Back to Basics

We've been Cyber schooling. It's all the rage now. The school district provides you with all the books, supplies, a laptop, and printer and anything else you'll need to replicate the public school classroom in the home. It's school at home. A totally different thing from homeschooling.

We started homeschooling as unschoolers. Our days were spent drawing in the park, hanging out at the library, budgeting for groceries, cooking, doing chores, playing games, building Legos, and generally learning naturally from real life. You know, like humans should do.

I'm not sure if it was the restlessness of traveling or lack of motivation or both, but over time, the boy's taste for this type of learning started to fade, as did my enthusiasm for introducing them to new things. By 2012, we'd fallen into a very bad cycle. I would assign worksheets, reading material, math lessons, and so on, and they would slog through them, unhappy with me, learning, and life in general. Rich is especially resistant to this type of "learning" because he leans so much more naturally when doing things with his hands. He's become quite the writer and blogger himself and is still honing his skills, but he'd rather be taking apart a hard drive or building a game from scratch. Brennan is much the same, though more content to do traditional schoolwork.

Either way, not the dynamic we were hoping for. I openly admit that my health greatly affects the learning environment because there are days where I don't feel like interacting much at all, much less doing fun, creative things. But it had gotten to a point where trying to drag the kids away from their laptops to do anything "normal" like cooking, or building a model, or painting was like pulling teeth, and even worse if it involved writing or math. Restricting computer time worked to a point, but I was having a lot of bad days last spring, we were busy trying to plan a move from MA to PA, and they didn't have much of a social life at all except for hooking up with friends online.

We started cyber school in September in an attempt to give them contrast. We wanted them to see what the average public school student had to do each week, and boy did they get a taste. 6-7 hours of book work every day, followed by 1-2 hours of homework. It. Is. Miserable. Especially when my idea of homeschooling is at the other end of this spectrum - copious amounts of free time, pursuing your own interests, spontaneous learning by being involved in real life. Buy I think cyber has accomplished what we'd hoped. It has given them contrast. It has taken me out of the role of dictator, teacher, and authoritarian as it relates to learning. As the boys have observed unschooled friends doing what we used to, they are seeing things a little differently. I don't know how long it will last.

They finish up their cyber semester this week. From there, we'll put together some reading lists, goal charts, and I will engage them in purposeful activities - watching documentaries, volunteer work, cooking, community events, strategy games, real world math...there are so many ways to learn without being slave to a curriculum. I want them to experience that again. Maybe they were too young to appreciate it the first time around. Maybe I was too heavy handed trying to make it work. But I think they're willing to give it a shot again, and with their friends influence, and me having learned a few lessons myself over these past few years, I hope it will be successful.

We finished out experiment with Cyber school in early January to return to our original plan; a mix of un-schooling and structured learning. There's tons of info about un-schooling on the web, so I won't rehash it here. One friend mistakenly called it "unlearning" a few weeks back. It is, of course, the opposite of that. It's adopting the mentality that learning happens all the time, whether invited or not. Our job is simply to notice it when it happens, expand on it when needed, and create opportunities for it as often as possible. There's the idea floating around out there that un-schooling equates to letting the kids do whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long at they want, a phenomenon that our friend Mark calls "un-parenting." Obviously not what's happening here, though we try to pay a great deal of attention to natural interest and let the kids invest in those.

Part of our return to this involves more reading time, individually and as a family. After some deliberation over what we felt were "important" books, poems, and documents (you can pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead hands) and some help from The Well Trained Mind and A Thomas Jefferson Education, we compiled a reading list for the boys and for ourselves. Additionally, Christie and I are discussing working through some classic books that we've missed along the way.

We've always read a lot but never methodically, and we enjoy the idea of having a goal for this. Of course, we all four have books we're reading that aren't on the list, but we're spending about an hour a day reading and writing about a classic book on our list. We started with The Emperor's New Clothes, and just finished Tom Sawyer. The boys have both written reviews for Tom on their blogs: Rich's is HERE, and Brennan's is HERE. We're going to read The Declaration of Independence next, followed by A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh series. I'm especially looking forward to The Count of Monte Cristo and some of the Verne and Dickinson books on the list.

We've had some great discussions with the boys as we've read; it becomes a bit of a reference point for us throughout the week. And there's something about sitting in a room together, experiencing the same story. Since Christie's been off work from gallbladder surgery, we've had a lot of time to watch movies, work puzzles, cook, play games, work on projects around the house, and enjoy being together. It's going to be weird when she starts working again at the end of the week.