Journey into Unschooling

It became official in June 2005, and we completed our three-year journey into unschooling. It had evolved from the eleven years of regular, scope-and-sequence home schooling prior to that. I would like to take you on part of our journey into this new world to see how we, alongside our children, have come to treasure this mode of education above all others.

My husband Carl is the state representative from Lubbock. Immediately after his fourth successful run for the Texas House in November 2002, our U.S. Congressman announced his retirement. Carl announced his candidacy for Congress a few weeks later for a special election that would be held in May 2003. That meant that our school year would have to sustain two campaigns and elections—one in the fall and another in spring. There is no other way to describe the impact on our school other than to say, my best-laid plans at the beginning of the year were totally unmet and lay in shambles under mounds of debris and fallout. I tongue-in-cheek chalked it up to forced unschooling, not knowing how prophetic my little joke was.

However, as I reflected, I glimpsed some precious things. My thirteen-year-old son had composed a lengthy piece for piano and had written a play—a comedy totally scripted with stage directions. It was really good! My sixteen-year-old daughter had sewn a gorgeous, fully-lined, formal gown, which she wore to the Governor’s Inaugural Ball. Shamefully, these were projects I would never have allowed if I had been there—not because they were not worthy, but because they were time-consuming and my best-laid plans would not have allowed them. What else had they done while I was on the campaign trail? Certainly they had all done their share of campaigning, but what else was there that I had not seen?

During the summer months that followed, I had a time of crying out to the Lord in despair. Mediocrity abounded in my household, and I hated it, insisting that we recover academically. The children’s work was certainly less than stellar. Excellence in the form of going beyond my basic requirements was non-existent. I had to admit that it had almost always been that way, and it both broke my heart and made me angry.

The Lord in His mercy took me to Hebrews 3, which I will leave for you to explore. The lesson for me from the Lord was this: “You have built the best house you could. Now move over. I want to build a better one. Your part is to learn how to watch Me work and be content to stay in the gallery while I take the stage.”

Fundamentally, the issue was going to be one of trust.

In August, armed with this new, uncertain, and undefined mandate and another year for which to plan, I set about the task more tentatively than ever before. What does it mean to get out of the way and at the same time be the director? I made the plans for school but knew in my heart they would never be implemented.

Coincidentally, my own growth in the Lord began to accelerate. The number of personal challenges to lay down various sacred cows was immense. I continued to receive regular admonition from the Lord in my times of prayer for the kids, “Do you trust Me to complete the work in them which I’ve begun?”

Our eldest daughter Joan—a top-level gymnast—opened a gymnastics class for home schoolers. The class filled to capacity with a group of children who were unfamiliar to me. They were almost all unschoolers. As I watched and listened to the moms, I learned from them. One mom had herself grown up in a large unschooling family and, after finishing law school, was continuing the tradition unabashedly with her own family. One day in class, this mom was available to hear my frustration about Joan’s studying for the SAT test. This remarkable, very bright, well-educated, young daughter of mine could not pass a single practice test. Joan’s retention of the knowledge of the items for the test was (and the mom finished my sentence for me) “only the ones that she chose to learn, not the ones you chose for her.”

It hit me like a bombshell. She was right, and I was blown away.

Thoughts began racing. Was all that painstaking time poring over and adhering to the scope and sequence (what every child should know and when) wasted? Who in the world was it, anyway, that determined that every seventh-grader should know all the parts of a cell and their functions? Why was that more important than knowing, for example, all the intricacies of weather systems? And why were either of those important to someone whose passion was something totally different? Is it right to force my student to lay aside her own pursuits because someone, somewhere, neglected to give those pursuits as much credibility as items for study?

With my husband’s blessing, I decided to take a very serious look at this unschooling stuff. I ordered three books from an Internet search, which I now know was God-led. Two of them were authored by former public school teachers and one by a Christian mom who—like I—was led into the endeavor by the Holy Spirit. I learned that unschooling means allowing children the freedom to determine what they will learn when they choose to learn it and that their passion for the subject leads to mastery. It means recognizing that learning does not happen from ages six to eighteen, but from birth to ninety-nine, and that the order in which things are learned is really irrelevant. It means that reading and math are very important tools in the toolbox and that, when the child recognizes the importance of them in order to learn other things, he will indeed master his basics. It becomes a true love of learning because one subject followed to its end will always lead to a myriad of rabbit trails of study, creating a rich, complex tapestry. It means that I am no longer the teacher; I am the facilitator. (I hate that word, but it fits.) I have learned that even subtle coercions on my part resulting from my own insecurities are less productive for them than simply getting out of their way. I have learned that they respect and yearn for my insight into all their activities, but that they will ask for it when it is important to them, and until then, I will watch and wait and learn with them.

We now come to the third, and now completely immersed, year as unschoolers. What did we do? To tell the truth, there is a lot that I do not know. The children just lived life and explored whatever was before them, just like we adults do. The following are just a few memorable highlights:

  • My now eighteen-year-old daughter raised the funds to do a biblical archeology tour in the Mediterranean, tracing part of Paul’s missionary journey. She does freelance choreography and makeup artistry. She has bought her first car and taught herself to drive a standard.
  • My fifteen-year-old son loves and studies stage productions. He is one of a few male ballet dancers in the country and plans to pursue dance as far as it will take him. He works and learns at the Lubbock ISD TV station, doing everything they will let him do from working with cameras to directing and editing. He loves backpacking, trekking the infamous Philmont 90-miler with his dad and backpacking New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak. These interests have led him to dabble in physics, thereby uncovering his need to increase his math skills in order to pursue the subject more in depth.
  • My thirteen-year-old lives outdoors—literally. He moved into a tent in the backyard several weeks ago, planning at the time of this writing to sustain his new living quarters until cold weather hits and, maybe, into the winter months. His Boy Scout training will be essential. He is finishing his third year of building robots out of Lego® pieces and now teaches it to younger kids. He informed the family that he does not think he will continue, because he wants to spend more time at the wildlife refuge where he has been a volunteer for the last year. There is not a blade of grass around our playa lake he has not tromped, catching soft-shell turtles to study and falling into the lake more than once. The pavement in our part of the city is his playground as he learns BMX biking.
  • Our ten-year-old daughter created her own delicious recipe for pizza dough and sauce for my birthday party. She decided to study math last year and this coming year by skipping a grade each year, so that at her fifth-grade age she will be starting eighth-grade pre-algebra.
  • My six- and four-year-olds brought me homemade alphabet flash cards that they made with typing paper and duct tape yesterday.

Do they learn? No doubt about it. Are all the parts there? Yes, though not necessarily in a readily identifiable breakdown. The biggest immediate benefits are a much more relaxed atmosphere and a breaking-out of the “tyranny of the scope and sequence.”

The Lord provided the wrap-up I needed to cap it all off a few weeks ago. He said, “Your six-year-old, who accepted My gift of salvation last year, has no less of My Holy Spirit than you who have been walking with Me twenty-plus years. I will move as mightily in her life now and forever as I have done and still do in yours. You are not her spiritual authority so much as you are a fellow traveler with her. I told you in John 16 that the Holy Spirit will teach you all things. All still means all for you and yours. Trust Me.”