Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why do we homeschool?

Sy contemplates his homemade "light saber" complete with a fleet of flying "attack mice."

Like so many other parents who homeschool, we are regularly beset with questions regarding our decisions to do so. And, while I often welcome the opportunity to explain to others the potential joys of keeping your kids at home and allowing them to "grow without schooling" (which is what they've been doing successfully so far), it is a near impossibility to explain this in the 10 minutes or less that most people expect. One of the unschooling blogs I've recently discovered has a very succinct answer to this question.

Like this homeschooler and many others, there are hundreds of reasons why we choose to homeschool, and why we have decided to unschool in particular. Here are just a few of the reasons why we choose to homeschool:

  • School is authoritarian: schools are designed "for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce . . . human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled" (Gatto Dumbing Us Down 23); in school, children are discouraged from questioning adults and school rules, and are often punished when they don't obey.
  • School is contrived: learning takes place away from the real world, and children often have difficulty making connections between what they learn in school and how that knowledge can be practically applied in the world around them (my own experience with math attests to this).
  • School segregates: children are grouped by age; class and race divisions in the community often determine that most schools are homogenous, rather than heterogenous; and adults are present as authority figures, not as friends or allies. Thus, children's socialization is artificially homogenous in comparison to the diversity of ages, classes and races they will come into contact with upon leaving school.
  • School does not provide children with healthy lifestyle options: children (even Kindergarteners!) are tied to their desks for many hours per day, recess and physical education are being reduced and in some cases eradicated all together, school food is over processed, fatty, loaded with sugar and has little nutritional value.
  • School encourages consumerism: in addition to the fast food options available at lunch, children are the targets of marketing everywhere in their schools, from the vending machines, to the curriculum materials, to the advertising on their sports equipment, to bus radio.
  • School is not for learning: children are forced to read and perform according to a uniform curriculum - they have no voice in curricular choices; their intellect is not respected nor is it encouraged; their love of learning is strangled and "learning" (facts, dates, correct answers for standardized tests) becomes work; they focus on extrinsic rewards, which inhibits learning and makes what they have learned difficult to translate into practical situations.
  • School teaches competition, rather than collaboration: "Researchers have found that competitive structures reduce generosity, empathy, sensitivity to others' needs, accuracy of communication, and trust" (Kohn "Is Competition Ever Appropriate"); this seems contrary to their development as caring, helpful and sensitive family members, neighbors and citizens.
  • School encourages the pseudo-diagnosis of attention disorders and the overmedication of children: forcing children to conform to the unnatural context of school (sitting still for long periods of time, forcing direct attention) and neglecting their inquisitive, explorative, demonstrative natures.
  • School teaches patriotism (read "nationalism"), rather than civics: if a thriving democracy depends on it citizens to be critical thinkers, who understand the necessity of questioning, critiquing and, when necessary, actively seeking change, then patriotism is a thorn in the side of democracy.
These are some of the many reasons why we have chosen to grow without schooling. Next up: why we think "unschooing" is for us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


We just discovered a wonderful new resource online thanks to one of our unschooling friends: Storybird! It is a free resource for creating stories to share online. The artwork is inspiring, and you can collaborate with others in writing your story. Sy has chosen to start with the artwork of Victoria Usova, who states that her inspiration is a mixture of Rublev, Chagall, Hokusai, and Dr. Seuss. Be sure to check it out! Sy's first storybird begins, "the trees have faces. happy, princess faces." We'll let you know when the tale is all told!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Busy Bees

Well, this has been a rather busy summer for the Peck-Creech clan.

Sy has almost finished the first Suzuki book, and has now begun improvising with left hand chords and right hand virtuosity. He gives us regular concerts. This involves zero negotiation, since he sees this as a joyful act in and of itself. Alfie Kohn would be proud.

Violet is learning how to use the potty all on her own, without the "help" (or hindrance, shall we say) of the infamous (and ineffective, perhaps even traumatizing) potty party touted by some as "effective" and "enjoyable" (yeah, right.) Okay, so maybe we are clapping and singing her praises, but there is no chocolate or threat involved, so I think we're on the right track.

We are watching our garden grow (and get rather weedy). The kids can identify all of the mints, the zinnias and bee balm, and enjoy walking on the cushy irish sagina moss around the wigwam.

We have spotted a hummingbird at the bee balm, and have discovered lots of wildlife in the backyard: besides the usual suspects (caterpillars, toads, rabbits, deer) we have a large family of wild turkeys that walk through a couple of times per day, browsing in the butterfly garden. Our woodchucks have disappeared - I imagine they have found other foraging spots, but we certainly miss them.

The Waldschule has taken off! Our first trip was to Mendon Ponds Park with the Rochester Butterfly Club. There we were introduced to a variety of caterpillars, including that of the Cecropia Moth (beware of hairy and colorful caterpillars - they can be aggressive!)

We also saw a crysalis up close

spotted a Common Wood Nymph

a White Admiral

and a Cicada Killer (including two flying through the air, bum-to-bum, in a mating dance!)

We ended the afternoon with a lovely picnic while the kids frolicked under the trees and transformed into birds of prey.

Sy has started reading the Bob Books First! series and thinks they're pretty cool. He has read almost all of the first book in the first series. It has also been the summer of the fairy tale, and we have been reading our favorite Grimm and Andersen tales all summer (only the Svend S. Otto and Lisbeth Zwerger versions, of course, since we adore the illustrations!) and listening to a few on LP. Violet continues to ignore her ABCs and give all the wrong answers when you ask "what color is this?" I think she's figured out that she's "supposed" to know and is just pulling one over on us.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Death of the Dinosaurs

Syler's dramatic re-enactment of the death of the dinosaurs, with a special epilogue on Kronosaurus.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Outdoor Hour Challenge #1

So we've decided to participate in the "Outdoor Hour Challenge" posted weekly at the
Handbook of Nature Study blog. A friend in our 0-5ish Playgroup, Del, put us on to the blog, and the amazing book it uses as its "textbook," the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock. It's a wonderful way for us to be a bit more schematic with our nature study, even though we're outdoors almost every day and the kids seem to need little motivation. However, the first challenge asked us to read the first 8 pages of the Comstock text, go outside and explore, and then discuss what we observed. Here's what we did:
  • While gardening/weeding, the kids discovered some snails, tent caterpillars and various bugs living in and around the rotting stump of a dead tree. We watched them, picked some up, and talked about what we saw.
  • The next day, I made two terraria (glass jar, moist soil, leaves, cheesecloth and rubber band) and sent the kids out to find a garden snail; I had already found a tent caterpillar that morning while filling up the bird feeder.
  • After the kids collected a snail, I we put the snail and caterpillar into two different terraria and started watching our new "pets."

  • We watched the tent caterpillar explore the terrarium, climbing on leaves and wall; I pulled out the Comstock and read to them about the different body parts and Sy identified his head, thorax and abdomen, counted his legs (3 pairs of “true legs,” 4 pairs of “prolegs,” 1 “propleg,” called the "anal proleg" below), observed his head w/mouth, watched him eat some of the leaf, observed his movement, and identified his coloring (black with red spots) and his hair. We looked for his spiracles (holes on the side of the body for breathing), but we couldn't find them.

  • The snail soon dove down into the soil and didn't emerge for a couple of days, despite the fact that we've given him a nice chunk of sweet apple to nosh on. 
  • After adding a bit more water to his terrarium, he resurfaced and we were able to check out his really long eye stalks, his feeler stalks, and look at his striped shell.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Free, Conscious Activity

"When productive work is suffused with the qualities of play--that is, with freedom, creativity, and imagination--we experience that work as play . . . In our culture today, those people who have the most freedom of choice and opportunity for creativity within their work are most likely to say they enjoy their work and regard it as play" (Peter Gray,
"Play Makes Us Human I").

"Labor [is] life-activity, productive life itself . . . the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species - its species character - is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man's species character" (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 75-76).

These two quotes have given me a bit to think about. As homeschooling parents, we are constantly searching for ways to engage our children's desire to productively play, to learn with freedom and imagination, without squashing that desire through any preconceived notions of intellectual or academic progress, the pitfalls of rewards and punishments,  or pressure from outside to "prove" they will be intelligent, well-rounded kids as a result of their not being schooled with others. I have to also consistently remind myself that play is necessary, psychologically, socially, humanly, and that the institutions we regularly engage often are not of the same opinion.

While I find the above quotes to be similarly enlightening, I often wonder why play and "free conscious activity" are thwarted so early on in children's lives. And yet, in the process of watching David Simon's HBO series, The Wire, in reading Linn's The Case for Make Believe, Louv's Last Child in the Woods and now John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down, I have to admit that I don't wonder why, rather I know why. The institutions we must engage cannot be disentangled from the global system for which they were designed, and a system that stands in clear opposition to "free conscious activity."

As homeschooling parents, we are able to make a small difference in our children's lives by extending the length of time they can resist these oppressive modes of thought, their estrangement from what Marx has called their "species being." In enabling their "free, conscious activity," we are hopefully giving them more time to understand that being before having to confront the myriad institutional obstacles to "life-engendering life."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bugs, slugs and caterpillars

We spent the early morning observing bugs in the backyard. We discovered a tent caterpillar on the slide . . .

a snail on the deck . . .

and a small toad on the patio.

I just started Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods. I'm glad the woods are in our backyard.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

An unschooling summer 1

Having some unstructured play in the sand - a perfect beginning to the summer! 

With the semester finally over, we have been enjoying the summer and our unfettered time with the kids. In addition to the usual dinosaur books, we've been reading lots of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers (Syler's favorite: Rotkäppchen - he's quite enamored of the wolf dressing up like grandma and devouring the heroine; Violet's favorite: Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten, which Uncle JD has expanded upon by gifting us the Lithuanian DVD of the Russian production from 1968, Bremeno Muzikantai/bremenskii musikanti - full of late 60s psychodelia, which the kids are loving.) The kids are busy playing in the backyard, making music, learning baseball basics, and digging in the dirt, while I'm delving into some pleasure reading venturing into more blogging time. Jason is still the domestic god, whipping up delicious dinners, mowing the lawn, and keeping the kids' creative juices flowing.

The kids have really gotten into observational and creative drawing, in the driveway, after hikes and on chilly days.

Driveway art

Pine cones found along the trail.

We've also discovered the joy of Ed Emberley's drawing books . . .

which show us how to use basic shapes in creating elaborate animals and entire worlds. Thanks, Ed.

We've been talking a lot about tall tales after reading Rebecca and Ed Emberley's version of The Story of Paul Bunyan. Sy is now ready to counter any exaggeration with "hey, I think that's a tall tale." Today we were entertained by a live circus performance, complete with feats of gymnastic agility and frolicking dances. Yesterday was the puppet magic show: the magician couldn't keep the purple egg from prematurely producing characters that couldn't breathe underwater. It was a comedy of errors. Today, Jason and the kids baked a pie and built Lego garages for the Hot Wheels. Violet will most likely read The Runaway Bunny to Mickey for the 40th time, and I will try to finish Susan Linn's The Case for Make Believe.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Will they learn all they need to know?

The biggest challenge (and joy) in growing without schooling is learning to trust our children, to respect their desires and to allow them to take the lead. Sometimes it is difficult to say, “it’s fine that Sy doesn’t want to write this week,” or “24 hours of just make believe play is learning!” Yet, both of these statements are true. The problem is simply that we’ve all grown up in an educational system that removes us from the world we are supposed to understand, where only certain forms of knowledge are valid, and those are compartmentalized and stripped of all contexts. Sy and Violet are learning and they are learning a lot. Certainly, they are both amassing what one might consider “book” knowledge: Violet is already counting to 10 and saying her ABCs;  Sy can read words with various consonant blends and vowel combinations, count to 100, and tell you the difference between carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs. Yet, what is most interesting to me are the ways in which they have come to understand things and to do so in great depth. Sy knows more than I ever did about dinosaurs because he wants to know. No amount of coaxing, rewards, direction or punishment could move him to delve into a topic for so many hours per day the way his desire to know and learn can. This is how we came, today, to do research on amoebae. Before the nap, we read The Biggest Thing in the Ocean, about a giant squid that thinks it’s the largest thing in the ocean, but ends up being eaten by a whale. At the end of the book, a small fish on the copyright page says, “I’m bigger than plankton,” to which Sy responded, “Plankton’s not bigger than anything.” I responded by saying, “Well, a plankton is bigger than an amoeba,” which was enough for him to decide that we needed to look it up after the nap. We spent about 20 minutes on the internet looking at drawings and photos of amoebae, learning about how this single-celled organism can eat without a mouth, stomach or digestive system (using pseudopods and a food vacuole), learning about where they live (fresh water, salt water, in the soil, in other organisms - “like us!” Sy said). While it seems ludicrous that an almost 4 year old can assimilate such knowledge, I know he’s learning because it interests him, because he relates what he learns to experience, because he returns to the things he likes over and over again, and because those interests lead to other related interests (the discussion of amoebae actually led to research on hammerhead sharks - there is a shark in the book - which led to an attempt to identify all of the sea creatures on the final page of the book - eels, rays, sharks, squids, octopi, various fish, etc.)

Here’s just a brief glimpse of the things we worked on this week:

Music: Violet and Sy have both been singing A Rum-Sum-Sum and High and Low in music class this week (tapping out the macro and micro beats, changing words to fit various actions/scenarios, incorporating the names of friends into the revised songs); Sy has been playing Twinkle A-D, Honeybee, Hänschen Klein and Cuckoo on the piano, he’s supposed to start Mary Had a Little Lamb this week.

Art: “Flag of India” - at Indian buffet on Monday night, Sy saw the flag of India and decided to look it up online, he then made his own version; observational drawing (bananas, pencil can, lollipop drum, cardboard box); painting: batik (dripping wax onto paper, painting over, ironing off wax); window ornaments: tracing, cutting (star, heart, oval, circle from batik painting)

Storytelling: weaving parts of The Curious Demise of a Contrary Cat, Hänsel & Gretel, Rotkäppchen and various dinosaur facts, Sy is beginning to create “jokes” and “stories.”

Science: dinosaur, amoeba and shark research

Math: Uno (counting, matching, sequencing), Sy’s game of “I love you 160 million degrees” (we try to increase the number and form of measurement to the best of our ability)

Reading: “Word Card Game” (reading and matching words ending in  -an, -at, -ay, -e, -ee, -ick, -in, –ish, –it, -on, -op; consonant blends ch-, cl-, cr-, dr-, fl-, kn-, pl-, sh-, sl-, spl-, st-, th-, thr- )

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Turtles, Snakes and Brumation!

Our trip to Cincinnati for the holidays was lots of fun. In addition to trips to the Natural History Museum, Children’s Museum, and Newport Aquarium we attended two lectures offered by the Hamilton County Park and Recreation Board.

Raptors at Woodland Mound!

We observed 4 raptors that day: the Red-Tailed Hawk, Eastern Screech Owl, Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl. We learned about their predatory habits (day/night hunting, use of eyesight vs. hearing, size and types of prey, use of talons/beaks), their physical characteristics (feathers and markings, facial features, size and weight), and we discovered that that awesome sound an eagle makes in all of those Hollywood westerns is actually the call of the Red-Tailed Hawk! Who knew? Later we hiked on the nature trail and pretended to be owls hunting different small rodents. 

Snakes, turtles and brumation at Miami Whitewater Park!

We observed 3 turtles (2 Box Turtles and 1 Red-Eared Slider) and 2 snakes (Black Rat Snake and Fox Snake). We learned all kinds of things: Box Turtles get their names from their ability to pull all of their body parts into their shell, as if retreating into a box; they are omnivores (like us), who live mostly on land; females have flat bellies, males have a thumb-sized indentation on the belly; the scutes (circular scales on the shell) are shed like skin and grow in rings (like a tree trunk) each year - you can estimate a turtle’s age by counting the scutes on its shell; their backbones connect their soft bodies to their shells (which means that if they lose their shells, they die); Box Turtles can live up to 100 years! Brumation is the hibernation-like state that cold-blooded animals use during the cold weather: their circulation slows down, they become very lethargic and sleep, but not so much that they have to expend a lot of energy in order to eat, if they have to. They typically brumate in a burrow, rock crevice or, in the case of the Box Turtle, they use their back legs to dig deep into the leaf litter and cover themselves up.

For the rest of the week, we were playing “snakes in the cage” in Nana’s living room. Exhausting, but more stimulating than Super Mario.