How We Ended Up Unschooling: A Long Story About What Works for Us

That’s me! Always in the middle.

Hi, my name is Christine, and I unschool my two kiddos, currently aged 11 and 10.

We’ve done this form of life-schooling for the past three years, with occasional forays into requested curricula. For example, two years ago my 9yo daughter asked for formal reading instruction. Rosetta’s medium dyslexic, and I’d gone slowly, introducing the letters and their sounds when she was ready, then reading reading reading daily. I went immediately to the web + purchased All About Reading. She was super excited! Each morning, the two of us sat at the table with workbooks, flashcards. Two months in she shrugged, said, “I can already read better than this because of Roblox” and walked away. I waited, but she was finished.

I had read about unschooling and had researched all the methods for schooling alongside my lengthy attachment-parenting reading list. Bridging the gap between public school and unschooling, which I had no real-life personal references to, proved a more difficult leap for my very traditional partner. We started homeschooling from the start, after lengthy discussion-fights between me and my partner, George, who remembers his year of kindergarten fondly and didn’t want his kids to “miss out on the fun part.” “What if it was all the fun part?” I countered.

2016: When I first began deviating from the Oak Meadows curriculum, I wrote the daily poem as a shortcut for myself, then touched on the subject matter briefly.

Off we went into Waldorf-ian curriculum! Oak Meadows (pre-update) was all fairy tales + stories, songs, poems + art. I opened a specific book to start, but we were already doing these basic things: reading, sprawling art projects, wandering in nature, singing aloud. By second grade there were small science experiments that I supplemented with weather tracking printout Rosetta wanted. Then my oldest was onto history and stone tools, so we introduced a YouTube playlist stocked with information. No looking back. I barely held on, following Wilder through paleolithic stone tools to indigenous peoples to traditional weaponry to hand building skills. It was an authentic path to child-led learning, and I was thrilled to be here. We never even opened the year 3 curriculum, and I relied instead on my son telling me what he needed next.

I began Wildling Collective in 2019, inviting a selection of our homeschool friends to a space we liked, and throwing out ideas of how it would work. As signer of the lease, I drew from all of those ideas into a co-op that followed a general lesson plan for each day. That was quickly tossed out! The kids wanted to play, needed an interactive space for their own exploring together. We replaced the lessons with themes based on the kids’ interests, and off we went.

By 2017, I distilled the weekly lesson plan into 4-5 things that felt doable with our schedule, and were often the most fun. Those are the numbers on the top left.
Everything else I was just noting for myself, or for fun.

Then came the wrench: my daughter liked the pace + rhythm of following a daily plan. That is how she grew up, pulling up a chair to the table + listening to stories.

After skipping along merrily after my son, 5yo Rosetta erupted like a speed bump – or an abrupt stop – depending on the day. Because she couldn’t iterate it but felt her needs were being ignored, Rosetta became disruptive. When we prepped for an experiment, or watched a video that didn’t play to her interests, I’d hear “I hate this,” followed by loud sounds in our vicinity that didn’t allow us to focus on anything else. It took me a long time to figure out where we’d left the track together, because she’s a generally sunny, empathic person who enjoys the approval of her people. Truthfully it was hard to want to help her, to even envision it as helping, because I thought she was making everything so difficult.

Now we could not leave for gatherings or events where she didn’t believe we’d considered her opinion on the activity or the people attending. The standoff recurred 2-3 times weekly, and I was stunned at the level of volume and meanness employed. Sometimes Wilder and I would cry together, uncertain what to do next, or if we’d even be able to go. The kids’ relationship suffered too; both resentful of what they thought the other was getting. They weren’t able to simply play together anymore. Even that was a power struggle for whose game got priority, who got the “good” parts.

Meanwhile, we all grew older and learned more skills.

By 2019, there was no curriculum. I just tried to touch on each subject for my weekly reporting to our school program. And the booklists are always, always, just for me.

Our daily rhythm was centered on meals now, and taking lunch outdoors with a handful of picture books. I started noticing that Rosetta loved this part. The reading, the small bits of art supply I brought along. This kid needed things to DO, and she wasn’t always able to improvise, the way her brother did. Okay, I thought, I can work with this. I was delighted to have some clue to work with at all.

I added our daily structure back in. It felt weird. I’d thought the point was to be free and loose, and I’d kind-of wandered around bored myself, wondering what came next. Was it okay for me to like the structure? Am I making them like it? No, I decided. They were free to leave, so we’d just see what happened.

The whole time, we’d been randomly reading over breakfast, and plotting out a daily project as time allowed. Now I cemented it all, going back to a written approach for our days. Instead of planning each day, I wrote out ideas for 1-2 science projects that week, a field trip, an art project with steps or a video, something animal-related for Rosetta, a history nudge for Wilder, and a hike. On days when we weren’t headed off for a group activity, I had everything ready. We’d read a few books, settle into breakfast and whatever project we had going on the table, then discuss our plans for the day. If the kids wanted to do different things, we could often separate them by time frame, but sometimes we had to schedule another day and ease the tension that we’d definitely do all of the things. There was markedly less disruption now.

My kids learned to read along the way, from a combo of reading aloud, pointing out and spelling words to me. “I want to have spelling tests,” Wilder asked me after an episode of Phineas & Ferb. So we had cheatable tests, where I simply folded the page away from the words I gave him, and repeated the words aloud. Wilder tried to spell the words and sometimes they were wrong. Rosetta peeked every single time because she could not stand the idea of getting one wrong.

Learning has definitely been easy. My kids are individual experts in their video games, on their chosen animals, + for their projects. Interests range from Japan to mountain biking to foraging herbs, and I enjoy the wild variety.

I buy notebooks + workbooks in the fall because they like to start their school year with something new – there’s just an energy in that autumn air, I think. Rosetta likes worksheets more than Wilder, but both of them like to see what the kids across the street (where the public school is) are up to each year. I set the books out with new pencils + art supplies during our reading time each morning.

Two years ago we stumbled into an online learning program that returns some of the schooling tax dollars back to us in exchange for a weekly report. I earn $1200/kid for memberships, classes and supplies for the things we love doing already. The downside is more accountability, but this particular program is only aiming for growth, which aligns more with my own goals.

A 2022 sampling of the type of notes I often take during a “school year,” mostly for reporting or the kids’ end-year evaluations, but also because I am a note-taker, a documentarian of my own life.

Usually on Sundays, we talk about the week’s schedule: what it’s missing, where there’s too much, what days we’ll be tired + how to fill those with meaningful activity – projects + cookery, even cleaning up. We’re normally able to balance each person’s goals with a simple convo. Confirmed schedules are written on a calendar for the fridge that also lists who’s cooking + what they’re making each day. You should probably know that I love paper, so this calendar exists in real life, as do all of my weekly notes + reminders, if they don’t fit on my hand.

It’s probably been four years since I stumbled into the beginning of the rhythm that works, and we still fall away sometimes. Unschooling, for us, requires seasonal rebuilding, a shuffle unique to us. We remix our schedules, add and subtract interests, even shift the people we spend time with most as even friendships have an ebb and flow. Our life is alive with growth + change, which is often super uncomfortable.

I’m hoping it all shakes out as long as we bookend our days with stories. Laying in bed with a good book is such a comfort, isn’t it? It anchors my days + ends them with closeness. That’s really all I wanted for my homeschool life, in the end, anyway.

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