A day in the life of unschoolers, 2017 edition

Earlier this month, I shared our “un-curriculum” for the coming year as part of the iHomeschool Network’s Not Back to School Blog Hop. This week, it’s Day-In-The-Life Week, where we’re supposed to show what a typical day looks like in our family’s particular style – in my case, a day in the life of unschoolers.

I don’t think we have a typical. Or a style. Unless haphazard and wonderful is a typical style. In that case, yes, yes we do, and you’re welcome to take a peek.

A day in the life of unschoolers: Unschool Rules

Different types of unschooling days

Our days vary a lot based on the work schedules of the various adults. Dan, Chris and I all work full-time about an hour away from home, with Dan and I heading in one direction (north) and Chris heading in another (east). Chris also works primarily evening shifts, getting home from work around 12:30 or 1 a.m.

But one to two days a week, Dan and I can work from home, and Chris often gets midweek days as his only off time. Add into that our commitments with 4-H, Sarah’s various theater groups, my grad school program, my tae kwon do lessons and more, and it can get pretty complex.

So while I want to show you one cool day in Sarah’s life, please know that they can all look very different – and that’s what we love!

A day in the life of unschoolers, as documented by Chris, Unschooling Dad Extraordinaire

When I told Chris I was working on this post before he and Sarah spent a “Daddy-Daughter Day” together last Wednesday, I was hoping he’d take a couple photos and make some notes. Instead, because he is a great blogger himself, in addition to being Amazing Unschool Dad, he wrote the most detailed look at a day ever.

Up around 10 a.m.
Dressed and ready to roll.
Gets her laundry.
Explains the story of “It” to her grandmother.

She and I drive to the Galleria (Note from Joan: This is the mall across town from us). Discussion includes:

Talk about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico. She wants to know where it’s going and where the other hurricanes are.

Unprompted, she asks: “When were women first allowed in the military?” So I do my best to fill her in off the top of my head, starting, correctly, with the women who served as military nurses in World War II, moving through World War II, Korea and Vietnam and then correctly tell her that the first woman who fought in combat missions were during the Gulf War. She wonders why it took so long, especially if women can do everything men do.

Then she switches gears to: “Do women have equal pay yet?” I tell her no, and that it’s wrong that they don’t, and progress is unfortunately slow, but that speed is the reality, given all the years of institutional tradition in play. She think we should get to equal pay faster, but understands the obstacles that make it slow going. She understands that a lot of people – most people – want equal pay, but that doesn’t mean you can snap your fingers and make it happen.

Then, as we’re discussing the slow politics behind equal pay, she asks: “Would we be better off if the president wasn’t sexist and racist?” “Yes, yes we would,” I reply. (Note from Joan: Sarah is REALLY into politics – and has very strong political opinions and very little filter. You don’t have to agree – and I don’t normally share any of our politics, which vary widely in our household – but this was TOO “classic Sarah” to pass up.)

“We need people in Congress, too, who are good people and aren’t sexist and racist,” Sarah adds.

So that conversation happened. I wish I had taped it. But I was driving.

Unschool Rules Day in the Life of Unschoolers: Sarah loves Hot Topic. Really, really, really loves Hot Topic. Did I mention she loves Hot Topic?

Sarah loves Hot Topic. Really, really, really loves Hot Topic. Did I mention she loves Hot Topic?

Then we went to Hot Topic, one of her favorite stores. She likes The Walking Dead and heavy metal and Deadpool and she was hoping to find a Funko pop figure of Dustin from Stranger Things, but they had everyone but him.

Then we went to FYE and browsed more pop-culture stuff.

Then she ate McDonald’s for lunch and grilled me about Pennywise.

Unschool Rules Day in the Life of Unschoolers: Sarah's stamp book - and some of Chris' many postcards to send to Postcrossing friends.

Sarah’s stamp book – and some of Chris’ many postcards to send to Postcrossing friends.

After we came home and a short break, we added some stamps to her Stamp Book, including James McNeill Whistler, Booker T. Washington and a stamp from the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. (Note from Joan: The Stamp Book is a cool project Sarah and Chris are working on with her stamp collection!)

Then she picked out a postcard to send to her pen pal Christina in Taiwan. And she specially picked all the stamps to put on the card.

Sarah wrote the note to Christina, mostly telling her about her burgeoning community theater career. I addressed the card.

Unschool Rules Day in the Life of Unschoolers: Sarah loves writing to her pen pal, Christina, in Taiwan! You can tell because it's her neat handwriting.

Sarah loves writing to her pen pal, Christina, in Taiwan! You can tell because it’s her neat handwriting.

Then we had to take a break to help Coby, who had been outside too long and was very overheated. (Note from Joan: Coby is our almost-14-year-old Goldendoodle, who is not in very good health.)

Then Sarah helped me pick postcards for about a dozen of my new Postcrossing recipients around the world. I read Sarah each recipient’s profile and likes and dislikes. Based on that, Sarah then chose which card to send them.

Then Sarah discovered that Norman Reedus has his very own custom postcard set, of his own photographs, for sale.

Sarah didn’t understand Reedus’ signature, but I showed her how it’s a fancy N and R.

Then I showed her how she should could sign her own name S O, in the style in the style of Norman Reedus, so she tried a couple.

Unschool Rules Day in the Life of Unschoolers: Norman Reedus' signature (top) is a fancy N and R together. So why shouldn't Sarah Otto try her hand at S and O together?

Norman Reedus’ signature (top) is a fancy N and R together. So why shouldn’t Sarah Otto try her hand at S and O together?

Turning our attend to the model cemetery that we have, we started a list of other items that we might want to build or acquire if we construct a small model railroad set and landscape that includes the cemetery. The things we came up with, so far, are train tracks, tunnels, a small town (which we will call Derry), a clown for the cemetery, a prison, a road, cars, a farm and a mountaintop. (Note from Joan: HARD NO ON CLOWNS. Nice try, Ottos. I’m terrified of clowns and you know it.)

(Another note from Joan: The week before, I received a text that says “We bought a graveyard!” I came to find that they’d visited the local antique mall and purchased a wonderful model cemetery. This has been SUCH a cool find, by the way, that it will soon be the subject of its own post!)

Then Sarah took a break to wind down before her theater rehearsal by playing Grand Theft Auto on the PS4.

Then she at salmon and french fries for dinner.

Went to rehearsal (Note from Joan: This is for Anthony and Cleopatra, which premieres this weekend!)

Came home.

Watched Stranger Things episode. (Note from Joan: This is something Chris, Dan, Sarah and I are doing together; Chris and Sarah already saw all of Season 1, but Dan and I are trying to catch up before Season 2.)

Spent 45 minutes in the upstairs bathroom laughing at videos on her phone.

Went to bedroom. Laughed a little while longer.

And, Chris concludes, “After that I don’t know because I fell asleep.”

Other things that make up our unschooling days

I don’t have too much more to add to Chris’ summary of a perfectly awesome day in our lives. When Chris and Dan and I are at work, Sarah and her Mommom (my mom) are home together and enjoy TV shows or movies or kitchen projects together. Interspersed with that, Sarah will sometimes take walks around our neighborhood, play basketball outside, hang out with our pets, work on Instagram photo edits for her fan account or read a book.

Then there was a recent Saturday when Dan and I took Sarah shopping at the big mall in the next town over to use some giftcards she had. On the drive, we happened to see a hot air balloon, so we followed it to see if we could see where it was landing, and ended up getting some cool pictures through our car’s sunroof. We talked all about how hot air balloons work and where you might go in one, then we finished it up with a restaurant dinner where we talked about how calories work for weight loss and weight gain.

Our teachers are all the people we meet, day in and day out. The woman at the doctor’s office who explains why you can’t have a fresh tattoo and get an MRI. Sarah’s Nana, who is an occupational therapy assistant and explains to her various stretches that help with muscle pain. Someone at the library who asks her about the kinds of books she enjoys and recommends others.

That’s what unschooling looks like for us. It’s funny in a way to write this post – we rarely look at the individual days. We don’t need or choose to “do math” or “do school” for a particular amount of time, nor do we “have to” accomplish much in particular in a learning sense, and sometimes, weeks go by where we’re all so caught up in our personal interests that we don’t have time for much else.

But over time, as the days build into weeks and months and years, we grow. It’s like watching a tree grow – maybe you don’t see the change each day. But when you step back, suddenly you think: This is so much bigger than it used to be.

That’s how we feel about our life. Our free approach, rather than limiting what we learn, has made it so, so much bigger.

And we love it.

Read more about our unschooling approach

If you’re newer to Unschool RULES, maybe you’re wondering about this radical unschooling thing we do.

Here are a few posts that tell more about our lives!

Join the NOT Back-to-School Party!

Unschool Rules: Part of the 2017 iHomeschool Network Not Back to School Blog Hop 2017

Want to see the typical or not-so-typical days of my fellow iHomeschool Network bloggers?

Check out the rest of Day-In-The-Life Week at the Not-Back-To-School Blog Hop here (and you can link up your posts, too!)

Our unschooling planner system: Documenting relaxed homeschooling

For being part of a family that doesn’t ever need to go back-to-school shopping, I LOVE school and office supplies. It’s probably not surprising that I’ve been a planner junkie since high school, when my best friend Phil and I had matching Five Star First Gear planners that went everywhere with us. Fast-forward ::cough:: some number ::cough:: of years later, and now I have an unschooling planner system that helps me organize my life and keep track of our relaxed homeschooling lifestyle.

Documentation is one of those things I’m ALWAYS asked about. In some cases, people ask me specific questions about what they should record and how. In other cases, I hear from readers who love the ideas of unschooling but wonder, “How will I know if they’re learning?”

That’s why I want to share a look at our family’s unschooling planner system today. The goal is not for you to replicate this system by any means – but I thought if I show how I think about what I track, maybe it will help other families figure out what will work best for them!

Unschool Rules: Documenting relaxed homeschooling with an unschooling planner system

Planning supplies I use

Last year, I started using the Extra-Large Flexi Planner from Orange Circle Studios. These run from August of one year through December of the following, so I started my new “2018” one last month. You can see all of the 2018 design options here; I’m using the “Hello Aquarelle,” as I am not really into flowers and actually am allergic to pineapples, and thus didn’t want to stare at them all year. I like this because there is a set of monthly calendars in the front, followed by pages with lined sections for each day in week-by-week format behind the monthly pages.

Let me be really clear: You don’t need to buy anything fancy to implement a planning system. While I drool over the Instagram accounts of those $200-in-planner-supplies people, I have no desire to become one. Get a dollar-store calendar and a pen, and you can do pretty much everything I show here.

But if, like me, you HAPPEN to have a lot of craft and office supplies on hand, you can probably use some of those. Here’s absolutely everything I use for my planner, which is WAY more than is required:

Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: My base planner is the 2018 "Hello, Aquarelle" from Orange Circle Studio.

My base planner is the 2018 “Hello, Aquarelle” from Orange Circle Studio. The “Stay Curious”
owl sticker was actually a freebie at a tech conference I went to for work, and I loved it so much I carefully carried it over from last year’s planner.

A word about bullet journaling

Before I used this planner, I was a devoted user of the bullet journal system. I’m not going into detail about what that is, but my friend Jen McGrail’s “Bullet Journaling 101” post is a great place to start if you don’t know much about it.

I was doing a LOT of work by hand in my old bullet journal, though – writing every day’s date, drawing my monthly calendars, etc. The system I have now takes the parts of bullet journaling that were working well for me, but gets rid of a lot of the routine work.

Is it as fully customizable? Definitely not, but the time saved is a great trade-off for me.

Why use an unschooling planner system?

Another point of radical clarity: I am not a proponent of over-documenting your unschooling. If you try to make a list of everything your kids “learn” in a day, you’re kind of missing the point.

So why keep track of unschooling or relaxed homeschooling? A few reasons:

  • I like sharing what we do on this website. My month-in-review wrapups are designed to show people some of the things unschoolers do – especially for those who are just starting their journey and wondering, “Will my kids ever learn anything?” So for myself, I don’t necessarily need to keep track of the cool rabbit trails we go down, but jotting short notes about them makes it easier to share and help others.
  • It makes our end-of-year portfolio creation and transcript updating easier. Not all states require any kind of documentation; ours, Pennsylvania, requires a few specific things. Luckily, the evaluator who reviews our family’s portfolio is VERY unschool friendly. I often will just write a paragraph summary on a topic and list a couple places we went or methods we used to explore it and call it good; the hard part of that, though, is remembering in March what topics we were into in September, so our short notes help. Read more about the Pennsylvania homeschooling portfolio – and see samples of ours, as well as Sarah’s transcript – here.
  • It can help you be more present with your kids. Let me be realistic: I work full-time away from home, and, since she’s in her late teens now, a lot of Sarah’s free time is spent engaged in activities I’m not part of, like acting with local theater groups. Taking the time every day or couple of days to stop and think, “What have Sarah and I really been talking about lately?” is a good reset point for me when I don’t feel like we’ve been well-connected. If I have three days in a row where I have no idea what she did, my first thought isn’t, “Wow, she wasn’t learning,” it’s “Wow, I’m not engaged with her.” That helps me make it a point to check in and find out what’s up!
Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: An overview look at a month's unschooling documentation.

An overview look at a month’s unschooling documentation.

The monthly log

This is the first section of the planner I use, and it’s where the unschooling record-keeping piece comes in.

Almost every day, I jot down a few things we did. These aren’t necessarily “educational” things in any traditional sense – but if we watched a movie or TV show, had a cool conversation, tried a new Universal Yums snack box, went to a restaurant or store, took part in a music lesson or play practice… that’s what gets written in the square for the day.

You can see that some days have more than others. That has nothing to do with how much Sarah is doing or learning or experiencing – as I mentioned above, a lot of my focus in the record-keeping is to be engaged with what Sarah is doing. On the days where you only see one or two things, it’s where I was at work all day and Sarah was at play practice all night and then I sat down to do grad school homework and we barely said two sentences to each other.

Monthly log basics

  • Each day, jot down the highlights in the main calendar box – a book, movie, conversation topic, place you went, etc.
  • In the sidebar, keep track of important family notes, like paydays or bills or number of stuffed penguins you mailed.
  • Don’t stress, and don’t overdo. If you miss a day, either add one thing you remember or just skip it. If you run out of room, don’t write anything else.
Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: A closer look at the monthly unschooling log. Items are highlighted once I mention them in my monthly wrapup post on Unschool Rules. Other things like bills, paydays and stuffed penguins sent are in the sidebar.

A closer look at the monthly unschooling log. Items are highlighted once I mention them in my monthly wrapup post on Unschool Rules. Other things like bills, paydays and stuffed penguins sent are in the sidebar.

The daily log

The monthly log might be where the basic “unschooling planner system” comes in, but the daily log is how I run my life.

Here, I list all our appointments, my freelance work projects, my grad school assignments, our trips to the library, house-cleaning tasks, and a ton more. Basically, if it needs to get done outside my 9-to-5 job, it goes here. (The day job has its own set of to-do lists, on a Page-a-Day Calendar + Notepad, which I fear they have stopped making effective 2018, which is a little bit making me lose my mind.)

But anyway, the daily log: This is where everything goes that I need to accomplish (or make sure someone else accomplishes, like getting Sarah to a class or practice).

Daily log basics

  • My biggest goal: Don’t add more “to-do” items to a day than there are spaces. You would think this was obvious, but…
  • Write appointments in a different color. (You can see mine are teal.) That keeps you from overlooking them among the things that can migrate to another day.
  • Controversial tip: Use Wite-Out Tape for the things you didn’t get done that you’re moving to another day. Some people follow the bullet journal method of crossing it out with an arrow, then carrying it forward. I need the mental freedom of not seeing a list of things I didn’t manage to do.
  • Similarly, I don’t cross off things I have done, either. If you value a sense of accomplishment the way I do, highlighting tasks when you complete them feels really good. No, YOU wrote something down just to highlight it. That wasn’t me. Ever. Much.
  • When you do something special, note it in another color at the bottom. In my former bullet journal, I would sometimes even draw pictures; I’m not that invested any more, but I love seeing the milestone moments stand out in pink. I’ll come back to another way this helps me later when I talk about my “end products.”
  • On a day toward the end of one month, make a task to plan the next month. I’m always writing in appointments and specific events as I go,
    but the “regular stuff” – vacuuming most weekends, cleaning the bathrooms, long-term freelance projects that get done on specific days each week, sending invoices to other clients, etc. – those, I add a month at a time, as I need them.
Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: A detailed look at the weekly log. Finished tasks are highlighted; appointments with fixed times are written in teal.

A detailed look at the weekly log. Finished tasks are highlighted; appointments with fixed times are written in teal.

The year in pixels and other bonus features

One of the coolest things in my older, more traditional bullet journal was my “year in pixels” spread. This is a place where you can keep track of your mood or the kind of day you’re having. As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, this has long been something I’ve found helpful to keep an eye on my moods and make sure they’re not going somewhere I don’t want to go.

The Orange Circle Studios planners have a “Rate Your Year” page where this is already set up for you with a five-point scale! Just pick your colors (mine range from blue for great days to brown for horrible days) and color a square each day. I don’t remember to do this every night, but I try to do it every 2 or 3 nights.

You might see that my scale is always “so-so” and up. This is sort of a weird fluke of my personality; I also grade almost all books I read on Goodreads at three, four or five stars. Of the 417 books rated there, I have given three reviews less than 3 stars. Similarly, I have no days so far in my year in pixels that are bad or horrible. Call it an optimistic personality; call it reserving bad ratings for things that really deserve them; call it creating a three-point scale. I don’t know. Anyway. Now you know a new thing about me, right?

(And to be clear – there are things that could happen that would render a day bad or horrible – immense tragedy or illness related to someone I love, for instance – but thankfully these aren’t regular occurrences.)

Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: The "Rate Your Year" page takes the Year in Pixels bullet journal concept and makes it easier for me to actually do it.

The “Rate Your Year” page takes the Year in Pixels bullet journal concept and makes it easier for me to actually do it.

Extra features in the Flexi Planner

  • Rate Your Year page for keeping track of moods/quality of days.
  • To-Do List and Not-To-Do List pages, great for tracking long-term goals. (I plan to use these for my New Year’s goals, which I have in another notebook for 2017 but will transition into here in 2018.)
  • Budget Tracker. This is really cool, but we have a digital budget that Dan and I share, so I don’t need it written out. Plus, we track different stuff – focusing mostly on debt payoffs. But if you’re just starting with budgeting, the plan in here is a good one.
  • Bucket list, another one I’ll start using when I do my start-of-2018 planning.
  • Empty graph paper pages – I think these are there for other “modified bullet journalers.” If you do a bullet journal collection for something like books read or trips taken or steps toward a specific goal, this would be the place to do it.
  • Event stickers for birthdays, holidays, vacations, parties, lunch dates, “don’t forgets” and more – there’s a whole page of these in the back. I’m not a huge sticker person. Though I have little owls and aliens on a variety of my pages, I don’t really use them to denote anything special, but if you do, they’re cool!
  • Lovely back pocket is probably one of my most-used features. That’s where I store bills to be paid, my work to-do lists (when I’m working from home, I have to carry them with me), papers to fill out for the doctor, whatever.
Unschool Rules guide to using an unschooling planning system: The pocket in the back of the Orange Circle Studio Extra-Large Flexi Planner holds papers that need to travel with me.

The pocket in the back of the Orange Circle Studio Extra-Large Flexi Planner holds papers that need to travel with me.

End products: Monthly blog posts, our homeschool portfolio and our family scrapbooks

So this is what I consider the most important part of our unschooling planner system: It’s not the tracking or planning itself. Those are just means to an end – and in my case, the most important end is what I do with the data from the planner.

Monthly blog posts: I mentioned earlier that these are the biggest reason why I keep track of our unschooling adventures – so I can share them and encourage other families on a similar path. You can see an archive of our lives here, month-by-month, all the way back to July 2014!

As I sit down to write these posts each month, since I follow a standard template, I start with last month’s post and then go through, section by section, and scan my calendar for things that relate. And, as I share them in the roundup, I highlight them – so I know what I’ve covered and what I haven’t yet. Then I add photos – which come from my external hard drive, which is sorted by year and month, so super-easy to get the ones I need – and boom, roundup post! (OK, it’s not quite “boom,” it takes a while and usually comes way later in the month than I intended, but whatever. It’s way better than what you’d get if I was just trying to remember things.)

Our homeschool portfolio and transcript: We are very lucky to have an unschooling-friendly evaluator. We send her a short summary of topics we’ve covered at the end of the year, along with some photos, and Sarah answers some questions for her. It’s incredibly low-stress, and the only thing that takes any time at all is summing up what we do. But guess what makes it easier? The notes and the roundup posts! I can easily get a feel for our “big themes,” and use those to frame out subject descriptions for the portfolio and credit topics for Sarah’s transcript.

You can see more about how we organize our topics into credits for a transcript here. And, if you’re an Unschool Rules email subscriber, you can get a full editable transcript copy plus samples of our portfolio submissions; sign up here to get access!

Our family scrapbooks: I’ve been a dedicated scrapbooker for the past decade, and every year, I make a family album with photos from the year, ephemera and souvenirs, notes about cool things we did and more. A key part of that is a short monthly calendar that includes our highlights, which helps reflect the things we do that don’t have photos. Guess what? The things in pink in the daily log in my planner… those are what goes on those calendars! It’s a super-simple way to manage that at the beginning of the following year when I sit down to scrapbook.

Unschool Rules guide to an unschooling planner system: When I work on my scrapbook for a particular year, I look back through my planner for special events (usually written in pink) to add to calendars like these.

When I work on my scrapbook for a particular year, I look back through my planner for special events (usually written in pink) to add to calendars like these.

Final thoughts

Like I said when I started out, my goal isn’t that anyone would say, “OH. This is perfect! I’ll just do exactly this thing that Joan does!” That would be weird.

My hope is that by seeing how I think about planning – what I keep track of, what I don’t worry about, and most importantly, what I do with the info I track. No one needs to document for the sake of documenting; make sure you have a use for what you’re tracking.

Do you have any other planner questions, unschooling or otherwise? Feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll be glad to help if I can!