Saturday, November 12, 2011

An Uncurriculum: How My 7-Year-Old Covers Academic "Subjects" Through Unschooling

I'm wrapping up our "academic trimester" (four months) -- Mid-July - Mid-November, 2011 --  so I can document everything. A lot of "life" has been happening -- both good and bad -- and our family didn't hit many of the academic activities I had planned. That makes it even more important to document stuff in a form that looks somewhat kosher.

 (Hat tip to Gerry, who took this terrific picture of PE!)


My 7-year-old, Eliza, isn't doing "academics." She is living an unschooling life, and I see no reason to change. There are various definitions of unschooling, and some are a bit too rigid or dogmatic for my palate. This is mine: learning and life are seamless.

Furthermore there's a limited need for compulsory activities (Eliza is required only to do a few chores). The challenge for the parent isn't to push the child or carve out paths for her. The challenge is keeping up. :-) And instead of carving the path, I'm a fellow traveler and occasional field guide.

I have always believed unschooling is largely about developing what educator Charlotte Mason called the Habit of Attention -- tuning in to what kids are doing, when left to their own devices, and noticing myriad little moments of discovery.

There is a developmental rhythm to these early "schooling" years, reflected in various educational philosophies. For Classical homeschoolers, this is the Grammar Stage, in which the young student absorbs as much information as possible. According to the Thomas Jefferson model, it's the Love of Learning stage, for exploring and becoming increasingly excited about learning. Cindy Gaddis, an unschooler who has written terrific stuff about collaborative learning, described this as an stage when play is their work, and much of our role is observing what naturally sparks their interest. We're the students, learning about our kids' learning styles and passions. If we don't trust the process of child-led learning at this stage, we risk interfering with the child's revelation of her unique way of learning.

I also believe unschooling is largely about honoring our own journeys as lifelong learners. One of my new favorite bloggers, Christina, touched on this point in this terrific post on parenting a self-led learner. This is a very weak point for me right now, as I'm absorbed in dealing with multiple health issues, work, and digging our family out of a financial crisis. Being an adult sucks sometimes. :-D But I am wholly convinced that one of the most powerful things we can do for our kids to to nourish our own curiosity and excitement about learning, try new things, and pursue our own creative passions alongside our kids ...

... I feel a whole separate post coming on!

While unschooling is working beautifully for Eliza and me, I see signs that she's craving more structure and stimulation, so I want to create more planned activities for and with her. We agreed that we want to do more arts, crafts, and cooking, so to get the juices flowing, we're going through my Pinterest boards together and tagging things she likes. :-)

Putting Natural Learning Into Boxes

When I was a new homeschooler, and I first encountered unschooling families in their natural habitats, I had a lot of questions. First and foremost: "I get the philosophy, but what exactly do you do on a day to day basis?" and second: "When it comes time for "proof of progress," how do you translate all this chaotic wonderfulness into a language conventional educators can decipher?" So I thought it might be interesting for readers to get a peek at how we do it, though it wouldn't necessarily work for anyone else. I always love it when other unschooly bloggers do this.

I'm breaking this down into traditional academic subjects, a practice that's anathema to many unschoolers and eclectic home educators. I'll also be strewing a little Academic Jargon here and there. I don't really speak the language -- I studied Psychobabble instead -- but I'll give it a go. Eliza collaborated with me on creating this list.

The Run-Down

Literacy --An Autodidact Writes
  • At the beginning of this term, she'd already taught herself to read fluently but was a pre-writer. She regularly reads throughout the day, when on the computer, looking at signs, or playing video games.
  • She is very focused on teaching herself to write, filling notebooks with words and pictures and prolifically typing stories on the computer. This kiddo loves to write! Maybe she caught the "bug" from her big sister. :-)
  • She continues to strengthen her phonemic awareness and is beginning to build spelling skills in various ways. She sounds out words she writes. She asks for the spellings of words and records some of them in her "Words I Use When I Write" booklets. She also uses computer technology, including spell check and Google, to learn spellings of words she uses.
  • Her mastery of sentence structure, capitalization at the beginning of sentences, and end punctuation is emerging. (Some of my middle-school aged students still don't have a handle on this.)
  • We continue to enjoy read alouds, including picture books and chapter books. She occasionally reads books independently. She prefers to skim through them -- I'm not sure why.
  • She enjoys movies and some television programs, especially Dr. Who. I don't think she completely understands Dr. Who, but she loves it nevertheless.

Math and Logic -- Games & Cooking
  • She enjoys cooking and regularly uses fractions and measurements this way. Working out fractions, in the kitchen, is still a bit challenging for her, so I give her plenty of time to think her way through each problem. I prefer giving her time to problem solve, without pressure, to directly teaching her.
  • She uses computation when counting and spending money.
  • We often play the card game Rat-a-Tat-Cat, which was the catalyst for her teaching herself to add in the first place. She got tired of waiting for people to add up her points and starting doing it herself. This game involves addition of up to 4 addends (Is "addends" the right word there? Has anybody ever actually used the word "addends" in a sentence?) It also involves memory and strategy. She uses several techniques when she adds, including "counting on" and doubling.
  • She practices addition of up to four addends through playing Pig, a dice game which also offers an intuitive sense of probability. When keeping score, she practices multi-digit addition, which is still challenging for her.
  • We read math-related picture books, touching on topics like area and rounding. 
  • I offered her the first two books in the Miquon Math series, which emphasize addition and number sense, and she thoroughly enjoyed them for about a day. It's kind of like having coloring books -- she enjoys them when the mood strikes.
  • She develops deductive logic skills through playing Mastermind and Telepathy.
  • She builds visual-spatial memory through Concentration and Sherlock.

Computer Technology -- Write, Draw, and Get Your Game On!
  • She loves video games like Minecraft, Sims 3, and occasional fantasy role playing games, and she is beginning to play more strategically.
  • She enjoys writing stories using Microsoft Word.
  • She creates computer art using Microsoft Paint. 
Food and Cooking
  • She loves cooking and talks about becoming a chef someday. She cooks at home and with her awesome teacher, Gleamer. One of her favorite recipes, at home, is Apple Flax muffins. We adapted our recipe from one we found on the back of the flax seed box.
  • She's showing an interest in learning which foods are healthy, and we're discussing the basics of good nutrition. She sees me reading nutritional information in the grocery store and we talk about what I'm looking for.
  • She helps me shop at local farmer's markets, and she's learning about the importance of buying fresh, local food whenever possible.

Biology --
  • We studied biology with a group of other students, exploring the life cycles of butterflies, how plants germinate, the role of worms in an ecosystem, and food webs. We made worm habitats and raised painted lady butterflies.
  • She participated in a hands-on workshop on monarch butterflies, which included participating in a migration study.
  • This is harvest season, and we've talked about the life cycle of plants, pollination, and how pesticides can interfere with pollination and, consequently, plant survival and food production.
  • She explores animal classification and habitats through conversations and "I'm a New Animal," a variation of 20 Questions.  (e.g. "Are you a mammal?" "Are you an ungulate -- a mammal with hooves?" "Do you live in the wild around here?" "Do you usually live in the desert?")

Thank you, Janell, for this photo, which I shamelessly stole from your Facebook page. :-P

Physical Science -- 
  • She is interested in astronomy; we read several books on the topic and watched a YouTube video on the solar system and the size of the universe. She began sculpting the planets in our solar system with polymer clay.
  • We visited the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Virginia. She explored the Discovery Center and looked at the sun through a telescope, observing some sunspots. We also learned a bit about radio waves.
  • She reminded me  that she's been learning about rocks and minerals playing Minecraft. This video game is the bomb! She got really enthusiastic about explaining this to me and typed this list of resources she's mined. I love it!

  • We talked a bit about properties of the things on her list, and she remembered seeing a steam-          powered train, in Durbin,West Virginia, that ran on coal. I might nurture this interest in rocks and minerals by buying some samples, inviting her to start a rock collection, and involving her in jewelry making. Any tips, folks?
Geography -- We're still loving the 10 Days In ... games! They also involve strategy and dynamic thinking --- strategies sometimes change throughout the game.

Art --Drawing, painting, and photography.

Social & Emotional Development -- She played AYSO soccer and attended a small democratically-run private school part-time. Regular readers know that Asperger's runs in our family. PE hasn't been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, but she has some of the sensory and social/emotional issues, albeit in a relatively mild form. For her, a big challenge has been tolerating frustration when playing with her friends at school or on the soccer field. She's made tremendous strides -- there is a huge difference between her behavior this fall and what was going on last spring! More fun and fewer meltdowns.

Soccer season is over 'til spring, and I don't know whether I'll be able to afford tuition for school during winter term. So I'll have to be mindful about creating new social opportunities that are just right for her and guiding her to continue becoming more flexible and confident in her social interactions.

P.E. -- Along with her sensory issues, she has gross motor delays and gravitational insecurity.* So its been wonderful to see her gradually taking more risks, at school and at the park, with climbing, going down slides, roller skating, biking (with training wheels), and pumping her legs to swing unassisted. She's still not on the same level as her peers, in terms of sensory-motor development, and maybe she never will be. But something tells me she's right where she needs to be at this moment. She gets so excited about each little milestone she achieves, like taking on the rope bridge! She played soccer and learned to throw a football.

*You might be a parent of kids with special needs if ... you throw around terms like "gravitational insecurity." It's a funny word, isn't it? It sounds as if she has a phobia that the laws of physics will suddenly be suspended and she'll gradually float out into space. I am clearly the veteran of one too many occupational and physical therapy evaluations. If you have kids "on the spectrum," or with related issues, you're nodding your head right now. If you live in the "real world," read "gravitational insecurity as "scared of falling down." :-) "Easy" things, like climbing a small ladder or going down a slide, can be terrifying.

I have some "gravitational insecurity" too; it's because I'm so clumsy I'm in danger -- at any time -- of falling over my own feet. Whatever deficits in motor skills my kids have, they seem to have come by them naturally.