Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Schooly Day

On a walk tonight, Hubby and I talked about our method of schooling. In my mind I compared what we did today to a more traditional school approach where "learning" takes place with set teacher-assigned activities, practiced or memorized then regurgitated onto a paper test to ensure mastery. Field trips and other hands-on lessons become a motivational tool rather than actual "learning."

This morning I mostly did laundry. The kids gleefully helped me shove wet clothing into the dryer and sort out clean clothes to put away. We got everyone dressed, intending to take a walk through the windy sunshine, but the plans changed abruptly when Curly Miss successfully tied her shoes, something she has been working toward for several weeks.

So we hopped into the van and drove over to ShopKo in the next town where a certain Lightning McQueen shirt has been tempting Curly Miss ever since we were over there to get their glasses. I had promised to get it for her if she'd work on tying her shoes. Bribery, or a reward, I used it to motivate a little girl who would have cheerfully spent her entire life in Velcro.

After the store, we treated ourselves to McDonald's where the kids each received a quarter to buy a kids' cone at the end of the meal. Then we headed back home where Curly played computer games and Mister, who felt so grown-up, skipping his nap, watched and commented.

We ate dinner together as a family, Hubby and Curly went to violin lesson, then we all finally took our belated walk just as it was getting dark.

At face value it looks as if we did no school at all! There was no deskwork, no workbooks, no memorization drills. We did not watch the clock once. But as I thought about it, the same amount of material still became internalized, as long as my curriculum was flexible enough to fit the things we did today.

1. Curly learned to tie her shoes. She went from uninterested and unmotivated to success in just a few short weeks. She also got to enjoy both an extrinsic reward (the shirt) and the intrinsic reward of accomplishment. She absolutely glowed when she knew she had done it.

2. Time for self-motivated learning. Curly pulled out her violin and practiced twice today of her own volition. This is on top of her lesson and her practice with Hubby in the evening. She examined her music, listened to the CD and asked me what several new musical terms meant.

3. Math and Money. Because of the purchase of the ice cream cone at McDonald's we had the opportunity for a conversation about money values. I've voluntarily placed myself on a cash budget, so any kind of shopping involves careful thought to what I purchase. When I share this real-life experience with Curly, she learns not only math but also money management, or the beginning of it.

4. Reading. At the coffee shop on our walk last night, Curly read two books to Hubby and he read three small ones back to her and Mister. During the morning when she was in the mood for music investigation, it would have been like pulling teeth to get her to read, but in the atmosphere of the coffee shop, with a wall of freshly unread books in front of her and a Caramel Steamer at her elbow, she wanted to read. When she read "Bears on Wheels" the observant listener would note that she read every single word correctly except "twenty." So much for tests. I know exactly where her reading level stands.

5. Social time. Not only did the kids have ample time to play with one another all day, their best friends, but they played on the playland with other kids and exercised both there and on our walk.

An interesting note is that Curly's computer games in the afternoon seem to be the most educational things she did all day; sites like PBSKids tout their educational advantage. Yet I almost don't count them as learning compared to all of the other rich learning experiences she had in the day.

With a flexible curriculum, I spend my days drawing out the teachable opportunities rather than following a plan written years ago by a total stranger. We make learning meaningful and try to minimize the stuff that doesn't get absorbed in a traditional setting. With this method, we use our time efficiently, working together rather than against one another. As a bonus, we have a lot of fun doing it and never have to answer to a checklist or feel condemned that we did not get x, y, or z finished today. Had I been focusing on x, y, and z, I most surely would have missed the unexpected violin playing, the money lesson and the shoes. We would probably have been so tired of working on reading that the coffee shop books would not have happened either. Her reading experience that day would have been one of drudgery rather than one of delight. How sad.

I remember my own school experience, reading a book during the assigned reading time and feeling frustrated when I had to stop rather than just enjoy more and more. I remember working on math problems and wishing I could just take a little more time to absorb the concept and make it comfortable rather than rushing on. There were seasons of review when I could not for the life of me understand why it was necessary to go over and over material we had already learned. At other times I wished I could go back an re-learn old concepts I had forgotten. Growing up I never learned World History as we moved during elementary school. I got American History three times but to this day I'm vague on Charlemagne, Rome, Egypt and the Crusades. I plan to learn it along with my kids in a few years.

Of course I have goals for their learning. I know what the next step in math will be. But it doesn't have to happen today. Sometimes the next five steps will happen tomorrow, sometimes they will wait until next week. Learning is a wild, delightful, unpredictable experience. It comes in chunks and spurts, not in a nice tidy daily dose. But those goals will happen. Of that I have no doubt.


  1. It's good that you're so confident. I would constantly worry about them being behind other kids their age.

  2. You-and the kidlets-are so lucky to be able to take this route.

    I pray I find a way to join you on the adventure of unschooling sometime in the near future!