Unschooling Portraits: Erin

Erin, please introduce yourself:

erinjHello, my name is Erin. I blog at A Number of Things. My blog has that title for a good reason … we have a lot going on! I have a wonderful hubby who programs computers and dreams of teaching music at the university level. He also reads theology tomes and roasts coffee. We have three Goombas: Natalie, aged 6, who wants to be a dragon; Seth, aged 4, who builds things and draws train tracks; and Cody, aged 19 months, who is closely related to Taz. We’re also nearly finished with the process of adopting Goomba #4, Abi, aged 3, from Ethiopia. We’re excited and impatient to bring her home!

For me, I am a total A-type personality, and usually forget that I have low vision and back problems.  I like to sew, quilt, build web sites, do amateur photography and PhotoShop, read braille, write fiction, read anything I can get in an accessible format, and play music. I graduated with a degree in music education, and taught for two years in the public schools, but it was not a good fit. I also love hiking and backpacking, but usually will settle for a good, long walk with the dog. I work part-time for a local professor who is writing a book about the history of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

We’re very involved with our church and we love fellowship with others who love Christ, in any flavor! Our greatest passion is to raise a family to love Jesus and to love other people. We feel that family members are the most important people God gave us, and they deserve the most love and respect. From that foundation of a strong family, we can reach out with Christ’s love to a world that is hurting.

What does your typical day look like?

Since the kids are still small, and I have to pace myself, due to the health restrictions I mentioned (along with a few I did not mention), we usually take the days slowly. We spend a lot of time in imaginative play. I like to provide open-ended playthings to the kids, like blank paper and colorful markers, or clay and tools, or simple, wooden building blocks. We don’t really restrict the TV but we don’t subscribe to a TV service, so they are pretty much limited to DVDs or the computer. The older kids often play in the downstairs den while the little guy and I hang out in the living room. I do computer work here and there when I can.

We eat lunch together, then we all take a quiet time. The baby naps, I do more computer work, and the older two are free to pursue whatever quiet play or activities they choose. Sometimes this is schoolwork; sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes they go out in the back yard where there is a trampoline and a tire swing. When hubby gets home, we eat dinner as a family, then do something as a family that hopefully involves outdoors and exercise! Hubby does music practice with the kids, then he does bedtime and reads them stories. After that, either we relax together, do chores, or sometimes he has to go back in to work.

What does the term “unschool” mean to you?

We do use the term “unschoolers” to describe ourselves, although not in the strictest sense of the word. I do use grocery-store workbooks from time to time. Usually the kids are eager to do them, since it means some one-on-one time with Mommy, and we use stickers when we finish each page. But mainly I try to keep our learning child-led, in that I take what they are interested in learning and that is what we learn that day. It’s quite unstructured and unscheduled. I find that it is also quite efficient. Since the subject of the lesson tends to be something the children choose, their interest is quite high, which leads to better retention of the material and little need for reteaching.

I have not needed to worry about gaps or skipping anything because encouraging their curiosity has resulted in them being curious about everything! Even subjects that I would have considered to be boring in school will capture their interest. For a basic guideline, I printed out a set of curriculum standards that gives a list of things they should master in each grade. Every six months or so, I pull it out and observe with satisfaction that yes, we have covered all of them nicely.

I try to incorporate non-competitive play into as much as I can. The more that I can make things hands-on, open-ended, playful, interesting … the more they learn. I shared this example on the Facebook group, but I’ll share it again here, since it demonstrates so nicely how we try to learn. Hubby, who loves Celtic music, showed the kids a recent cartoon movie called The Secret of Kells. (I was against it at first because it was scary, but it turned out not to bother them.) From their interst in the movie, we moved on to building the city of Kells with wooden blocks and talking about the architecture of the round walls to keep out invaders. This led into a history lesson about ancient Ireland, and then a long discussion about the necessity of preserving the Bible throughout history, and what a special book it is. We looked up the Book of Kells on Wikipedia and marveled at the beauty of its pages. My daughter also taught herself the haunting little Gaelic song in the middle of the movie, and practiced singing on pitch in a different language. She had me look up the Gaelic words to find the translation.

I feel as if we treat every day as a field trip, even if we’re practicing math facts with flash cards. We’ll do it playfully, and talk about how tricky old nine can really be just a ten minus one and not be hard at all. We use our Cuisenaire rods more often to build log cabins, but in the process we find out that three fours make twelve. To me, the love of learning is the most important thing, as well as the ability to find information accurately and quickly, and from there, a whole world of knowledge lies at our fingertips!

Have you always unschooled or did you, like many, gradually move from traditional homeschooling (or public school) towards unschooling?  If so, where are you in the process and how did you get there?

When homeschooling came up as a possibility in our family talks between hubby and me as our oldest daughter got into her preschool years, I shuddered at the thought! She is a strong personality, and so like me that we clash terribly. The thought of getting up each day, sitting the kids down at the kitchen table with open workbooks at 8:30 and going until noon made me feel a bit queasy. But we could not afford the local Christian school, and hubby didn’t like the liberal bent of most of the public schools. A friend who homeschools helpfully let me look at her all-in-one curriculum. As I looked at the list of science supplies, and the schedule of daily activities, I felt myself go green. How could I, with limited energy, limited eyesight and very enthusiastic kids ever do that?

I started researching. I read blogs and blogs and blogs, and went to homeschooling forums. I began looking at all the different things people did for school. I began looking at my own strengths, instead of my weaknesses. I may not have a lot of energy, but I’m creative is using what little I do have. My eyes may get tired quickly, but I have a phenomenal memory. So what if I need to sleep in every morning? So what if I am not ready to go at 8:30? So what if I can’t comfortably sit at the kitchen table? We’ll learn on the couch! At night, if we have to.

One blog in particular, of a secular unschooler really spoke to me. This mom was a Suzuki violin mom, like me. I knew I didn’t share her philosophy of discipline, but some of the amazing things her kids did for learning intrigued me.  It looked fun! The kids were having fun, learning! To me learning was always something fun that you did in spite of school. I taught myself to read braille in 8th grade when I was bored in class. So I made the leap. Why not throw out the “bored in class” part, and just keep the learning part?

It took a while to convince hubby. We had long conversations over the nightly dishes. I read blog post excerpts to him, and willingly or unwillingly, he listened. Finally one day he said, “You know I always hated math, except one time. My dad taught me trigonometry so we could do model rockets. I loved that.”

Bingo, I thought. “What if 80 to 90% of our kids’ schooling is exactly that?”

He replied, “They’d be the luckiest kids on the planet.”

Beyond that, it was a matter of promising him I’d switch to traditional schooling if they fell behind their grade level. As of right now, my kindergartener is working her way cheerfully through a 3rd grade phonics workbook, so I think he quit worrying that would happen!

What interests do your kids have that you never would have guessed they would  develop?

They are still young. They have surprised me quite a few times, like when my then-3yo rattled off the planets in the solar system, or when they counted to 1,000 just for the fun of it. Since I am interested in so many different things, I’m not really surprised when they develop new interests, but I welcome them!

What are some of the benefits of unschooling that you have seen?

For me, the benefits are numerous.  Learning is interesting and fun. The laid-back schedule means that I have time to pursue my own interests and jobs, which helps keep me sane. It also means that hubby gets to be involved in the learning, which he was very interested in doing. I can’t really speak to the kids getting jaded by school because I survived all of my own years in the school system and college without losing my enthusiasm and passion for learning, so hopefully they will be zesty learners no matter whether they sit in a classroom at a desk or roam the woods and fields.

I love that we don’t get burned out on learning. This time of year, other homeschool moms ask me, “Are you done?Are you sooooo glad you’re done for the summer?” I hate to burst their bubble and tell them I plan to school all summer long and enjoy every minute of it!

We also love keeping our family close and connected. Bringing another adopted child into our family will be a family experience and we will all be here together to bond and learn to love one another. The kids have to learn respect for one another. We live in a small house and are together constantly. There is no room or time for bickering (in theory), and we can’t escape to school elsewhere, so we have to resolve our differences.

What are some of the negatives?

Of course there is the old Whataboutsocialization?? We have a great co-op and some good homeschool friends, so that isn’t a big issue, but my outgoing daughter would love it if I had more energy and could go more places and see more people every day. We all get a touch of cabin fever if we go too many days in the house.

Sometimes it’s hard just being so different. At the park today, I had almost nothing in common with other moms, even homeschooling moms, who talked about the end of the school year and their woes with getting through their bookwork. Add in the adoptions, the health problems … and I feel like I live on a different planet sometimes.

Like anything in life, there are good days, and bad days. I have the days when I’m not feeling well and the kids watch How to Train Your Dragon approximately 47 times, while bickering, and the baby rubs his nosebleed on the curtains, while I have a deadline looming from my boss. Hubby comes home and expresses “concern” over the TV watching and I want to strangle him! But then, there are the days too, when my work is caught up, I feel accomplished, we all go spend the day at the Science Center and the kids are angels, so I treat them to an ice cream on the way home. You know, those days when you find yourself saying things like “would you please stop doing math and get your coat on??” And you feel smug in front of the moms on the playground? There are those days too.

Well, this ended up being really, really long! To those who have hung in there and read all of the way through my rambling, thank you! I’m delighted to meet other CU moms on the web, to know that I’m not alone out here on another planet, and there are other families brave enough to be different, to set their children free, to live in delight. :)

Thank you, Erin, for sharing this Unschooling Portrait!

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