Not Back to School: A Self-Directed Education Report Card

“We all get report cards in many different ways, but the real excitement of what you’re doing is in the doing of it. It’s not what you’re gonna get in the end – it’s not the final curtain – it’s really in the doing it, and loving what you’re doing.” – Ralph Lauren

IMG_3906The sun has been up for several hours and while my younger two children have managed to unpack nearly every toy shelf onto the floor of my living room since their eyes popped open (along with said sunrise), my oldest is taking his sweet, sweet time gracing us with his presence. This guy is living the life. It’s like that old Lionel Richie song: he’s easy like Sunday morning. Most days, before he even puts his feet on the floor, he will roll over, throw on his favorite podcast (Wow in the World) or pick up where he left off in his latest graphic novel (currently loving the Jedi Academy or Secret Coders series). Eventually, he strolls into the kitchen to make himself a bowl of cereal with a sliced banana. Often I’m standing at the counter serving a second or perhaps third breakfast to a toddler and five-year old who, up until this point, have been too busy playing to stop for breakfast the first time it was offered. While everyone fuels up, we discuss what’s on tap for the day: which classes they’ll attend, who we’ll see that day, or when we’ll have quiet time (read: nap for the toddler, maybe some screen time for the boys).

As we move into our fourth year of homeschooling, I have been thinking back to where the last unschool year took us. It was a transformative year for our family and homeschooling way of life. We found an enjoyable rhythm to our day and a community of people who make the homeschooling world feel stable and viable. All three of my children are thriving, despite and even because of life’s challenges. I see growth in each of my children’s abilities and emotional health. We all have work ahead of us, yet I feel confident that everyone is moving down the right path that helps highlight their best selves. Because isn’t that what we all really want out of life? To be living our best life?

Through a self-directed education, my children are steering their own ship and following their passions. As a facilitator of their learning, it is my job to watch and listen. I pay attention to what drives them, listen to their questions and gently guide them in a direction that would best support their intrinsic motivations. This approach to education means that your standard schooling report card wouldn’t apply well to my children’s learning. We don’t think of our education in terms of subjects, per se, but rather see ourselves learning all the time with each experience covering a variety of topics.

But with all that said, the former public school teacher in me can’t help but scratch the old itch of wanting to assess. I want a big picture of what they are learning, what motivates them, and for my own knowledge, pull together a report card of sorts. Looking back over this year, their learning journey has followed and continues to move in the directions of seven main paths: community building, reading, writing, making, STEM, music & movement, and play/games. 

Community Building

One of the biggest changes and welcomed addition to our homeschooling life in the last year has been the introduction of our homeschool cooperative we joined last fall. Currently, our coop is a collection of twenty-three families with kids ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old (with a few younger siblings in the mix). We gather a minimum of once a week at a local 35-acre park that includes big grassy fields, lots of woods, a pond, walking trails, and a playground. It is the perfect location for romping about, allowing a healthy dose of free-range play. While parents have the much needed opportunity to connect and support one another, our kids are given the freedom to play and explore the park where they have done everything from build forts in the woods to hold their own elections for Coop Kid President. Many days we have a connecting activity or craft planned to enjoy together, almost always toys and equipment to play with, and the never-ending imagination of the kids as they build their community and friendship. Picnic blankets, snacks to share, stories to tell and fun plans in the making are also a weekly staple.

In addition to our weekly day at the park, as a homeschool cooperative we also plan field trips, tours, and performances to enjoy together. What we love most about this group is everyone’s consistent commitment to our community. Somehow, this committed coop has felt different from the typical homeschool park days in our homeschool community. The level of commitment to each other and the group adds an element of support and closeness none of us have ever felt at other park days. Seeing the same faces at least once a week or more is powerful and has made our homeschool world feel full of a richness that we were missing in the years past.

At times, people outside of the homeschooling community will question our socialization. For those who truly know homeschoolers, this is a moot point. Though socialization has never been an issue for any homeschooler I know, I have found consistent community is something that you have to work towards. It takes dedication to show up every week, to clear and reserve a space in your week for your community and genuinely care for and be there for each other.

We are grateful for our tribe and look forward to growing with them for years to come.

Reading

IMG_1905
Choose your own adventure

My oldest moved leaps and bounds this year in his reading ability. Last fall he was at a slow, resistant struggle and today is in a confident stride. This time last year he was reluctant to pick up a book and today I have to pry them out of his hands to eat or go to bed. At the beginning of the year, I restrained myself from pushing it, no matter how badly I wanted to. Rather I just always made books available that could build his confidence: books that were right below or on his reading level. For him, I think building his confidence in his ability to read helped carry him over the hump to being a better, motivated reader. I’m still amazed at how little direct instruction it took for my son to learn to read. Starfall played a roll in learning some of the basics. I was always there to help remind him of the magic E now and then. Mainly, we are just always, always reading. Read alouds are a favorite pastime; both my oldest reading to his younger siblings as well as enjoying being read to, especially chapter books. My middle, who is five, is just beginning his literacy journey and showing interest in connecting sounds to letters. Even my baby girl enjoys “reading” to her babies. This year I truly came to see this quote’s truth:

“Readers are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  -Emilie Buchwald

We started the year at the level of Frog and Toad and ended with Harry Potter (though his confident reading falls around Magic Tree House). He can not get enough of graphic novels and will devour three to four a day.

I remember vividly the day my oldest truly fell in love with reading. It was a cold, snowy winter morning and we had been moving at a slow pace as he spent most of the morning reading one of his first Magic Tree House books on his own. When it was time to venture out and run errands he asked me if it would be alright to bring his book along to read in the car. Would it be alright?!? I was giddy that he had finally discovered the joy of getting lost in a book and not wanting to put it down. As we drove around town I was beaming each time I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror, nose firmly planted between the pages of his adventures with Jack & Annie.

Writing

IMG_7433
making lists of toys they want

My oldest son does not like to write. At all. This strong distaste for writing has been a challenge for me. In keeping with our beliefs in education, I do not push it. Instead, I lean on and turn to veteran homeschooling stories that one day it will come. One day, there will be a scenario in which writing will become essential for him and he will find the motivation to write.  I offer activities, or strew ways in which he can get some practice in writing, but left to make the choice on his own, he would never, ever write. Aside from sending me an occasional text from his iPad. Or writing code for a video game or animation he is creating. Or writing labels for a diagram of a snail. Or making a birthday or Christmas list. Or writing a letter to the tooth fairy.

So yes, these are all valid and useful ways in which people write. But again, I am fighting against the years of my own schooling mixed with nearly a decade of teaching in a classroom telling me that he must write neatly, well constructed, complete sentence, with all I’s dotted and T’s crossed, and spelling on point. And he can do it, he would just much rather not. Throughout the year, we have kept a journal together in which he would dictate to me important memories of the day. When given the choice, he would much rather be typing than writing (anything to look at a screen). He has enjoyed learning to type, but really, writing is just not his thing.

Meanwhile, his younger brother, after receiving a journal for his most recent birthday has taken great joy in drawing and recording his “secrets” each day. And even the littlest of my three begs for pen and paper nearly every day. Everyone is on their own path.

Making

Next to reading, my children spend a great deal of their time making. From elaborate cardboard creations to Lego cities, they are always making. The glue gun is frequently warmed up, pencils/crayons/markers are always within reach and I don’t even bother to put cardboard in the recycling anymore, but rather next to the art table. In addition to their own creations, the boys have had a variety of classes to encourage their making this year including woodworking, ceramics, and an art & science class. I loved seeing their interests and passions coming out through their art. Ninjas were a clear and constant muse for certain.

My oldest has enjoyed an online class through Jam. In this vibrant online community, kids are encouraged to engage in project-based learning by doing, failing, sharing, and growing. This year he was taking the Invent Your Own Machines classes, in which he was given challenges for engineering a variety of machines using cardboard and everyday objects around the house. The challenges had him engaged and making for hours at a time. I also love that Jam offers a community piece in which he is able to share his creations for positive feedback and encouragement from instructors, as well as other kids. He was even able to take inspiration from other kid’s work posted online. With each like or comment on his work, he would beam with pride. Last year we did a Lego course that he also enjoyed. Even though he was technically too young for this course, I found that he had no problems in the challenges, so it’s really about knowing your kid’s ability and less about the age range stated.

Beyond this Jam course in cardboard machines, he also fell in love with the use of cardboard in general, so much so that he actually asked for cardboard for his birthday! It has become his medium of choice from sculpture to dioramas. He loves to create art within a scene. And lots of ninja art this year. Lots. Both younger siblings are always right at the table with him, creating their own art alongside him. My middle is a huge fan of sewing, and baby girl will draw her page covering scribbles for pages and pages.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math)

Engineering & Science

Our maker lifestyle and engineering/science go hand in hand most days. On any given day, we could be constructing Lego robots to code, a hydraulic claw, a water rocket, or experimenting with pulleys and gears. My oldest cannot get enough while my middle is eager to watch and sometimes help. Every class, workshop, or camp that I can find in STEM, I sign them up. One of my oldest’s favorite classes, Toy Deconstruction, was offered at one of our favorite local learning centers. In this class he had the joy of deconstructing electronic toys, examine its parts and using his own creativity was able to recreate something new. Of course, since then he has a burning curiosity for the knowledge of what’s on the inside of most of his toys.

Technology

Though we embrace a self-directed education and attempt to provide our children with an unlimited amount of time to pursue their interests, I think screen usage is where we diverge from some unschoolers. It’s this restriction that separates us from the radical unschoolers. My children are like a moth to the flame when it comes to screens. They love all things screens and struggle with regulating their time. On occasion, I have experimented with no restrictions with their screen time and each time they have shown me that they have a hard time regulating themselves and knowing when enough is enough. A fellow homeschooler once said that if a child is asking for too much screen time, then it could mean that I need to reassess how much I’m offering that will interest them otherwise. So whenever my kids whine for screens, I take that as a cue that we need to tweak things in our life.

Over the years I have played around with a variety of rules around screens. In my opinion, I will say that not all screen time is created equal. I have taught them to recognize the difference between passive and active screen engagement, as well as educational vs entertainment screen time. Then there is a list of some screen time (such as word processing, researching, or coding) which has no limits in our house. What we have found works best for our family is that we have certain days that are only for educational screen time, some days are their choice, and some days are screen free. In terms of how much time they are engaged with screens each day, it varies. Most days it falls into the time slot in which their baby sister is napping. This also provides me with the much needed quiet, kid-free time that I need to maintain my patience and sanity. Happy mama = happy family.

The biggest achievement in technology that my oldest is most proud of (as are we!) is his ability to code. Once a week, he is attending a self-directed learning center that is part maker space, part technology gurus. He has become well acquainted with Scratch, a block-based coding program developed by the brilliant minds at MIT. He has created games, animation and is still in the middle of developing his first RPG. His passion for all things coding and engineering has led him to a great deal of Lego robotics this year as well. He built a robot that would engage in conversation, an assembly line machine that would build its own mini Lego robots, and a forklift vehicle that would lift and move objects. He not only built each of these entirely on his own with Legos but coded each machine to do all of its actions.

Music & Movement

It is a rare moment in our house when someone is not playing or making music. While picking up toys, putting away laundry or unloading the dishwasher we are often having a half work/half dance party, because it’s a task more enjoyable alongside tunes. In addition to listening to music throughout the day, we also make music. Classes have included Music Together with my younger two, Rhythm Kids with the boys, and most recently my oldest has started piano lessons.

After his first piano lesson, he walked out with an assignment book in hand. He was meant to record his practice time each day and he was absolutely beside himself when I told him that this assignment was his equivalent to homework. He has since taken great pride and joy in his daily practices, often several times a day. I never have to ask him to practice because it’s such a true joy for him. It’s lovely to see. Since the first time we made it through a duet of Heart & Soul, he’s been hooked.

We have approached movement in a variety of ways this year including circus arts, kung fu, yoga, and a choreography hip hop class.

Free Play & Games

My oldest is eight this year, which would be third grade if he were in school. When I was teaching in the public schools, this transition from second to third grade was a notable one. Academics and expectations increased substantially and testing became a central focus.

Our unschooling life offers a stark contrast to this mentality. Play is still one of the most important elements in my children’s day. Play is the purest self-directed, self-chosen, active, and creative forms of activity. When my children are engaged in free play they are in control of the decisions made, learning the art of negotiation and compromise, practice seeing other’s perspective, and recognizing each other’s differences. I try to give my children as much space for free play as possible.

The kids fall into their worlds of imagination from elaborate Lego worlds to epic battles of imaginary monsters to slay, and it can sometimes sweep them away for hours. And beyond their imagination, classic board or card games can also fill their days. Chess and checkers have captured the attention of both boys, Monopoly is a treasured adventure that will last for multiple days, we play endless rounds of Rat-a-Tat Cat or even the creativity of their own board game creations. These homemade games are by far my favorite, as they put a great deal of effort into their creations, navigating the rules and the trial and error of deciding which elements work and those that don’t.

Looking ahead

Heading into the fall we will have a similar rhythm to last year. There will be some time at homeschool classes and learning centers, time with our homeschool cooperative community, time to tour around our city’s wealth of resources in museums, libraries, and performances, lots of time outside, lots of time together, and some time apart. Through all this, we will make memories, while we grow and learn through everyday life.

 

 

 


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