“The Unschooling Guinea Pig” Part One

22 06 2009

. . .and how she Magically Turned Into More Than We Ever Could Have Conjured Up From Curriculum.

Poking around in our family papers and pictures this morning, I came across the handwritten “home education” journal I first kept as a recovering public school official turned late-in-life SAHM.

It’s as if someone else wrote it! I don’t recognize my own thoughts or most of the events, just the handwriting and the historical characters. 🙂

I guess I was thinking that since I so boldly refused to “do curriculum” that this was radical unschooling. Yet now it’s so schoolish that I wince, and with the hindsight of almost 15 years, it’s both funny and a little sad to see what came of various efforts to stealth-school her.

(Let me save you the 15 years — that doesn’t work!) 😀

So here it is FWIW. I hope some laughs at our expense will help someone out there, especially if you recognize your current self in these notes!


Summer 1996 – FavD is six years old

FavD entered a contest sponsored by the Tallahassee Democrat. She submitted her handwritten original story/poem of the celebration she shared with Grandpere, a few weeks before he died. We had color snapshots of that day to include, but she also drew a portrait of Grandpere with her gingerbread house as the bottom border, using Prismacolor pencils and her sketch pad from summer art camp at LeMoyne Gallery.

The contest was open to ages 6-11. The newspaper returned her entry with an encouraging letter and a gift certificate for a free kids’ meal at ChikFilA. She was pleased and decided to sponsor her own contest and solicit entries from the family, so she could be the judge.

– Usual morning activity – addition and numbers practice (writing numerals on lined paper)

– Usual morning activity – swimming approx 45-60 minutes with beginning diving, from pool deck at deep end; freestyle stroke (crawl) is strong now; good underwater


– After reading some of the American Girl series, FavD was excited that “Molly” was the same age during WWII as her grandmother DiDi was at that time. She interviewed DiDi who was visiting from NH for a week, and wrote a (phonetic) report of what she learned – see portfolio.

– FavD’s contest entry was published in the Tallahassee Homeschool Group, see portfolio

– Lots of train track building this month, her choice; when time weighs on her, she gets out the wooden tracks

– Piano – theory and playing – once weekly (1 1/2 hours) plus 20 min per day practice on home piano; conversations about using abilities and advantages to best effect – daily practice already seems to be a “have to” rather than a desirable activity; one strategy helping teaching so far is teaching her “forbidden” songs not in the class materials and then conspiring with her to use part of the practice time playing them.

– Began acrylic painting on watercolor stock – worked together through two technique books noticing colors, backgrounds and subjects. First effort was sketched with pencil, then painted with colors mixed from three primary plus white – whole picture very dark, heavy except for a small gold crown (subject: Barbie doll at a birthday party with balloons – FavD went to a birthday party Sunday and now is planning her own as a “bring your Barbie doll” party)

To help her experience a wider spectrum, we reviewed paintings she did in tempera last month and talked about how and why she used certain brushstrokes.

– Loaded a new CD-ROM program on computer, “Peter and the Wolf” with: the animated story in video (she also has the full-length VHS tape) a river-crossing game involving anticipation and spatial discrimination, and several musical orchestration activities. She loves it all and begs to spend more time at the computer; it’s serving as a great incentive. The sound quality is particularly good, and she’s learning the difference between instrument sounds and all their names.

– We discovered a new drawing program on public tv, called Pappyland. FavD draws along with Pappy each afternoon at 2:30, using her sketchbook, colored pencils and black marker. In the first week, she’s drawn a dog, a space alien, a mad scientist, and a pair of dolphins. Pappy reminds her to use her imagination and add details to the drawing only she can think of. Since modeling adult reading is so easy and pervasive here, I’ve been modeling adult sketching for her too, choosing subjects she likes and can draw, like her baby brother or her ceramic alligator mascot.

In the van yesterday, she announced that she “is a very good artist and can tell stories to people with words, or pictures, or both.” Her dog picture with Pappy was innovative because she decided that her name should be written across the bottom to form grass (green and spiky of course.) I don’t know of any artwork she’s seen that suggests making the signature an object in the scene, and I watched her think of it and implement it as the program aired. It was a delightful moment, and she was quite pleased with herself.


– FavD’s grandmother DiDi and her great-grandmother Nana moved to her neighborhood all the way from NH. Helping with electrical hook-up, decorating such as shopping for curtain lace and hanging pictures, unpacking two lifetimes’ worth of treasures and detritus, and getting to know these women as everyday family members, kept FavD engaged and excited for weeks.

– Piano practice on a daily basis at age of 6 continues to be a “learning opportunity” for all of us; on top of jazz/tap at Tallahassee Dance Academy every week, it seems too much. We’ve opted out of Petite Players already, and dance needs to go for now too.

– – The piano and music theory helps with counting and number structure – NEED TO USE THIS

– Church Christmas pageant cast FavD as Leah, daughter at the inn [where] Mary & Joseph seek shelter. She has several lines and a solo poem to memorize; practice each week, costume fitting, etc

– She goes with next door neighbors to an evening art group where homeschoolers can make Christmas crafts; her preparations at home are exhausting.

– She and her grandmother plan, shop and cook for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

– Every day she discovers something new about the care and feeding of toddlers. We discuss Young Son’s language skills, play initiatives, need for constant supervision and she understands so much. She puts her newfound abilities into action and is becoming accomplished as a big sister. Her patience and enthusiasm make it possible for learning to continue all day, even with our constant companion taking front-and-center a good part of each day.

– During “family salon time” FavD talks often about the power of belief to affect reality. Jesus, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are examples she offers for discussion, after which it seems she concluded whatever she really believes will be true, for her, no matter what her friends or others choose to believe. It seems time to at least begin talking about science and belief as related but not identical processes of the human brain.
She eats it up.

-to be continued in another post-



13 responses

22 06 2009
Crimson Wife

Doesn’t it depend on whose idea those activities were? If they were yours, then yeah, that would be “stealth” school (my favorite kind incidentally). But if she actually decided all on her own to paint a picture or write something for a contest, wouldn’t that still fall under the category of “unschooling”?

22 06 2009

Sure, that’s the general idea. But to me, comparing “then” to “now” and reading my own writing, it’s awfully schoolish. I was looking for learning I could translate into that damn diary!

Which means even if I weren’t actually assigning the activities and projects, she was spending a lot of time with a teacher (me) sigh . . .

22 06 2009

The piano teacher actually made her cry.
Meanwhile, the dance and acting for the stage that *I* decided we should drop — while keeping the daily piano practice and music theory (at age six!) — turned out to be exactly backward.

23 06 2009

I’m thinking SEPTEMBER 2006 s/b SEPTEMBER 1996?

23 06 2009

“spatial discrimination”

Stop, you’re killing me!



23 06 2009

Hi Suze —
“spatial discrimination” lol

I know, right? 😉

(and thx for typo catch, that was a test! fixing now)

24 06 2009

Oh, please do publish more of these notes! Since we’re still rather new homeschoolers, it’s helpful to see how someone else tried the stealth approach so I can detect it in myself.

24 06 2009
Nance Confer

This all reminds me of the reason we switched from our state’s Home Education Program/letter of intent to the super/keep a journal method to the umbrella school/report “attendance” method of paperwork for hsing.

Neither makes any sense but I found reporting attendance to be less intrusive than trying to think of my kids’ days in terms of subjects and activities I could write down and describe to some teacher for an annual review.

The rule of thumb is that half the hsers in FL use the HEP method so it must suit plenty of people. And, of course, JJ has learned not to let her schooling get in the way of education. 🙂


24 06 2009

Lori and all – Deschooling so you can more wholeheartedly unschool, is much more of a process than a destination, at least for us schooled parents. It’s like growing up, sort of. I was the firstborn child AND grandchild on both sides of the family, as was Fav D. I wanted to grow up so fast and I see now she had all the same dynamics at work in her life. And it’s been wonderful in total, for both of us, though not what we thought it would be at all. So now I’m thinking what I personally have learned, might be that it’s more about relaxing and enjoying the whole journey as it unfolds, instead of wishing we were at some other stage or thinking we can avoid the growing pains?

But YMMV. And even I may reach an age where I think this sounds a little lame too. 😉

Meanwhile, I do stop and smell the roses (and listen to the waterfalls) even at literal School, more than I ever did as a young student or a young mom. I commend to all reading, Lori’s recent post about “calm campuses.”Especially those of you who like Nance and Lynn, have daughters about to go off to SCHOOL! 😉

I just commented there, about something in our unschooling life yesterday:

Serendipity! — I must read this book.
Your post connects to the Shakespeare Summer Camp we signed Young Son up for yesterday. It’s being offered at an alternative high school for hippies and artists called SAIL – School for Arts and Innovative Learning.

It’s on the other side of town (the old, poor side) so we’d never seen it. So stepping onto the shabby little concrete-block site on a very hot summer day when school wasn’t even in session, we were amazed and delighted to find waterfalls and features around every corner, all “on.” You could see and hear burbling water over rocks wherever you walked or sat, with country flowers tucked here and there but nothing fussy or manicured. In such an otherwise scruffy and schoolish setting, it was the oddest sense of peace and calm coupled with happy surprise and energy (the water constantly moving, as if alive and playing.)

As an old school hand I’ve been on a lot of campuses at every level from nursery school through grad school. FSU’s law school has a lovely “green” with little white cottages connected by an Old South-vernacular raised wooden walkway. Many are beautiful and expensive, some modern, some historic. But I’ve never seen this particular approach and it was just wonderful!

26 06 2009

Was laughing with you of course, not at you!

(in case even slightly unclear)

Never kept a journal or even managed to stick with any sort of organized view of the whole business for more than . . . . Well, let’s just say I liked planning it all out (in ridiculous detail; was no doubt avoiding doing something else far more urgent but less appealing) WAY more than I seemed to manage to prod myself into carrying it all out.

Which of course turned out to be a good thing.

26 06 2009

It sounds like while you did tend to want to put things into pedagogical terms at this point, you were already leaning towards autonomy? Forgive me if I’ve missed it, but have you ever written about your Ah-Ha moment, or was it more of a gradual dawning?

26 06 2009

True, good distinction. It’s the pedagogical terms that are laughable all by themselves, because unschooling autonomy was always my own internal setting. I was such a teacher’s pet in school not because anyone bribed me or forced me me but because I naturally loved it! It really suited me, it was where I wanted to be. I was like the perfect exception that screws up the rules for everybody else, the Girl Who Set the Curve.

The funny part being that I didn’t realize it wasn’t like that for most kids. The aha moments for me were after all my own schooling (through the doctorate!) and getting into district administration and then the state DOE, with awesome responsibilities for other people’s children. I think only then did I finally began to understand the clash between what I’d always believed was School, and what School really was.

I had been an unschooler all along and I was in the wrong profession. Education, not schooling, is what I love. That was my Aha. Later I learned that it was a lot like John Holt’s mid-life epiphany . . .

28 05 2010
Snook Animals We’ve Known and Loved « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Guinea Pig part one […]

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