A Tale of Two Educations: The Reluctant Learner

My oldest daughter, Mazzy, went to headstart and preschool at this really wonderful independent school in our community.   The focus was on social skills and learning through play and we loved the teachers and volunteers.  Every day Mazzy was so excited to get on that little bus and head off to play with her friends.  I was still working at the time and so was relieved that she loved her school so much.

The following year when she started kindergarten we saw a dramatic change in her behavior.  Our once happy daughter quickly became sullen and prone to tantrums.  It was around this time that we started receiving letters from her school telling us that they had issue with our daughter about… well about everything.  She was too dependent on adult interaction, she wasn’t consistent with her letters, she talked during class, didn’t listen during instruction time.  What was worse she was having problems with the other children teasing her.  She was much larger than the rest of the kids standing a good foot taller than most and because of this several of the kids decided she must have been held back and took to calling her names for this as well as her larger size in general.   Rather than try to fit her into their program (which we found incredibly restrictive) or continue subjecting her to childish cruelty we chose instead to withdraw her from school and begin home instruction.

Mazzy age 5

Not being very familiar with homeschooling I made the mistake of trying to imitate school, at home.  Over the course of the next couple of years we spent several thousand dollars on reading programs alone.  I would work and work with her and we made no progress.  We made puppets, sang songs, watched videos and tried program after program and though she knew the individual letter sounds could not blend them together to do any actual reading.  It was during this frustrating time that I started researching the works of Raymond and Dorothy Moore as well as other styles of home learning.  Once I understood that the ability to blend was a developmental milestone that you can not force I laid off on the instruction and focused on lots and lots of reading aloud and fun lessons in science and history that including lots of dressing up, messy projects and just good ol’ fashioned learning through play.  From time to time I would feel discouraged and wondering if I was making some great mistake and then finally when she was nine years old she found some books at the library that she liked, a manga series, and wonder of wonders she read.  At first it was still slow and I worried that maybe I needed to do something more with her but thankfully I held my peace and let her continue at her own pace now knowing my daughter better and understanding that if she was to master a new skill it would have to be under conditions of her own choosing.

Her love of manga led her to anime.  It didn’t take long before she discovered that the story lines were often different, and the plot more interesting, in the original language and so took to watching anime in the original Japanese with English subtitles.   If you have never watched a subtitled Japanese anime let me tell you those words fly by fast!  Before I knew it Mazzy could speed read with the best of them.  She has now moved on, at her own choice, to learning Japanese (thank you Rosetta Stone) so that she can watch the movies/shows without any complications with the language barrier.

The next great concern was with Mazzy’s spelling.  Not knowing any other way I had started her instruction the same way I had been taught.  Here is a list, study it, in a week we will have a test.  Also like me she did not do well with this type of instruction and often her inability to spell well was a cause of massive mama guilt and embarrassment.   It was during this time that her older cousin introduced her to on-line gaming.  It didn’t take long for her to realize that in order to be able to effectively communicate with her group she would have to dramatically improve her spelling and learn to type.  At this point you can probably guess what happened, she learned both of those skills.  At her own pace and through her own force of will she greatly improved her spelling and can type as fast as me and I worked in data entry.

Recently I was curious how she stood compared to her peers, which I think is a common concern/worry for all homeschoolers from time to time.  I asked her how she felt about it and she agreed that she too would like to know so I ordered her a test preparation booklet for admission into private catholic highschool and was not sorry to have done so. For the most part she found the majority of the material easy and flew through it.  She was a little behind in math, but not terribly so.  Interesting thing that math, she recently has taken an interest in it as she would like someday to run a homeless shelter and recognized that she would need to know how to do her own accounting.  I have no doubt, now that the fire has been ignited, that in no time she will be soaring through her math studies as well.

Every now and again I wonder how things might have turned out had I not pulled Mazzy out of school.  There is of course no way for me to know for sure, but I truly believe we made one of the best decisions of our lives by homeschooling.  I think of the confidence my daughter has.  I ponder her impeccable moral character and her genuine love for the people around her and those that she will some day meet.  I reflect on her creativity and the way she has been able to practice self-expression through her appearance over the years.  Then I realize that all of that could have been squashed and replaced by a broken being, not just by the school but also by my own insistence to fit her into a mold that she was too grand and complex to fit into.

This is Mazzy now, I don’t remember knowing anyone this calm, focused and well rounded at 15 years old.

Tomorrow I will talk about my second daughter Lydia and the very different path we went down with her, the mistakes and the triumphs.  There was still so much I needed to learn about not trying to fit education, or people, into the boxes we create for them.

Our Journey from Public School to Unschooling (Vol. 1)

I often reflect upon our schooling journey. When I started this parenting gig I was quite young and thought that you did things a certain way. When your child turned 5 you shipped them off to Kindergarten and that was that. I can remember Kyle’s first day of Kindy like it was yesterday. We had just got back from a family vacation to Wyoming the day before. I was feeling quite frantic about sending him to school, not because I thought he wouldn’t do well but because it was such a change for us. I knew I’d miss him. I had no idea which classroom or teacher he was supposed to have and that was not helping the feelings of panic at all. We pulled into the parking lot of the Early Education Center and I just had this pit in my stomach.  Kyle came to stand beside me as I was getting the baby out of the car seat all of a sudden seeming unbelievably BIG. I reached down to grab his hand and he turned his little face up to mine and said, “I’m a big kid now, Mommy. I don’t NEED to hold your hand anymore.” and that’s when my eyes filled with tears.

I was really trying to keep it together in front of the boy, lol. I didn’t want him to pick up on my sadness, he was excited. We walked into the office and the receptionist asked if I was okay. Never ask a near crying woman if they are okay, they are probably barely keeping it together, lol. The tears started to flow. I found out where he was supposed to be and dropped him off. I cried for a solid week. I really did miss my boy but he was having a blast at school. It was about the second quarter when things started to go slightly awry. Apparently Kyle was having some difficulty with letter sounds and recognition, not terribly so but enough that he was flagged for additional help. He was placed in a reduction class for part of the day. I honestly didn’t feel he needed it, that he would grow into what they were teaching but they felt it necessary to push it. It was an awful distraction for him during the day. He was in class for 2.5 hours and part of that he was taken for a reduction class which he did NOT enjoy.

The next quarters conferences came up and I decided to tell his teacher that I did not want him to participate in the reduction class anymore. He really didn’t like it and I wasn’t seeing any difference. His kindergarten teacher always had wonderful things to say about him. He was eager to learn, loved to participate, had excellent social skills, and was a pleasure to have in class. Imagine my surprise when he got into first grade and his teacher said the exact opposite about him.

In all fairness, Kyle did have a lot of upheaval the summer BEFORE entering the first grade. I was pregnant and ready to pop pretty much as soon as school started AND his biological father had died suddenly and unexpectedly that May. I think, though, Kyle was so young (he’s a June baby) he really lacked the maturity needed for full day school. They weren’t allowed to talk at lunch or run at recess and I had a very difficult time finding a voice to express my concerns and complaints. He was wiggly, talkative, and distracted in class (who wouldn’t be?!) and his teacher really held it against him. I think he spent the bulk majority of first grade drawing during the day and then doing ALL of the day’s work at night. To say the least it was stressful on both of us.

It was around this time that I felt it would be better to homeschool him, I mean I was already essentially… right? My family was very discouraging during these discussions. I was told I didn’t have the patience and that it wasn’t a good idea, he’d be lacking socially… and on and on. I placed those thoughts on the back burner… and as I reflect back now I wish I had just gone with it. Alas, it takes time to grow into your courage to stand up to people in your life… and I had a path to follow.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our schooling journey!

Five Senses Friday: Unschooling, etc.

[originally posted on my personal blog on 1/28/12]

Watching

~ My twins learn to read and write. I believe in delayed academics, and we unschool, so this sudden interest and progression was a delightful surprise. Coincidentally, this is occurring right after their 7th birthday (which was December 30th), and 7 is the age that is supposedly most appropriate for introducing academics; when the brain is finally, really ready for it.
~ Once Upon a Time, that new show on ABC. Like I needed another show to get hooked on. Thank goodness for TiVo, so I can feed my addictions at my own convenience. 😀

Hearing

~ Children: Playing outside. Fighting. Being silly and loud in the early mornings while I am trying to either catch a few more winks, or sneak out from under a still-sleeping baby. Joy. Innocence (well, sort of…).
~ Audiobooks. The twins love them. I love that they love them. I love that they are being exposed (repeatedly) to classic children’s literature before they are able to read it themselves, and without me having to read it to them (I am lazy…ahem, busy, and reading aloud makes my voice hurt).
~ Soothing music. I have had my “birth music” playing on repeat 24/7 in my bedroom. It helps the baby sleep, and whenever I walk into my bedroom, whether to change a diaper or haul some laundry, I step into a magical, tranquil world, even if just for a moment.

Smelling

Lavender, eucalyptus, and tea tree oils coming from the vaporizers in both bedrooms. Someone has inevitably had some kind of illness requiring such treatment for over a month now. It is a comforting smell. Dropping those oils into the water as I fill the vaporizers each evening is one of those times I feel like I’m “giving from the heart” (NVC reference there ;))…it’s one of those things that I lovingly do to care for my family. I am the healer in this house, which is both a duty and an honor.

Feeling

~ The warm (yes, warm) “Winter” weather. 75-80 degrees almost every day. Only a handful of rainy days or freezing nights so far. Cold fronts few and far between, lasting only a few days. Azaleas are blooming in January!! A winter wardrobe seems like such a waste of space this year! I love it. It’s as if my wish came true: “I wish it was 75 and breezy every day!” — said when discussing my hatred for both cold winter weather and stifling hot and humid summer weather…I prefer Spring and Fall only, thank you very much.
~ Overwhelmed. So many projects, commitments, activities, responsibilities. Every now and then I get to this point where I have to step back and start saying “No.” We don’t have to go to every playdate. We don’t have to go somewhere every day. Need-to-do vs. Want-to-do. Priorities. Must maintain sanity. Must take care of myself. And if that means spending a few days home-bound, puttering on the computer (and spending WAY too much time with the blog…ahem…), well, that’s okay. I deserve it, dammit! #oxygenmasktheory 🙂

Tasting

~ A lot of pasta. I prefer mine with olive oil, salt & pepper, and a healthy dose of fresh, grated Parmesan. (That is, of course, if there is no fresh Alfredo sauce available.)
~ I have also been eating a lot of avocados; sometimes scooped right out of the skin with a spoon, sometimes carefully diced and drowning in red wine vinegar and seasoned salt.
~ Oh yeah, and these super-thin organic corn chips with a dip i make out of sour cream with some “Condimento Completo” in it (whose first ingredient is MSG…a fact I did not discover until I had tasted it, fallen in love with it, and then bought a jar of my own. *sigh*).
~ I also discovered these nifty “steam in the bag” sides at Target that are useful as entire single-serving meals. I really like the Thai veggies & rice one. Too bad Target is such a trek for me. :/

I could go on, but I’ll stop…have I mentioned that I’m a foodie?

Thanks for reading!

~ Michelle

Watching Your Flowers Bloom: Unschooling & Child Development

[Disclaimer: these musings and theories are not one-size-fits-all, particularly when there are special needs involved!]

One significant thing that has evolved on my parenting journey is the way I view learning, in its broadest definition.  It occurred to me recently, as I have noticed a pattern in the advice that I dole out to other parents, that I incorporate unschooling philosophies into our lives more than I realized.  Now, we are not Radical Unschoolers.  Far from it, really.  I strictly limit screen time, screen content, and junk food, and I insist on personal hygiene, good manners, safety rules, and a decent night’s sleep.  (Wow, I sound really strict!  But really I’m not; in fact, my children are currently parked in front of PBS Kids so that I can write this!  And sometimes they go to bed without brushing their teeth!  And we like to eat at Sonic!  See, I’m human, too. ;))  So that pretty much disqualifies us from claiming the title of Radical Unschoolers.  But that is beside the point here!  So, what I realized is that among all the battles that I pick to fight as a mother, the ones that involve normal child development are not among them.  At least not anymore.

There is a philosophy that I love and identify with called Free-Range Parenting.  It involves (in a nutshell), teaching your children basic safety rules, having a lot of faith in humanity, and letting them figure out the world on their own as their age and abilities allow.  You do not have to be an unschooler to be a free-range parent, but I am thinking that unschooling and free-ranging kind of go hand in hand.  At least for us.  Being a Mom of Many has led me down this path, not only because of experience and continuous research, but because when you have a lot of children, you have no choice but to carefully pick your battles.  So, what has come of this is that I have let go of the preconceived notion that we actually have to teach our children to do certain things.  Unschooling is about having faith that, given the freedom and opportunity to do so, your children WILL LEARN what they need to learn.  Really, with academics, all they need to do is learn to read, and that opens up the entire world for them to learn from.  And boy, do they drink it up!

self-taught reader

So that brings me to the issue of child development and how it relates to unschooling.  I am talking about “teaching” children to walk.  To talk.  To eat with utensils.  To use the toilet.  To sleep through the night.   To wean from the breast, or a pacifier, or even from co-sleeping.  To swim.  To ride a bike.  To read.  All of these things will happen naturally if you allow it; if you are willing to wait, and have the patience.  All of them!  I have seen it with my own eyes, several times over!  For me, and other MoMs (I assume), the patience bit is a non-issue, because we are so busy doing endless laundry and getting food on the table that we just don’t have the opportunity to worry about every little thing.  Perhaps some would call it laziness. And please do not be confused by thinking that not actively teaching these things equates neglect.  It most certainly does not.  One part of unschooling is being a “facilitator” instead of a “teacher.”  Teaching implies direct instruction of something, while facilitating involves supporting and allowing learning.  I have found that being a facilitator is easier and, more importantly, happier for all involved, and even more successful (in my personal experience), than trying to teach things that don’t need to be taught.

The middle three children, here ages 6, 6, & 3, are all self-taught swimmers.
(as is my oldest child, not pictured here)

So, reviewing what I have already written, I am afraid that I paint a picture of myself as refusing to ever teach my children anything.  Again, not true.  But the way that I teach is not necessarily direct and assertive.  It is mostly opportunistic and random, and their natural curiosity and hunger for knowledge (and questions, oh, the questions!) fills in the gaps.  I lazily teach my babies sign language, and they pick up on some of it.  I allow that binky-addict to keep his binky at bedtime (because I think security items are security items for a reason, and I feel that forcibly removing them is damaging…and I speak from experience), and shortly before his fourth birthday, he seems to forget about it.  Eventually, sometime after their first birthday, I will think to hand them a spoon at the dinner table, and might be delighted to see that they have watched the rest of us use utensils enough that they already know what to do with it!  Same with a tooth brush.  And I don’t care if they don’t get it right.  They will watch.  They will learn.  They will try, and fail, and try again.  I will not put pressure on them, because I believe that kills the joy and wonder of discovery, and sets everyone up for failure and conflict.  I feel this way about many things, including using the toilet and getting dressed.  Eventually they will figure it out, through trial and error, but I do not want to lower the quality of our relationship by fighting about it, and I do so LOVE watching them figure things out!  There is no greater wonder in parenthood.  Those are the moments that make it all worth it, so why would I want to decrease the frequency of them?  I don’t want to be proud of myself for “teaching” my child something; I want to be proud of my child for learning something!  Instead of thinking, with pride, I taught him well! I think, with awe, I gave birth to that!  It’s what gets me through the darkest of times.

Brigit at 15 months, figuring out the fork.

Connor at 19 months, self-initiated tooth-brushing...with MY toothbrush.
(the original caption for this pic said "This is why we have doorknob covers")

So in the interest of clarifying my methodology, I will explain a little bit about how I facilitate, rather than teach, what I consider to be normal developmental milestones.  When it comes to potty “training” (a subject near and dear to my heart after learning the hard way), I prefer to offer the potty every once in a while from about the age of 1; before baths, mainly, or when it’s time for a diaper change and the diaper is dry.  My babies have all seen me use the potty.  The more family members, the more opportunity a child has to witness this necessary function and how the big people deal with it.  Around the age of 2, we might start having naked time a lot at home (the baby, not the rest of us! ;)), keeping a potty chair or two in the living areas.

Eventually the child will use the toilet.  No pressure.  No anger at “accidents.”  No shaming.  No punishments.  I just keep a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner (around here, that’s water, white vinegar, and a squirt of liquid soap) and some rags on hand, and clean up a few puddles every day (it helps to NOT have carpet…if you do, then I don’t know what to tell you!).  The baby still wears diapers at night, during naps, and when we go out.  Just naked time at home.  In our experience, this no-fuss potty learning took about a year from the first self-initiated urge recognition (read: he ran to the potty to pee of his own accord) before the child could wear underwear out of the house.  So worth it!  And I’ll tell you why: with my first 3 children, I went a more traditional route with the potty training.  There were sticker charts, candy, countless changes of clothing, anger, blame, yelling.  It should not have to be like that!  And the kicker?  It took LONGER for them to train than the kid I did NOTHING for!  Lesson learned.  So much easier, so much happier, and really, so much faster!  All because I sat back and let nature take its course (no pun intended there!).

Connor at 2 1/2, figuring out the potty.

So, the bottom line is that I have come into my laissez faire style of parenting both out of necessity (having a lot of children being the main one, but struggles with depression and debilitating back pain are certainly a part of it) and because of my own trial and error.  It turns out that there are many things that parents are concerned about that I have found really don’t need to be worried over.  It’s a case of picking your battles.  But honestly, I think that modern society has trained us, the parents, to believe that we have to teach our children certain things or they will NEVER LEARN them.  That is so untrue that it makes me sad, because then, hands-off parents like me (and often MoMs in general) are perhaps viewed as lazy (in a bad way ;)) and neglectful, because folks cannot fathom how children can learn something without direct instruction (I’d like to invite those people to take a stopwatch to their nearest school, and time exactly how long a teacher actually spends directly instructing any particular child each day.  The results may very well astound you…and invalidate your argument.  MOST children do MOST of their learning on their own.).  AND, it denies children some of the pride and joy of figuring things out on their own.

In the modern commercial world, there are countless products available to help your children “learn” things that OH MY GOD they will never learn to do without said specialty items.  Like, how will my baby ever learn how to sit up if we don’t buy a certain baby chair that happens to rhyme with Dumbo?!  Not knocking all those products; many are really cool and some of them can certainly make life easier (and I own a lot of them!), but that’s not the point.  The point is, they are not NECESSARY.  Your child (under neurotypical circumstances) will still learn to talk without you sitting down to do speech exercises with fancy flash cards every day. If that’s your thing and you both enjoy it, then by all means, keep it up!  But don’t think that you have to (in fact, that example brings up another philosophy that I ascribe to: Delayed Academics.  Research shows that it can detrimental to the developing brain to force complex thinking before a child is ready…and in my experience, they will let you know when they are ready!).  So, relax; enjoy watching your little flowers blossom.  Give them sun and water and let nature do the rest (metaphor there; children really actually need more than just sun and water!! ;)). But, my children are happy and healthy and creative, and we all celebrate their discoveries and milestones together, with equal delight, because we know that it happened naturally.  That is SUCH a magical feeling.  AND, Mama keeps just a little bit more of her sanity intact in the process.  Win-win!

Self-taught bike riders, here ages 6, 9, & 6
(Never mind those training wheels; they came off not long after this pic was taken, and she got the hang of it within 5 minutes just like her brothers did.)

Happy watching!

~ Michelle