Learning through Unschooling

Photograph by Flo Paris OakesOur daughter’s first day of school was not at a school at all. It was in our own dining room. Although, from the looks of things — the chalkboard, the tiny school desk, the heaps of books, and the lesson plans (dear Lord, the lesson plans) — we were running our own little school right at home. 

I was smug and I was naïve. Mom-turned-teacher. I knew that my kindergartener was capable of mastering 1st grade math, I knew that she would love and memorize ancient Greek history, and I knew that she would shine as the youngest reader of Shakespeare . . . just as soon as she learned to read. 

Our days were strictly planned and the learning was rigorous. My five-year-old could diagram a sentence like nobody’s business. Math was a struggle, but that may have had more to do with the fact that she was only in kindergarten, and we were spending an hour a day on each lesson. Nevertheless, I couldn’t figure out what to cut out to make the lessons shorter. This was the curriculum, after all. 

As the material became more difficult, the “math hour” turned into half of the day. I couldn’t figure out why my daughter was suddenly zoning out at her desk. I thought of all of the unit studies I had carefully planned: We will study the Renaissance! While learning about Italian art! While cooking Italian food! No amount of obsessive curriculum research could have prepared me for my daughter’s lack of interest in nearly everything I found interesting. 

I started to burn out around Christmas, and by March, I had basically called it a year. We closed our books and bought school uniforms for the fall. I had set out to prove ourselves, one Latin root word at a time, and in the end, I felt that my failure rivaled any Greek tragedy, none of which we had covered that year. 

* * *

After more than five years as a stay-at-home mom, I finally had the break I had always fantasized about. When my younger daughter began kindergarten, I even went back to school myself to pursue a dream degree in English.

The girls excelled in public school…until our oldest hit 3rd grade. And homework. And state testing. And anxiety-laden nights that sent us all to bed with stomachaches. This is not everyone’s experience, but it was ours, and it was awful.

Despite her weeping, “I miss homeschool!” I thought she just needed some life skills to help her suck it up and stay the traditional course. Lord knows I will not homeschool again. It took a counselor’s advice that we “might consider homeschooling” to move me beyond my own homeschool PTSD. 

Then, I prayed about it.

This is pretty much the worst thing you can do if you are weighing two options and one of them is, let’s just say, unsavory. It reminds me of the old cliché about wives asking for clothing opinions. Does this dress make my hips look wide? We all know there is really only one answer. If you are bold enough to ask God if you should do a thing that you don’t want to do, then don’t sob in a corner when He sends you on up that steep road. Or do. 

There I was, approaching my third year of undergrad, Googling “homeschooling while going to college,” and sobbing in the corner. 

Between my reluctant request to God and the beginning of our school year, something significant happened: A full-ride scholarship I had been counting on fell through, which made full-time school as a traditional student impossible for me. However, I could enroll in the Adult Degree program for half the cost. My entire schedule changed. I would not be at school every day; in fact, I could complete most of my classes online, at home. Good one, God. 

With one major obstacle removed, I felt more open to homeschooling as a viable option. I revisited all of the homeschool methods I knew about. If you have ever dared to peek into the homeschooling world, you know that there is more to it than flowing hair and floor-length denim. When I initially homeschooled I researched all of it: Classical Conversations, Charlotte Mason, K–12, Montessori, Waldorf, Unit Studies, and tutorials. 

The one method I had not considered was unschooling. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling that facilitates learning through life engagement. It is child-led and it generally unstructured. Parents are encouraged to follow the child’s curiosity and to allow them to study what they are interested in. I was curious, but remained skeptical. No lesson plans? No curriculum? No grades? It sounded a little too easy. A little bit irresponsible. And . . . amazing. Especially when remembering my poor daughter zoned out in the dining room or struck with panic attacks during the night. 

180 days. Four hours of instructional time per day. These are the only requirements dictated by the state of Tennessee. I was free to use curriculum or not to use curriculum. I could test or not. Unschooling appealed to me because it felt more sustainable; without a rigid plan I would be less likely to burn out. Even if it didn’t work, one year of unschooling wouldn’t kill us. And maybe it would be exactly what we needed to recalibrate and de-stress.

* * *

It was the evening before our (Second) First Day of Homeschool. I made sure I had all of my own homework done and set aside. I straightened the tablecloth. Other than that, there was not much to prepare. No little desk, no math book to lay out, and the chalkboard was no longer taking up space in my dining room. 

At about 10:00 that night, I remembered that other homeschool moms made cute signs to mark the occasion. I grabbed a sheet of construction paper and scribbled out “First Day of School” with the date.

The girls woke up thrilled to start the day at home together. After I had enthusiastically posted this picture on several social media outlets, Sera looked quizzically at the date I had written and asked, “Isn’t it actually September 4th?” Yes, yes it was. And so marked the first day of our unschooling journey. Without a lesson plan. 

We spent 180 days learning whatever the girls wanted to learn. One of our first field trips was to the local Shakespeare festival (showcasing A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which prompted a full unit study on Shakespeare and his plays, the Globe Theater, and British geography. When the girls asked to learn more, we found library books and even performed a few (very silly) plays of our own.

We read the book Little Women together, which piqued the girls’ interest in the Civil War. So we watched documentaries and took field trips to state parks and Civil War battlefields. Any road trip became an opportunity to stop at a historic site and do a little bit of exploring. 

Much of our science came through hands-on experience as the girls helped my husband work the little bit of ground available to us in our suburban neighborhood. We planted rain gardens with our neighbors and volunteered with Nashville A Rocha, a local Christian conservation organization. 

Our younger daughter, who naturally loves math and worksheets, busied herself with workbooks that I kept on our homeschool shelf. Our older daughter, who had struggled with math both at home and in school, found inspiration through baking. She calculated fractions as she measured and poured. She also has food allergies, but by the end of the year, she was baking cupcakes and cookies with complicated substitutions and gluten-free flours. 

We read more books than I could track, took field trips every week, and ate lunch on a blanket in the front yard when the weather was nice. We sewed and painted together; the girls wrote for the local homeschool paper, took a few fun classes at a tutorial, and still had time for extracurricular activities like swimming and ballet, without feeling overscheduled or exhausted.

They “unschooled,” but they actually learned. Correction: we unschooled, and we all learned together. More importantly, without the curriculum, tests, and hectic schedules, they went to bed without anxiety, stomachaches, and stress. They didn’t zone out (they were climbing in the front yard tree far too often for that). They fought less, and we bonded as a family. These were not the sorts of educational goals or unit studies I would have planned. But these were the essential things, the life-giving things. Rest, patience, morning breakfasts, afternoon thunderstorms, homework-free evenings, and open doors whenever my girls needed to talk. 

This does not mean it wasn’t difficult at times. This also does not prove that one must unschool or even homeschool to achieve these goals. This is what it took for our family to slow down, to reconnect, and to love to learn again. 

When I cleaned out my office desk at the end of that unschool year, I found the planner I had bought at the beginning of the year to lay out ideas. It was completely empty. But the journal I had written in each day? There was life in all of its pages. 

At the beginning of this school year I asked my girls what their goals for the year were (I admit, it’s still part of my stubborn nature to want to plan ahead). My oldest wants to bake a 3-layer cake. But her sister doesn’t know what she wants to accomplish, and neither do I. Sometimes you have to wait until the journal is filled to look back and see the plan. 

Flo Paris Oakes is a musician and a writer whose passions include good food (both eating and making), literature, creation care, and especially the convergence of all three. Flo is currently studying English and Sustainability at Lipscomb University and is also busy writing and recording songs for children with Rain for Roots. Flo chronicled her unschooling journey on her blog 180 Days

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