am I an unschooler?

June 8, 2011

A local teenage friend from a neighboring homeschooling group had a wonderful story on NPR the other day, about his life as an unschooler.

Mr. T, Chris and I listened together. Before the story was even finished, T wondered aloud, “Am I an unschooler?”

“Well, not exactly,” I told him, when the story ended. I explained that with unschooling, kids decide what they want to do, and how they spend their days. I pointed out how he and I work together for part of the day, most days, which is a little different than how it is for most unschoolers. “And I help you decide what you’re going to learn about. So I’ll remind you that once in a while we should probably do something with math, and I’ll offer lots of ideas, but you decide what kind of math looks most interesting. Right?”

“Yeah,” he said, thinking. “So what we do is kind of like unschooling with…structure.”

How did he come up with that word? He pretty much echoed my own explanation of how we homeschool.

And then he moved on to talking about Magic cards. And let those unschooling thoughts simmer.

The next night as he jumped around on his bed, in jammie pants and shirtless, procrastinating tooth-brushing, he said, “I’m thinking about what I want to learn about.”

The conversation was back on, apparently.

“I can decide that, right?”

Of course he can decide that. Maybe he’d forgotten how most mornings I ask what he wants to learn about, and what he wants to do.

“Because I’m thinking about what I want to learn about. And I’m thinking that I want to have days when I do projects. I don’t like doing projects in little bits every day. It just gets boring. I want to have a whole day when I just do a project.”

More bed jumping.

“And I want to have research days. When I plan the projects.”

What kind of projects?

“Well, I’ve made too many books lately. I liked when I made that colonial house.” He went to pull his cardboard house off the shelf. And the door fell off.

More three-dimesional stuff, maybe?

“Yeah. And maybe a project day every week. And I want to make a list of what I want to learn about.”

Maybe a project journal? Where you plan what you want to do?

“That’s a great idea! A homeschooling journal! I can write down what I’m doing and what I want to do.” And with that, he ran downstairs.

Why do all the greatest insights happen at bedtime?

I caught up with him at the kitchen table where he’d already started this list.

What he wants to learn about. The little arrow glyphs indicate topics he wants to learn about later. Maybe today I’ll mention some of the other things he’s interested in, like learning to design video games, that didn’t make it on to his list.

“It’s funny,” he said. “The kids in my tennis class kept saying how they can’t wait for summer. But I don’t feel that way. Sometimes summer gets boring.”

Truth is, our morning time of working together often falls by the wayside in the summer. We become more like, well, unschoolers.

“You want to make sure we keep working together over the summer?” I asked.


No problem, buddy.

The entire conversation fascinated me. Here’s a kid who’s asked day in and out, what do you want to do? What do you want to learn about? But I think he’s taken those questions for granted. The NPR story, I imagine, gave him a little perspective. He’s beginning to realize that he has choices that most kids don’t have–and he wants to grab those choices like candy from a busted piñata and run with them.

First plan for this morning: a trip to the library. To find books about some of those items on his list.

Something tells me this will be a fun summer. (Now how are we going to learn Greek?)

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacey June 8, 2011 at 10:09 am

That just gave me shivers to read. It always amazes me how much kids take in and process internally while life happens around them.


patricia June 8, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Kids are amazing. Thanks for stopping by and saying hello, Stacey!


Dawn June 8, 2011 at 11:17 am

I think if you looked more into unschooling you’d realize that your are mostly an unschooler. Unschooling looks different for every family. I have a friend whose an unschooler and last year all 3 of her children decided to use a public online school, but she is still an unschooler in that. Her kids have made the choice to do this schooling. Unschooling isn’t necessarily strictly kid directed but listening and respecting your kids as human beings who can make choices and working with them on what they want to do. If they are interested in building colonial homes you help in whatever way they need and reliaze the value in what they are doing and that it’s not more valuable than Pokemon stories.


patricia June 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I do think we have much in common with unschoolers. And I absolutely respect and admire families who unschool in the purest sense of the word.

Many unschoolers, though, get rather twisted up in the definition and what it “really” means. Many would take issue, I think, with me calling myself an unschooler, yet taking a guiding role in my kids’ educations. Because I do guide them. They guide me too; there’s a lot of give-and-take. But I don’t want to get defensive about the fact that I’ve always asked them to work with me most days, and that I’ve encouraged them to keep some balance in what they’re learning. The specifics of what they do has always been led by the kids–and I’ve always gone out of my way to help support their interests and beliefs.

My oldest two–one just finished his first year of college, and one a first year of high school, a decision she made for herself–are both happy that we homeschooled the way we did. They feel that they were able to develop their strengths and interests, but were also easily able to transition into a more traditional school setting when they decided to.

So I still wouldn’t call us unschoolers, but we’re fairly unschool-y!

(And anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows I would never under-value a Pokemon story!)

Thanks for the comment, Dawn!


Debbie June 8, 2011 at 11:42 am

I’ve always thought you guys were/came across as unschoolers. Like Dawn said, it looks different for every family and you can make it what ever you want, as long as “choice” is at the centre of it all. I’ve always found you to be a big inspiration to me on my unschooling journey. I love reading here and being inspired by the awesome things your kids are doing or have done…and to see how well you manage all their interestes. It’s awesome.

Isaac is four (almost five) and has just taken to learning a good many of the elements of the periodic table. He now knows their name, their atomic number and their symbols. All because we have a cool element book lying around and he likes to read it. He also is trying to learn Latin. Geesh! That one isn’t going to be as easy for me. 🙂

I love what kids run with when given the choice. It’s an awesome life. xo


patricia June 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Thanks so much, Debbie. I gave a longer response to the comment above yours about the is it/isn’t it unschooling conundrum. In a lot of ways, it’s all just semantics, isn’t it?

Isaac is amazing–that’s clear! Do you have The Elements by Theodore Gray? That’s the one my T goes back to again and again. He knows so much more about chemistry than I do. Maybe learning Latin won’t have to be easy for you–Isaac may just do it on his own!


Just Peaches June 8, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Love his enthusiasm! The great thing about kids is that they can lead us in directions we never thought about or maybe we didn’t feel capable enough to learn.

For example, when my daughter was eight she wanted to learn how to knit. Now, a Finnish woman had taught me to knit when I was 12 but somehow my stitches were always too tight and she wasn’t around to show me how to cast off so I abandoned knitting. It wasn’t “my thing”…or so I thought.

Fast forward almost thirty years and imagine an eight year old on Christmas morning looking up at me with pleading eyes asking me to teach her how to knit. I had planned to have a friend of mine teach her in the new year but she just couldn’t wait. So together we sat down to figure it out. Soon I found myself searching the house for her ball of yarn. I could knit after all.

So Patricia, you never know: it might be all Greek to you now, but you may find yourself ready to travel to Athens to practice ordering a glass of wine. Wouldn’t that be fab?

It sounds like you have an exciting summer to look forward to.


patricia June 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm

There’s no holding back a kid with interest and drive, is there? And it’s even better when we get pulled along for the ride, like you did with knitting!

Funny thing about traveling to Athens: we’ve done it! We went with friends who have a family home on a Greek island. I’m pretty good with languages, but we also went to Italy on that trip, so I focused on my Italian. All I can say in Greek is thank you and watermelon (karpoozi, which always cracks me up.) Mr. T loved that trip and all things Greek, so he wants to go back–speaking Greek this time.

Maybe he can order the wine for me…


Kathy June 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I heard that piece the other day and it really made me thing about my son. Especially the part about “I learned how to read when I needed to.” My son still struggles with reading (and with structured school in general due to language processing issues), but needs the supports that it offers. That said, he’s passionate about what he wants to be passionate about — I’ve often thought he’d do best with an unstructured curriculum within some sort of structured school. It’s the only way I can reconcile his total command of all 50 state capitals (which he’s interested in) and his total lack of mastery of math facts (which is is NOT interested in).


patricia June 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm

We’re all somewhat “uneven” in our interests and abilities, aren’t we? It’s just that schools typically expect us to be completely balanced generalists. One of these days they’ll start figuring out that it makes more sense to develop each student’s individual strengths. We’d all be more happy and productive.

I heard an interesting talk on that very topic by Sir Ken Robinson the other day:

Nice to hear from you again, Kathy!


Carrie Pomeroy June 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm

What a great, multi-faceted list he’s got there, and I love that he actually has a clear sense of what he wants to learn now and what he wants to put off until later. And how many 9-year-olds express an interest in learning about pi and logic? Oh, the joy!


patricia June 9, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Funny, huh? We had a huge stack of books to check out at the library yesterday and the librarian (not our regular one) ran over and asked if they were nonfiction. When I said yes, she pointed out that we could only have three books from any one call number. Presumably so kids don’t wipe out a section when working on a report. I informed her that we actually had books from a variety of call numbers. I’m not sure she believed me. (Actually we did sneak out four books from a few sections. We’re so evil!)

I have to wonder how many hooligan kids are really going in there during the summer and getting greedy with nonfiction.


mamascout June 10, 2011 at 5:49 am

this is is similar to how we homeschool. i try to have some structure for some of the basics and so much freedom for all our passions. but the biggest agreement is how everything does happen at bedtime; huge connections, brillant ideas, and wild energy. i am always grateful that we are not in a huge hurry to get to bed so we can flesh out our ideas.


patricia June 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I cannot even imagine what it would be like to get kids to bed “on time” for school the next day. So much good stuff would get shut down!


Barbara June 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm

It does seem that at the ends of the spectrum there is a lot of hair splitting about what is and isn’t the real deal. I see this also around child-led weaning, for example–that anyone who places any limits on breastfeeding isn’t *really* practicing CLW. I am honestly bewildered by this–when it comes to homeschooling, the subset of us who really and truly are guided by our children’s interests and desires is really a pretty small group. Why work so hard to kick folks out of a small group?

I feel like the place that I tend to deviate from unschooling at times is that I think it’s my responsibility to be the adult–I have maturity and experience and information and perspective that my kids do not have, and I would be remiss not to provide any guidance. I think of homeschooling as a collaboration with my kids–I love Lori @ Camp Creek Press’s phrase “negotiated curriculum.” My kids look to me for guidance and support and I look to them for inspiration. It seems to work pretty well.


patricia June 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Yup, we’re on the same page–or screen! I love your use of the word collaboration in this sense. Maybe we’re collaborative homeschoolers! That format works well for us, not only because everyone winds up happy, but also because we’re all working on those collaboration skills, which are so important in life. I love all of Lori’s stuff. But there’s something about the phrase “negotiated curriculum”that doesn’t quite do it for me–although I fully appreciate the thinking behind the phrase. It just sounds so, well, argumentative, as if no one really gets what they want. And the word “curriculum” has such top-down connotations for me.

I’d prefer to say that we have a creative, collaborative model of homeschooling. Yes, I do believe I like that!


Jennifer Gallegos June 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

Haha! Your query about how to learn Greek reminded me of when I was ten (I think) I decided I was going to teach myself Greek. I borrowed a book from the library and proceeded to learn the Greek alphabet. It eventually turned into a secret code I could write my journals in and then somewhere along the way it fell by the wayside and I don’t remember a single thing I learned! But I had fun exploring it on my own. 🙂


patricia June 6, 2012 at 10:35 pm

You were learning like a homeschooler even when you were a kid!


Cy May 1, 2013 at 10:31 am

I’ve just discovered your website, and this post made my heart sing! 🙂 Love the stuff you write about – I’m feeling very inspired. We’ve had a very math-oriented homeschooling experience so far (following the kid – I’m not particularly mathy myself) and I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with the language arts side of things. You have so many great ideas! Love the grammar posts, dictation project, etc. Just wanted to say thanks and keep up the good work!


patricia May 1, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Little pleases me more than hearing I’ve made someone’s heart sing! Thank you, Cy. Nice to meet you!


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