Unschooling: Our April 2018 adventures

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: An antique-store friend.

Ashar and Chris picked up this new friend, Whiskers, at an antique store.

April was a bunch of unschooling fun, and one REALLY BIG thing happened – we are officially “done” Ashar’s compulsory education under Pennsylvania law! We’ll be continuing to wrap up the things we do together as a family (and the learning that goes with them) in posts like this one, but I wanted to take a minute and celebrate that milestone!

(As always, if you want a more frequent peek at what we do, you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook. You can also check out our archive of previous wrapups here.)

Unschooling in Central Pennsylvania on Unschool Rules: A month in the life of radical unschoolers.

That whole graduation business

So we’re done. Final paperwork submitted, nothing else required… right?

WRONG! Of course there’s a graduation party. We’re hosting a cookout and backyard graduation ceremony May 27 for Ashar, and I have a HUGE favor to ask of all of you. Ashar had really wanted to host a HUGE party, and for various reasons it’s not going to be nearly as large of a shindig as she’s dreamed of.

That’s where you come in. If you like reading about Ashar’s journey here on Unschool Rules, would you consider sending her a card or postcard with your best graduation wishes? She’d LOVE that (she loves getting mail) and it’d be a great way to extend our celebrating.

You can mail cards to:

Ashar Otto
3416 Essex Road
Dover, PA 17315

(Don’t freak out, privacy people. Our address has been all over the internet for years. It’s not a biggie.)

And thank you all in advance for any love you’re willing to send Ashar’s way. It means a TON!

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Two cute cats.

That’s a whole lot of dumb right there. Mr. Angelino, top, and Mr. Bill, bottom. Names totally coincidental.


I talked last month about how we’d recently discovered Outschool. It’s a platform for independent online K-12 classes taught by all sorts of people – from certified teachers to hobbyists to trade professionals – and it’s amazing.

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’ve been doing mostly single-session classes, which range in price from about $10 to $20 an hour, but in April, Ashar completed a six-session Shakespeare roundtable for teenagers, which was $75 for the full course.

In addition to the classes I mentioned in March, Ashar has now completed three courses in a series called “The Butterfly Effect,” which is a look at a famous person and how that individual changed history. They’re taught by an awesome lady named Barb Ve, who Ashar loves. In April, we had:

She’s signed up for several May courses, including:

I cannot speak highly enough about Outschool, which has been super-fun for us.

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Biohazard art project.

Ashar’s biohazard design, compiled from a few different reference images. You can’t see it well in this image, but she has some great faint green shading behind the main biohazard symbol.

Artistic endeavors

One thing Ashar has contemplated as a future career is tattoo artistry. She did a bunch of reading and internet searching and found out that the best place to start with that at her age (since you can’t begin tattooing in Pennsylvania ’til you’re 21) is to build up a good drawing portfolio.

Since then, she’s spent time almost every day working on art! Right now, she’s mostly tracing outlines from source images and then shading and coloring them to her liking, but she’s hoping to move up to some freehand drawing soon. She’s got quite the portfolio – everything from standard tattoo-style designs to images of Norman Reedus’ face.

Ashar is also interested in photography – both modeling for photos and taking and editing them. So one night in April, she sat down for more than an hour with my best friend, Nina Myers, who runs her own photography business called CM&M Photography. Nina told Ashar all about different kinds of lenses and flashes, how she’s built her skills and more. It was a huge hit for both of them!

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Bart Simpson art project.

Ashar made this Bart Simpson (traced from a reference image) for Kaitlyn, who is a big fan of The Simpsons.


As part of a super-cool opportunity from Candlewick Press, Ashar and I spent a bunch of time with a set of new books, including:

We also read a whole bunch of Shakespeare plays, including a super-fun thing Ashar planned in which she, Chris, Kaitlyn and I acted out scenes from a good half-dozen of them for my mom in our living room! (And she got into some of the sonnets of Shakespeare this month as well.)

Ashar also dug heavily into a book called True Crime, which is a collection of real newspaper articles about crimes from the 1800s to present.

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: New hair.

New hair for me.

Movies and TV

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Saying yes to a wedding dress!

Yup, it’s getting real now. I said yes to the dress! (And no, you can’t see it yet.)


  • FIFA 18
  • The Sims 4
  • Destiny 2
  • Wii Sports – We got back to using our Wii after a long hiatus and it was fun to try some of these fun family games (like bowling) again!)
  • The Chameleon – This is a cool borad/table game that we got for Christmas and just played for the first time.
  • Dungeons and Dragons – You can read more about this one on Chris’s blog, Papergreat – it was very cool!
Unschooling in April 2018: Mom got a new birthday TV.

We celebrated my mom’s birthday with family on Easter, and she got a new (and much larger) TV for her bedroom from my sisters and brother. (Not pictured: I got her an air fryer and tickets to a show at Sight and Sound.)

Recent rabbit trails

I mentioned in September’s post on our unschooling planner system that our “rabbit trails” are the most fun we have in unschooling.

By far the best one this month started when Chris and Ashar were working on their family trivia game – they make up trivia questions for the rest of us on a huge variety of unusual topics. Somehow this morphed into a huge discussion on global prioritization, economics and systems of government. I can’t begin to describe it but it was very cool.

Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: New hair.

New Ashar hair.

Other fun stuff

  • Ashar’s been writing a bunch of letters – to her Pappy John in Florida (Chris’s dad), to a fellow Walking Dead fan in Japan, and more. She loves letter-writing and getting things back in the mail.
  • Ashar and Chris had a bunch of fun excursions to antique stores and to the local arcade, where Ashar got a high school on Ghostbuster pinball.
  • We went to the local Jewish Food Festival, which had better main dishes and less-great desserts than the Greek Food Festival from a few months back.
  • With the advent of nicer weather, we’ve been walking and bike riding a lot more in our neighborhood, and getting a chance to reconnect with our neighbors, which is nice. Ashar and I also spent one evening on a huge Pokemon Go hunt at a local park that is filled with them.
  • Ashar filled in for a friend in a local bowling league.
  • Ashar gave Kaitlyn some ideas for some really cool graphic designs – projects involving penguins that look like characters from The Walking Dead for instance.
  • Ashar, Kaitlyn and I went to see The Addams Family Musical at my alma mater, York College, and that was also very well done! (And funny!)
Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Spirit Wolf art project.

Ashar made this “spirit wolf” image based on tracing a reference image.

Updates from around the family

Since our “curriculum plan” for this year featured not just Ashar but the other house adults, I figure I should give monthly updates on our progress too. So here’s a look at what’s new with the rest of us.

An update from Joan and Kaitlyn

GRAD SCHOOL IS OVER FOR THE SEMESTER. That’s basically the best thing in life for me right now. I ended the semester with two high As and have a whopping week or so until summer classes start, including my capstone project. (Though I don’t graduate until next spring due to some scheduling ick.)

I managed to read 16 books in April, including two by the aforementioned awesome Nadia Bolz-Weber. Other highlights were By far the best was Caroline: Little House Revisited by Ashar Miller, which is a retelling of the Little House books from the perspective of Caroline Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother. Girls Like Us by Gail Giles was another amazing (and tear-inducing) read.

I also got to do a bunch of scrapbooking and, in big news, Kaitlyn and I found out that we got a pretty huge freelance contract we’d bid on earlier this year with our web development business, Technical Penguins.

Which is good, because…

Kaitlyn and I are officially planning our wedding. March 23, 2019 is the big day, and I already have my dress!

Kaitlyn also reports he’s really liking reading At Home by Bill Bryson, which Chris is also reading. Kaitlyn says it’s a great look at both the depth and breadth of history.

Updates from Chris

Chris wants to know where the [expletive deleted] April went. I’m pretty much in the same boat. Considering it SNOWED a couple of times in April, I want to know where all of spring went.

Anyway, though, this is Chris’s update. He says:

“The only book I finished in April was Adventure May Be Anywhere by Ruth Manning-Sanders. Beyond that, I accomplished six (maybe seven) sets of taxes, so that was good.”

He’s only a little bit kidding on the taxes thing.

Also he got a new car, after his previous one was totalled in an accident that was not his fault. (If you’re keeping track, THAT was the car he’d gotten less than a year ago after his previous car was totalled in a terrible parking garage vandalism incident. Chris is not enjoying cars right now, but his new one is very nice.)

Update on my mom (also Joan)

A few highlights from Mom about some of her favorite activities this month:

  • Mom and Ashar made some cookies together one day, which was cool.
  • All five of us saw The Diary of Anne Frank at a local theater, and it was heartbreaking and very well done.
  • Ashar, Mom and I went to see Nadia Bolz-Weber, an amazing (and F-bomb-dropping) Lutheran pastor, in Lancaster. I might go to church regularly if she were the pastor. She’s phenomenal.
  • Unschooling in April 2018 on Unschool Rules: Norman Reedus art project.

    Ashar traced the outline of this image of Norman Reedus and did her own shading and colorizing!

    So what’s new with your family this month? How is your 2018 starting out? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”

    Dare to be different: Homeschool learning from literary rebels throughout history

    Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

    “It’s better to stand out in a crowd than blend in.” That’s the caption my 18-year-old daughter, Ashar, put on one of her Instagram stories recently, along with a note that said “I will never stop being myself.” I cannot think of anything that would make me prouder as a parent than having a teenager who knows their worth and realizes that they are exactly perfect just as they are.

    Disclosure: In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received several books from Candlewick Press for free. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but we’ve easily spent quadruple that time with these books already because we like them so much!

    I give Ashar a ton of credit for being her own person, but I also know it’s not an accident. The choices I’ve made as a parent – especially as a homeschooling parent – have definitely helped to shape her perspective.

    In our family, we try to celebrate the rebels, the oddballs, the unique. We watch movies and read books and talk about people who dare to be different – whether that’s women throughout history, innovators like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, or people who don’t fit into the majority because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political views.

    One of the coolest things we do is keep a fully stocked “book basket” on our coffee table with things all of us can pick up and browse, and we definitely try to use that space to reflect literary rebels, both factual and fictional. Recently, I added a big collection of books from Candlewick Press and they’ve been amazing! You could use these as the basis of a unit study – either on one particular person or group of people, or overall to talk about being a rebel!

    Real-Life Heroes

    If you’ve been following Unschool Rules for any time, you probably know how much Ashar is into history.

    She’s obsessed with Shakespeare, and thanks to falling in love with the Hamilton soundtrack, fascinated by the Revolutionary War. The following books have been very cool ways to learn more about those topics:

    What’s So Special About Shakespeare? by Michael Rosen

    This is a great book that’s shown us a lot we didn’t know about Shakespeare. Ashar and I are actually reading it aloud together (yes, family read-alouds can still be AWESOME when you have teens!) and have learned a bunch – including how Shakespeare sort of stole a theater, that he has no direct living descendants, and how he uses language tricks to make specific points. It’s an easy read, probably designed more for middle grades than high school, but still interesting even at Ashar’s age (and mine)!

    Some of the cool things to talk about:

    • What is the role of theater in social/political commentary? Shakespeare went out of his way, usually by using comedy, to deliver very pointed insults to certain groups of people, even powerful ones. We talked about how this happens now in more modern plays that go out on political limbs, like when the Hamilton cast delivered some pointed words to Vice President Mike Pence.
    • How is our language today different than Shakespeare’s, or influenced by Shakespeare’s? If you’ve ever used the words “manager” or “uncomfortable,” you owe a debt to Shakespeare. Yet while those words continue to be important today, there’s a lot of Shakespeare’s kind of language that has died out. Ashar, for her part, loves the original words, because they have a lot of nuance that she says helps you tell what emotions the characters have, more than “regular” language would. She also points out that because you have to stop and ask questions, it makes you slow down and consider the meaning more.
    • Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? We found out from this book that Shakespeare… well, he kinda cribbed some major plot points and even some whole phrases and ideas directly from old stories. A Roman book by Plutarch, for instance, describes Cleopatra riding in a barge “the poop whereof was gold, the sails purple, and the oars of silver,” and Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra, describes “The poor was beaten gold; purple the sails… the oars were silver.” So… is that OK? Nowadays we have a different idea of giving credit, but what do you think about this happening at the time?
    Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

    Ashar shows her “dramatic Shakespeare pose.”

    Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution by Roxane Orgill

    The Revolutionary War, told as a series of poems? OK, I’m enough of a lit nerd to think that’s pretty cool, but I wasn’t sure Ashar would love it, given her general “just the facts” mentality. But we ended up having a great time and coming up with some great conversation points.

    • Was it OK that Washington owned slaves? This was a big question for Ashar – whether someone can be considered a hero even if they do something we consider “wrong.” We talked about the culture of the time, but we also talked about how Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of Ashar’s heroes even though he cheated on his wife.
    • What’s an acrostic poem? This isn’t a life lesson by any means, but there were multiple acrostics in the book, and Ashar and I worked together to create an acrostic poem about ways in which she’s kind of a hero herself, using the letters of her name as the first lines.
    • What made George Washington a good leader of the Revolution? We think it’s because he was willing to think outside the box – for instance, by letting black people into his decimated army to bolster his forces, even going against his advisors to do so.
    Candlewick Books for Homeschooling: Learning from Literary Rebels

    This is Ashar’s “I’m a rebel” face.

    Fictional Bravery

    I get the idea from talking with other homeschooling parents that most of us are pretty confident about the idea of learning from books about real people – I even have a whole post on homeschooling with biographies that delves into that.

    But there is so much to learn from fictional characters as well, and I think we forget that sometimes. These books might not be 100% true, but there are DEFINITELY opportunities in them to talk about people who dared to be different – fictional literary rebels, as it were.

    A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers and Other Badass Girls and The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, both edited by Jessica Spotswood

    These anthologies are absolutely full of great stuff. In the preface to each, Jessica Spotswood describes working with contributing authors to tell stories featuring women and girls who were on the fringes of society, or radical for their place and time.

    My favorite was the opening story in The Radical Element, about a Jewish woman in the 1800s who wants to read the Talmud for herself, which was crazy controversial at the time. There are also stories about women of color, queer women, women who want to vote, women who want to work outside the home, and more.

    We had some great conversations about women’s rights thanks to these books, and Ashar showed me these amazing Instagram posts from Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on The Walking Dead and who starred in Black Panther, who talks about how great it is that men are starting to speak out about women’s rights:

    We talked about a ton of other issues thanks to these books, including:

    • What makes something radical? These books led us to talk a lot about time, place and culture. As in, what was radical for a woman in the 1940s – like, you know, pants – is pretty commonplace today, though it would still be radical if, say, you lived in an Amish community like the many near us.
    • Are there any ways in which you – or someone you know – is “radical”? We have a pretty unusual family. Divorced couple still living together, with one person (me) engaged to someone else, who I’m living with despite not being married? Teenage girl who presents visually as a teenage boy in clothes/hair? We sort of stand out in a crowd, is what I’m saying. But the “radical” stuff really isn’t about those appearances. We think we practice radical kindness, saying yes any time we can help. We think our unschooling lifestyle is pretty radical. We’ve gone out on a limb, started a nonprofit and given away more than 500 stuffed penguins. That’s the kind of radical we are.
    • What elements have been historically missing from coming-of-age stories? One of the reasons these anthologies were so powerful to me is that they featured characters who are young women coming of age. Kaitlyn mentioned that the “classic” coming-of-age novels – Johnny Tremain, Catcher in the Rye and the like – are all strongly white heterosexual male. More books have started to include females, but what about women of color? What about gay or trans women of color? Those stories are just starting to be shared, and these books are a huge step in the right direction.
    • What types of women from these stories or from real life do you consider inspiring? Ashar says Danai Gurira, who we mentioned above, but she also gave big shout-outs to Ellen Degeneres and Michelle Obama. She also mentioned Walking Dead actress Alanna Masterson, who had a great post recently on body positivity.

    It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt

    This amazingly-told story follows Mike, a high school freshman who moves to a new state with his family, including his domineering father. Dad wants Mike to stop being into art, to attend church regularly, to get into sports… and definitely (spoiler alert) NOT to be gay. But when Mike meets and falls for Sean, he realizes that being different in his suburban community can become pretty dangerous, eventually leading to him getting sent to a camp that attempts to convince him that being gay is wrong. (This reminded us of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Outcast, where a character is sent for “re-conditioning” because of gender preference.)

    Some of the many things we talked about from this book:

    • What happens when your parents have different ideas about what’s acceptable than you do? “Compromise?” Ashar (who has never had parents tell her she can’t be anything except who she is) suggests.
    • What’s the role of religion in your life? Does following some particular religion shape who you are so much that it can change your views on things like gender preference, or can those things coexist peacefully?
    • The million-dollar question: Is it OK to be gay? No matter how you as a parent feel about that, make sure you ask your kids. They may feel differently – or you may find you agree. In either case, you’ll have a great discussion. (And while I stay away from all things divisive for the most part, let me go on the record and say: Ashar and I are very open and affirming to the LGBTQ community, and we would love to use this space to make sure you know that.)

    Dolls of Hope by Shirley Parenteau

    This fictional story is based on the real-life friendship doll project, a program designed to ease cultural tensions between Japan and the U.S. in the late 1920s, following World War I. U.S. schoolkids sent 12,000 dolls to Japan, and this book explores the story of one young Japanese girl, Chiyo Tamura, who is chosen to be a protector of one of those dolls, and to help craft one of the 58 dolls Japan would go on to send back to the United States. It’s an incredible elementary or middle-grade read that gives a lot of background into the Japanese culture.

    Some of the things we talked about from this book:

    • Can being peaceful be rebellious? At a time when these two cultures were pretty tense, one of the biggest acts of “rebellion” was to accept the goodwill gesture of the dolls for what it was, and to offer dolls in return. We don’t usually think of peace as an act of rebellion.
    • What is the value of honor? The book begins with Chiyo dishonoring her family by being caught spying on the man her sister is to marry. That’s considered dishonorable and she is sent away on a journey that will eventually lead her to the dolls. But is it really “dishonorable” to have tried to protect her sister? What does it mean to be honorable?

    Get Your Own Great Books About Rebels

    If you order these or any other books from Candlewick Press online, use discount code CANDLEWICK at checkout for 25% off!

    Also, Candlewick Press is giving 30 winners a paperback copy of Judy Moody #1. You must be a U.S. or Canadian resident to enter, and the giveaway closes at 11 p.m. April 18!

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