Buffet Learning: How to Balance Structure and Freedom When Creating a Curriculum
When I first started homeschooling, the only thing I knew how to do was imitate the kind of educational structure I had always known. School had to be serious, measurable, and leave a paper trail. It involved desks and maybe some screens, but most of all it involved academic drudgery and a definite lack of whimsy. In fact, creativity had to be carefully scripted, and all art projects needed to look exactly like their inspiration. It was painful for both Sir Talks A Lot and myself. Every day, I would stare at my list of subjects which had to be covered according to the invisible judge in my head, and I would heap misery upon misery upon us. Sir learned alright. He learned that learning was painful and boring. Fortunately for us, about 2 months into the drudgery that had become our lives, I stumbled upon a wonderful homeschool group comprised of unschoolers. What I quickly learned was all of the educational things he and I had done together for fun -- the museums, library programs, models, snuggly, cozy reading, science experiments and more -- they were all school. For some reason it had never occurred to me before that moment that joyful learning didn't have to be "extra"; it could be everything.
That should be the end of the story, right? We discover academic freedom and skip away happily into the sunset. The only thing is that a complete lack of direction did not work for our family. Faced with infinite choice, Sir Talks A Lot felt rudderless and rather lost at sea. Meanwhile, we were still surrounded by unschoolers who told us that all structure was wrong and that if I introduced any curriculum at all to our daily routine, I would somehow be destroying my son's joie de vivre and creative potential. It was my job to just sit back and wait for some fire to catch and take hold. It was my job to accept the gospel of unschooling or be cast out as a heretic. The cost of this freedom was to conform. Since I have never exactly been one to follow the crowd, particularly if I think they are headed in the wrong direction, I decided to do something completely novel and trust my own instincts. Unschoolers talk about strewing, which is leaving materials laying around in the hope that a child will come upon it, be fascinated and pursue whatever it is. I took that concept a bit farther. I approach education the same way I approach a buffet. I have a general idea of what my kids like to eat, and I put that on their plates; I ask them what they want to try, and put that on their plates; and I suggest brand new things, and put that on their plates. I want to promote healthy choices, encourage a balanced diet, but still have happy children. I honor their preferences, respect their input, and provide feedback on their choices. I acknowledge that they are not adults and need guidance, yet I respect their personhood and their capacity for rational thought. In my opinion, we have the best of all worlds. My kids follow their passions and still manage to learn in all areas. They play instruments, sing, dance, act, do art and create beauty. They study, dissect, delve, question, experiment, discover and explore. They choose and have choices made for them. Their lives are scripted and unscripted. They take online classes, perform in musicals, play educational games, watch lectures, participate in workshops, use computer programs, complete hands-on activities, explore the world around them, are active in sports, and play with and without friends. They study math, science, social studies, reading, writing, programming, art, music, history, literature, and foreign languages. They do not love all of the things that they learn, but they love to learn.
Our family journey has taken us across the country to places we never thought we would live, and has exposed us to all kinds of different schools of homeschool thought and practice. It has also taught us what it means to be a family, and what it means to live fully with all of your heart and soul. Homeschooling has changed as much as we have over the years, and there are better, more diverse resources available every day. Our small dinner table full of educational offerings has become a huge smorgasbord, and while the amount of research I have to do to find resources that suit my children has gone up, I no longer have to reinvent the wheel every single time the kids want to learn something new. Changes in technology have also meant the development of a new global community to confer with and offer counsel to. In addition,the increased acceptance of homeschooling has made it an amazing time to create a customized educational plan for each child.Nevertheless, in spite of all of this variety and access to diversity, there is still that same pressure to conform. There still exists that same rhetoric that you are not "one of us" if you are not identical to some arbitrary us. Almost daily I see parents asking whatever group for permission to fulfill the needs of their children, playing a new kind of "Mother May I" game with their curriculum choices. I can't tell you how to negotiate the politics of inclusion and exclusion. I can not state definitively that my way is the best way for all families. You don't need my permission or anyone else's to do what is best for your child, and getting permission won't ensure that you will do everything right. In spite of what people suggest, there is no single definition of unschooling, homeschooling or even brick and mortar schooling. I can, however, assure you that the view from the road less traveled is spectacular.