Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

This Eclectic Life

Which way do you like to homeschool?

I’m still working on fully defining this for myself – and it could prove ever-changing, since homeschool allows for, and even breeds, such evolution. We certainly fall under eclectic, meaning I pull from many different resources and methods to sculpt something that fits us. I would say my style is probably a blend of three main types: traditional, unschooling, and interest-led.

As a homeschool/unschool graduate myself, it might strike some as odd that I have an element of the traditional in me, but I do. I am the offspring of teachers, so perhaps it is in my blood – or an unconscious nod to how permeated our culture is with a certain concept of what “school” looks like… Or maybe it simply speaks to my personality. Whatever it is, I both like and feel the need (which I don’t always like) for some structure, some bookwork, and a little grind-it-out mentality.

However… I also struggle with how stifling open-and-shut projects and ideas can be. I prefer to learn and teach in an organic, exploratory fashion. If you ever pick up an Extraschooling book, you will find the essence of what I enjoy. Something will come along and catch my interest, which will remind me of something else, which will inspire me to share some knowledge, and then we’ll be off down some rabbit hole on an adventure. Those books show the paper version of so many explorations we’ve undertaken. In fact, I’ve often said my son would make a perfect unschooler. He has such a boundless curiosity and the enthusiasm to see it through.

But… I can only venture just so far into the unschooling world myself. While I think it can be an amazing way to learn that has the potential to build skill sets hard to achieve many other ways, it has its downfalls as well. As much as anything, I have struggled with some of the community. For a philosphy that begs to have a very relaxed mindset, I have often found it anything but, and I struggle when it gets taken to the extremes, as I feel boundaries, rules, expectations, and so forth can be helpful for all of us.

I probably find it the most comfortable to settle into the notion of an interest-led approach. This is a bit separate from the term child-led, however. Education in this house is a joint venture; I certainly learn as much as he does, and we dive into our schooling side by side. I love helping him explore his passions, but I think it’s important to share my own, too, as well as those of others, so that he has a treasure trove of ideas to enhance his current collection. This also goes along with the concept that we don’t know what we don’t know; my dad always talked about the benefits of exposure to a wide array of topics, and I now subscribe to that wholeheartedly myself.

…Which can then lead back to some traditional studies. And so the circle keeps on going round.

A hard part about all this is finding the right community, as I don’t quite seem to fit in most that I’ve tried. I like to walk the middle of the road much of the time and keep my options open. I also struggle with social media – when we aren’t face-to-face, and when we are typing rather than speaking, much can get lost – and then take a turn for the worse. With all this in mind, I’ve decided to take the plunge and create a community of my own. Want to come along for the adventure?

Let’s build an open, friendly, safe space to share in each other’s journey. The Extraschooling Community Support group on Facebook has just launched and is open to everyone who joins in their child’s education – and especially to all the folks who are almost-not-quite-ish, un-label-able sorts. Let’s celebrate this eclectic life together!

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Curious Minds

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How important is curiosity to you?

I have said before that, for me, it might be at the top of the list of the 4 C’s. It is such a vital element of how we learn around here, with a question or hypothesis launching an exploration into new terrain. I have also named it as the first word I think of to describe my son; his mind is always rolling over the possibilities in anything he comes across.

But is this the case for everybody? It doesn’t quite seem so. Much has been said, in one forum or another, about whether public school crushes innate curiosity in children. I think it can, but it doesn’t have to. There are various factors that can lead to its diminishment, but none are a definite death knoll. I’ve seen some parents say their children simply aren’t curious by nature, and perhaps that is possible. I have a feeling though that curiosity is a pretty innate drive in us, as it is one of the forces that led to all the great discoveries and inventions that humankind is known for, and spurred us to ask some of the fundamental questions of life, such as. “Is that edible?” and “What’s that noise in the bushes over there?” Probably everyone has wondered at least once, “Where do we come from?” or something similar, or I’m not sure that either astronomy or religion would exist.

So, yes, I think we all have at least a degree of curiosity within us. This (of course!) begs the questions, How important is it in your household? and What do you do to cultivate it?

Some points to ponder:

  • Do you have active interests or question things in your day-to-day?
  • Do your kids see this, or is it something you pursue in your downtime?
  • Do you encourage discussion and debate over a wide range of topics, or are some off-limits or closed subjects?
  • Is disagreement okay?
  • Do you help your kids find answers to their questions, applaud their interest, and/or counter with a follow-up question of your own?
  • Are there any “dumb questions”?
  • Are you comfortable working with an unknown concept?
  • For abstract questions, do you provide concrete answers or an array of possibilities and why some people believe in various ones?

When it comes to education, I am definitely someone who prefers to learn organically. I start with a rough idea and see where it takes me. I might get inspired and dive deep or I can fizzle out and move on to the next great thing, but one thing that I just don’t do well is plan. Recipes, instructions, or any other sort of step-by-step how-to’s are just not in my wheelhouse. If I do an experiment, I’m likely to not look ahead to see what’s supposed to happen. If I do, I then become goal-oriented, and it becomes about the destination rather than the journey. Not only is much of the fun lost (for both of us), but the extra chances to learn are as well.

Lessons, projects, and experiments in books are often written with a formula such as: Do steps 1 through 5 and X will happen because of blah, blah, and blah, as discovered by so-and-so.

Ummm… did you have the chance to wonder about, oh, anything?

What if it said this instead: Try doing X, Y, or Z. What do you think might happen? What did happen? How do those two compare? Does this make you think of anything else? Who first decided to try this out? Why? Did this lead to any other discoveries?

I tend to avoid close-ended projects in favor of an interest-led style because, while the former is not guaranteed to crush curiosity, the latter is giving it room to grow. There are times for cut-and-dry lesson plans that get a point across, can be wrapped up quickly, and get you to the next thing or offer a sense of accomplishment when complete. Time, confidence in being able to “teach” what you may not know yourself (really better called something like guided exploration rather than teaching), resources, and other factors can dictate the way learning is approached. However, I think it’s crucial to find time at least occasionally to explore something in an open-ended way – and the more this is done, the easier it becomes and the more opportunities for it are discovered.

Cultivating curiosity is also a two-way street. My son is naturally curious, but there’s some nurturing in there, too. We feed off each other and lob ideas back and forth. Unknowns are not a thing around here; if a question is hanging out there unanswered, the refrain of, “Let’s look it up!” is soon to be heard.

Here’s some ways to begin integrating it into your typical day-to-day routine:

  • Mealtimes or car rides are perfect moments to have a “What if…?” type of conversation or discussion of a news item. Switch out who brings the topic, and try to find ones that have multiple viewpoints or possibilities. What will they find at the “edge of the universe”?  Why did someone first decide to write something down? What is the right amount of screen time?
  • Have everyone pick an item from around the house and then make guesses as to where, when, and why it originated.
  • Read a random chapter or passage from a book at bedtime and try to concoct a story around it. How did the characters get where they are? Where should they head off to next? What inspired the author to write the book?
  • Grab a food from the kitchen while making dinner and examine it. If it is a fresh item such as produce, consider why it might have the color, shape, texture, etc, that it does. Where is it from? Who eats it? What does the rest of the plant look like? How has it been cultivated? Is it native or introduced? If it is a prepared food, where was it first created and how has it been modified? What sort of nutritional content does it have?
  • When there is something someone in the family either loves or can’t stand, take it a step further. What makes for the strong reaction? Are there related things that might bring out a very different response? Why is this? And why do certain subjects make us feel deeply in the first place? What topics universally elicit such emotion? What does this say about us?
  • Send everyone off to find 3 or so questions. Any questions. We did this recently and my son brought back ones like, Who invented hammocks? Why does a branch decide to form where it does? and How is salt made? They may take 2 minutes to answer or inspire 2 weeks of exploration… Run with it!

On the flip side, if curiosity is not high on your list, then that will (of course!) lead me to ask – So, what is? …Let me know in the comments.

Happy exploring!

Posted in education, extraschooling

Homeschool Reality Check

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What does it mean to be homeschooled?

There was a time when those of us who were homeschoolers were just that… Homeschoolers. It wasn’t that long ago either. Now, though – phew! You might be unschooling, Funschooling, gameschooling, wildschooling, roadschooling, or virtual schooling. You might be Classical, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Eclectic, or Waldorf-Inspired. You might do unit studies, block scheduling, interest-led, or boxed curriculum. And don’t forget to deschool if you were originally in public school!

It makes my head spin, and I’m a veteran at this stuff. I’m rather amazed newcomers ever manage to wade through the overwhelming pile of terminology and get to what’s really important: the learning.

It doesn’t matter how you go about it. Seriously. What matters? That it works for your family. How do you get there? What does that mean? Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

Take your time. There is no rush. There is no ticking clock with a bell that is going to ring periodically. You do not have to start at 8 am on a late-August morning. You do not have to be mindful of days of the week, holidays, or any other time constraint the school around the corner does, nor do you have hundreds of kids to attend to. You have the luxury of time.

Start slow. Don’t try to figure it all out at once. You may have a hunch what your schooling style will be, but let it evolve. Depending on your choice, it can range from dirt cheap to really expensive, so test the waters. I always recommend starting off with an inexpensive book or two to cover math and English basics, then spending a lot of time playing games, reading, exploring interests, and other low-key activities. If you run across a resource that seems to fit, ask around (hint: when looking for advice, ask for the why in any opinion; that will give you a better understanding of if it will work in your situation) or test it out. There may be free samples, giveaways, or used options out there to begin with. Build over time in this way, until you feel you have a solid collection or know you want to invest in something specific.

Find your balance. Ignore labels and boxes. You may be a structured homeschooler using a grade-oriented boxed curriculum 4 days a week, but there’s nothing stopping you from unschooling the rest of the time. Or vice versa – let them have at all week long, but maybe Saturdays are workbook bonanzas. It’s okay. We all fall at different points along the schedule spectrum. Some of us (ahem) are a little disorganized but require at least a pretense of structure. Others have their ducks in a straighter row but like to let their hair down now and then. I’m betting all methods have their pluses and their minuses… The only thing you need to adhere to are the laws for where you live. The rest? Bahhhh. If I had to label our style, I believe I’d invent a new term altogether: Medley-schooling.

Grow your village. Be it family, friends, people in your community, fellow homeschoolers, or online groups, expand your circle. Homeschooling is amazing, but it can also be a lot. Not everyone relishes every aspect of it, and we all need some support at times, not to mention inspiration, commiseration, advice, sounding boards, and regular infusions of humor. Lots and lots of humor!

Know your goals. This is two-fold. You will undoubtedly have your own goals for homeschooling, but there are a couple big, universal goals to any education out there, and if your version is achieving them, you’re set. The overarching goal is to nurture a lifelong learner. This is done by first fostering or maintaining a love of learning and encouraging curiosity and exploration. Then it is fortified with the ability to learn, a working knowledge of how to ask the right questions, find the right resources, and absorb the right information to propel oneself forward in life. If you have those in your back pocket, you can set your course in any direction you wish and find your way.

Embrace change. What works today may not tomorrow. We change, we grow – it’s natural. Luckily, homeschooling is malleable and can adapt to your needs. Adjust anything at any time, put stuff on hold for a while, or take a time-out from routine to go off on a lark. Education should be an adventure, so see where it takes you.

Remember the words way up at the top of this page: Explore, learn, laugh, grow, repeat. They’re more important to keep track of than all those terms I listed at the beginning. Homeschooling sure seems a lot more complicated than when I was a kid, but it really isn’t. The upside of the astounding variety of choices is that there are a lot of really great resources out there now, and homeschooling is far more popular and mainstream. If you need additional help sorting it all out, there are three versions now of the Extraschooling Guided Planner & Journal: same information to assist you in navigating your way, different sizes because… You know. That schedule thing. Different strokes for different folks, as my dad would say.

See them on Amazon:

90-Day Jumpstart



Posted in education, extraschooling

The Learning Web

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Some days I actively approach a topic with my son. Some days I don’t. And then some days it just happens, and I am happily surprised when I look back on it. Today was like that. It occurred to me tonight, as I reflected on the ground we had rather accidentally – and somewhat haphazardly – covered, that the learning process is so well-suited to life at home because it is just not linear by nature, something it has to be within an institution that has to serve the masses. Food chains have been far more accurately described as food webs, and education works this same way: one thing leads to another, then some random off-shoot takes you down one or more paths that then branch off in their own directions – including, sometimes, back to where you started.

Our morning began logging our egg experiment that we began last night. We documented our set-up, initial observations, hypotheses, and questions, then examined the egg and noted the changes. Next thing I knew I was being invited to a “dinosaur show,” which consisted of my son acting as a presenting paleontologist, going through nature artifacts, like a nest with unhatched eggs from last year and random bones. We wound up comparing a T-Rex pelvis with that of a human when he tried identifying it, and when he pulled out a snail shell it led us to wondering if they were around at the time of the dinosaurs. I mistakenly called them arthropods rather than gastropods for half the day, which of course led me to researching all these points once I realized my error, finding snails have existed for some 500 million years and are in the same phylum as the octopus, while arthropods include insects and crabs.

In a move that will seem unrelated, we switched over to math, as I had been flipping through some new library books while he was eating, and he requested I read. I had been looking at Fun with Roman Numerals, which may be joining our personal stash soon, so I started showing him how they worked. I have not looked into Latin for backing, but I discussed how C stands for 100 so likely bears connection to words like century while M may be because of ties to millennium. (Which, typing this, I just learned has two n‘s – who knew? Spelling was never my forte!) Now hold that thought until the next paragraph, because, remember, I mentioned how learning is not linear, so – we then tried skip-counting by 5’s with the book Hands Down, in which we also read that oak trees are the most susceptible to lightning strikes, a fact we will be tracking down to see why this may be. (Height? Moisture content? Who has a theory? Ask your kids for thoughts before you check Google!) Afterwards we played around with fractions thanks to Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire, which he really enjoyed and seemed to catch onto the easiest of the three concepts (though it would seem the most complicated of the lot to me).

It has been rainy for a couple days, but we got the itch to go for a hike, so we donned our ponchos and headed for the hills. After feeding the neighbor’s horses and amid walk and play, we delved into discussing the role of bright colors in nature (warning or mimicry), why sudden sun on a humid day makes me think of how microwaves work (heating the water content of an item), identifying birds by sight and call (because it is his passion), explaining the process that leads to a hay bale (there were tractors, and I grew up on a farm), considering the role of scent markings (since last outing we smelled a possible bear), how rain in the mountains leads to flooding in the valleys (the area is under a watch right now), and hunting fractals (of course!), we came full circle: we found a centipede. This created a twofold conversation. First, how ideas are combined within words: -pod, -pede, -pedal refer to legs/feet, then gastro-, centi-, and bi- tell us how many or give us more information. Second, centipede and millipede are connected to those Roman numerals (or at least my theories of them) in that centi– is related to century, and milli- is related to that two-n’ed millennium. And there it was: paleontology, Roman numerals, and hiking all suddenly fit together. Of course. That’s why Paleonumeriking 101 is an essential class in school, right? There is just that natural link, after all!

This evening we watched Big Al (Allosaurus: A Walking with Dinosaurs Special) and did our last analysis of the egg for the day to fully round out our experiences, while I considered the beauty of the winding path of exploration and education. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for hitting the books and being able to put your nose to the grindstone – but this is the foundation for that. The more you discover, the more you realize awaits you, and one simple question suddenly leads to five or ten of increasing complexity. The more you feed and develop that curiosity and taste for knowledge, the more effort you are willing to put into pursuing it. You can sit down and learn about a subject, or you can follow it to a point of inspiration and then take off. Just like a spider’s design, learning is an art form, a science, a bit messy at times, and something to marvel at.

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Free-Range Learning

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My son loves to learn. He is so full of curiosity and enthusiasm for whatever topic piques his interest. However, there is a surefire way to make him grow immediately cold and disinterested: all I have to do is say something like, “Let’s sit down and do some schoolwork” or “Today I’m going to teach you about…” I find my educational approach is a match to my nutritional approach; essentially, I believe in exposing him to a variety of elements and finding ways to incorporate my goals within something he enjoys. Although I have an unschooling lean, I don’t go entirely that way for the same reasons I don’t let him plan the menu – he doesn’t know all that is available to try, and one cannot live on pasta and dessert alone. So I integrate many different flavors into our pasta-heavy diet, and he has discovered vegetables are not the evil things he once believed, all while enjoying a well-balanced meal. I see education the same: I like to build upon his interests and show him additional directions, applications, and concepts. I don’t expect him to be interested in them all or master or even understand them all yet – I just want him to know that they are there. If, in the future, his path circles back to one of these items, then he will have a foundational structure in place to facilitate further exploration.

There are a lot of versions of homeschooling out there, but I haven’t quite found one I completely subscribe to. I think mine would be called something more like “Open-ended Schooling” or “Free-range Schooling.” I like to have just enough structure to then launch our learning adventure. I would say my main tenets are these:

  • It is easier to push a rope downhill. If they are interested, they will learn better, faster, and more thoroughly – and likely be primed to launch into connected areas of study. This may mean being interested in the topic at hand or in the method of examining it. (For example, a kid who wants to play outside may not be into math but may enjoy the idea of fractals in nature or using nature materials to perform equations.)
  • Play and hands-on activities are crucial. This is true at any age, but vital for the elementary-age crowd. Tangible representations will go miles further than the abstract any day. Give them something that they can touch, manipulate, have fun with – not only will the lesson generally last far longer, but there will be a physical memory to bolster the mental one.
  • Read anything and everything. Books, books, and more books. They have opened so many doors for us and allowed his mind to expand so far. The imagination can run a mile for every inch it is sparked, and every book is a match.
  • Get the most bang for your buck. Know those combination exercises, where you do a bicep curl along with a squat or some such thing? Look at lesson opportunities the same way. How many elements can be covered at once?
  • Provide early, recurring exposure to a wide variety of subjects and ideas. Mention ideas whenever the opportunity presents itself. When talking to a baby we naturally do this: before they can speak we are offering words in this fashion – “See this red flower?” “Look at those horses. What does a horse say? Neeeiiiigh!” …And we expect that this leads to them gaining language. However there is often a disconnect with this theory when considering more advanced topics. They may not understand fractions as toddlers, but they likely love to help in the kitchen – so why not provide a similar banter as you cook? “So we need half a cup. See this? This is one cup. We need half. The way we show that is…”

Following these principles, I look at the topics for the week, create a starting point, and then introduce it in a fairly informal way. It may take off and consume our day (week, month) or we may quickly discover it’s not a fit at the moment and find something better to do. I was recently asked about how or if I incorporate different subjects into our letterboard activity, so I’ll share a couple of examples of how this can take off from the simple, open-ended structure it offers:

For S I assuredly had many great plans, of which I remember none. All I now recall is that as I was preparing items he happened to spot a flashcard about Stonehenge and was instantly fascinated. I pulled up a couple of YouTube clips aimed at kids, then at our next library trip we got a National Geographic video and a book about it in greater detail. This led me to think about Easter Island, so we read a picture book first and then learned more about the collapse of that society. He has always been very environmentally conscious, so we latched onto the discussion of living in a sustainable fashion. Then there’s the notion of solstice and demonstrating the science behind our days and seasons. Historically, this was at a time when the Stone Age was ending and metals were being introduced; it’s a good excuse to experiment with tool making and learning about the substances used, the history of tools in our society or by animals, and more. There is also the artistic aspect, which can be a great excuse to get out for some exercise in order to gather nature materials and create a version of it or something straight out of your own imagination.

Obviously a lot more than a letter is covered, which is why letterboards can work for older ages as well. The line of study for S may appeal more to older crowds (or 5-year-olds with an inexplicable passion) but there are far more lighthearted, simple ideas to try. A C-filled day might resemble this:

Over some Cereal you might Consult a map and Compass to Choose a Course. Your Clothes for the day might be very Colorful or have Characters or some other relevant thought. You could do a walking tour to a C destination (street, business, what have you) and along the way Chart vehicles – maybe Count how many red Cars versus blue, or Cars versus trucks – or white versus all others and later Calculate the percentage. On the return trip, switch tactics: point out items beginning with C or find it on signs. Have a Container to Collect items in, and when you get home sort them into sets – do some intersect? When you are ready to relax a bit, Cuddle up in a Comfortable Chair with some C-centric snacks and read books like Curious George or Clifford. Once rested, put on some Chopin and use your seats to play musical Chairs. Maybe Cook or Create some art… or Chill out and Call it a successful day. Whatever you choose across the day, just note, “Hey – you want to go climb a tree instead? That starts with C; go for it!” The more playful and relaxed, the better it goes over, I promise. Remember how little pressure you felt when teaching about the red flower or the horses in the field? Gentle repetition while enjoying an experience together can move mountains.

Teaching kids is something natural and shouldn’t be compounded by feeling a sudden external pressure of conforming to educational guidelines set forth in schools that are meant to deal with the masses. Neither should it be constrained by a specific style or curriculum. Ideally, all these elements should have a fluidity and be able to complement each other rather than cause stress or concern. Working at home allows a deeper connection to that which is necessary to learn, and the ability to be flexible in approach. My son mastered red and horse in a process that we both enjoyed, and that is what I strive to maintain. I look for there to be growth, development, curiosity, interest, and enjoyment on his side. My job is to provide the spark, momentum and conducive environment. If a seed has dirt, water and sun, it will grow. As a teacher it is my responsibility to nurture him along to help him reach his full potential, but with the understanding that the potential is already inherent within him, not something I have to provide. Basically, I act as the gardener, offering an enriching environment and a supportive structure, pouring on some fertilizer as needed in the form of inspiration, and watching him take off and thrive.