Unschooling: Our May 2017 adventures

Is your family ready for summer yet? While we don’t really have “summer break” because unschooling means our lives flow year-round, we love this season anyway as it seems to give us more ways to spend time living and learning together.

That’s what I blame for the lateness of May’s wrapup post – we’ve been busy exploring lots of cool stuff in our town, so I didn’t make time to sit down and write this summary until now. (As always, if you want a more frequent peek at what we do, you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook.)

Sarah, left, and her friends from the crew at DreamWrights. I can’t say enough good things about these people. Side rant: I can’t stand it when people complain about teenagers. MANY teenagers are awesome. These are some of them.

If you’re new to seeing our days recapped in this format, check out our archive of previous wrapups here for some more info on why we take this approach and some other highlights of our adventures.

Moving Update

We have a new house! We have a new house!

Unschool Rules unschooling wrapup - new house exterior

This is our new house!

We officially moved in to “Essex Manor” (because we live on a street with Essex in the name) on May 12, did some whirlwind unpacking and decorating, and celebrated with a three-day open house on Memorial Day weekend.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it’s because we really do believe in the book or item!

We’re pretty much done unpacking and decorating, with just a few small projects left to go. That took up a LOT of our May, though we had a lot of help from family and friends, including Dan’s mom, JoAnne, who came to stay for two weeks and helped us a ton.

I mentioned this last month, but it bears repeating: On the unschooling front, a lot of the conversations around mortgages, escrow, commissions and more went into Sarah’s economics credit on the transcript for the year that just ended. It was a HUGE piece of learning for all of us.

I’m hoping to do a photo post showing off the new place sometime in the next month or two. I have 16 pieces of my art at a gallery show right now, so there are some big spaces that will later have art in them, and I want to wait until that’s done.

My oldest sister Linda, me, Sarah and Mom on Mother’s Day.


I know I’m missing things here, but a few highlights:

  • Serial Killers and Psycopaths – OK, not the most cheerful, I admit. We were browsing through this at the bookstore and Sarah was really interested, so we bought it. She’s been into true crime since becoming interested in forensics a few years ago, and recognized many of the stories involved. One of the coolest “rabbit trails” came when we were reading some of this together and went into a two-hour tangent about, among other things, the death penalty, victim-blaming, racism and forensics. It was pretty much the quintessential unschooling rabbit trail experience.
  • Cross Kill by James Patterson – Sarah doesn’t read a lot of fiction outside of comics and classics, and this was something new we decided to try – the short “BookShots” novellas that can be read in a few sittings. We didn’t finish this one but that was more due to the busyness of moving.

I told them “Look awesome.” They said, “We’re always awesome!”

Music and theater

Sarah kept going with her Rock Band classes with Rod Goelz of Music at Metropolis, who I mentioned before is unschooling-minded guy who really clicks with Sarah. They work on the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, vocal and instrumental performance and playing by ear together.

May was also big in the theater world, because we had the performances of the show Sarah was on crew for, Peter Pan and Mary, a locally-written play premiered at DreamWrights, our local family theater.

After putting in four or five hours a night, sometimes five nights a week, for more than a month, it was amazing to see it all come together in the shows. She had an amazing time and made some great friends, which was really cool.

Expect to hear more theater things in next month’s roundup; starting today, Sarah is spending all day every day at a two-week Shakespeare immersion camp at OrangeMite, our local Shakespearean company. They’ll put on a production of The Tempest, which I think is super-cool, and of which you can be assured pictures will follow!

Dan, Chris, Sarah, me, my mom and Plaid Pengin at one of the Peter Pan and Mary shows at DreamWrights.

Movies and TV

A special note for our newer readers: I’d love for you to check out our post on learning from movies and TV shows. It really explains a lot about why we are such fans!

We didn’t have a ton of time for movie-watching, but Sarah and Chris started watching Darkplace, a show of the “so bad it’s almost good” variety.

We also found time to go to the movies and catch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and also saw Sing, which was super-cute.

Dan and his mom, JoAnne, play cribbage on the guest bed in the rec room. Note Dudley (white dog) and Einstein (large bear) looking on.


As always, we like to spend at least one night a week gaming, though with the move that’s gotten a little less frequent than we would like.

One of the coolest things about Dan’s mom visiting is that his family is big into cribbage, and on this visit, she and Dan taught Sarah to play.

We also got to do the mutating killer virus episode of Escape Room: The Game – from which we did escape!

Sarah also had fun playing a new tabletop beanbag game (think cornhole, but little) with a young friend who came to the open house, and we were excited that we got her basketball hoop set up at the new place. We weren’t sure how that would work out, because our driveway isn’t level, but we found a way to do it facing the road on our non-through-street.

More of Sarah and her DreamWrights crew.

Universal Yums

This month in our family’s Universal Yums subscription, we got to try snacks from Japan.

I particularly loved the beef-flavored cheese-puff-type things, which I fully admit is weird. Dan loved these little cookies shaped like hamburgers. Overall, though, Japanese snacks were less to our liking than some of the other countries. Next up is Mexico, so we’re hoping for a lot of chocolate and spicy snacking.

What’s really cool is that we try to make an evening out of our taste-testing. We all try a little bit of each snack, we rate them, we look up facts about the country and we have a good time.

I’m not an affiliate of Universal Yums, but I can definitely HIGHLY recommend it. You can definitely look forward to hearing more about this in our roundups as long as our subscription continues!

Sarah, Dan and Plaid unwinding at one of our nearby parks.

Unschooling places, projects and odds and ends

New computer monitor: At our old house, we had a nice but slightly older entertainment center that had a specific-sized cutout for the TV, so we were capped at about a 34″ one. We did have a bigger one, a 42″ (I know, to most people that’s not a “big” TV, but to us it’s huge!) and at the new house, we were able to mount that one above the fireplace. So we had the smaller one left, and at the new house, we were able to hook that up as Sarah’s monitor with her computer, so she has a pretty great gaming experience.

Walking: Our old neighborhood had a nice loop for walking, and our new neighborhood is even more walkable, with no through-streets and only one road entering/exiting the development. We also have a walking path from the development to a nearby elementary school, so we can walk over and play on the swings and stuff!

Playing in the rain: Right before we moved away from our old house, we had a huge downpour, and Sarah had fun going out and playing in the storm. She’s big into water lately, loving to get soaked, so it was a ton of fun and a nice way to say goodbye to the old place.

Playing in the rain on one of our last days at the old house.

Mother’s Day: What’s that? We moved on Mother’s Day weekend? Well, of course that meant we had to go out to dinner. The five of us, plus one of my sisters and her husband, all went out to hibachi, which was perfect.

So I’m making a stupid face here because I realized my Mother’s Day present said I’m graceful. This is not particularly true. As evidenced by, you know, this photo.

So what’s new with your family this month? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”

Learning music theory the unschooling way

Sarah, like many 17-year-olds, lives and breathes music. She loves nothing more than popping on her Beats headphones and discovering new favorites or enjoying old ones, singing along, watching music videos… but, until about three months ago, she’d never played music herself outside of a disastrous two-week flirtation with the flute in fourth grade (and we’re SO not counting that), and she had no idea about any music theory concepts.

That all changed when we found a great local music teacher, who’s been instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping Sarah build a foundation of understanding to go along with her listening. She’s gotten better at singing and even started learning to play, picking up the basics of piano and drums and working on some deeper skills on her favorite instrument so far, the guitar.

One of the keys to why this is working out so well? Her teacher uses what I call the unschooling approach to music theory – focused predominantly on playing by ear and playing “real songs” right away.

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - an Unschool Rules review of a system that teaches playing by ear

Except, one problem. I could help her read music. I could encourage her to practice. I could take her to lessons. But, despite more than 15 years of music lessons, I am horrendous at playing by ear.

So you can guess I was pretty stoked when, after about two months of introductory lessons, we heard about something called Garage Band Theory – described as “Tools the Pros Use to Play By Ear!”

I was like, “Sarah! Maybe this can help!” Her response was, essentially, a much politer way of saying “Anything would be better than your awful attempts to help me pick out ‘Lean on Me’ on the piano, Mom.”

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - Unschool Rules

Music theory: The traditional approach

The traditional approach to music theory and music performance in our area is pretty simple: Kids start off learning to play some familiar songs on the recorder in third grade, pick a specialty instrument a year later, and practice playing from written lesson books daily for the rest of their school careers.

Disclosure: In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received a copy Garage Band Theory for free. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but all musical fun had was ours! This post also contains some affiliate links, which will make me a little bit of money to keep funding guitar lessons for my kid if you choose to purchase any of the products I’ve mentioned.

If you’re lucky, like me, you might have taken private music lessons before this, giving you a head start. I took piano from the time I was 5 until I finished high school, and while I got to be pretty technically proficient, I knew nothing about improvising until late in high school, and I don’t think I ever played by ear once I got beyond “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It was as if my elementary music teachers got together and said, “OK, that’s cute for basic songs, but now we’re going to show you the real way to play – by reading music.”

There are definitely some great alternative approaches, like the Suzuki method, and I had some AWESOME music teachers who made me really love performing, but all in all, it wasn’t until I started to get beyond the technical motions into the soul of the music – and began playing stuff other than the lesson-book drills that I hated – that I really started having the most fun.

That’s the experience that I wanted to give Sarah when she wanted to study music, and why the “unschooling approach to music” is working so well for us.

Music theory: The garageband approach

In the intro to Garage Band Theory, author Duke Sharp says something that really resonates with me. He mentions that he actually doesn’t like the phrase “playing by ear.” He says it’s misleading – and goes on to say that it “actually discourages people from developing a skill they already use unconsciously and naturally every single day.”

He gives some great examples: You don’t have to wait for the DJ to tell you who’s singing when you hear your favorite song on the radio. When one of your family members walks down the hall, you can probably tell who it is. You can tell if it’s your dog or the neighbor’s barking. Heck, you can probably belt out a passable “Happy Birthday To You” in a crowd even if you’re generally a terible singer.

And that, he says, is exactly what it takes to play by ear – the ability to listen well, comprehend, and, when called for, turn that information into making a sound in response. And all of that is natural.

That was hugely eye-opening for me. Music “theory” and “performance” that stem from a natural exploration of sounds that you enjoy? Whoa, this “garageband” thing sounds like an unschooling approach to learning music!

In both her weekly lessons and our time exploring Garage Band Theory, Sarah has been able to just have fun. Most of her musical learning starts with listening, starting with the music of the Beatles – which is both where her music teacher starts, and what Duke Sharp recommends in Garage Band Theory! She doesn’t have to practice the same song over and over; instead, she’s learned to pick out chords on the guitar and piano and put them together into songs she loves, like “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles.

We’ve just gotten started with Garage Band Theory, which is a SUPER-deep resource. The book works back and forth between reading, playing exercises and answering some brief questions in a workbook-style format.

The basic idea? When you can really understand something – what it’s called, what it does and how it works – that’s when you can use it as a tool to create.

So while Garage Band Theory starts with the names of the notes and the types of chords, it skips the basic drills of playing Middle C in 50 different ways and moves into practice identifying them as they appear in popular songs and using that to help you build recognition. When you hear the three NBC bells, you’ll say “Hey, that’s just an inversion of a C chord!” Fifteen years of music lessons and that never occurred to me until Garage Band Theory.

Sarah’s focus right now through her music lessons is simply familiarity – picking out songs, getting comfortable with the guitar, starting to play things she recognizes. While she’s probably not ready to devote the time to really working through the Garage Band Theory system, we’re excited to have it as a resource to help her get more familiar with some theory basics as she continues her musical explorations through lessons! (The author, Duke Sharp, notes that taking professional lessons is highly recommended – the system works best as an enhancement to that kind of teaching, not as a replacement.)

Music Theory the Unschooling Way with Garage Band Theory - Unschool Rules

Sarah had never seen tablature shorthand for guitar before – only full pictures of the first few frets. When we worked on how to read it using Garage Band Theory, her mind was blown!

Win a copy of Garage Band Theory

I’m lucky enough to be able to be part of a Garage Band Theory giveaway – 11 readers who are 18 or older will receive a print or ebook copy of this cool book! (Paper copies can only ship to the U.S., sorry!)

Garage Band Theory

You can also grab a copy on Amazon.

I hope you’ll have as much fun as we have exploring music in a different way!