Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Those Perfect Unschoolers

by Shana Ronayne Hickman

Sometimes, it seems that everywhere you look, there are unschoolers reading Shakespeare, learning algebra in two weeks, immersing themselves in ancient Roman history or the plays of Chekhov, starting businesses at the age of nine, helping their families design and build new homes, discovering the cure for cancer….

Well, maybe not that last one, but still….

It’s enough to scare just about anyone – even those of us who have been unschooling for years. I can’t imagine how many people have simply turned around and proclaimed, “I can’t do it. I can’t unschool.”

Do They Really Exist?

How true to life are these anecdotes? Are there really families where a typical day includes reading Dickens, volunteering at the local nursing home, doing a bit of pre-calculus (just for fun, of course), harvesting the summer garden, attending the local homeschooling park day, sending out thank-you cards to grandparents (unasked!), rehearsing a play the children have written (Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo), hosting a scout meeting, practicing the newest song for the family band, and making a quick stop at the modern art museum?

Probably not.

What about those families where the house is always immaculate, the meals are always homemade from locally-grown, organic ingredients, the children impress everyone they meet, and everybody’s always happy.

Not likely.

Or the ones where no one ever zombies out in front of the computer or television, no one ever stays in bed past seven in the morning, no one ever eats Spaghettios, no one ever reads only “Captain Underpants” (and nothing else) for months on end and, of course, no one ever argues.

Maybe there are a few out there, but I certainly haven’t met them.

And what about families where the mother is an unending resource, a storing house for information about Spanish architecture, archaic word origins, pioneer life in the Yukon, the freezing point of liquid nitrogen, binary star systems, and any other random subject someone might come across – ready and waiting for that moment when the children express an interest?

No way. That’s just not possible.

A Perfect Day?

In my family, there are days when we don’t go anywhere. There are days when we stay in bed all morning, reading and talking and snuggling. There are even days where we open up a can or two of Spaghettios. Often, Kenzie is content to play outside, build with Bionicle, stage elaborate scenes with his action figures, read lots of comics or Horrible Histories, draw, and play with the animals. All fine and dandy with me. I love Horrible Histories, and I can build a mean Bionicle creature. It’s only every once in a while that our days have more than an element or two contained in the fairy tales above. Yesterday was one of those days. So, I blogged about it.

Kenzie’s been writing a novel, and yesterday, he spent hours at it. While sitting on the bed and listening to the second book of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, he spun ten chapters’ worth of fanciful tales on the old laptop.

After several hours, he decided to watch the dvd stage production of Macbeth that he had checked out of the library. Recently, he’s been intrigued by both Macbeth and Hamlet. He sat down with Macbeth for Kids and his Usborne World of Shakespeare book, and we watched most of the play. We talked about the curse, about comic characters (the porter) inserted into tragedies, about sets and stage dressings, about soliloquies, about envy and power and guilt, about language, etc.

Later, just before we turned in for the night, we found ourselves creating fantastic stories about thousand-pound penguins, a creature named chickzilla, and huge monsters made of corn on the cob. We must have spent a good hour laughing and trying to one-up each other.

Sounds wonderful, right? All that Shakespeare and novel writing? And with my knowledge of Macbeth, I end up looking like the perfect unschooling mom.

But what really happened?

While Kenzie typed his novel, I was able to get a bit of work done that had been piling up. I mopped the kitchen for the first time in what seems like decades. I dusted (dusted!). And when he pulled out the Macbeth video and books, I sat down in front of the television and read through the books along with him. I also hopped up every so often to research Macbeth a bit on the Internet. Men playing women’s roles? Weren’t the witches supposed to have beards? Was Macbeth a real person? Sure, I was an English major in college, but the Bard was never my forte. We read through Macbeth in high school at some point, but I can’t say I remember much of it. I knew about the curse of “The Scottish Play” because I used to be a theater kid in my teens, and I remember some of the actors discussing it.

Learning Together

But, I have no problem learning alongside Kenzie. We both know more about Macbeth today than we did when we woke up yesterday. I don’t have to know it all. I don’t even have to pretend that I know it all. That’s one of the great things about unschooling - I’m learning, too, and my son definitely notices. I am living proof that learning never ends, and he sees this (even at my oh-so-advanced age) as completely normal. We regularly find ourselves delving into things that neither of us understands, and, quite often, he ends up enlightening me!

This is the way it is with unschooling. I don’t know everything that comes up, and that’s fine. That’s the way life is. We find ways to learn what we need and want to know. Kenzie knows I can figure out most of the math he hasn’t grasped yet, and I know that, when I run into a mythological figure I don’t recognize in a story or poem, he can probably help me out.

We’re both learning as we go along – from each other and from the world around us.

And you know, come to think of it, we didn’t even leave the house, yesterday. I’m fairly certain Kenzie went to the mailbox, but that was about it. No great field trips, no museums, no park day. His friends weren’t able to play outside. Some days are like that. We stayed in bed late. We had a crock pot dinner. We didn’t discuss math or science or a multitude of other “important” subjects. It seems like there might have been a small argument at some point.

Leaving Things Out

Those perfect unschooling days we all read about probably weren’t actually so perfect to begin with. How could they be? There are real people – real families – in the equation. When someone writes about their life or tells a friend or acquaintance what they did the other day, it’s easy to leave things out, gloss things over, change this tidbit or that one. They may not even remember the argument about dinner or that they ate crackers and peanut butter for lunch. They may have forgotten that there were no clean shirts for the kids, or that the dog was on a strike from housebreaking. Or, they simply may not think of it as relevant to the story. But, after hearing so many of these perfect-sounding sagas, it can be relieving, liberating, restorative, to learn, not only about the fun activities and cool projects, but also about the flaws and low points – the normality – of unschoolers’ lives.

And, not every day will be made up of fantastic activities, or include long discussions and complicated projects from all those schoolish categories – math, science, spelling, history…. Instead, unschoolers are free to focus on what interests them at the moment – be it cichlids or free verse poetry or English royalty or Captain Underpants. Nothing has to be done every day. But, over a year or so, after looking back, we’ll see that, yes, learning took place across all those schoolish subjects – and many, many more. And, we parents learned right along with our children.

And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that one thing doesn’t have to lead to another. A child interested in Greek myths may want nothing to do with the rest of Greek history. Slicing a pizza doesn’t necessarily lead to a discussion on fractions. Finding a ladybug may be just that – not an interest in insect taxonomy and life cycles, but simply the joy of finding a ladybug.

This morning, Kenzie’s decided that, after neglecting his Gameboy for most of the week, it deserves his attention. I can hear Sonic’s hyper music in the background. He hasn’t forgotten about his novel, though. He wants me to look up LuLu.com’s printing specifications when I get a chance. After that, I’ve got a pile of dishes to wash, a conglomeration of animals to feed, and a bedroom in desperate need of vacuuming. And as for Macbeth? I’m sure we’ll encounter those three bearded witches again soon enough.

Shana and her family live in central Texas. She enjoys writing poetry, folksinging, and spending long days with her son. She is the publisher and editor of Live Free Learn Free.

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