Archive for the ‘Unschooling’ Category

Love who you are

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Love who you are

Have you noticed how easy it is to wish away your chief personality features? Do you think to yourself, “I’m the wrong personality for my temperament”? You might wish for a clean, orderly home in your heart, but your personality style is relaxed Bohemian. Or you are the sort who keeps a ship-shape house, but wish you could relax when your kids make big creative messes.

Layered on top of the structured versus unstructured selves we bring to homeschool are our memories of school. We compare what we do at home (even when we don’t want to) to what we experienced as children. We react against it (“I’m not doing that!) or we we suffer because of it (“I’m not teaching my kids anything”).

The temptation to overhaul our essential selves is powerful. Advertising everywhere tells us we are one tweak away from being the fantasy person in our heads. We may be able to resist Botox or Coach purses, but the seductress for home educators is any “method” that results in effortless, joyful learning where parents and kids get along all the time.

We hop from one program to the next like frogs on lily pads forgetting to consider which personality is implementing the philosophy!

Let me let you in on a little secret.

There’s no one personality type that is better for homeschooling than another.

Let me drill down further.

There’s no one personality type that is better for parenting, loving, nurturing than another.

Every type has its marvelous strengths, and (darn it all) each type has its blind spots and liabilities.

What you and I need to do is to become self aware people—able to recognize when our personalities are creating the hum of happiness and productivity, and when they are sapping the energy from the room and causing pain.

It isn’t always better to have a messy or a neat house.

Sometimes waking up to a clear kitchen table, fluffed pillows, books easy to access, and a freshly vacuumed carpet is the most nurturing way to start the day. If, however, the process of getting there ended an art project or removed a Robin Hood fort still lingering in the minds of your kids as they went to bed, the same cleared space in the morning may now feel like robbery:

“Where did you put my art project?”

“Do I really have to get out all the blankets again for my fort?”

The question to ask yourself as you move through the day isn’t “How can I be more relaxed?” or “How can I be more productive?”

You want to ask yourself a single question:

“How can I best serve this moment?”

I remember when I went to graduate school, I had just begun our unschooling experiment. It was a study in contrasts. I was being educated by highly trained academics with lectures, a syllabus, reading schedule, essay assignments, and tests. My kids were free to explore the world without any hindrance.

Or so I thought.

Love who you are

What became apparent to me after a semester surprised me. I loved graduate school. It felt nurturing to have someone care enough to create lessons, to show me what I should read to get a full view of the subject, to dialog with me from a position of investment and knowledge. I liked having a plan and a schedule. I felt relief. I had studied the subject area for five years on my own, and now I felt this surge of strength that came from guidance and support.

Meanwhile, the structures I had used in homeschool were on hold. I wanted my kids to feel free to learn what they wanted, to investigate any topic to their hearts’ content. A couple of them took off! But two floundered. They felt (strangely enough) unloved. They wouldn’t have used that language but in hindsight that’s what it was. They felt connected to me when I took the time to plan their lessons and guide their education. They lost that connection when I gave them “freedom.”

I spent hours on unschooling lists learning how to create the context, how to support an unschooling lifestyle, how to foster and nurture a rich learning environment. I didn’t “abandon” my kids to doing whatever they wanted unsupervised. Nevertheless, two of my children missed planned lessons and a structure for learning. I understood this because I was having a parallel experience in grad school.

What becomes so difficult to tease apart as a home educator is the idealized vision of learning that dances in our heads like sugar plums and the very real home and family we have. Our job isn’t to be more organized or more relaxed, more structured or completely free of structure.

Our job is to serve the moment—to serve the needs of our families from within the framework of our delightful personalities.

We can do that best when we lean into our strengths.

If you’re an orderly person, create happy order. Avoid the temptation to require everyone to be like you. Resist your tendency to nag or to have your feelings hurt when the rest of your gang is unenthusiastic for kitchen duty or keeping tables cleared. Straighten, file, assemble check lists, keep the sink empty, make the beds, plan the day. Enthusiastically offer your talent for creating a clean, peaceful, orderly, neat space to the family as a gift.

If you’re a relaxed, go-with-the-flow mom, stop pummeling your personality. Your home is cozy, it’s alive with activity, and it supports messes without stress. Keep big containers nearby for quick clean-ups, make a loose routine to follow each day (rather than a schedule), allow your kids who need order to create systems to support you and the family. Smile.

Do not worry that you aren’t getting enough done in either system or style. Focus on this moment. What is happening right now? How can I help it become a good moment? Shall I ease up and let the mess grow? Shall I hunker down and clear the space so something new can be born? Are we getting along and growing?

Above all: no system saves you. You will eventually go back to being who you are. Your job is to be the best you, you can be. Be the you that creates love and learning, not the you that worries and frets or ignores and pretends away.

You can even say to your kids in a moment of frazzledness:

“You know me! I need everything cleaned up before I can think straight. Anyone willing to help me so we get the day off to a good start? My brain is about to fall out of my head when I see shoes scattered everywhere. Cookies to the helpers!”


“You know me! I can’t put a week-long system together for the life of me. Let’s make a quick list for today of things we want to study and do, and then put them in an order. Who wants to make the list with me? If today feels good, we can do it again tomorrow. Let’s eat cookies while we discuss.”

See? The goal isn’t to “reform” who you are and how you are. The goal is to be the best of yourself that you can be, acknowledging that within your strengths and weaknesses is a real human being doing the best she can. Your kids want to help you and they want to be themselves too.

They’ll learn to love who they are in direct proportion

to how well you love who you are.

Go forth and love yourself.

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This is how it is for most of us. Embrace it!

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Our homeschooling year

“But I’m bored!”

Monday, March 25th, 2013

What to do when your child is bored

There’s a difference between boredom, and the quiet space and time that lead to new activity.

Children are without resources. They come into the world wholly dependent on you to show them the way, to provide for them, to create their environment.

When a child complains, “I’m bored,” it usually means that the current environment appears flat. They can’t see the possibilities any more. They’re used to the furniture, the materials, the toys, the games, the places these are housed. Routine and predictability are good for a smoothly flowing life, but they can be the enemy of creativity.

Rather than abandoning your child to his or her boredom, help your child to reinterpret the space. You don’t need to make suggestions (bored kids are notorious for shooting down each one as tedious, too difficult, not interesting). The suggestions feel coercive to the bored person, and not like they will create the relief being sought.

Rather, boredom can foster creativity if the parent wisely redirects the child into reflection combined with seeing the old with new eyes. Rather than saying, “Go play with your Legos,” you might say, “I wonder how else Legos can be used besides for building things…”

You might offer, “I bet if you hid behind the couch for 15 minutes with your flashlight, you might get some new ideas.”

Sometimes feeding your child helps. You could say, “While you figure out what to do next, have some crackers and cheese.”

You could turn your child loose with a new, more advanced tool.

“Take pictures with my camera while you figure out what you want to do.”

“What if you put on make up to look like (favorite character right now) while you think about what to do next? Use my kit upstairs.”

“If you want to use the mixer (or any appliance) for a new project, let me know and I’ll show you how it’s operated.”

“I find drawing helps me think of things to do. Do you want to borrow my ‘special Mommy markers’ for added magic?”

You can share methods that have helped you conquer your boredom:

“Maybe you will find something to do by clicking around the Internet for 15 minutes.”

“When I get bored, I page through magazines, walk around the block, read a chapter from a book, drink tea, go exercise… Any of those sound good to you?”

And you can do things silently:

  • Put a new hat or scarf on top of the dress-up clothes and move the basket to the middle of the room.
  • Arrange the library books on a coffee table in a stack.
  • Add brand new drawing utensils or decks of cards to the game drawer.
  • Bring the sheets and blankets downstairs out of the linen closet and tell your kids they can use them any way they want.
  • Put the microscope on the table when it’s not scheduled for use.

Your role in facilitating creativity is to help foster an environment that awakens curiosity to explore a new function or new pursuit, that relieves the mundane from its tedium, and that leads to new uses of old things. Your job isn’t to solve the boredom with a scripted activity.

If after giving your kids these incentives, they continue to look bored, just know that this is the quiet, evolving space that leads to a new idea. You can offer comfort for the process:

“I bet it’s frustrating when nothing interests you… no matter what! I hope it doesn’t last long. Let me know if you need something from me.”

Then move on.

It won’t be too long before the new interest arises.

Your role in facilitating creativity

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Email: What other curricula did I use?

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Hi Julie,

Thanks to The Writer’s Jungle, I can now relax and teach writing in a more natural and fun way. Your blog has helped inspire our homeschooling and remind us of what really matters. I like your homeschool style and wonder if I could get your recommendations on any particular materials that you used over the years that you found to be valuable.


I get the idea that you are probably not the type to use a curriculum – but thought I would ask anyway. I’m sort of a curriculum junkie. I have two daughters, 12 and 10.

For the moment we are using the follow…..

  • Math-U-See
  • Singapore Math
  • Apologia Science
  • History Odyssey
  • Writer’s Jungle and The Arrow
  • Worldly Wise

I’ve wasted a lot of money on plenty of other resources.

Thanks so much,



Hi Susie!

I certainly did use a variety of curricula over the years. Some of it I regret (and cringe to think about now). Some of it I loved and would use again. And then for a period of some years, we unschooled (though the definition of that word varies group to group, but from my perspective, that is who we were).

Some of my favorite resources follow, as well as how I “solved” some of the needs we had where I didn’t purchase curricula. I have omitted choices I regretted.


  • Miquon Math (For elementary school; combined with Cuisinaire rods—I literally didn’t understand multiplication until these books)
  • Family Math (I loved this book – we did everything in it)
  • Math-It (A game to learn multiplication tables quickly)
  • Keys to… (Fractions, Decimals, Percents)
  • Murderous Maths (Hands-down the most fun we’ve ever had with math; lots of volumes)
  • The I Hate Mathematics Book and Math for Smarty Pants by the Brown Paper School company
  • Saxon Math for Algebra and Geometry
  • Tutoring for math in exchange for writing help between homeschool families
  • Paid tutoring for high school math
  • Parttime enrollment at the local high school


  • Sonlight (back when the Instructor’s Guides weren’t so enormous)
  • Well Trained Mind for a reading list, and Story of the World books
  • Personal rabbit trails and my own interests
  • (My regrets are in this category more than any other so the list appears to be short.)


  • Charter member of HENSE (Home Educators Neglecting Science Education)
  • Kitchen chemistry experiments from books
  • Ring of Fire Rock Study Kits (These are fabulous!!)
  • DK books
  • A telescope
  • Nature journaling 
  • Bird study through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, including their BIG book and course.
  • Biology through our co-op
  • Chemistry through the local high school

Language arts:



  • Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (Oh My Goddess!! I just googled and all of her “videos” are now online for free. Just the music alone sent me wheeling with memories and happiness. Don’t miss these.)
  • Linnea and Monet’s Garden (Then look at the recommended books and you will see all the others we read and enjoyed!)
  • Any museum in driving distance, regularly visited. Bought the books in the museum shop to review at home.

We also had fun with Ancient Greek, Rosetta Stone Chinese (didn’t get far in it, but it was fun to wet our feet), and Power Glide for French. Still, in the end, it was much easier for my kids to learn foreign languages in school (they attended the local high school for language learning, all except Noah who studied Klingon on his own <g>).

Hope that helps! Would love to hear about other favorite resources in the comments below.

3 Spectacular Strategies for Success

Monday, February 18th, 2013

The expression, “Go big or go home!” might apply here (though for our purposes, “Go big AT home” would be more appropriate). However, one of the 3 Spectacular Strategies is about going really really small, as in tiny, as in minisculilio (perhaps the reframe might be: “Go so small it’s like this HUGE commitment to staying in the confines of ‘going really really tiny’—maybe like “Going Big INTO Small!”).

Let me set the context. Sometimes we homeschooling parents assemble all these Reasonable Goals for the school year. We believe in plodding along, managing our children’s progress, assessing their growth and making incremental, prudent adjustments. We divvy up the workbook into its perfectly apportioned pages-to-be-done-each-day for the 180 day school year and then, carefully, carry out the plan one-painstaking-day-at-a-time, requiring compliance from the students (our beloved cherubs), at times deviating from the Sacred Plan into a Cul-de-sac of Guilt when we unwillingly take a day off…

Then we ramp up the familiar and try again. And again. And… a… gain.

Then we hit the wall of resistance, or poor performance, or tedium, and we wonder how we can get back on track.

Sound familiar? Sound exhausting? Sound crazy-making?

Break the cycle.

Ditch the plan… for these 3 strategies.

1. Go BIG!!

You want to study the Gold Rush? BUILD your own gold mining sluice from scratch for the next week. Or next two weeks. Get the wood, find a design, order some fool’s gold from an online store, grab a hammer and nails, saw and saw horses, and put the thing together. For the whole two weeks. No grammar lessons. No math pages. No phonics. Just pure bigtime indulgence throwing educational caution (and the nagging voice of the Ghost-of-Public-School-Past) to the wind!

Don’t worry if you fail at sluice-building (half the time you go big, you will). So much learning happens in the process of a failed sluice project! You can always shift gears and bury the fool’s gold in your sandbox. Add water and use pie tins to swish the gold into view.

Invite friends to help find gold. Sing “O Susanna.” Eat sugared beans with hot dogs. Make sarsaparilla from scratch. Wear Levi’s and flannel shirts. Pin the gold nugget on a map of Sutter’s Creek!

Ditch the plodding text book study. Stop the labor of daily grind learning. Instead when you come across a worthy topic, Go Big!

Other examples of Going Big (all at once, all hands on deck, all in, no other competing subjects):

  • Colonial Times: Dye fabric with beets, onion skins, and paprika. Dip candles. Make cardboard stocks and pose in them. Sing “Yankee Doodle.” Assemble colored paper flags and stick a circle of silver or white stars to represent the colonies on the flag. Write letters on parchment with fountain pens and seal them with sealing wax.

  • Birds: Observe them. Get a field guide and binoculars; identify them. Go to places where birds are (nature centers, woods, beaches, the zoo). Take a birding walk with a local birding group. Name the birds that come to your backyard. Feed them. Draw them. Photograph them. Get a raw chicken and observe and name all the parts as you manipulate the body. Identify where the feathers attached themselves. Show the innards. Discuss. Dissect an owl pellet. Collect feathers. Watch Youtube videos of eggs hatching. Watch “Winged Migration” (the film).

  • Cursive handwriting: Make a bug using your cursive handwriting. Take a white sheet of paper, fold it lengthwise in half, turn it sideways so the middle of the page is the line you write on. Handwrite (in soft pencil led) your first name (use italics for letters that ordinarily go below the line in cursive). Fold the page back together and rub until the mirror impression shows on the flip side. Open the page. Trace over the mirrored impression of the name so it stands out. Color the “name” to look like a bug! Try other words and make more bugs. Cut them out and mount them on the kitchen windows. (See photos for the process.)


2. Go Really Really Small

The temptation is to do more, better, and different all the time. But what if you flip the script? Choose deliberately to do only one tiny part of the lesson today. Call this event: “The Mini Lesson.” It could become a “thing” you go to when kids are exhausted and you need to change the tone of the home. You might yell: “Time for a Mini Lesson!”

For instance, what if you choose to require the barest minimum-est amount of the required “thing”? What if you told your kids:

“You only have to do one math problem today, but I want to see you get the right answer. You can spend as much or as little time as you need. Just be sure you get the answer right. If you do, there’s a surprise for you. Yes, you can ask me for help or to check as you go and I’ll hint at the errors for you to fix.”

Then offer your child one problem that uses the math concepts you want to emphasize. For instance, if you are working with addition and subtraction, create a problem that uses both: (7+6) — (5+1) = ? You can certainly make the problem more or less complex depending on the skill you want to teach. It might be a perfect time to do ONE word problem.

Create a meaningful really little reward:

    a pack of gum,
    a tin of mints,
    a row of stickers,
    a rub-on tattoo,
    a new pencil,
    lip balm,
    two cookies,
    a bouncy ball,
    a mini Slinky.

Naturally, you can use the same really really small lesson with handwriting: One letter, one time (perfect, beautiful, clear, proportioned, accurate). Or one word, or one sentence. Give full attention to perfectly shaped letters. Expect accurate copying, correct letter-to-letter correspondence. Keep the selection short. Admire it when it’s complete.

Apply the really really small lesson to a household practice:
Set the timer for one minute. Pick up toys on the floor for a single minute, in a race, to get as many off the ground as possible. Do it twice that day… Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. You can yell “Ready set go!” and “Ding! You’re done.” Make it a community challenge: “If the whole floor gets cleared, we all get gum!”

A really really small lesson can be a single sentence that needs editing (a mini mini version of the Reverse Dictation practice in the Arrow, Boomerang, and The Writer’s Jungle).

A really really small lesson could be one logic puzzle, or one fact memorized, or one page of a book read aloud. Pick the item you are worried about, pick one short requirement, and use this mini lesson format to give it square, deep, brief attention.

3. Collaborate

Why go it alone? Put your kids together in pairs. Have the older teach the younger. Capitalize on the elder children’s maturity and advanced skills. The principle that applies: “You learn more when you teach!”

If one child needs to drill multiplication tables, send the one who knows them outdoors with the one learning them. Give them a frisbee and tell the older one to call out “3 times 4,” and the other will toss it back: 12!

Have a younger child read aloud to an older child as she learns to read.

Ask a younger and older child to bake together. Empower an older sibling to teach a younger sibling to:

    use the washing machine,
    tie shoes,
    tell time,
    find the main idea in a paragraph,
    identify the hero and the villain in a movie,
    put together a puzzle,
    work a page of sentences in Winston Grammar,
    create a list of homonyms,
    memorize a nursery rhyme or small poem…

The point is—have your kids do stuff together, with the bigger kids in the role of teacher or leader.

As a collaborating family, you can create a slew of ideas together to make history come to life, for example. Each child contributes an idea and then you all do them as a family, one at a time, until they are completed. For instance, if you study a country like Japan, you might have several ideas created by the kids:

  • Craft tissue paper cherry blossoms
  • Make a felt Japanese flag
  • Eat tempura with chopsticks
  • Sit on the floor with cushions to eat the meal at a coffee table
  • Draw a map of Japan
  • Learn Japanese greetings, including how to bow
  • Watch anime!
  • Perform a Japanese tea ceremony

Not all ideas have to come from you! On the contrary, kids love knowing that they made a meaningful contribution to the project. Don’t rule out the weird ideas—”I want to see a Komodo Dragon!” Find out where one lives (at a zoo?) and go to it. Or at the least, find a documentary to watch together to learn about the creature. Giving each person something to contribute helps the whole team to feel invested. Learning will happen for each person in a grade appropriate way, according to their skills. That’s what you want!

Lastly, you can add families to your projects any time you feel lonely. Two families creating a henna party to celebrate “1001 Arabian Nights” is much more fun than one! Studying tide pools with your best friends at the beach for a picnic is better than going alone. You get the idea.

To review:
Go Big!
Go really really small…

Tell me how it goes (or has gone, if you already live this way).