During the iHomeschoolNetwork’s 10 * in * 10 series in 2012, we were asked to write about “10 reasons you chose your homeschooling method,” which in our case is unschooling or very relaxed homeschooling.
Our “method” kind of came about through the process of elimination. So today, I’m going to walk through some of the considerations we made as we came to a decision about homeschooling in general – and how that translated into our specific choice to be life learners/unschoolers/relaxed homeschoolers/whatever your favorite term is! While this was originally written in 2012, I decided to come back to it here in 2017 and can attest , 5 years later, that ALL of this is still just as true today as it ever was!
1. We needed something less stressful for Ashar than public middle school.
That stress took a lot of forms, but basically, the poor kid was literally getting sick thinking about some of the facets of his day. Everything from changing classrooms to dealing with a locker to changing clothes for gym class to getting up earlier to remembering what books go to which class to walking through noisy, crowded hallways put Ashar in a panic. Between his Asperger’s and his sensory processing trouble, he was a walking ball of anxiety.
The thing is, if you notice? None of those things had to do with learning. That’s what led us down a path toward homeschooling in general – because we truly believed Ashar’s ability to learn should not be dependent on his ability to adjust to different clothing three times in an hour.
2. We needed something that could be done in a shorter amount of time.
Ashar got up for middle school at about 6 a.m., got dressed, ate breakfast, rode the bus, went through the school day and returned around 3 p.m. We would routinely spend until supper doing homework or projects, eat, finish up any homework, then get him into bed around 9 p.m., where we’d do a half-hour of reading aloud to get her caught up on any book assignments.
He was awake for 15 hours, and “doing school stuff” for about 12 of them. (Though he was probably only engaged in learning during about 2.5 to 3 of them.) That wasn’t going to fly.
Even when we looked at options like cyberschooling or some of the nice packaged curricula out there, we quickly realized the time commitment for many was more than we wanted – or needed.
In our current style, we sometimes “learn” from the time we get up til we go to bed. (Heck, I think we’re ALWAYS learning.) But some days, we veg out for 8 hours and then go for a walk, and we needed a setup in which none of us is going to feel guilty or “behind” if that’s what we need that day.
3. We needed something that allowed us to be outdoors.
There’s a lot about the Charlotte Mason educational method that intrigues me, and not the least of those factors is its emphasis on nature study – and just on being in nature. Ashar does better when he can get outside regularly – even if it’s just for a few moments.
So does Ashar’s mom.
While we could absolutely “do school” in a pretty traditional sense outside, that makes it hard to take advantage of a lot of spontaneity – which is one of the best things about nature. If we see a slug, I want to be able to talk about it then – and for the rest of the day, if we want to – not after math workbooks are finished, or in two weeks when we “get to” slugs.
4. We needed something focused around Ashar’s interests.
Oh, that whole “delight-directed” learning thing? Try having a kid with Asperger’s and its accompanying passions – or perseverations – or obsessions – and see if it’s even possible to have it any other way!
We go in phases of about two to three months at a time in which Ashar is absolutely over the moon on a particular topic. So far in our homeschooling journey, it’s been robots – then the Titanic – then cowboys and Indians – then alchemy – then the Holocaust – then zombies. No, we are not learning about the Indians of South America. (Heavens, no, though that was a major public-school topic.)
You can certainly try. But any efforts to get more than an “I’m phoning this in” type of response from Ashar on any topic that isn’t this month’s obsession are pretty futile, and, honestly, you’re likely to send him into a daylong sulk if you push too hard at it.
That said – we’ve learned a lot using these topics. We’ve read tons of literature from all sorts of genres. We’ve written – done creative projects – created timelines – and even done some math, all based on these themes. And because they change – and honestly, because they can be influenced by putting certain books and movies in Ashar’s path – over time, we’re still hitting not only the required basics, but much, much more.
5. We needed something that we could easily change if needed.
Because we pulled Ashar out of public school in the middle of the year, and because we were leaving such a stressful situation, we knew that we might not hit our running speed for the rest of that year – and maybe into the next.
So jumping on board with a packaged curriculum, a formal style or a cyberschool program, all of which we looked at (and liked facets of), seemed more of a stretch. Then, if we “changed,” it’d be another drastic change – and Ashar’s not great with changes at all!
By choosing a relaxed style, if we “change,” it’s actually less noticeable – and we’re able to adapt much more quickly, too. And that ties in to the next point…
6. We needed something economical.
In order to make homeschooling a possibility, I moved from full-time hours to part-time at the newspaper where I’d worked for 13 years, and picked up a major, steady freelance job. Even though the new setup was GREAT – I enjoyed what I did, and I worked 99% from home – we did take an income cut. And we weren’t exactly rolling in dough to start with!
So something that cost $500 at the outset – especially knowing we weren’t sure how we wanted to continue on – was out of the question!
That got us started thinking about what we already have. And one thing our family has in mass quantities? Books. Lots of books. So why buy new ones – why not try to save some money and use what we have?
7. We needed to be able to focus on interesting, “real” books.
Ashar is really a paradox. He can – when she wants to – read and comprehend adult nonfiction tomes hundreds of pages long.
He also tested at about a third-grade comprehension level on sixth-grade fiction passages – regularly.
The difference? It matters whether he’s reading something she’s interested in. He will read from any genre if the topic is of interest – and he’ll read on any subject if the book itself is a style she likes (browsable nonfiction is the top choice – think David Macauley, Eyewitness books, National Geographic magazine, etc.)
Ashar also loves being read to. In fact, he probably likes that better than reading on his own. Some curricula phase out read-alouds by middle school, so we knew we needed to at least include it in any other approach, but even better, we’ve helped shape this into a foundational “thing.” Almost exclusively, when we started homeschooling, what we were “studying” came from whatever our nightly half-hour to hour-long read-aloud book was at the time. (Hello, “Indian in the Cupboard” series, which occupied us for the better part of nine months!)
8. We needed something heavy in conversation and short on writing.
Ashar loves to write – for fun. But he absolutely struggles to “show what he knows” using written methods. He can tell you all about something – and, in fact, dictate it to you in the style of an essay, with a beginning, middle and end. (For public school, our IEP allowed us to do just that; he’d dictate, I’d type.)
But he can’t “do” the thinking and either the writing by hand or the typing at the same time. He gets hopelessly confused and ends up (literally) writing the same sentence three times. We work on that, but at the same time, I needed a system in which Ashar wasn’t being assessed primarily on written answers!
He’s doing a lot of writing – mostly for fun – but we have a lot of conversations that help us know that he’s learning, and these will often show a much higher level of mastery than his writing would on the same subject.
9. We needed something that wasn’t focused on grades – or grade levels.
This ties very closely to the point above. Ashar’s grades in public school were almost never a reflection of what he did or didn’t understand. He had great grades in subjects he had absolutely no comprehension of – and barely-passing grades in subjects he knew a lot about!
And, as Ashar mentioned himself, this was stressing him out. Grades were a constant worry – and if that was because they accurately reflected what he did or didn’t know, I wouldn’t have minded. But every test, quiz or essay Ashar had became a double stress, because we couldn’t even begin to predict what his “grade” might be.
Multiple-choice quizzes were probably the worst. Ashar could read the question and tell you – in his own words – what the answer might be. But he couldn’t write that out, and he couldn’t perform the executive-functioning task of taking his own thoughts and choosing one of the four choices that most closely matched them. So on a quiz where he “knew” 9 of 10 answers, he might get 1 of 10 correct.
On the other hand, through some random series of rote calculations, he could get a great score on a math test – and truly not even know that it was a test “about” multiplication.
We wanted to a setup that didn’t focus on these things – so we’ve chosen not to “grade” any of Ashar’s work, which is 100% OK under Pennsylvania law. He just has to show progress through the year, as documented by our portfolio, and he had to have one final set of standardized tests (which he took in eighth grade).
Meanwhile, speaking of that, we don’t really operate on just one “grade level.” Ashar’s probably at an early-college level in some subjects, a high-school level in others, and a middle-school level on yet others. So we needed to steer clear – for both economical and mindset issues – from something that would have us operating at just one of those levels.
And speaking of mindset…
10. We needed something that would get rid of our negative attitudes about “education” and “learning.”
I do say “our,” because while a lot of this deals with Ashar’s attitudes, my own and that of his dad, Chris, were starting to get colored by her public-school experiences, too.
I was beginning to wake up feeling sick on “school days,” just like Ashar. The phone would ring, and I’d literally get queasy as my mind began to race – “What are they calling about now?” “What happened?” “What did (or didn’t) he do?”
That’s not learning – and it’s certainly not any way to live.
It’s a slow process, this change. Ashar still actively gets upset when you describe something as “educational” or “school.” He will tell you adamantly that he hates learning – and yet his actions show me that he loves to learn and explore – when he forgets to be scared.
And that’s what it is. He’s scared to learn, scared of being “wrong,” scared of failure. And I’m scared too – scared that he WILL become someone who doesn’t want to learn, scared that he’s depriving herself of things he enjoys in the name of a fear that’s been building inside him for half his life.
“Unschooling wisdom” will tell you that you need to deschool – or, basically, to work to change your public-school thought patterns and habits – for a full month for each year your child has been in public school. Under that guidance, we spent most of our first year breaking down the old paradigm, and only then started on the hard work of building the new one. One thing that helped a lot going through the deschooling process was a resource I found by Bethany Ishee of 100 Life Learning Tips. It really helped me start to see learning happening everywhere.
It takes a long time – but the end result? It’s fabulous. It is a child who recaptures what he once had, a delight in making connections and trying new things.
So what next?
Our homeschooling method kind of “chose us” by default as we walked through the criteria above. It was a great case of Occam’s Razor – the simplest way to meet all those needs without causing other issues was to walk an unschoolish path.
The great thing is, though, that much like the cat that “chooses you” at the SPCA, we’ve fallen in love with it. What once looked like a ragged collection of experiences is turning into a rich life together. And that won’t end when Ashar reaches the end of his compulsory school years by state law – we plan to stick with it as long as our family is living (and learning) together!