Goal-making around unschooling is a natural and delightful process for us. And, yes, we do it in September, right after Labor Day. Swimming days are over. Neighborhood kids are boarding buses. The weather is chillier (sometimes). Back-to-school advertisements are in every newspaper, magazine, and storefront window. Outgrown clothes are sorted and taken to Goodwill, arms and legs are measured for “new” clothes. Vegetables are harvested. Excitement is in the air. We celebrate, too.
“What do you want to learn this fall?” is the big question at our family meeting. The question is for all of us. Last year, when I said, “I want to learn to make gluten-free bakery,” it took me 3 days to start, after a year of shying away from the daunting task. By November, I was happily baking every other day. Impressive, what saying our goals aloud can do for us.
Here are my 5 year old Fire Girl’s goals for this fall. She came up with every one of them on her own:
1. Listen to a lot of fairy tales
2. Learn some rhymes and clap-games
3. Learn to read
4. Learn to jump rope
5. Sing in choir
6. Go to library
7. Take art and dance classes
8. Learn how to make fairy crowns
And here are my 9 year old Water Boy’s:
1. Finish chemistry curriculum
2. Finish Story of the World 1 and start 2
3. Learn more about food science (this is the third year he has made this a goal, and he is beyond what I can teach him; we had to make a list of resources this year)
4. Take robotics classes
5. Play 30 games of Magic: The Gathering with people who are really good
6. Complete requirements for Webelos year
7. Sing in choir
8. Read science fiction
9. “I wish for a steel drum and steel drum lessons.”
Every morning, we dedicate time to working toward these goals. We don’t always look at the list, but usually we end up in the direction of one or two of the goals, anyway.
The other day, getting ready to do some work, Water Boy surprised me by becoming sad and expressing anxiety that he was perhaps not “on level” with other kids his age. In reality, according to last year’s standardized testing results, he is far above (up to college) grade level in some areas, and slightly behind (up to 6 months) in others, and right on target in yet others. If you want to measure intelligence this way, there you are. We don’t measure intelligence that way, and rarely talk about standardized tests or grade levels.
Anyway, I didn’t try to squash his fears. I just asked him what he wanted to do to help relieve that anxiety. He said that he wanted more structure to his learning; he wanted me to “make sure” he was covering 4 subjects a day. We already utilize our morning hours to learn in whichever way my children choose, but he was asking for more. This is who he is- responsibility and conscientiousness are just parts of his personality. He was noticeably relieved when I told him that of course we could do that if he wanted.
Here is a brief intermission to break some things down: Water Boy has Pervasive Developmental Delays and some sensory needs. He struggles in school-like environments. His body and mind start to “crash down” when he feels overwhelmed by work, too many expectations thrown at him at once, or when he is in high-stimulus environments. When he was younger, preschool settings- even very low pressure ones- were not working for him. He was melting down frequently; yet at home, he was happy, calm and content to do hard work. He likes to put extreme focus into whatever he is thinking about, and has a hard time with the stop/go routines of school, and all the interruptions to his work. This is one major reason we homeschool.
In cyber school, Water Boy still resisted the busywork he didn’t want to do. I didn’t blame him, as the work was mundane and unchallenging. I tried to make him do it anyway, but I didn’t like who I was or who he was in those forcing scenarios. We decided we could do better without the cyber school, and we have. Since then, I have seen more and more that- given freedom and support- both my children can be in charge of their education, as evidenced by their goals above.
So, now, when Water Boy asked me to help him be more disciplined about his structure, he was in fact having a crisis. The crisis he went through at the age of 9 is one that I went through at the age of 22: am I willing to work toward my goals even when there are distractions, so I can end up with the result I want? He is choosing yes. He is also asking me to make sure that when he chooses yes, I back that up.
I am proud of him, but also have a bit of a conflict with this, because it means that “unschooling” is now, “hey remember you said you wanted me to make SURE you did this every day…please do it.” But if we see unschooling as honoring our children’s choices, this is what I am doing. If we pay attention, we will find our children are “telling us” whatever it is they need: more or less structure, less ambiguity, more choices, more attention, or whatever. We will know by their goals what they want, and by their willingness to work how badly they want it.
For a few days after this conversation, my son needed no reminders. Then, he needed a reminder. And my feelings were hurt when he sulked about it. I said, “hey you can do whatever you want. I’m just asking you to remember what you said you wanted.” He went upstairs for about 4 minutes, and then came back to finish his subject work, with no attitude or resentment. I hadn’t really expected him to come back so quickly, but then I realized that this was something I had never really experienced as a kid, this level of choice. He had remembered he was free, and responsible for his outcomes. He chose to complete his personal commitment for the day.
That was a hard day all around for me, for a variety of reasons. I ended it not feeling great about it at all. There were many things I would literally have liked to quit right then, because of a sense of overwhelm and exasperation. I was reminded however, of my son’s predicament earlier that morning. I had to ask myself, “is it worth it in the end?” I went to my room for a bit longer than 4 minutes, and cried a lot. I resolved to not quit anything just then. The next day, I put my whole free self into the work ahead of me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was indeed worth the frustration of the day before. I offered a prayer of thanks, that even though I may be a late bloomer in the arena of Choice and Freedom, my kids are already figuring out how to make these decisions for themselves, and follow through.