Archive for the ‘Unschooling’ Category

Email: What other curricula did I use?

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

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).

Email: What to do with a struggling daughter


I get lots of questions about kids with learning disabilities and language processing disorders. While it’s important to get the right help for those neurological issues, you can do a lot to change the mood around learning by creating an entirely different context for education. In some cases, you’ll discover that what you thought was a learning disability was actually resistance to tedious, poorly executed lessons. You are key to creating a brand new, sparkling environment for learning. My answer to Lisa follows her note to me.

Hi Julie,

I came across your site through a home school message board. My daughter is in 7th grade and is new to homeschooling as of last month. She has some pretty significant learning issues with dyslexia and she literally can barely write a sentence. But… she has a very high IQ and is very creative and can learn very quickly when she wants to. On top of the learning issues she has a severe mood disorder and EXTREME anxiety. She is an absolute perfectionist with herself and this is one of her biggest obstacles. She absolutely hates reading and also refuses to use audio books. She was in private school K-4 and did ok. She transferred to a remedial school for 5th & 6th grade and this year we tried to go back to a small private school that offered support for learning issues. She had so much anxiety and went into a deep depression. As a result I decided to pull her out and try homeschooling. So… having said all this, I am struggling to find curriculum that she will enjoy and comply with. I had her journaling and doing some free style type writing but she is so hard on herself.

She cannot spell and gets so frustrated with herself. No level of support or love can help her get over this perfectionism in herself and it’s very crippling. I have spent a lot of time on your website and it looks really neat. The Arrow program looks good even though my daughter is a 7th grader since her reading level is low. I am just not sure if this program will work for her but I am very encouraged. Do you have any good results with kids with learning/mood disorders? I love the idea of the online class for the accountability but she would probably have a nervous breakdown worrying about the instructor and how “bad” she writes. Any advice you could offer would be appreciated. Thanks so much!!


Hi Lisa.

Your daughter needs some deschooling. No “school” for a little while. Give her trips to art museums, do craft projects, take up baking and sewing, sign her up for Taekwondo where she can learn to be tough and defend herself and show strength. (These are suggestions, obviously, not prescriptions.) The point, though, is that she is damaged from all the pressure of school. 7th grade is still young. Celebrate the joy of learning together. Watch “Downton Abbey” (the PBS show) and learn about war, and costumes of that era, and have tea, and discuss hierarchy and classes, and then watch everything Maggie Smith is in, and then discuss acting, and then try memorizing a speech together from a movie and acting it out.

Get OUT of the school mindset. Get into the learning one.

One of the best things I ever did with my kids was to learn about art history in front of them. I got books from the library, watched the “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting” videos (dark ages!) with my kids in the room. I dragged them with me to the art museum. I brought my own pencils and sketch book to draw what I saw and take notes. These kids became so interested in art, they’ve continued to love art museums and know famous painters and trivia about their lives.

The point is this: you have a bright, creative, energetic daughter who is damaged from school. Writing, as important as it is, must be moved away from school and back into a natural part of life. That comes from not requiring it and living it in front of her. But if she has nothing new to think about or consider, she will have nothing to write about.

Her perfectionism is her defense against judgment and failure. She’s trying really hard not to fail. So take away the “failure” by eliminating the need to perform… for a good long while.

Try poetry teatimes (these are low stress, HIGH results experiences). Go to a Shakespeare play; knit; read Harry Potter aloud; get out in nature and record the temperatures, the trees, the birds; visit the zoo; see movies in the middle of the day.

YOU read newspapers and non-fiction books about history and then talk freely about what you’re learning in her presence (not as a lecture, but in that “I was really struck by…” kind of way). Let her hear you learn. Take up some new pursuit yourself and see how you learn!

Write a Christmas letter together. Let her take the photos and lay it out and contribute her ideas. You write it. Mail it together. Have her address the envelopes (if she will). Let her type. Let her use spellcheck on the computer.


The Arrow is great, but it can feel like school to a girl like yours. So get it for you so you understand how to talk about literature naturally with her (let it teach you). Don’t force ANYTHING on her. You might even listen to a book on CD over lunches that YOU want to hear and if she listens, great. If not, that’s okay too. Get into learning and you’ll discover how to help her too.

Lastly, a cafe au lait at Barnes and Noble is a great way to shift gears. Take her OUT of the house, and share that things are changing at home, that her input matters, and that you want her to feel happy and successful and will take your cues from her… then invite her to tell you what she would LOVE to do all day long and then go DO IT!

Hope that helps!


Shared Homeschooling

Shared Homeschooling

Occasionally a mom will meet me and say she wishes she could have been a fly on the wall to observe my family when we were homeschooling. I wish it, too—not because I’m so certain that my homeschool experience would be ideal for her, but rather, I remember how helpful it was to me to live next door to a home educator I admired. Dotty Christensen and her three kids (and sweet husband) became that family for me—the unwitting tutors of how to live a life of learning as a family.

Dotty’s kids were a little older than mine. They homeschooled in an apartment in the opposing balcony to ours. I got to be a part of their daily life, and they a part of ours. I discovered what it felt like to let life unfold, to be proactive in activity (crafts, arts, baking, play, dress ups, face paints, reading aloud, beach trips to tide pools, nature hikes at local parks).

This particular friend was expert at creating
pleasing spaces for children.

She had a big table of art supplies (in her tiny apartment!) in the living room to be used at all times. She would move pillows from sofas to the floor, or out onto the balcony with red futons and cuddly blankets so a child could snuggle up and read or listen to a music tape. Library books went inside a milk crate and followed the pillows around. I remember one time, in a desperate attempt to make more space for her children, she converted her husband’s single outdoor parking space into a fort! Without any backyard, we were always scrambling for ways to create new places to stimulate imagination or to create personal coziness.

Trips to Farmer’s Market were bi-weekly, we took walks in an outdoor preserve where we observed spider webs, collected owl pellets for dissection, and gathered wild blackberries for pies. Library visits were weekly and overwhelming. I usually spent my library time following a toddler, pushing books back onto the shelves where they belonged as the human cannon ball banged his or her way through the stacks. In my case, it took a laundry basket to haul all our books to and from the library each week. It was a weekly treat to be able to turn my kids loose and say, “Get anything you want!” despite the challenge of corralling them into a cohesive group.

The daily nap, read aloud time, and history project became
the warp and woof of home education for us.

I watched my friend teach times tables tossing a Frisbee (passing it back and forth, calling out problems and answers). I remember how Dotty cut shapes out of brown paper and then we’d finger paint on them. We used Family Fun magazine as our main source of ideas for how to enhance our home experiences—so many great activities and creative projects!

Shared Homeschooling

Dotty and I made a huge solar system using our kids. We organized our children and those of other homeschooling friends on our cul-de-sac, using their human bodies as planets, spacing them apart in approximate distances (of course, we couldn’t put Pluto as proportionately far away as we wanted to or that child would  have been miles beyond our reach!). We celebrated that evening with a celestial teatime, complete with moon slices of apple and star cut-outs of cheese.

Another time, we made a pony express with bicycles, and another time still, we held a gold rush party with real sieving for fool’s gold.

Food became essential to happy home education—Japanese tea parties, picnics, muffins and pies from scratch, daily lunches that were the same beans and tortillas for years (cheap, predictable, and easy).

Hours of dress-up clothes and face paints turned any day into a party. Everyone learned to knit. Board games and cards, pipe cleaners and Play-doh, sidewalk chalk and jump ropes—these were used as frequently as they could be. We watched movies together and listened to books on tape.

Sure, we carefully selected a math curriculum and Xeroxed handwriting pages; I made a halfhearted attempt to teach grammar to my not-interested kids. We managed to get reading taught despite the angst that our kids would never learn (Dotty and I both had late readers and it helped knowing we were not alone in that).

We jettisoned various workbooks, tried others, and as it turned out, we each reinvented homeschooling every year. We weren’t identical in our choices, but we were sharing the experience and drafting off of each other’s successes. In those early years, what stands out to me now is that the family I hung around invested fully in living—

being together, creating warmth and affection,
humor and projects, outings and traditions.

We enjoyed the arts, nature, music, literature, play, and the company of each other’s family in this unique journey. The dads were friends and we often took family trips on weekends to the beach or shared a meal on a week night. It helped that we lived on the same street for five years!

Shared Homeschooling

There were days of exhaustion, times when my kids were bored, frustrated, and whiny. Some days I wondered if we were making any progress. Pregnancies slowed me down, naturally. Dotty’s kids were older so they didn’t always have the same needs as my younger ones. We had to find a rhythm in our relationship as surely as in our homeschools. Yet as I look back, those were sparkling years. We had the energy of “new-to-homeschooling,” we didn’t have the Internet to tell us that we were doing it right or wrong. No one yelled at me or suggested I was somehow “not a real (fill in the blank – unschooler, Charlotte Mason-ite, Konos-user, classical educator).” Dotty and I had each other, we had our kids, we had sunshine (it was California, after all), we had a few good books about learning and children, and we had the daily joys and struggles. Those struggles were ordinary passages in life, actually—not a failure to master some “gold standard” of “the right kind of home education.”

My primary discovery in my relationship with Dotty was that homeschool is a LIFE lived—richly, fully, with crafts, activities, face paint, the arts, books, and lots of cozy eating times with the people you love.

I will write about the hard parts another time. They are real, too. For now, though, I wanted to cast a little vision for

the joy of shared schooling—knowing that you have a friend in the trenches,
scratch that—in the SANDBOX of home education.

That’s a far better way to grow as a homeschooler than trying to go it alone or follow scrupulously a specific educational model. Trial and error, with lots of forgiveness toward yourself, and a willingness to enjoy your kids NOW, is key. Don’t wait until later when they’re “better human beings.” They’re great human beings already, in this stage of development, just as they are.

So if you feel a little at sea or emotionally spent, get a partner. Find that someone who helps you be your best homeschooling self. It does help. And remember:

Right now, you choose your memories.
Later, your memories choose you.

Be deliberate. Create good ones. Your children will thank you, and you’ll be able to reminisce fondly when the day comes that it’s all finished.

The Homeschool Alliance

Images by AForestFrolic (cc cropped, tinted, text added)

Unschooling, World War 1, and Family Learning

Caitrin (14) and I watched “Letters from Iwo Jima” two nights ago. She’s become a mini expert on the two world wars (preferring World War I, however, because so few people understand it). As I listened to her cite facts and interpret data, I was in awe of how much information she retained from her history class this year in public school. She was a sponge, soaking in details, rearranging them to have meaning in her own mind.

I heard from Jacob (19) over the weekend. He wanted me to read his final paper for a class on globalization. He wrote about a documentary I had recommended he watch. His dad and I each took a look at the paper for edits, but mostly Jacob and I discussed the content. It was thrilling to see him engage ideas I had merely introduced to him. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of three of his college papers this year: built on suggestions I made, then followed up with lengthy discussions of content where I became the student and he, the expert.

Johannah (21) emailed poems to me that she wrote in her poetry class so I could see where they came from (her rich experiences as a child). She had told me on the phone that she found herself using freewriting as her chief way to access the symbols and images behind her meanings. We had a good laugh about that.

It was one of those “pay day” weekends where I could see the fruit of deposits we’d made for years with our kids. I discussed some of this with the precocious Caitrin who summed it up so well:

“Mom, that’s what unschooling does to you. You spend your time being told that your life is your teacher. But you don’t know how to measure it. So you have to keep learning all the time to prove to yourself that you are learning. Unschooling is just your life, so learning is constant.

I wonder if that feeling produces any level of neuorses. I think it might. I do have some thoughts about unschooling that are not all positive and rosy. Measurement matters to kids; knowing they have “completed” something is a good feeling. On the other hand, it is nice to discover that for my least “schooled” child, she’s also the one reading all the AP English novels now, a full year before she takes the class, just because “they look good.” All my kids see every subject as open to them. Nothing off limits. In that way, the less structured version of school seems to have created this thirst for learning that is paying off well now that they are in structured school systems (high school and college).

They honestly believe that being able to know things and express them to others means they are growing as people and are interesting to friends, family and new acquaintances. That’s how they measure who they are: by what they know and are learning.

What I’ve noticed is that we have a family habit of sharing what we learn with each other. There’s this flow between members—sharing books, vocabulary, math equations (yes, even math now!), poems, ideas, suggestions, insights, philosophies, websites, personal writing and more. Everyone expects everyone else to be learning and that they will be able to educate each other. They like being both resource and audience.

It’s wild! So nice to be on this end of things. It’s worth it. Keep going!

Well, just had to share that today. It got much longer than I meant it too. How’s it going out where you are? Summer is here in the northern hemisphere. Do you have plans?