Sunday, January 27, 2013

When we Unschool

A recent conversation on www.secularhomeschool.com got me to thinking about the fact that our style shifts over time, and sometimes we Unschool, which I just think of as letting go of the curriculum and all other regimentation for a while, for whatever cause has emerged. When we are doing this, we aren't doing a style of homeschooling that is called unschooling; we are just living life and not concerned with output or external motivations.

I let go when I realize priorities have had to shift momentarily (sick kids or sick me, or else a new food allergy, or my daughter is just feeling burned out, etc). We scale back to a simpler existence, where there is no pressure, and we just take time to cuddle on the sofa, and I take time to really listen to them. And I've learned that those exchanges of real attention are so much more important than whether DD got another page done in her curriculum that day.

And then things get better, and I feel more on top of it, and housework and studies get done regularly, until we hit the next slump. Learning to slump gracefully must either be a character defect or a state of grace, I am not sure which.

But slumps are never lost on my daughter. She doesn't sit around bored, ever. She gleefully absorbs herself in deep thoughts, drawings, imaginings, her own internal dialogue, creating things with paper and pen, glue and scissors, sometimes cardboard and cloth. She always comes back from that, refreshed, and when we're all ready, she does well at her studies again for a while. Trying to go straight at the studies as a form of discipline day after day, week after week, wears her down, wilts her, bores her, and her progress grinds to a very resistant halt.

So maybe for some kids, letting go is important. 

I went to school, and I let go whenever I needed to, which was often. My prolongued episodes of staring out into space to have Deep Thoughts, would have gotten me a label and some medication, undoubtedly, had they happened in this day and age, but really, I was engaging in important creativity and authentic self-hood. It didn't mean I couldn't apply myself to anything interesting or valid...but wild horses couldn't drive me to focus on that which bored me to death. I'm still that way. Listening to the nattering conversation of some women in a cluster at a local preschool playgroup in a public place, I realized I actually couldn't follow their conversation, because it was so BORING! It all became so much bleating of sheep, to my ears. Baaaaa! They probably would have thought the exact same thing about it, if someone discussed news about the Large Hadron Collider, in their earshot.

And that is exactly what my daughter, and most other kids (whether they attend school or not) do, when sitting through a dull lecture on something. It's what I do when reading through, over and over, something that is so badly written as to boggle the mind, like the reading comprehension questions in the grade 3 standardized test. Somewhere there must be a think tank that trains people to write in overly simplistic terms with the devious intent of creating gobbledegook that will befuddle the mind of the reader, and grow more incomprehensible each time the victim re-reads it! For what purpose, who can say, but there must be, or else why would official reading comprehension questions aimed at kids, paralyze the analytical portions of my fully-literate adult brain?

I'm learning that learning itself, is not the same thing as impressing concerned relatives that your child is indeed not brain-dead as a result of not going to school. It's not the same thing as scoring well on a test, though one can score better by actually learning the material, usually. And I am also learning, that letting go from time to time, isn't letting go of the ability to learn. It may actually be nurturing the ability to learn, because the ability to engage in prolongued Deep Thought, or prolonged Diffused Awareness, increases creative insight.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tyranny of science fairs, contests, and forms

When filling out entry forms for things like science fairs or art contests, I balk at the blanks for 'grade', 'teacher' and 'school'.

Most homeschoolers I know use those designations without a second thought, and I know that is the most convenient way to avoid hassles as you go through society. 

But it bugs me on a deep level, and much as I try to just grin and bear it, I resent that I MUST call my daughter a "-grader" as if separating children into presumed school grades is a universal requirement for human life, and that they are ALL in a grade, whether we use the schools from which the assigned grade levels spring, or not.

The subtle power of language must not be understated. Language that deliberately dis-empowers and dehumanizes the patient, has long been used to establish and maintain very deeply unequal power relationships between persons with a degree and medical license, and persons seeking diagnosis, treatment, or health advice from them. The client seeking the advice of a professional, can, with the proper routine procedures, requirements, and language, be rendered into a supplicant. Schools and other institutions also use language that reflects and maintains a power inequality that displays the users, residents, or clients, as dependent on, and subject to, the authority of the institution.

This is why, even though I recognize that it is simply less personal hassle to go by the name 'homeschooler' and call my daughter a grade-level to comply with everyone else's expectations, it feels on some level, like conceding. Like we are ratifying, by signing below, their right to put her in a grade classification and call her an altered version of school-pupil. And by extension, their right to define kids who are school-free, as kids who are actually schooled, only in a different physical location, but still at the pleasure and mercy of the State. Which is literally true, in many states, Texas being one notable (and enviable!) exception.

But can she participate in anything with forms to fill out, if we don't? She'd rather be called a "-grader" than never get to compete in anything. So I sign on the dotted line, feeling as if I am signing away self-determinism for a contest. And then I feel ridiculous for phrasing it to myself that way. It's only a label. 

But labels hold such power, and agreement to use them is such a tacit admission of the label-issuer's power over us; the power to set terms for our participation in society.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why we are learning Soroban Abacus

As a kid whose math/spatial/logic scores always had me placed in the advanced math class at whatever school I went to (we moved a lot), regardless of the fact that I routinely flunked math classes until high school geometry, I was a classic case of math phobia, and the belief that I was just no good at it, instilled from many years of failing to do what school required, in part because the way that school taught math, seemed to be demanding that I stop trying to think on my own, and just submit to meaningless rote, and give up on trying to really understand.

I was very good at visualizing and rotating objects and spaces in my head, but completely bumbling at arithmetic and algebra. Even memorizing formulae always felt uncertain and arbitrary because it completely sidestepped understanding the underlying logic. It was like being required to utter whole strings of unfamiliar sounds, without being allowed to learn any of the constituent words or their meanings. Until geometry, at which point I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who used the Socratic method, and most of the class, geared toward memorization, struggled, while I sailed through the class joyously. However, the next class that required a strong footing in algebraic reasoning (trigonometry) saw me struggling again, wishing I had time to develop that reasoning, but faced instead with the pressure to memorize and regurgitate, or else fail.

I saw my daughter at a very tender age, doing division with real things. She wished candy came in bags of 6, so she and her brother could each have 3 and not have one left over. I got excited and we had lots of conversations, and lots of discoveries. Odd and even numbers had real properties that interacted in ways that could be predicted logically, and then tested empirically. What we discovered ourselves, made sense and was memorable, in contrast to being handed a string of rules and told to memorize them.

But when I showed her the symbols on a page or chalkboard, her understanding went out the window. When taught by the same methods prevalent in schools, she started guessing wildly and inaccurately, afraid to get the answer wrong, and stopped trusting or engaging with her own reasoning ability. I recognized it all: the glazed look, the impression of mental wheels frozen, and the inscrutability of symbols dancing on a page. 

What a disaster! But what next? Thankfully, I heard about the Japanese abacus, the soroban. At first, seeing videos of the lightning-fast competitions where kids calculated many large numbers in their heads, I wondered what the real value of that could be, beyond impressing people. Some people memorize Pi to a hundred decimal places or more, and I see that as a complete waste of gray matter. The fact that their calculations were based on moving beads around in an imagined, visualized abacus, seemed at first glance to prove that they weren't actually calculating mentally, any more than a person using a calculator, is actually doing the calculations.

But eventually, researching it, I found that the nature of the way numeric information is stored and accessed by the brain, is different with the mental abacus, than with other methods. There are beneficial changes to the brain in using the Soroban to learn arithmetic in terms of memory capacity and white matter. It bypasses language centers of the brain, for a sort of direct link to visual/spatial reasoning. It also cultivates thinking in terms of inverse numbers, which is kind of like learning to see both positive and negative spaces in art and sculpture. Inverse numbers can also be a part of mathematical thinking without the abacus, but the abacus requires it and demonstrates it in ways that may be unique. At any rate, the numeracy skills of populations taught on the abacus seem to be superior to those not trained on the abacus, and that was enough to know, to give it a try.

So I got a soroban abacus and some workbooks from Nurture Minds,  and we have begun. 
I'm learning alongside my kids, and wish I had been given this advantage, at their ages, but even at my age, I am finding it a thrilling discovery.