Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Time to just be

I didn't start out being an unschooler, but have evolved that way during the process of homeschooling my nine-year-old son Everett, and six-year-old daughter Lucy. My husband and I are frequently the recipients of such comments as, "If my kids were as smart/motivated as Everett, maybe I could unschool, too." Now Lucy is starting to become the subject of such remarks, too. Both of them learned to read at a fairly young age, and my approach was similar with each, but more relaxed with the second, as I suspect it is with many homeschooling families. With both, I waited for them to want to learn to read -- and did use some recommended curriculum from The Well-Trained Mind. Unlike the hours and hours spent in the classroom, this took just a few sessions. They had picked up most of what they needed, I believe, through our recreational reading time together. We would go to the library each week and check out 50-75 picture books, on average. Our "school" consisted of reading perhaps a dozen of them per day, which maybe took an hour or two. So, when it came time to study phonics (after interest was expressed in learning to read), it was a matter of a few sessions. One of the things I have done with both of them is to try, to my best ability, to follow THEIR LEAD. That meant (and still means) that if they are showing signs of frustration, I STOP. I give them a LOT of time to do whatever it is they want to do.

My kids have pretty much unrestricted access to everything in our house. It can get pretty messy. I do limit TV time and much screen time, now that they are older, to after 3:30 pm. I wrestle with this because the TV does have some wonderful information, but I do it because I figure if they were in school, they wouldn't be able to watch TV all day. I want them to be doers and thinkers, and not just passive recipients of information. They shared some interesting phases, despite being three years apart in age. They both went through a period where they were obsessed with Garfield comics, and that was all they would read. They both created their own comics, and spent hours drawing them. Actually, they both still love visiting the Garfield website.  This stimulated a need to spell words correctly. For some reason, they both cared about having words spelled correctly, though neither my husband nor I have voiced any concern over that matter. For a while, when they asked, I would just go ahead and spell things for them. Then, after a while, I decided I wanted to know how *they* would spell words, so I started asking how they thought the words should be spelled. A very large percentage of the time, they would spell the words correctly.

My husband and I both attended public school and played the school game very well. We were Teacher's Pets, if you will. We both enjoyed *learning* so much that we attained graduate degrees in our respective fields (his in biomedical/electrical engineering and mine in molecular/neurobiology). So, periodically, typically at the beginning of the school year when all our fellow homeschoolers are planning for the coming year, we "start school" too. It's so difficult not to believe that the kids will be missing out on something HUGE by not attending school. Each year, I make an elaborate plan and collect curricula that I feel will be fun and not leave any gaps in my kids' education. For several years, I had Everett doing a spelling curriculum. It was never difficult enough to challenge him. In our state, homeschoolers are required to give standardized tests, or receive an evaluation from a credentialed educational professional every odd grade, starting in third. I thought I would go the latter route, but instead decided that we would go ahead and try the standardized test -- there was no reason for any stigma to be associated with it in my child's mind, because whether behind or ahead or "right on track" (whatever that is), we'd probably just continue doing what we've been doing all along -- letting him learn what he wants when he wants. Well, he scored a year ahead in math, and in 7th and 8th grade for reading and language proficiency last summer, upon "completion of 3rd grade." The most "school at home" we have ever done has been about two hours a day for one month a year (typically October). Everything else is field trips, reading anything and everything we can get our hands on, exploratory play with friends, lots of origami, and simply living life. This year, when I had my annual homeschooler freak-out, I purchased a 7th grade spelling workbook for Everett. Finally, he indicated, it was fun and challenging. All indications are that my daughter is following the same path.

When I say that my kids want to read anything and everything they can get their hands on, I mean it. They read pamphlets from the veterinarian's office. They read instruction manuals from products we purchase. They read comics. They read honest-to-goodness literature. Everett reads nonfiction books (novels) about mathematics and theoretical physics. Lucy reads books about dogs and wolves. I make it my job to provide as many of these opportunities as humanly possible. I spend hours on Amazon.com going down rabbit holes, pursuing their interests for them. It's only a matter of time before they do it for themselves. I try not to shun or censor any subject. If we come to something difficult when we are reading together, I plod through it, and at the next convenient juncture, we discuss it. I want them well-armed for the world outside these walls. They can figure out how to multiply 33 and 157 themselves, and I'm sure they will, when they need to.

Maybe what I have said so far is unremarkable in comparison to what you have read elsewhere, or with respect to your own experience. I certainly hope it is, anyway! I feel like what is to follow should be, perhaps, a bit more unique.

As I mentioned earlier, Everett likes to read books on pretty heavy topics, as well as instruction manuals. His father is an electrical engineer by profession, and I do a lot of independent research on the computer during the day. So, we have a lot of computers that are on and logged in to the internet around our home. My inlaws were computer consultants, and day traders. My own father is a civil engineer. Lots of computers. Lots. I'm not sure how it happened, but around the time he was four years old, he started showing us features of the operating systems we were using. Purposefully. Things like, "If you want to reorganize your desktop, go here in the menu."  He loved to make artwork using Microsoft Paint. Then, he wanted to know how to use Adobe Photoshop, but due to some technical difficulties, we couldn't get it to run on his computer, so he had to learn to use GIMP instead. I showed him my Adobe Photoshop CS5 for Digital Photographers one day after he read Understanding Exposure when he complained about wanting to learn about how to take good photographs. He transferred all the knowledge from learning Adobe Photoshop to GIMP. Easily, and without any help from me or his father. He learned how to make animated GIFs.

In my Amazon.com rabbit hole search of early October 2009, I found a book for kids on computer programming, called Hello World:  Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners. He had been expressing more interest in computer programming, so I purchased it. The recommended age was for 10+, but I knew from personal experience that kids as young as 8 years old could learn computer programming (I had learned BASIC at that age). He devoured the book. He was ripping out programs left and right. He was obsessed. When he finished with that book, he designed and wrote his own virtual pet program. Then, he announced that he wanted to learn HTML, so that's when we started getting the Head First books published by O'Reilly. He has gone through them in this order:  HTML & CSS, PHP & MySQL, Object Oriented Analysis & Design, Javascript (at which point he announced that he needed to learn HTML5, so I got him a more 'grown-up' resource book), Ajax, Design Patterns, and then Java. He was able to discuss some problems he was having with a PHP design on the phone with his uncle, hang up the phone, and fix his problem within 15 minutes, much to the amazement of his uncle and his parents! Just a few months ago, he helped his father design a graphical user interface (GUI) to help control and display images from an array of 14 digital cameras.

For the homeschool science fair last April, Everett wrote a summary of the first program he conceived in Python, called Virtual Dog.  The dog has to be clicked to keep it fed, hydrated and emotionally healthy.  He wrote a short explanation of computer science for newbies.  Through working on that, I helped him learn PowerPoint to make his presentation board, and now he uses it to create animations of potential game designs.

As you can imagine, as parents, it is hard to keep up with it all. He participates in our local school district's Innovation Lab program, where he meets with an 11 year old who is interested in learning computer programming. I looked for a computer camp for him, but what was offered at the local university for his age didn't look like it was advanced enough to merit the cost. His father and I recognize the benefits of him having his own learning agenda. It's been important for us to really know him, and have an open dialog with him, so we can effectively help provide opportunities and inspiration for him. And, he needs lots of time to just BE. This past October was probably the last month of school he'll have under my direction. I felt so terrible during the whole thing -- even though he never complained and enjoyed most of what we had to explore during that time -- I just kept thinking, "If he owned this time, what would he do with it?" Something amazing? Absolutely.

My kids are fortunate enough to have their own computers. They use Google. They use it when I'm not looking.  When my daughter Lucy was four, she hopped on my husband's computer and Googled her own name when neither of us were present. I heard, from the next room, The Beatles singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." I thought my husband was in there with her, but he was upstairs in the shower. When I came in to check on her, she was watching a version of the song, with William Shatner dubbed on top, on YouTube. While on the surface, that sounds like just a funny story, I learned a lot from her. See, my son is very safety-minded and shy, never wanting to 'break rules' and somehow he comes up with rules of his own. He's very concerned about the feelings of others, and not stepping on toes. My daughter, however, is a free spirit. If she is hungry, she gets what she wants from the refrigerator or cupboard. At least once a day, I hear a stool sliding across the kitchen floor, and I know that means she was hungry. When she was only two years old, she would get a tin of oysters, then go get a fork, and bring them to me, saying, "Mommy, I want some kwabs."

I have been careful to point out to her brother how her free spirit and resourcefulness feeds her happiness. I think this is starting to sink in with him. More and more, when he has his time on the computer, I find him searching forums, hunting for algorithms and bits of code. Google has become his tool as well, for growing as a computer programmer. He is not afraid to use his father's graduate-level texts to help solve problems he has.

For Christmas we purchased a website for him. I've never seen him so delighted. I told him between present-opening sessions, when not much else was going on. He already had his website all organized on our local network, so all he had to do was upload it to the web server. A quick lesson in FTP (file transfer protocol), and he was live within 15 minutes. Everything on the website is his own original work. While his website may seem rudimentary, as I mentioned before, so much work and research has gone into it. It was his own idea that he put only unique programs he conceived on the website; he has gone through many exercises written in the books he used to self-educate. But somehow, somehow, he knew that it would be better to include his novel work.

It is amazing to me, when kids have TIME and SPACE they can call their own, what they invent. When we are too busy for too many days in a row -- running errands, visiting the library, having play dates -- it really wears on us.  It wears on Everett the most. He turns inward and becomes grouchy. Ultimately, it's always because during his time away from his passion, he's developed a huge queue of projects he wants to do or concepts he wants to investigate. Typically, the next time he gets several hours or days to himself, he has a giant burst of productivity and learning. I'd put it on order of what a typical kid attending school learns in a semester or a year.

If you are on Facebook, you can become friends with TSD Innovation Lab.  Monika Hardy, the woman pioneering Open-Sourced Learning in our school district, takes videos of the kids involved, so there are some videos of Everett and Lucy on the profile page.  Lucy attends every other week or three.  She is learning to train dogs there from a high-schooler who is training guide dogs for the blind.  There are videos of Everett from last week where he discusses the web browser he programmed as well as some of his favorite web browser topics with Monika and his friend.

I feel so fortunate to have stumbled upon the path to true learning pleasure with my kids.  If we can help inspire anyone else, it would be an incredible honor.  If you want any other information about how we do things, please feel free to contact me.


  1. thanks Amy.
    what a great resource your story is.

  2. Your kids were truly a joy to be around, and I think it's largely because you let them be who they want to be. Thanks for writing about your experiences- it's really inspiring!