give it a try, even if you don’t think you’re going to be good at it.

Almost anything can be learned.

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Teachers have impossible jobs.

My daughter is in a multi-age grades 1-2-3 classroom, with 20 or so other children. One of them has Down’s syndrome, another has a severe learning disability, and the entire clump of kids in grade one are very not-school-ready little boys who clearly would be much happier running around than sitting quietly on the carpet listening to a story.

I spend Friday mornings there, “helping out”, and even that’s an impossible job. The teacher gives me a task, and a small group of kids, and I try to help the kids do what she’s asked. Trouble is, none of the kids are even remotely interested in what they’re supposed to be doing. They don’t know why they’re being asked to color in certain little squares, or why those squares are being glued onto a long strip of paper, and the connection with those papers and their height in centimeters is lost on them. Trying to explain the concept is frustrating, because none of the kids seem to be able to concentrate on what I’m saying, and although my intentions are good and my efforts are valiant, towards recess time I find myself doing the work for them, just to have it done.

The result of our work is me gluing paper into their math binders while they pretend to know why.

After recess, the next task is drawing three pictures of Things You Like and then writing about the pictures. Some of the kids spend most of the time looking for a pencil, others need their pencil sharpened, the noise level goes way up, it’s ten or fifteen minutes until most kids are seated, and then it’s a lot of looking at the paper blankly, or copying from a neighbor, or doing the actual work but not caring about it, and as I sit next to a few of them, helping with spelling and making overenthusiastic “Good Job!” sorts of noises, my heart sinks down into my stomach. It doesn’t feel right. If even one child in that whole classroom learned even one thing that in that entire morning I would be surprised. They were kept occupied, some of them tried to do what they were told, and the time passed. Then it was lunch, and then back to school for more of the same.

When it was story time, maybe two out of the twenty were in the mood for a story. The rest struggled to sit in their assigned “carpet spot” and not pester their “elbow partner”. I have nothing but admiration for the masterful behaviour management skills of the teacher, but given the ages of the children she was dealing with, most of the words that came out of her mouth were admonishments. Sit up and Eyes in front and Not now and You come sit next to me where I can watch you. The two kids who were in the right mood and mental space for a story about a badger who found an egg-shaped rock paid rapt attention, but the rest didn’t get anything out of story time except for practice in trying not to wiggle.

It is impossible for all twenty of those children to be ready for what the teacher has planned for them every day. She has to plan, because otherwise it would be chaos, and she has to try to get all of the kids doing whatever activity she has planned, but most of the kids are only half-heartedly going through the motions at best. Maybe one of the kids is engaged in any of the activities at any one time, and only by sheer luck, because that child is interested in that topic, and it’s geared towards his/her particular skill levels, but the rest just create the constant white noise of the classroom.

Lots of apparent activity, not much being done.

The other painful truth about the reality of a classroom filled with just-turned 6-year olds is that they are still very young children who really aren’t ready to fend entirely for themselves all day. When I go in to that classroom every Friday, my own little one finds any excuse possible to crawl into my lap and lean her head against my shoulder, and the teacher’s aide constantly has little hands clutching hers, and little arms around her waist. They’re like furry little baby mammals seeking closeness anywhere they can.

The teacher is supposed to be able to meet the emotional needs and learning needs of twenty little children, while keeping them from tearing the place apart.

It’s an impossible job.

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Her Own Agenda


Going to school hasn’t seemed to diminish Jay’s desire to learn the things she wants to learn. She just has less time in which to do it. From the moment she crashes through the door after school lets out until she’s tucked into her bed at night she’s on a relentless quest for data. Sometimes she gets the information from books, other times she’s busy googling, but most often, she hounds me for spelling lists and math questions. Recently it’s been a mini-obsession with division, which she begs me to test her on when we drive to gymnastics. She insists on doing map work before she leaves for school in the morning, so we’re working our way through the countries of South America. I wanted to learn the official languages of the countries, but she only wants to memorize the spellings of the countries and their capitals, in the hopes of having all of the countries in the world in her noggin by the end of the year.

There’s no stopping this kid.

It’s like being in the path of a train.

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My Poor Garden….

Sept 25 garden 004

….completely abandoned this summer. I lost all interest in it what with my obsessive, desperate fight for you-know-what, and now that September is knee-deep in leaves, I’ve been looking out the window at the weedy, shambly, out-of-control mess, and feeling despair. In a fitting sort of symbolism, the tomato harvest was ruined by an infestation of some sort of pest, worms most likely, judging by the holes in the fruit. I went out there to find the culprits, but they must only come out at night.

Part of the fun in gardening was how much interest the kids showed in it. I loved being able to give them the satisfaction of pulling carrots right out of the ground and eating them, and I never minded that I was the one that did all of the grunt work. They’d help with shoveling, or planting, when the mood was right, or else they’d go about their own work of the day, playing games deep in The Secret Garden that is the bottom, wilder end of the yard. It was enough for me to know that they had a sense of what I was doing. I was happy to have something to do outside when they were out there, so that we could all be busy together.

Now, when I garden, it’s by myself, and it’s going to take a little getting used to. I corralled Big Boy R when he came home from classes this afternoon, and asked him to help me yank the tomato plants. He’s nothing if not agreeable, so he came out and made a show of helping, and we had a nice long discussion about whether athiests like he and I could ever be theologians. He’s taking a class on the historical investigation of the bible as a form of literature, and is finding it fascinating. I was happy to have his company, the sun warm on my back.

I harvested all of the basil plants, and they were kind of holey and moth-eaten. Completely gone to seed, too. So I snipped the flowers off, and put them in a glass of water and now the house smells quite pungent.

Sad little garden.

Next year will be better.

Sept 25 garden 001

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