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World Religons

by Joyce Fetteroll

Many months ago, Dawn asked me to write something about what Kathryn and I do for homeschooling. Well, none of my words went anywhere because, I now realize, what Kathryn does doesn't really describe how she learns. Our days look pretty much like most schooled kids' weekends, but it's the atmosphere around what we do that makes her days more than "just" free time.

Math: Though the schools emphasize basic foundational skills in elementary schools, I'm more concerned that Kathryn learn what she needs right now. If she wants to know how many of something she has or what her score is in the game, we add. If we're cooking, inevitably the cup we need is dirty so, for example, we figure out how to make 1 1/4 cups from the half cup. If she wants to know how long until something, I'll express it as "6 hours or 12 Bill Nyes" (a half hour PBS program), "15 minutes or half a Bill Nye", "That's 20 minutes or 5 minutes more than a quarter of an hour" (and many more combinations so she has a variety of mathematical patterns available to compare -- or not!).

Reading: She's learning to read entirely on her own. I have no clue how she's figuring it out any more than I know how she learned to speak English. I read to her. I answer her questions. She writes stories and notes, sometimes asking how to spell something, sometimes sounding it out on her own. We talk about how goofy English is so she can laugh about nonstandard spellings rather than being intimidated by the overwhelming number of "exceptions to the rule". She seems to see it as a huge puzzle that she's getting a kick out of figuring out one bit at a time.

Science: I really hate the way science was presented to me in school. It was done as a set of questions with nice neat memorizable answers. "Why is the sky blue?" "What makes things fall?" "Why did the dinosaurs die out?" But it's not the answers that are important in science. It's the questions! Anyone can look up the answers but few can take an ordinary common place situation and ask "Why?"

One day Kathryn and I were doing the standard mix-baking-soda-and-vinegar "experiment" and she began to grab things off the shelf to mix in. I nearly stopped her because that wasn't part of the experiment. Then it struck me. She wanted to do real science. I wanted her to follow a recipe. And I realized science "experiments" are about doing the right steps the proper way to get the right answer. They aren't about experimenting! So I showed her how to mess around in an orderly way and we had a lot of fun mixing chemicals and discovered that lemon juice works in the experiment too -- along with a lot of other things.

History: Disturbing my own sense of orderliness, we approach history randomly. Though movies (and fiction) aren't accurate as a basis for history, they can provide that spark of interest -- and the more she learns about history, the more fun it is for her to pick up the inaccuracies and anomalies in movies! My plan is to expose her to so many interesting tidbits about all periods of history that she'll want and need to know more. And the more tidbits she knows, the more familiar guideposts she'll have to light her way.

To give you a really radical feeling of what is possible, during Kathryn's -- fortunately brief! -- infatuation with Gilligan's Island, I remarked that it was amazing the writers could come up with so many stories about 7 people trapped on an island and wouldn't it be interesting if we kept track of the plots. I didn't come up with that idea as a lesson, but because it was an intriguing passing thought. She thought so too and for a few weeks we wrote down the plots and she got fairly good at summarizing them. (Recalling my own childhood when most kids thought summarizing meant retelling the whole book, it's not an easy concept to grasp.)

Then one episode had Russian Cosmonauts landing on the island. I realized it might as well be Ancient History to her and she'd have no idea why the islanders and the Russians were treating each other with suspicion so she got a brief discussion of the Cold War. Had I sat her down and said "Today we talk about the Cold War," she would have either balked or sat there bored and forgotten it. But this was information she needed to make sense of the show so it was meaningful. She hasn't learned the Cold War, but she has a hook into it to hang further information on.

And that's just what she learned from Gilligan's Island, something no one in their right mind would consider educational!

Don't worry, I didn't make all this free form learning up to use my daughter as a test subject. Though this learning style has been around since the beginning of time, it was discussed in a more formal way 20 years ago by John Holt, and continues in the magazine he began, Growing Without Schooling. It goes by the name Unschooling, though others call it learning from life or natural learning.

Yes, this approach still works for the high school years. It's then when kids want to know things deeper and in a more orderly way, set goals -- long or short term -- about what they want to do. If you're curious about that The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn is a very empowering books for teens.

If you're curious to learn more about unschooling you can read John Holt's later books (his earlier books were on school reform), though some find him overly philosophical and not "nuts and bolts and tell me what to do" -- but of course unschooling isn't about being told what to do!

There's a brand new book out, The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, that explains what unschooling is through real examples from real unschoolers. (And I'm not recommending it just because I've been quoted in it ;-) She's also written a more general book, The Homeschool Handbook, that covers the pluses and minus of various styles of homeschooling.