How We Backed Into Unschooling

Have I told you that we homeschool? Actually, a more accurate description of how we learn is “unschool.” I looked on Google for a neat and succinct definition of unschooling, but I couldn’t find one. Maybe that’s because unschooling isn’t neat and succinct. It’s messy, just the way it’s supposed to be.

According to Wikipedia, the term “unschooling” was first used in the 1970s by an educator named John Holt. One of Holt’s statements perfectly summarizes our family’s educational philosophy:

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

Instead of a huge checklist of a body of knowledge Cami should know, her dad and I concern ourselves more with teaching her how to find out what she wants and needs to know. This educational paradigm is a far cry from the way Michael and I were schooled. How did we end up unschooling? It’s really a God thing.

Have you ever driven up the side of a steep mountain? On the way up, the road seems to constantly curve and wind away from the mountain at times, back in the direction you just came from sometimes, and all the while, you can’t see the next curve. Yet when you reach the summit and look back on where you’ve been, you see how the road-makers laid out the road with switchbacks to make the ascent or descent more manageable.

Our journey into unschooling has been like those mountainous roads: switchback after switchback. We started Cami’s educational journey with one paradigm: her learning the way we had been taught. We took the Mommy & Me classes. Cami attended a year of preschool. We enrolled her in public school kindergarten because that’s what we were supposed to do with our child. As we did all the “right” things, our family life was slowly descending into emotional chaos: daily meltdowns and a lot of yelling.

The first drastic u-turn and realigning of our educational paradigm really began in Cami’s kindergarten year. Every school day, I left Cami at the Kiss and Ride spot on the school’s sidewalk and drove away crying. Every. Day. I felt like I was abandoning her, throwing her to the wolves, leaving her to fend for herself. I told myself those feelings were silly. I fussed at myself for crying. My support system affirmed me in my attempt to grow up and let her go.

The school year began in September, and we made it until February. The morning I was getting Cami ready for school and she wrapped herself around my ankles, crying, “Mommy, please! Can I stay home with you? Mommy, I just want to stay with you!” was the morning my heart broke. I cried out to God for wisdom, and I let her stay home.

The next week, when I picked Cami up from school, we walked to the van with a little boy and his mother walking behind us. The little boy said over and over, “Cami, you’re a bad girl. Cami, you’re a bad, bad girl.” Not in a sing-song voice, not in a mean voice. Just a matter-of-fact voice. “Cami, you’re a bad girl.” Cami didn’t say anything to him. I wasn’t sure she even heard him.

I buckled Cami into her seatbelt, and in the time it took me to walk around the van and get in the driver’s seat, she was crying hysterically. In the course of the rest of that afternoon, she spilled the secret she’d been keeping bottled up inside her: the little boy who called Cami a bad girl had also hit her, pushed her, and continually threatened to take his knife and cut up all her stuffed animals, set her house on fire, and kill all of her family.

In addition to the bullying situation, Cami was having trouble meeting kindergarten benchmarks for reading and writing. Her teacher requested a parent-teacher conference where she suggested we have Cami tested for the autism spectrum based on her visual observation of how Cami flapped her hands when she was nervous or excited. Cami had done that since she was little bitty; when I asked her about it, she said she was being a hummingbird. I’d never thought it pointed to autism.

I know now that Cami’s sensory integration struggles, specifically the auditory processing disorder and the dyspraxia, adversely affected Cami’s ability to cope at school. The teachers’ instructions were getting lost before Cami could process them, especially in the gym and on the P.E. field. She wouldn’t follow directions because she didn’t understand them. But she didn’t know how to say so, especially in front of her 24 classmates who were all looking at her, listening to her, and standing or sitting close to her. Factor in the fear Cami felt from being threatened and bullied, and no wonder my child screamed and cried a lot. At the time, all I knew was that Cami was in trouble. I watched her behavior go downhill at school and at home, and I watched her lose her love for learning. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t know how to fix it. When I told Cami’s teacher I had considered homeschooling Cami, her teacher surprised me by saying, “I think that’s the best thing you can do for her at this point.” So I withdrew her from public school.

As my husband and I prayed, begging God for His wisdom and perspective, He led us gently and surely to the place we are today. Through a battery of educational, psychological, emotional, and behavioral evaluations, we discovered Cami’s sensory processing differences, her dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia. In the effort to recapture Cami’s love of learning, we invented “Sneaky School,” where we “sneak” the education into the fun activities of the day. For example, on a trip to the National Aquarium, we made a list of the alphabet and found animals whose names began with each letter. We took pictures of each animal so we could remember the information later. After a few years of Sneaky School, Cami began pointing out when we had learned something school-like in our everyday living: “Hey, Mom! We just did Sneaky School!”

You know what I’ve found? Cami learns more efficiently when she teaches herself. The day I found her reading a textbook just for fun was the day I took all the textbooks off the closet shelf and placed them on the bookshelf in her room. On the days when it’s sunny and warm and her friends are home from school, she goes outside and plays, building fairy hut villages and reading fairy tales to her friends. One of her public school friends taught her the “Mr. President” game, where each child takes a turn being “president” of the class and making presidential-like decisions. In our neighborhood, the children elected our dog Roscoe as the President. I knew something new was happening when Cami asked me, “Mom, where’s my book about the government?” Using the resources on her bookshelf, Cami researched the way the U.S. government is structured and proceeded to organize Roscoe’s “Cabinet” of officers from all the pets she knows. (The cat next door is Roscoe’s Secretary of Defense.) Cami pursued this knowledge on her own. I didn’t suggest any of it. That’s basically how unschooling works: the child directs her own education. Our job is to provide her with the resources she needs to learn what she wants to know.

Through unschooling, God is answering the promise He gave me when Cami began public school: “All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be your children’s peace” (Isaiah 54:13). God truly orchestrates how schooling works in our family. Really, the journey’s joy or stress comes from our perspective. Most days, the view through the windshield looks like thisroad to sky

It’s hard to trust what’s on the other side of the hill when we can’t even see the horizon past it. But God is such a patient and faithful leader, and we trust Him.

The times when I glimpse the bigger picture help me trust Him more with the switchbacks:


I am constantly amazed at God, how He gently leads us, how we begin in one direction and, step by step, He turns us and steers us until we are going in His direction, sometimes almost before we realize it. If you had told me twenty years ago, “Cassandra, in twenty more years, you will be a stay-at-home mom and be homeschooling your daughter with learning differences and sensory challenges, and you will love your life,” I wouldn’t have believed you.

But I do. I love my life.

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