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Unschooling is harder in the pandemic, too
Even with mineshafts
I wanted to know how educators teaching online are making do when they also have to manage their own children’s e-learning: here is the final in a series of three. The following has been edited and condensed.
H., in Montana, kids aged 9, 8 and 6, a dad who is unschooling and remote-working as an engineer with a partner who is a fully remote university instructor.
Our bedtime is 7:30. I get up at 3:30 AM and start working so I can get a lot done before anyone else is awake. The kids wake up between 6:30-8:30. There are open national forests they can get to so right now after breakfast they go off on a hike with the dog between one and three hours and then wander back. That puts us around lunch. By then I’m done working and my partner starts teaching around 9 local time. On the days she teaches, she teaches most of the day. Most afternoons, the kids and I go fishing or hiking at a remote lake.
The 9 year old’s in charge when the kids go out. She makes sure they cross the street correctly. When they have to deal with adults, she takes care of it. They get a fair amount of “Where are your parents? Are you OK?” She handles that.
In California, where we lived previously, you have to send what’s called a private school affidavit once a year in October that says these are the kids being homeschooled. We have stayed in a few different houses in different states since the pandemic and I haven’t checked the regulations of the other states since we are still residents in California.
The kids get a whole lot of “Are you in school?” The kids are like, “Yep. Here I am.” “Yes, but really, where do you go?” My definition of unschooling is that the kids get to choose their own interests and how they best learn and as adults, we facilitate. We provide resources, we help them find resources, and if we can’t, we find people who do. We’ve done it since day one. My partner was homeschooled and so we talked a lot it before we started a family. The thing is, the kids decide which way they learn best. We have an elementary school two miles away. Our nine year old tried kindergarten. She was there for four or five weeks and decided it wasn’t what she wanted to do and she popped back out.
Right up to the edge of the pandemic [when we lived in California], the kids would go out every day and run errands, go to museums, and take classes they like at parks and rec because San Francisco is really good about having classes all year for under 6. But that was harder for them to do on their own, obviously, when they were younger.
The kids are learning stuff all the time. The 7 year-old is is reading a manga book about human anatomy. They wanted to know what I do for work so we started doing binary numbers. I talk through things more than anything else, while we hike and while we walk. That's learning. The 5 year old has been in cooking classes for two or three years. When the 9 year old was younger she’d go to writing groups with me, watching people give each other feedback.
They’ve got an abandoned mine around here to explore. The neighbor of a house we rented had a rock crusher, so they’d go watch him. They’ve been tracking house construction around town as they hike. Tuesday we went on a new hike and lucked into a mountain bike trail that went by 20 vertical shaft mines. The big ones have gratings over them, but they have a shallow entrance left open with bridges over them for mountain bikes. We read a lot—the oldest one reads a ton. We do a fair amount of math and they are learning some physics. And writing—always writing more handwritten more letters.
The way it changed after COVID was definitely the resources. Kids under 18 could get in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for free, which was huge because the kids got to be independent with their buddies. The branch library in the building that was open to the public gave us a great writing studio and place for the parents to hang out while the kids explored the museum. The kids would wander up and check out art and come back and do writing. That’s gone. We did a lot of stuff with parks and rec and that’s gone. A big part of it for me was that they were out and about in town, they got to talk to people at shops, ride public transit, meet new kids at playgrounds. All that going away was huge.
We try really really hard to keep the kids separate from our work but we’re staying in a small house. My partner is way better at it than I am. She just folds them in if they show up. If I’m having a good day, which is 45-50% of the time, I’ll have them over and they code. On a bad day, it’s more like “You have to be quiet for 15 minutes. For 15 minutes I have to be focus and think.”
We go in and out with screens. I know this isn’t every kid, but for our kids, the screaming went proportionally up with video games. If we were watching a lot of the Teen Titans and Batman cartoons, all of a sudden empathy and interpersonal skills would go down the tubes. And then we could flip back over to Family Ties or Gilmore Girls, and with the the human expressions and faces, the screaming went down. That was my theory.
There's some weeks that we’re like “Oh my god, what’s happening?” When you find out people you know were exposed, those weeks are harsh. It’s kind of skewed our direction, education-wise. Now we’re just getting tons more nature. That’s worked out really well. The youngest two also didn’t know their alphabet verbatim until the pandemic and they learned to say the ABCs while washing their hands.
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