Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unschooling and the 3 "Rs"

This is one of my favorite all-time posts, first published on the blog in August 2013. It's worth frequent re-publishing and sharing!

A question was asked recently on one of our local homeschooling message boards from a new-to-homeschooling mom of young children seeking advice and insights around the 3 Rs (Reading, (W)Riting, and 'Rithmetic). This response from Phoebe Wells, a veteran local homeschooling mother of three grown unschooled children, is worth sharing and has been re-printed here with her permission and the permission of the message board moderators:
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READING 

Read mountains of books. To give you an idea of what 'book after book after book' can really mean in terms of actual quantity, we used to go to the library at least once every week and come home with at least two full shopping bags of books each time. The librarians used to joke that if ever my friend, another mom of now grown homeschoolers, and I returned all our books on the same day they wouldn't have room for them on the shelves. They called our homes the library's annexes. They even had a cartoon at the desk titled "Homeschoolers at the Library" and it showed the kids standing next to the car, which was stuffed with books, asking their mom where they were supposed to sit. 


In the book, Homeschooling for Excellencethe authors' term was "plundering the library." We didn't just take out fiction. We plundered all the shelves pretty equally. We unschooled and never used any workbooks or curricula, so we raided the math, science, and history sections thoroughly too, as well as poetry, biography, mythology, arts and crafts, etc. You'll be amazed at what you might find - fun books about the parts of speech, mathematical cats, cartoon biographies of the presidents - you name it, you'll find it if you keep digging.

And if you can't I'm sure you can find a helpful librarian who will find the search fun and a welcome break from pushing papers and balancing budgets and other dreary tasks. We often came back after a reading binge with an excited child holding up an especially loved book about jousting tournaments or Native American trickster tales or the periodic table or chess and asked the librarian for a dozen more just like it. They find eager kids pretty irresistible, but if you get a dud or a sourpuss just change libraries. They're all networked so there's no need to go to one that's less than inspiring. Another reason why it can be so easy to unschool, or library-school, is that there are often teacher's colleges in your library network. You can access scores of books with ideas and plans for teaching all the subjects in all different ways. As my kids got older I would troll through the syllabi of Harvard Extension courses for more titles to request from the library. I found a lot of good writing books that way. 


WRITING/SPELLING


So did burying my kids in books turn them into good readers? Yes, even though one was a late reader (8), and another was a wicked late reader (13). (And FYI, the 3rd kid taught himself while I wasn't looking when he was 4 - go figure.) The late one was instantly an incredibly good speller, but Wicked Late struggled with spelling so much he began buying himself spelling books when he was a teen. Suddenly when he was 18 it all became MUCH easier for him for whatever reason so he can now proudly say he's an average speller. I know you may have gasped and thought that was a ghastly long time to wait for a kid to learn to read and spell, but I can assure you he was very competent in other areas, including acting. Goodness knows where he got the unmitigated self-confidence to audition for professional plays when he couldn't read the script, but I certainly wasn't going to stand in his way. 


I had read enough John Holt by the time my kids were toddlers to really believe that raising children wasn't about ticking off reading and spelling lists every year; it was about raising them to be healthy, happy, curious, and resourceful enough that they would be able to go to college or find good work by a reasonable age, say 18ish or so. I fully believe that this is the time for kids to learn vast quantities about the worlds inside them and all around them, and then they can springboard to where ever they want. 


MATH


I'll try not to spin off into philosophy, but you know that math is more than arithmetic, and that the point of all education, school or home (or library!...maybe especially library...) is not the 3 Rs but using them as tools to learn other things and to do stuff, whether it's baking cookies, building bridges, writing symphonies, or colliding atomic particles. 


So, what to do now so that your child will be well prepared to bake and build and write and collide as an adult? Really, reading about all these things with your children as much as possible and as soon as possible is the best I think, before they're old enough to start doubting and thinking,"I could never do that." And go places where people are doing this stuff or whatever it is that your kids are interested in. One of the beauties of homeschooling is having the time and flexibility to go to where stuff is really happening. 


OK, math. Again, the library will have lots of good selections, and some of the teacher college libraries have some manipulatives you may be able to borrow. But really - cooking, sewing, crafts, woodworking, etc. - all call for more math than you'd think at first sight, and all those practical skills are invaluable. One kind of pricey thing we did in Cambridge was Math Circle classes. They're not arithmetic-bound like grade-based tutoring classes usually are, but focus on topics that real mathematicians work on, like patterns in nature, topology, game theory, etc. I wouldn't say they're necessary, and they say they really only want kids who want to be there, but for geeky, mathy kids like a couple of mine, they've been wonderful. 


Bottom line: anticipatory worry is unnecessary. You are very unlikely to get as stuck as you think you might, and by the time you do your kids will likely be old enough to study on their own. And we'll all still be here with ideas and resources when you need them. 


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Phoebe Wells & Tadek Gaj have homeschooled, unschooled actually, their kids since forever.  The kids are now a 26 year old retired ballet dancer studying to be an EMT, a 21 year old scuba diver due to graduate from Harvard Extension next year, and a 13 year old tin whistle-playing mad scientist fresh back from a model rocketry convention/launch.  All but the dancing EMT live in Cambridge, MA.

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