It doesn’t look like school anymore . . . because it’s not.


I still tell people we “homeschool” since most inquirers just want an explanation for why my kids are home every day. When they ask follow-up questions, like what time we “do school,” I have to take a deep breath and hope I’m not judged as a weirdo—especially in a brand-new neighborhood where those next door are just getting to know us.

“Oh, we used to have a set schedule, but we don’t anymore. Now I’m letting my kids follow their own interests instead of me teaching lessons.”

The word I haven’t tossed around much—not yet, not until I get a little braver—is unschooling.

We’ve always leaned that way in the sense of leaning away from curriculum. Even the intermediate college writing class I teach is textbook free because I’d prefer to have my students read real-world articles and essays, learning to notice what makes good writing good, instead of learning to regurgitate what a textbook delineates with bullet points. Similarly, in the two-and-a-half years we’ve homeschooled, my kids have never opened a textbook.

BUT . . . there was this huge chasm between the projects that were theirs—100% theirs, like deciding to write their own version of Harry Potter—and any projects that I touched at all. My input was poison, killing every trace of enthusiasm.

I kept looking for a way to fix that paradox. How could I coerce them into inventing their own academic projects without my coercion being the death of joy? Meanwhile we trudged on with our usual routine, the kids whining every morning when I cheerfully announced, “Time to start school!”

When my chiropractor and fellow homeschool mom told me last February, “You need to read Free to Learn,” I’m sure she didn’t mean it as a command, but my gut took it as one.

Free to LearnWithin days I had the book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Prepared for Life. I couldn’t put it down, despite the craziness of packing up our house for the move. I devoured it.

What the author suggests didn’t make any sense under the paradigm to which I was conditioned. I should have tossed it aside as ludicrous. But it made absolute, complete sense to my gut.

Thankfully Peter Gray’s study after study provided the much-needed logic for my reasoning to jump on board. The science proves our brains are wired to observe, imitate, explore, create. Babies manage to eventually walk and talk without being sat down for a lecture on the mechanics of it, but somehow we don’t trust our kids to pick up other essentials likewise. We assume ABCs must be drilled, followed by math facts and the periodic table. If they don’t memorize each set in order and on time, we believe our children will never succeed in life.

Gray points out how much schooling suppresses our innate desire to learn. I could relate to that, remembering how many years it took to recover a thirst for knowledge after graduating with my masters. School—even homeschool, if it’s modeled the same way—teaches our kids that learning happens passively, where they sit and wait for facts to be given to them, where they learn only what they are told to learn.

It took the full 200+ page book to convince me completely, but everything in me said, “Yes! This is what I’ve noticed all along! This is the confirmation I’ve been waiting for, the permission to let my kids take over their own lives and their own learning.”

Unschooling meant raising children to be everything I hope for them: self-reliant, self-motivated, self-assured, active learners.

I was sold, but I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. If I let my kids do whatever they wanted, what would they do? Which choices would look academic enough to reassure me (and my much-more-skeptical husband) that they were still learning?

I picked up another book, The Unschooling Handbook, and found my reassurance in the comments from parents who had been there. Between that and Free to Learn, I came to accept that unschooling by its very nature wouldn’t look like school, that often my kids would do nothing that looked productive, that it might even take months or years for them to recover from the schooling they’d already had.

As I continued reading to grasp all of this, I let my kids do as they chose. The chaos of moving and setting up a new house (during tax season, no less, as an accountant’s temporary widow/orphans) was an ideal time to let go of academics anyway to avoid added stress.

058Anxious for signs of learning, I began to notice my then three-year-old the most.

His two older brothers had been to two years of preschool each plus kindergarten and first grade for my oldest. But my three-year-old was 100% unschooled. Because of the stress of homeschooling his brothers, I hadn’t gotten around to doing a single preschool lesson with our third kid. He’d picked up numbers on his own, surprising us one day a while ago by pointing to an 8 and naming it correctly. Within a month he could spot all ten digits.

Mostly what he chose to do all day was blow through entire reams of blank paper making what initially looked like scribbles. Except that then the scribbles started to have heads with eyes, and then arms and legs, and then bodies, and then regressed back to scribbles, and then suddenly, “Look, Mom! I drawed a six!”

Next he wanted to try a 7, then a Z, since that was close. He wanted to learn the letters of his name, so I showed him once and he scribbled it a few times until he got it right. Then a week later he asked me how to spell his sister’s name. Since my arms were full, I couldn’t show him, but I gave him verbal directions and he managed to write it! A week after that, my heart melted when he wanted to write “Mom.” He still hadn’t learned the letter B, but only because it hadn’t come up yet.

I realized that learning didn’t have to come in a set order; he was learning as he needed/wanted to, in the timing that was perfect for him.

My oldest struggled a bit in the sense of not knowing what to do with himself at first. He was used to being told what to do. I’m giving him the space to decide on his own what his days will look like. My second oldest flits from one project to the next, mostly drawing pictures that during our schooling days he would have felt insecure about, saying, “I don’t know HOW to draw a _______!” Now his creative confidence is on the rise.

My job now is to go about my day, setting the example of things adults do: working, cooking, building/fixing things, gardening, reading. They sometimes assist, which lets them start to learn adult skills too. When they ask me for help with their interests, I try to respond instantly now (rejecting my old line of “We should learn about that sometime, but for now let’s get back to ________”). We use Siri to Google their questions, and I translate adult-level articles into kid-level answers for them. They regularly ask me what words mean that they’ve heard, either from their dad and me or from a movie, and we discuss context and meaning until they’ve rolled the new word across their tongue a few times and solidified it in their heads. Sometimes I catch them using it soon afterward, and I get that quick thrill of reassurance that they are learning.

They haven’t written any stories yet, the way they used to before school (even homeschool!) killed their writing enthusiasm. I’m sad about that, and I feel guilty too. My poor oldest kids! If only I’d known everything before I started with them. I would have let them grow up like their younger brother and sister will: completely unschooled, scribbles turning to numbers and letters, letters and numbers turning to words, words turning into stories. The thrill and excitement of every discovery and milestone being all their own.

And as for me, I’ve realized that the best thing I can do is let them see me working on my own writing. It’s time to get back to blogging, back to novel writing, back to playing with words. For their sake and my own.

Fingers crossed that it’s not too late for all of us to recover.

(Continued in “Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part II”)

3 thoughts on “Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I

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