When I first envisioned unschooling in our home I imagined rich days full of a variety of obvious “learning.” I would look on with pride as my children miraculously volunteered to write essays, read the classics without protest, demonstrated flawless mathematical logic, and excitedly read about faraway places on the internet.
Reality check: it’s unschooling, not utopia! Luckily, I wasn’t heavily invested in that fantasy world because it hasn’t come to pass.
My daughters do write voluntarily. They don’t write essays. Not that I blame them now that somebody’s hidden my rose-tinted shades. Really? Five hundred words on “What I Did on Summer Vacation.” Who would write that just for the heck of it? Who would you even write that for, if not a teacher?
What my children write instead is a variety of real-world items. They’ve begun journaling thoughts and ideas. My younger girl writes fan fiction, which is taking an interesting fictional world like Hogwarts or the Star Wars universe, and creating new stories in that setting. (For the record, most later “Star Trek” episodes and novels were just fan fiction that got produced or published.) The girls write letters and thank-you notes. The older girl is even “writing” her own web comic! Notice how everything on this list is a real life use of writing. It’s not a random assignment that exists in a vacuum.
They also read without protest. Some of the things they read are even part of that body we like to call “the classics.” The older girl has been slowly devouring “The Martian Chronicles” since Christmas. They also read modern stories including “The Hunger Games” and “The Kane Chronicles.”
Again, when reality knocked I came to question the value of “the classics” anyway. Why is something judged to be “better” because it’s older? The age of a piece of literature doesn’t determine its literary value any more than the age of a person is a worthwhile measure of their contribution to society. There are some great classics and there are some real dogs out there. I would venture to say that few people besides me would rank “The Monk” as having greater literary value than “Harry Potter.”
The math skills in this house have certainly improved over the course of the past year, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them great. Neither daughter can recite the quadratic equation and they have no clue how to use it. They do, however, know the Pythagorean theorem. They haven’t “used” it in a traditional schooly sense; instead they got a great hands-on demonstration of the theorem in the real world recently.
On an out-of-town trip we traveled to our destination one way and came home a different route because mom was too busy chatting to the children to catch her turn! We debated whether to turn around and return to our turning point but I mentioned that it would be about the same distance going the alternate way. When questioned on it, I had the older girl look up both routes on her smart phone. We identified the “shortcut” I usually take as the hypotenuse of the triangle and she mapped it both ways. They were within two miles of each another (a distance accounted for by the fact that it isn’t a “perfect” triangle). Another win for Pythagoras and a safe bet that these girls will forever remember the theorem with only a single “teaching.”
The last part of that perfect dream has come to pass very much as I envisioned it. Both girls are interested in cultures and places and each does excitedly read about such things on the internet. And in books. And in documentaries. And in a variety of other media. Of course, I never expected one to become a World War I buff because of a Japanese anime.
Unschooling certainly isn’t what I pictured in the beginning. It’s so much better for us than I could have imagined at the outset. You could say that I was looking for “Little House on the Prairie” and got “Phineas and Ferb” instead. Which is probably for the best. I’m not sure we’re cut out for life on the prairie.