Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Unschooling and the lack of measured progress

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Excited about caterpillars
It happens every time I travel, and it happened again this summer. Inevitably I rub up against people who make me start questioning if my kids are learning enough, or the right things.

Sometimes it's the traditionally homeschooling mom who proudly declares how many grade levels above the norm her kids tested.

Sometimes it's the well-meaning relatives who quiz my kids on math problems and spelling and state capitals.

I don't have anything concrete to boast about. I've got three loving, respectful, curious kids, but somehow that's not anything specific to point to.

Mikko keeps surprising me by being ten years old. How did that happen? People asked what grade the kids were going into, and I was astonished to calculate that he's going to be a fifth-grader. Fifth grade! He's nearly in (imaginary) junior high.

What do we have to show for it? He was slow to read. I had to unclench from expectations there and let him learn at his own pace. I intermittently fretted, read a lot about natural learning, worried about dyslexia, gave in to occasional bursts of worksheets and primers that annoyed and frustrated him. In the end, he was, as in all things, determinedly himself. Just the other day, he bemusedly remarked that once you learn to read, you can't turn it off, and your brain just reads everything that scrolls past it. Yup, I agreed, feeling that wave of relief that he had come this far, mostly on his own and despite my anxieties.

Math and science, on the other hand, always came easy for him. But if reading was impossible to brag about because he was behind, his math skills didn't benefit me any better, because it was just anecdotal. I couldn't show off a report card or standardized test result. I could just tell people he seemed to just grok it all, and they would try to quiz him to prove it, and he'd refuse. So that was that.

Then there have been my aborted attempts to shoehorn in other subjects — history, language, music, art, physical education. He either cares, or he doesn't, and if he doesn't care, there will be tears (usually mine, sad to say) if we persist.

Every year, in compliance with Washington State homeschool law, we have the choice to take a standardized test or complete a teacher-certified evaluation. Given Mikko's reading level, we've always opted for the evaluation. Even though there are definitely things in it he hasn't mastered, it gives us a measure of reassurance that he's not light years behind his peers. It also gives us ideas for what directions to take in the future. Sometimes it's as easy as explaining the concept right then and there as we fill out the evaluation, and then — hey, presto — he's immediately at grade level.

But then we took that trip, and I felt the old insecurities crop up. Would we do better with a standardized test — or worse? Would it reassure us or renew our fears?

In the confusion of researching which tests were what and which might be reasonably accomplished by a new-ish reader, I found a practice workbook, and we completed pages together. They came easily to Mikko, and once again, I felt foolish for all my dithering.

He either would test well or wouldn't, either knew the material or didn't, but it was no true measure of his intelligence, his capacity for learning, the vast store of knowledge already tucked away in his brain through his own resources. There is no grade level in life, no standardized curve, no adults-quizzing-adults on capitals and algebra equations.

I know my worries aren't over. They're too ingrained in me. I know my job as a facilitator of his learning is a significant one and not to be taken lightly. I know that, like everyone no matter what their educational background, Mikko will end up with gaps in his education that he might or might not choose to fill.

But I also know I need to give him credit for being the incredible learner he is, and stop worrying so much about how his lack of boastable progress reflects on me.

He's not here to impress anyone, and that's a good lesson he's teaching me.

"He likes to butt things with his head."
"How proud you must be."

Some helpful books:


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