Category Archives: Unschooling

We don’t study history.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument

In my family, we don’t study history.

We do, however, love learning about specific time periods or the history of specific things. In the last few years, we have intensely learned about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, and World War II… and several other time periods:

  • Kai has recently learned a lot about the Oregon Trail. I think that came about because I saw a graphic novel (at the library) about the Oregon Trail and thought Kai would like it, so I checked it out.  He’s read it a few times. We’ve talked quite a bit about it. I even found a website where he could play the old Oregon Trail game.
  • He became interested in ancient Egypt – primarily mummies – because we were at the science center in Seattle one day and Kai saw small sarcophagus and mummy figurine. He asked if we could buy the “Zommie”. We talked about how it was actually a mummy and discussed them quite a bit. We watched the Reading Rainbow episode about mummies. He wanted to know more. We read a ton of books about both the time period and mummies specifically. We watched a ton of things on Netflix about ancient Egypt and about mummies.  We also went to go see the traveling King Tut exhibit – even though he was only four and we knew he’d not remember much. (He still talks about the “kitty sarcophagus”.)
  • The American Civil War became an interest because one of our groups went to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and the Indiana War Memorial right after we moved to Indiana. While Kai knew a bit about the time period before (and, in fact, it had started to kind of come up as interest to him right before this). We checked out a ton of books about the civil war and watching some things about it. We also ended up in the 1863 Civil War Journey area at Conner Prairie, a local interactive history park – which was pretty neat and very informative.  It’s been much more relevant here in Indianapolis, an area where the effects of war were very personally experienced and the fighting was up close and person. In Seattle, the fighting was far away (and Washington wasn’t even a state yet).
At the Indiana Bicentennial Train

Kai and a friend at the Indiana Bicentennial Train

That looks a bit like “traditional history studies”. But we’ve learned a lot about things that look less like “traditional history”.

  • The history of the internet and computers. My husband, Joe, and I talk to Joe a lot about what the internet used to be like, bulletin boards (the kind you had to dial into) and how you used to get online (I remember back when we had to lift the phone off the receiver and set it on top of the modem to dial out). We’ve talked about old games we used to play on the computer (like the earlier example of the Oregon Trail).
  • We’ve listened to the Beatles, went to see Beatles laser shows, played The Beatles: Rock Band, and talked a lot about them, their lives, the deaths of some of the group members, and some of the controversy surrounding certain aspects of the band.
  • We play a game called Timeline  (I included an affiliate link to Amazon here but that’s more so you know what it looks like than anything else). With Timeline, you have to build a timeline from cards that have various different things (like the discovery of something or the invention of something).
  • One of our homeschooling groups recently went to the Indiana Bicentennial Train. We spent a good amount of time learning about the history of Indiana through some activities including a walk through the history train (where we looked at a few old objects and pictures of things throughout the history of the state), talked about the preservation of old photos and watched a living history actor who talked about what “his life” was like during the centennial, when he worked on the trains.

Besides, who decides what is important to study? Even in public school, it varies. In every area I’ve lived in, the focus was often more localized. Different people I know studied things in-depth in school that my school barely touched on.

What even “counts” as history? In school, I often had history AND social studies. But that never made sense to me. I remember distinctly becoming annoyed that we learned about Greek mythology in one class but ancient Greece in another. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to study them together? But the study of the mythology wasn’t considered history. It was social studies.

One of the great things about unschooling is that we don’t have to separate things out by subject, there are no specific things one must learn, and we don’t have to stick to a schedule.

So when Kai was absorbing everything he could about World War II, we didn’t have to say, “Okay. That’s enough. Onto another subject.” We didn’t have to say, “Studying these planes? They weren’t in the curriculum, sorry.”

We just encouraged him to love learning and helped support his interest.

But we didn’t “study history”.

One person’s experience is not necessarily another’s.

When Kai got up this morning, I was about two minutes into this video, “The danger of a single story”, so I started it over.

The video is about how only having a single story (even multiple versions of that single story), can cause problems and misunderstandings.

She says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I’ve always loved the following passage from Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”:

None of them has ever seen a Jew before. I am aware that everything I do now for the next hour represents “Jew”. I walk in eating an apple: all Jews now will eat apples. I tell them I have never lived in a small town: now no Jew has ever lived in the country.

We talk about the importance of taking in many different stories from many different areas.

We talk about racism.

We even talk about how, when I used to do phone work, people, upon hearing I was in Seattle, would often say, “Oh… is it raining?” (Usually? No.)

This is an important thing for kids to learn – adults, too, since a good number of them leave their childhood not understanding it: One person’s experience is not necessarily another’s.

Officially deciding what we’d already unofficially decided.

For most families, homeschooling starts with a decision or, more accurately, a few decisions.

First, they decide to homeschool. I don’t know that it was a decision for us, so much. I mean, obviously, it was. But what it looked like was more of a discussion one day while Kai was asleep in the car and the rest of us (the three parents at the time) talked while we were stuck – mainly not moving – in traffic. I had always wanted to be homeschooled. Kai’s mother said that although she had a few concerns, which we talked through, she felt like homeschooling seemed like something that could work well for Kai. Joe had been homeschooled and that’s what he wanted for his son (though what he wanted homeschooling for Kai to look like was drastically different than it was for him in his childhood).

This leads to another homeschooling decision that was ultimately not officially decided until a few days ago: Method. I don’t remember where I heard about unschooling but I know that it’s what I thought would work best for Kai. It was agreed that we would “try it out” but, at the time, it was ultimately not a decisions that Joe and I could make. It was also up to Kai’s mother. She had some reservations. And we knew that, ultimately, if she took us to court regarding schooling, a judge would decide that we either had to use a curriculum or that Kai would have to go to public school.

What this meant was that I felt I had to “prove” that we what we were doing was good, was working, was, in fact, “better” for Kai than any other method of education.

But that meant that I could never “let go”, could not relax into the process. I could not learn to trust in unschooling – or in Kai – because “proof” was necessary. But unlike a lot of education methods, unschooling doesn’t always provide a stack of papers or a linear path, so it’s harder to “prove” at a quick glance.

It has been almost six months since Kai’s mother died. During that time, we’ve been “unschoolish”. But nothing was officially “decided” for any length of time. I’d oscillate between different things but always found myself coming back to unschooling.

Finally, a few days ago, I was once again talking with my husband, expressing fears and frustrations. I mentioned I’d started Kai on an activity that he found fun but then I’d insisted he’d finish it and that it took way longer to finish it than I thought it should have because he kept stopping to play with the pieces in another way. I said, once again, how it felt like we “never get anything done”. The whole thing, by the way, was a huge mistake. I should have let Kai just play with the stuff the way he wanted. What Kai was doing was even very obvious learning. But he wasn’t doing it in the way I’d wanted/expected nor was he doing it at the speed I’d wanted. I told my husband that maybe we need a curriculum, another method, whatever.

One of the many things that I love about my husband is that he’s a very patient man. He lets me work through things out loud when I need to. Finally, though, he said. “You just need to make a decision. All of this back and forth isn’t fair to Kai and it isn’t fair to you. You need to pick something and with it for a while, whatever it is. Give it a chance to ‘work’ long-term.”

So I did. I told him that, yes, we would unschool (he’s an even bigger proponent of unschooling than I am and doesn’t have a lot of the fears and worries that I often do) and I committed to do so for a long-ish period of time.

Instantly, a weight was lifted. It’s as if making the decision and committing long term freed me from the worries of trying to make sure I’d picked the “right” method.

Now, we have a path to move forward on. I’m looking forward to seeing where that path takes us.

Edited for clarity: We’ve been unschooling, except for brief excursions from it when I’ve handed him worksheets or whatever. This is more about committing to not waffle.

This post was written for the Write ALM February Prompt-A-Day. Today’s prompt was “First things first.”