I have to admit: I didn’t plan to homeschool. And yet, now that I’ve gone and done it (for more than a dozen years, now) I can tell you that the thing that kept me coming back for more, year after year, was seeing how my kids thrived. Our method of homeschooling leans heavily toward “unschooling” (a terrible term for a pretty amazing way to learn) which essentially lets the students decide upon their chosen subjects and how to study them. It’s less formal than standard forms of education, and you won’t find any spelling words, math drills, or flash cards here. What you might have seen, had you peeked in our window over the years, was a kindergartner learning about ancient Egypt or a ten-year-old teaching himself Old Norse.
A New York City editor who knew I homeschooled once asked me about unschooling. “How does it work?” she wondered. I think she was really asking, “How can letting your kids be in control of their own education possibly work??” I know she’s not the only one who wonders.
First, let me disabuse you of the notion that unschooling equals wild, wanton children running with scissors through a house with no rules and no napkins. Just about anyone who’s spent time with my boys — now 16 and 18 — will tell you that they are polite, well-behaved, and respectful individuals who can carry on a conversation with adults and children alike.
The basis of our home education has always been interest-led learning. My job was to facilitate, to help them learn to learn about their varied interests. I could bore you with detailed accounts of the various and sometimes wacky activities we’ve done over the years, but since I’ve got more experience under my belt at this “alternative” method of education than others with younger kids, I thought I’d take a minute to tell you that yes, it does work. Of course, this depends on one’s measure of success. For me, it’s not the material things like money and prestige. I will have succeeded in my mind if my kids are happy in their lives and able to support themselves and their future families in a comfortable manner. We’ve achieved the happiness. The financial independence is following at a bit slower clip, but it’s coming.
Let me tell you about my kids.
My youngest was a late reader. He’s an auditory learner and the visuals of reading (and math, for that matter) were harder for him. He was eight or nine when he was desperate to get in on all the fun of Harry Potter. I opted not to read the books out loud to him, instead telling him that, “When you can read Harry Potter, you can read Harry Potter.” He’d finished the first book within a month.
Today, he’s the guy we call LEGO Junkie. His passion is creating and building with LEGO bricks. (“That sounds so juvenile, Mom,” he tells me.) But it’s more than building. He crafts elaborate dioramas of World War II battle scenes and other historic events, researched for accuracy. He’s taken to sharing his work online, which requires the ability to take good photos, so he’s taught himself about photography, working with a light box and other effects. One of the impressive skills he’s taught himself is the trick of forced perspective, a building technique that allows him to make objects in his diorama appear closer or farther away in his photos. He’s become adept enough at building that he’s won numerous building contests online (competing with both adults and youth) and hosted several contests of his own. Next month, we’re traveling to BrickCon so he can meet many of his online friends in real life. He’s currently working at a local restaurant, indulging another passion — food and cooking — twenty hours each week.
My eldest found his passion six years ago when he first picked up an ‘ukulele. He took some lessons, taught himself more, and has had the opportunity to study with some of the best ‘ukulele players in the business. His passion for the music led him to create Live ‘Ukulele (initially with a friend, though he hasn’t been involved in years) when he was fourteen. He writes, codes, tabs, and records and edits video for the site, which is now one of the top ten ‘ukulele sites on the web and to date has pulled in over 2.5 million hits. He sells ad space on the site, maintains customer relations, and does his own bookkeeping. He’s the beginning ‘ukulele instructor this year (and last) at the Kahumoku ‘Ohana Music and Lifestyle Workshop, created by Grammy award-winner Keoki Kahumoku, and he’s in the final stages of becoming an instructor through the University of Hawai’i. He’s interested in finding a piece of land where he can homestead and live a self-sufficient lifestyle, in between music gigs. At eighteen, he is opting not to go to college, but rather to pursue the life that he has crafted for himself.
Lest you think otherwise, let me clarify for you that I know nothing of playing music of any kind and my most elaborate LEGO structure to date was a decidedly square farmhouse. I did not teach any of these skills to my boys; they learned them because they were interested in learning them. Given the chance to explore a variety of interests, each has found his passion and pursues it — and all of the extra “lessons” that go with it — because it’s what they’re interested in, not because it’s mandated by any curriculum.
The path that these boys have followed is far from traditional, and yet while pursuing their interests, they’ve managed to learn to read (both are avid readers), write, and do arithmetic (though we’ve followed a standard curriculum for math).
In truth, the lady who turned up her nose and told me that “Homeschoolers are a little…weird” when I first started was probably right. My kids are a little weird. It’s not “normal,” this way of learning. They don’t carry a stack of textbooks, they don’t follow the crowd, and they certainly don’t face the problems of the cookie cutter system that Seth Godin recently blogged about. It doesn’t appear that either of these kids is destined for an Ivy League college — and maybe not college at all. Neither of them feel the call to do what’s expected of most kids at this age. But I have no doubt that they’re going to be just fine.
What do you think? Are you appalled at the idea of trusting our children with their education? Or can you see the possibilities?