Unschooling Portraits: Joan

Please introduce yourself.

I’m Joan Otto, wife to Chris and mom to Sarah (who’s 12). We live in central Pennsylvania in a house that also includes my mom, a large dog, 5 cats and a hamster. We’re new to homeschooling of any sort, sort of – I was homeschooled for several years, but our daughter had been in public school until Leap Day – Feb. 29 of this year. We blog about our life at Our School at Home. (Which was a funny choice for a title, really, given that we aren’t “school at home” types at all.)

What does your typical day look like?

My husband works during the day most days (as does my mom, part-time). So often they’re up and out, then I get up, try desperately to get a bit of work done before Sarah gets up, and then we do lots of whatever until dinner. I work from home except for one day a week where I’m in an office, so I am usually on the computer a LOT, but Sarah’s right here doing her own thing, either on her computer or the Wii or reading or drawing or … something. If it’s nice out, we’re outside doing something at some point, even if it’s just swinging by the park while running errands. Whoever’s home, we sit down to dinner together, and then I usually head to tae kwon do practice, Sarah and Chris hang out, and we all have “family time” from about 9 p.m. til midnight, when we head upstairs, read aloud together, and eventually go to bed around 1 a.m. (or later!) Somewhere in there, Chris writes his hobby blog, we try desperately to keep up with the housecleaning, and we have fun!

What does the term “unschool” mean to you?

It means we don’t do textbooks and workbooks and grades and tests and I don’t assign anything. On the other hand, it also means that whatever one of our family members is interested in, we’re all learning about. Mostly it means that we try to grab chances to increase our family’s collective knowledge as they come naturally. It also means that we have spurts and lulls – sometimes we do tons of new stuff and learn a lot, and sometimes we read and play Bubble Safari and doodle. And what I’m learning is to be cool with that, either way.

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?

Well, Sarah was in public school until the end of February – but we went straight into the unschooling camp, basically. I actually wrote a series about the “how did we get here” part – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 – but the short version is, public middle school was stressing all of us out, especially Sarah, who happens to have Asperger’s and sensory processing disorder. Her learning was being affected by a lot of things that have nothing to do with learning, and it was just time to do something new. And since that system was definitely NOT working, we decided to relax, to try to make learning fun (and help Sarah rediscover her own passions), and to just sort of see where we are in a couple years! Most “by the book” unschoolers would say we’re still only a little bit into the deschooling phase, which I think is partially true, but we’d been deschooling mentally for the past two years as we struggled to find a good fit for Sarah, so maybe we’re a little farther along than you might think. I dunno.

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

Being read aloud to is a huge love of Sarah’s – and she’s gotten into some books I’d never have expected if we read them as a family.

Ephemera. No one expects their kid to like old books and paper, but because that’s Chris’s hobby (Papergreat is his ephemera blog, yes, there is such a thing), Sarah has learned about it and become immensely interested it in her own right! And blogging and social media as a whole – Sarah’s got two blogs of her own, including Papergreat Junior, and she loves Pinterest, Google Plus, and Twitter.

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

LESS STRESS for all of us. I’m not feeling that sick-to-my-stomach clench that I used to have daily when I’d see the school’s number on my phone. We get to work with Sarah’s interests instead having to fight of against them – that’s a definite plus, because as other moms of Aspie kids can attest, those interests are more like “obsessions” and are absolutely not something you can easily work around! So we’ve learned about robots, the Titanic and cowboys and Indians, and we’re all smarter for it! I also think that it forces me to really be intentional about my interactions with Sarah; before, I’d blow off a lot of her questions with vague answers or I-don’t-knows, and now it’s really a chance to help spark her interest.

What are some of the negatives?

It’s definitely hard working from home when you don’t have the clear structure of “Sarah’s in public school” or “this is when we homeschool and when we stop for the day.” I worked in an office all day, every day, for thirteen years, so that’s been an adjustment for me. For Sarah, I think that while she’s relieved not to have the stresses of public school and the worry about grades and assignments, she also misses a little bit of the structure. The sudden change was hard, too; she went through a phase where she thought we took her out of school because she was KICKED out, and I think she still has a hard time believing that I have confidence in her. For instance, she’ll tell people that mom doesn’t make her do math workbooks because she’s too dumb to understand them. Breaks my heart, and isn’t true – but she’s convinced of that from her other experiences, so all I can do about it is pray and keep trying to show her what she DOES know!

Tell us about your best day (or your worst).

Wow. I guess the ones where some little thing sends us down a four-hour path. One day Sarah randomly picked up this giant timeline and spent hours filling in events on it – we talked about everything from Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to Attilla the Hun to when National Geographic was founded. Or the day when a random bottle of vinegar led to several hours of kitchen science experiments. But really, even the “worst” unschooling day is better than our best public-school days.

Favorite definition of unschooling:

I guess I’ll share the two quotes from John Holt’s “Learning All The Time” that most influenced us.

First, “What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go…. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy especially for them.”

Second, “The truth is that anyone who is really living, exposing himself or herself to life and meeting it with energy and enthusiasm, is at the same time learning. It is worrying about learning that turns off children’s learning. When they begin to see the world as a place of danger, from which they must shut themselves off and protect themselves, when they begin to live less freely and fully, that is when their learning dies down.”

For us, unschooling is about trying to live up to those ideals and to spend time with Sarah and to help her become the truest representation of who God made her to be. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Thank you Joan for this unschooling portrait!

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