February 24, 2010

Education at Home: Part Three

“To parents I say, above all else, don’t let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your kids alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together, as well as you can; enjoy life together, as much as you can.”
-John Holt

In Part One, I wrote about how we came to the decision to homeschool.  Part Two described how I realized we were unschoolers.  I want to take a step back in this post and talk about how our days have evolved over the last 2.5 years.  It's one thing to say we are unschoolers, but the devil is in the details.  

Most homeschoolers have a designated area for school.  Ours was the living room (we have no "room" now).  The couch was my friend since I was nursing quite a lot.  I'd have Robotson sit at a table with one of workbooks I'd picked up over the years.  After breakfast, I would set up Funny Girl with a movie in the bedroom, and then try to convince Robotson that it was school we should be doing, not watching t.v.  Workbooks were novel for a few days, but that didn't even last a week.  I would set the tracing book in front of him and talk about working on letters.  He would say he already knew how to write.  I'd ask him to show me in the blank spaces.  He'd start letters from the bottom and go up.  He also wrote many of them backwards.  I'd show him the arrows and ask him to trace them correctly.  Most of the time he ignored the arrows, or me, or both.  We'd move on to math.  Here are four apples in this bucket and there are three apples in this bucket.  How many apples are there all together.  He could count them - seven, *yawn* "This is boring Mommy."  Yes, yes but we need to complete the workbook so we can do the test at the end.  Soon he was fidgeting.

I'm hungry.  I need to go potty.  I need a drink.  I'm too tired.  Why can't I watch t.v.?  How long do we have to do this?  Why do I have to learn?  Can't we do a science experiment from the book instead?  I want to play on the computer.  I hate this.  When will Daddy be home?  Can't we take a break?  Can we do this after I watch t.v.?  And on and on...

Funny Girl would come in bored or needing another show. She was almost two, and I felt awful for sending her off to another room.  Dimples would have fallen asleep while nursing, and I couldn't put her down without waking her up.  I'd go help Funny Girl, Dimples would wake up, and Robotson would run off.  Then I would have to find him and drag him back.  He would start to cry or throw a temper tantrum.  Dimples would be crying too.

I kept telling myself that he just wasn't used to this school thing.  It was going to be a hard transition for him to learn to sit still and pay attention.  It wasn't my intention to keep him sitting for three hours a day.  I wanted to start small and work up to it.  On the very good days I could get ten minutes out of him.  Most days he was protesting before we even began.  There were timeouts, lost privileges, punishments, rewards, and threats.  Nothing made a difference.

I decided to jump into TJEd.  We'd read classics, do kidschool, have chores, and spend the rest of the day playing!  It was a routine we needed- structure.  I was sure we could do this.  I was also reading Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve.  Workbooks, separate subjects, and tests were all bad anyway.  Anne of Green Gables was our first classic.  I envisioned Robotson sitting or playing quietly while I read out loud some predetermined number of chapters.  Kidschool would follow, and then we would do chores together.  This was all before lunch, because I wanted to have the afternoon free to play.  I also flirted with the idea of a monthly field trip.  Here's a blog post I wrote describing a typical day.  You can probably see the first flaw in my plan.  I was having trouble waking up early enough to accomplish all of that before lunch, and Robotson was watching t.v. before I even got out of bed.  Once he had the t.v. on, it was going to be a fight to get him off.  I wrote this at the end of November 2007.

Educating has got me at a loss right now. No matter how I try to manage a routine, I simply can not get my son to work with me. No one should know this kid better than me but I'm really just not sure what I'm supposed to be doing right now. Out of complete and utter frustration I finally just removed the power cord to the computer and informed him that we need to come up with some sort of compromise so that we are both happy and until then it's just not going to be played with. He thinks it's a punishment but I see it as a distraction.

Four months into our first year, Dimples was able to sit up and play. I thought maybe it would help if we moved our "classroom" into the toy room.  The girls could play while we tried to get back on track. In addition to reading, we did things like dance around to the They Might Be Giants kid's albums, draw millions of robots, and I'd written out a couple of stories dictated to me. The girls were still a distraction:  snacks, nursing, diaper changes, naps, meltdowns, t.v., and boredom reigned supreme.  I never could find the time (or money) for field trips.  We never seemed to get everything accomplished.  It was all I could do to get us to playdates once a week.

Reading out loud to Robotson wasn't what I had imagined.  He didn't want to just sit and listen, and he could get loud if he had toys to play with.  If he was drawing, he would interrupt me to show me his robots.  It was the same with LEGOs.  I'd frequently stop to ask him what I'd just read, and then get upset if he wasn't listening.  Anne was a great first book to read, but many of my next choices were not well received.  A Christmas Carol, Anne of Avonlea, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Black Beauty were all flops.  You may remember that we have since read all of those except Anne of Avonlea.  Clearly, at the beginning of our journey he wasn't ready to listen to anything he didn't already know to be good.

In January of 2008, I began reading about emotionally intelligent parenting.  I was still struggling to find a routine that worked.  I'd given back his computer time and was now trying to do schoolwork in the afternoons instead.  We bungled along.  By May, things were looking up.  Robotson was used to me reading to him, we were part of the book club, the girls would adorably grab books from the shelves and pretend to read them.  I stopped quizzing him on what I had read and let him be in control of his listening.  My only request was that he stay quiet.  We continued to have constant interruptions from the girls and each one meant I had to bring Robotson back to what we were doing.  How I wished he could just stay put or the girls would just stay mindlessly glued to the t.v.  Additional education resources included podcasts, and computer games.

Something I forgot to mention, but it was a big part of our lives at the time, was that B had been laid off in December.  He was unemployed through most of that first homeschool year.  I know as I write it, it sounds like it was just me and the kids, but he was here.  B spent most of the year in his office searching for jobs and becoming more and more depressed.  It was a really stressful time financially and emotionally on top of everything else.  He finally found a job in September, and to celebrate, we dropped everything to go to DisneyWorld.  We would start our second year of homeschooling when we got back.

Since this is getting long again, I won't be as detailed about year two (Beginning in September 2008).  Everything was improving slowly.  The girls could entertain each other a little bit more and watch entire shows before coming out to us.  Dimples would often nap while FG watched.  Robotson's attention span was increasing and we could read longer books.  We could also read up to two hours a day.  He began listening to a podcast called The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd and would come and tell me all sorts of things he'd learned.  It also gave him ideas for books he wanted to read.  I felt like I was cheating in some way because he was learning more from a podcast than his own mother.  I had so many worries.  First we weren't doing any math, and very little history.  He wasn't reading on his own, in fact he was flatly refusing to even try.  Science was always coming up in our house, but we rarely did anything hands-on.  And while we were reading a lot, there was no talk about grammar or spelling, no practicing of writing.  The only area I'd say we really excelled in was music and art.  He was getting into GarageBand and learning about instruments, loops, and composing all on his own.  His drawings were becoming more detailed and interesting.

I tried something new regarding computer time at the beginning of the second year.  I went totally unschool and allowed him unlimited computer time.  I was trying to subscribe to the idea that he would eventually regulate himself.   I'm glad we did it.  I learned some really important things during those months.  Maybe Robotson would eventually have learned to balance his computer time with chores, play, and schoolwork, but it wasn't happening quick enough for me.  I guess that is one area that I can't let go completely.  We cut it back slowly over several months to the level that it is at now: 25 hours a week.  That is still a lot, but it's a ton less than unlimited!

I focused a lot during that year on housework.  We were reading about the Ingalls and Wilder families.  I wanted him to know that being part of a family meant helping out around the house.  He really did learn how to do quite a lot of housework, most of which he can do without help, though he rarely wants to.  He did chores daily and I'm really proud of what he accomplished.

I was still reading all of this time.  Each book helping me understand more about how humans are motivated, how they learn, and how they grow emotionally.  I still didn't realize we were unschoolers.  I still felt terrible guilt that we were just coasting along.  I kept thinking it would get easier when the girls were older, when Robotson showed interest in reading and could work on his own, when we weren't battling the two stomach flus, and the still very worrisome financial trouble we were in.  There were also behavioral issues that had come to head with Robotson.  It was affecting the few social activities that we had.

In the second half of that second year I started up kidschool again.  Kidschool is basically where the parent shows the child things that are of interest to them.  It could be educational, inspirational, interesting, thought-provoking, etc.  It might be a game, a website, a book, a poem, a piece of music, a science project.  The list goes on.  It's just your way of throwing something new their way (strewing).  It also shows them that you are always learning too.

By the summer of 2009, I'd moved away from Thomas Jefferson Education.  As I said before, I still use many of the ideas that I learned from that philosophy, but I prefer to distance myself from the conservative views of, and by, other TJEd'ers.  Besides, you can get to the same ideas by reading Alfie Kohn, John Holt, John Gatto, Haim Ginott, Sir Ken Robinson, Thomas Gordon, Faber and Mazlish, and so many more that I don't even know about yet.

By the fall, I knew we were unschoolers and that's the attitude I took into this year.

Yeesh!  I'm sorry for the never-ending post.  I'm nearly done though!  Up next where we are this year and what I think education means for us.


  1. Wow! You are a saint. I'll be honest - I'd have sent my child off to school at least as an experiment :) I can't wait to read how things are working out this year.

  2. Oh I thought about it, many many times. There were other reasons I couldn't just throw him into the school system though. Because it wasn't as simple as enrolling him the next day, I really had to consider what I wanted to do and it always came back to homeschooling. I can't help but wonder how many phone calls I would have gotten from the school if he was attending. LOL