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Rio is changing

Rio is changing

Rio is changing. She wants to learn to read and write numbers up to 100. She wants to go out and play in the neighborhood on her own. She wants to read picture books to herself.

In most families, these would be signs that she’s ready for kindergarten. But she’s not going to kindergarten, and I was not  certain what our next step should be. So I did what I always do: read.

First, I read this excellent interview with a woman who goes by the charming name Jean Beetgreen, about the decade she’s spent unschooling her son. Then I read a post by a friend, about watching her grandchildren be unschooled and fall further and further behind their peers, becoming more frustrated and unhappy as they fail to learn.

Then I went to bed, where I had terrible nightmares in which I destroyed my child’s life by choosing to homeschool her and being disorganized about it.

On waking, I recognized those for what they were: nightmares, not reality. In reality, my kids are learning and thriving right on par with their traditionally-schooled peers. But I also know that in reality, unschooling is a Fool’s Leap. You step off the cliff with your child, carrying a tiny knapsack of tools and tricks. Maybe you soar, and maybe you fall. You can’t know in advance.

The same is true of traditional schooling, of course. That hallowed source of all information, Wikipedia, cites studies showing almost a quarter of American adults are only marginally literate. Clearly the risk of failure haunts every approach to learning.

The occasional spectacular failure of an unschooling family stands out for the same reason the brilliant successes do. Because unschooling is unusual. One outlier result can be used to condemn or sanctify an entire approach. This is a little like Consumer Reports slamming all baby slings because of a few accidents, instead of trying to establish safety standards for them.

Unschooling can, apparently, be a good or bad choice for any given family. How do I know what is best for my own kids?

I asked Rio what she felt she needed to learn next year. As faithful readers may recall, I do not think it is up to Rio to set the agenda for her education, but I do seek out her input.

She screwed up her face and tapped her head several times to shake out her ideas, and then gave me this list:

– riding a one-wheeled bicycle
– going out by herself
– going to Lyndell’s to buy cupcakes

What about reading and math?

“I know that stuff, Mama! You teach me.”

She then said she would buy me a set of special toys for teaching math problems to kids, and ran off to get her allowance jars to show me how much money she has saved.

Her enthusiasm (and ability to count her savings) suggests we’re on the right path. She certainly won’t learn the things on her agenda in a traditional schooling setting, and she seems to be learning reading and math at home.

I’m curious about my readers’ experiences. What’s worked, or not worked, for you in homeschooling? How structured or open is your day? What do your kids learn?


This morning, Rio followed me around for hours with a notebook, asking me to spell words for her so she could write them down. She wrote stories and then read them aloud to me.

I knew this day would come. The day the pieces just clicked into place and she had  a new skill and that skill was writing words on a page. When I decided to homeschool her, when I trusted the “print-rich” approach over any kind of reading lesson, I trusted she’d learn to read and write on her own.

Still, it was like watching a baby’s first steps. You may have known the kid would learn to walk, as nearly all kids do. You may have realized those steps were close. But the moment the baby moves toward you on her own two feet is still magic.

After the thrill wore off a bit (around hour three), it got annoying. I had things to do other than spell every word Rio could think of.

At lunch we had a talk about plagarism. “I’m not going to spell words for you all day,” I said. “If you want to know how to write ‘Madeline went to the park’, look the words up in your Madeline book and copy them.”

“But Mama! Copying someone else’s work is not nice. I am not going to copy!”

After some difficulty, I persuaded her that in this instance it was OK. She spent the rest of the day copying words out of her children’s books and bringing them to me to read aloud for her.

She was so physical in this, her whole body vibrating with the effort. She ran, she shouted, she stood beside me and stomped her foot impatiently while I put down the dish I was washing or the bill I was paying and turned to read what she’d written.

“Drip.” “Drop.” “Bunny.” “Amazing.”

Here she interrupted me.

“I know it’s amazing, Mama! But what does this word say?”


We stared at each other for a moment. Then I told her the word says amazing, and that amazing starts with an ‘a’. And she was off and running again, to copy it onto three more pages, in different colors.


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A little bird told me…

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