Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thoughts on Our Non-traditional Lifestyle

I wrote this in January, then held off posting it here in hopes of getting it published elsewhere - somewhere that pays. It didn't cut muster, so finally I'm posting it here. ;)

As homeschoolers, we get plenty of curious looks and almost as many questions. When people ask me how we school our children, what curriculum we use, what standards and schedules we follow, I enjoy saying, "We make it up as we go along."

OK, so that might not be the most socially responsible answer, but it gets their attention. Then they hear me when I explain that we build upon our children's interests to provide a comprehensive, meaningful and memorable education. Rather than sit at the kitchen table for hours on end drilling facts and figures, the education our children receive often involves some sort of travel, either to nearby beaches for tide pooling or three states away for a walk with Lewis & Clark, a dinosaur dig, a self-guided tour of Native American sites or experiments in the geothermal formations of Yellowstone.

Most of the time, the response is a mouth agape, a mind racing, and finally a comment that goes something along the line of, "I wish we had done that when I was in school."

Of course, we're not "in school," but our entire family manages to learn new, interesting and, more importantly, memorable lessons that have meaning not only our family, but in the larger picture. Even at their tender ages, our kids talk about their experiences in minute detail for years following our return home.

So how does this experiment in experiential learning work? First, we listen to our children. Next, we make a safe, responsible plan that meets our children’s interests and our family needs. Finally, we go with the flow.

Last year as neighborhood kids purchased new backpacks and school shoes, pencils and binders, our 6 year old said she wanted to learn more about Native Americans. I have relatives in Utah, so we loaded the girls and headed toward some of the best pictographs in North America. Our self-guided tour began with a visit to the Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada where we saw pottery and other artifacts collected from lands now under Lake Mead. We hand fed a variety of fish on the Virgin River, experienced an autumn heat wave camping in Valley of Fire State Park.

We continued to southeastern Utah, an area rich in pictographs so accessible even a child could reach them, which led us to discuss preservation of the past, and the importance of self restraint. We carried on to Vernal, Utah, where we visited the Utah Field House of Natural History before heading out to Dinosaur National Monument where the kids spotted fossils at every turn. While visiting our relatives, we experienced an autumn cold snap, snow storm and the ensuing change of foliage colors, something completely foreign to children raised on the Central Coast of California.

Oh, that sounds like a great trip, but where does that fit into the state curriculum, we've been asked. I try not to sigh as I come up with answers that will appease the curious: history, biology, conservationism, earth science, geography, meteorology not to mention ample reading on the road, for fun and for more information about the places we were experiencing. The girls also keep journals during these trips, so penmanship and grammar are involved, not to mention their own experiments in visual art.

Other trips have included: a ride on the rails from our home on the Central Coast to Washington State where we enjoyed participating in the final leg of the Lewis & Clark reenactment; a 3,000-mile minivan tour of Washington including a tour of Chief Joseph Dam, a hike to a glacier in Mt. Rainier National Park, hikes to waterfalls in the northern Cascades, swimming in Puget Sound and a visit to an incredible private collection of dolls; witnessing geothermal events in Yellowstone and wildlife in Yosemite.

Sometimes I wonder if these trips are too much for our little girls. I wonder what they're getting out of these miles on the roads and rails; what they'll remember. Finding the answer is as simple as watching them play.

Shortly after returning from our Washington State tour, which included two weeks of migratory tent camping, our girls were playing in the back yard when the 5 year old ran inside, grabbed her play tent, and passed me again on her way out. She didn't ask for help, but started unpacking the bag. When her 3-year-old sister asked to help, our older daughter began showing her how to lay out the tent, insert the poles and push.

Is setting up tents the important lesson they've learned? Not really. Look more closely and you’ll see very young children who have already learned to work together, to teach each other, to listen, to pay attention, to tackle a challenge and see it through, to set a goal, however small, and meet it.

Will they remember our hike to the glacier or washing their stuffed animals in the icy waters of the Ohanapecosh River? I don't know, but if they come out of our home education with a sense of adventure, a love of learning, a willingness to risk failure in their efforts to reach their goals, there are no better tools any teacher can give them.


  1. Awesome insight into your teaching (and the girls' learning)! Personally, I think your girls are learning leaps and bounds more than ANY school 'system' could even dream of offering them. Keep up the great work!

  2. Jen, One of your finest pieces of writing. I'm WAY too busy (as a Census address checker) to give the story its due, but just had to tell you how much I enjoyed it, how much I learned, and how I envy your two little darlings for the education they're getting. God Bless.

  3. That was really great, Jen. Too bad the "ones that pay" didn't catch onto it.

  4. Love it! Have you read "A Thomas Jefferson Education"? Just started reading it today...this post reminded me a lot of what the author was saying. I'm still "ironing out" my homeschool plan with my kids. Coming from the public school arena (and being a teacher myself) it is hard to pull away from some of the habits and cycles, but we will find our groove. Your blog and dedication really are wonderful examples- thanks for sharing Jen!

  5. I've HEARD about the Thomas Jefferson Education, but I haven't read it yet. Thanks for encouraging me to expand my library (or at least check it out from the big library). I took some lessons from "A Well-Trained Mind," John Gatto, and countless other publications. Most had bits that were great for us, as well as stuff I left in the dust, for now.

  6. I like this article but I am always left wondering why you think children in "regular" school programs don't learn some of the same lessons. For example, why would you think that children in "school" have missed learning " to work together, to teach each other, to listen, to pay attention, to tackle a challenge and see it through, to set a goal, however small, and meet it."? I love what you are able to teach your girls but I do worry about them learning spelling, multiplication, etc. You are absolutely right about them learning many things they wouldn't learn in the classroom, or at least not in the same way. But are they never going to a "regular" classroom? Will they have High school experiences and diplomas and possibly go to college? Or will they get a GED? How do you see that in the future? These are the things I think about.

  7. First, thanks for honestly expressing your concerns. This blog was established to help my family and friends understand what we do, and why. I'm happy to hear your specific concerns.

    I didn't say "regular" school could NOT provide these skills; I said my girls ARE learning them. That's key because I OFTEN have people ask me about HOW in the WORLD kids could EVER learn these skills without going to REGULAR school. Kids do. All over the world, in a variety of educational settings. The last line ("...there are no better tools any teacher can give them.") also may have been read as a blow AGAINST "regular" schools, but I meant ANY teacher - a parent, "regular" school teacher, coach, pastor, family member, stranger or friend. I never mentioned "regular" teachers in that line either.

    I agree with you that their spelling and rote mathematical skills are weak. But their understanding of math far surpasses the state standards for their grades, and when we sit down and "do spelling" they pass their grade-level lists with flying colors. When FOCUSED on SPELLING, they test well at grade level both on paper and verbally, but it doesn't translate to their personal writing, their recreational writing. We work together to correct their writing assignments (I send E to the dictionary to find the answers herself these days in hopes that the extra effort will h elp the answer STICK in her mind), but I don't correct their journals or their letters. Those are their personal writings, and they should be able to do whatever they like with them. However, I HAVE talked to both of them about the need to spell correctly so people can UNDERSTAND their correspondence. V takes this to heart much more than E does.

    There is some debate in the math world about which is more important - memorization of facts or understanding of the process(es) needed to solve any given problem. To date, we've focused more on UNDERSTANDING HOW to solve a problem more than memorizing the answer. Afterall, it's GREAT to know that 12 x 12 = 144, but what do you do when it's 5,678,934 x 7,893,425? THEN you need to know HOW to arrive at the answer. STILL... it is SO much easier to find the solution if you KNOW answers to smaller problems (12 x 12, etc.) The girls each have their own math workbooks. Once they wrap them up, we're going to refocus on the basics (through various methods of repeition) in hopes that both schools of thought will meld - HOW to solve a problem, AND JUST KNOWING basic math FACTS.

    Will they go to "regular" school? I don't know for sure. We never thought we'd homeschool, but here were are. There may come a time when the public school works better for us all. There ARE some fabulous teachers who I adore, and the girls would, too. Whether=2 0they continue here or take the brick-n-mortar route, they will NOT simply be allowed to pass with a GED. They'll have a diploma and complete the CAHSEE. I HOPE they go to college. They already TALK about going to college, and at ages 6 and 8, I think that puts them on the right (collegiate) track mentally. (V wants to go to Cal Poly and study either art or science or chemistry - with my friend Lara - or equine biology. E wants to go to Hancock College then to an as-of-yet unnamed university to study dance, or art, design, history or maybe writing...depends on the day.) Will they go to the prom? Possibly. Homeschoolers have those, too, believe it or not. Play sports? If they so choose, but on club teams if not school teams. Music? There's a tough one - neither our high schools nor the community provide opportunities for musicians interested in strings or piano, so given the girls have chosen violin and piano at this point, the only way they'll get the group performance experience (whether we're homeschooling or in traditional school) is if we join Youth Symphony in San Luis Obispo. That's MORE likely if we're homeschooling because our schedule could be tailored around the symphony schedule. (Rehearsal is too early for Santa Maria kids to make it in time after the typical school day.)

  8. great post! thanks for referring me here...i've been giving home schooling a lot of thought and think i will likely do this for the majority of my childrens' education (i totally agree with you on what they will benefit...perhaps BETTER socialization, likely better than any state curriculum, etc. so i can understand you wanting to roll your eyes to these inquiries) my only reason for "trying" school first is to have one year alone with my younger son and to have a baseline to compare to...look forward to reading more about your experiences...

  9. I came here from Denise's blog as well... another person contemplating homeschooling! I love your approach to schooling. :) I've just been contemplating it for a few months, but think that unschooling would be more my approach as well, at least for the kindergarten level! Like Denise, right now I am thinking of starting kindergarten and seeing how it goes from there. I hate to give up on the system entirely without checking it out first (at the least by going to open houses and such before registration for kindergarten!). Everything else I'm typing out about trying to make this decision isn't making sense... which is one reason I haven't blogged much about the decision. I need to do that soon though...


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