Are we unschoolers?

When I started homeschooling twelve years ago, I knew I didn’t want our at-home learning to look like traditional school, but what I thought of as so radical at first was really stepping tentatively just outside the box. Kathryn was just five and we’d both been part of a busy preschool the year before, where I taught and she attended.

Our homeschooling days were delightful. We had snacks when we felt like it, snuggled on the couch when we did read-alouds, sometimes wore pajamas all day. We set aside our schedule to go for walks on cool fall days, or to meet friends at the playground. We did nature studies, and she learned to crochet. It was nothing like school, but it was structured. We loosely followed Ambleside Online’s schedule and happily declared ourselves Charlotte Mason homeschoolers.

making a nature list
making a nature list, back in our early homeschool days

As I got my groove — that took time since I was learning, too — we became more relaxed in homeschooling. I gave myself permission NOT to do readings from that one book we both found painfully boring. I realized I didn’t have to make her do every single math problem on every single workbook page. Now I proudly declared us relaxed eclectic CM-influenced homeschoolers.

We’ve always enjoyed our homeschooling lifestyle, but over the years, my philosophy has changed.

When Lindsey entered the picture, what we were doing didn’t work for her. We tried homeschooling, we tried a hybrid part-time school, and we tried public school. I was frustrated, but it wasn’t homeschooling that failed her; it was her earlier years lost in the public school system that obviously couldn’t fix what was happening in her life outside of school. These years with her made me rethink everything I believed about education. Reading John Holt’s books helped me feel more comfortable moving towards interest-led learning.

homeschooling tablework
Lindsey and Kathryn homeschooling: 2012

In the middle of my seventh year as a homeschooling mom, two more small people joined the fray. Scout was in public kindergarten that year, required until our adoption was finalized. Although her teachers and the school were wonderful, it was clear that coming to a new family AND a new school at the same time was too much for her and made adjustment much harder. That was a crazy-hard year for our family: my dad died, two traumatized young children moved in, Lindsey abruptly left, and all these things left an ugly fall-out.

I muddled through the next year, but when the dust finally settled, my homeschooling philosophy evolved again. We needed to get back to a love of learning. I was inspired by the idea of “leadership education” and read all I could about it. I began to realize that pursuing my own interests and education were just as important as what I did with the kids because I was setting an example that learning is for a lifetime.

creative nature fun
a little creative nature fun: 2014

All of this led me towards more of an unschooling bent, but I’ve been wary of the term. I wrestled with it for years. I’ve been saying we’re “unschoolish” because that seems less scary. But unschooling is not necessarily radical unschooling. Recently my blogland alter-ego (another homeschooling adoptive introvert mom named Jamie!) defined her version of unschooling:

“When I use the term unschooling, I mean we have taken away the manmade, artificial categories school systems create. We don’t think in terms of levels, tests, or grades. We have no assigned curriculum to cover each year, no set calendar. We believe in learning all the time, yet we also have the ability and freedom to switch up our routine when we need it.”

With that, which describes us perfectly, I decided to own it: we are unschoolers.

Maybe we’ll still confuse some people who assume unschooling to mean no tablework, no bedtimes, no structure of any kind — but it’s the best term I’ve come across.

Besides, saying “we’re unschoolers” is a lot easier than saying “we are relaxed, interest-led homeschoolers influenced by the philosophies of leadership education with a little bit of Charlotte Mason thrown in, and inspired by folks like John Holt.”

We’ll maintain some structure to our days because everything (and everyone) seems to fall apart if we don’t. I won’t hesitate to use a workbook or any other resources that suit our current needs. We’re odd because we do send one child to school and we feel entirely at peace about it — but again, it’s about doing what works best for our family and for each child. Education isn’t one size fits all; shoving a child into any box that doesn’t fit, even a homeschool-shaped one, is a bad idea.  I won’t let the word unschooling bind us; I use it to free us.