Thursday, March 1, 2012

Home Self Improvement (Unschooling our kids)

This post is not the beginning of my thinking on the topic, but it is the first time I've tried to articulate these thoughts into writing.  I beg you to forgive the rough edges--and the length.  It has been too long thinking without writing, and so I need to "blurt" lots of thoughts on the topic.

Seth Godin just published his Stop Stealing Dreams education "manifesto."

His manifesto and the foundational books he references--I've read many of them--resonate with me.  I have verbalized for the last four years that as a middle school teacher "I am part of the problem," but it's only in the last four months that I have some inkling of how to maybe actually change that status.

I've taught for 14 years, mostly in the secondary level in the USA.  I'm part of an institution that is meant to do good and is staffed almost universally by good people wanting to do good.  And yet we do not do the good we mean to do (o wretched man that I am--who will deliver me?) and instead we institutionalize obedience.  What a terrible and ironic fate, when what we wanted to do all along was to develop capacity and foster creativity.

My daughter and two boys are in currently in elementary school, and we their parents are grateful for their traditional classrooms, complete with their peer interactions (both the friendships and the dramas), recess, monkeybars, cafeteria food, spelling bee, penalties for late work, reward systems, science projects, and occasional homework.  I'm glad they are in a local public elementary school and wouldn't have wanted to do those ages any other way.

Middle school looms.  My daughter is a 5th grader in a K-5 school and next year would go to a local middle school.  Now, my daughter is not yet a teenager and while we certainly hope for the best for her, middle school looms.  What a toxic environment to place the most emotionally fragile humans in our society.  Honestly, who would have invented, in this modern era, a plan that takes 500 of a town's middle schoolers to a central building and causes them to sit in clumps of 30 until a bell rings to signal that they should stand up en masse, jostle in the halls, and return to a different classroom of rows and columns for another hour of trying not to pay attention to the instructional leader in the classroom?  Nobody would have thought "Hey, here's a good idea--let's do school this way" if it hadn't already been that way when we found it. 

I believe adolescence is an artificially created "age" that is caused by society withholding responsibility from its emerging adults until too late. And yet, pubescent hormones are very real, and pre-teen turmoils are rarely avoided altogether.  (There's something important there, though I really don't yet know what it is.  Something about adolescence not being in a causal relationship with pubescence.  Interesting to think more on.)

We're the lucky ones, my family.  We live within the means of a one-salary home, and so we have the freedom to have our daughter at home with us next year rather than send her off to the middle school.  I'm not trying to rub it in for families that don't have that luxury, rather I'm pointing out that we have the luxury to not send our middle schooler to middle school.  Does that mean we're going to home school?  No, I don't think so.  More like unschool, though I may be muddled in my terminology.  We're calling it "HSI": Home Self Improvement.

Home Self Improvement:  Creative.  Capacity-building.  Exploratory.
Foreign languages, math, geography, drawing, writing, typing, cooking, and EXTENSIVE reading.  In the reading category alone: biographies, historical fiction, science, Newberry Award winners.  Also TED Talks as jumping-off places for student-led research and discovery.

Is HSI going to be "school" for the Chase kids only until high school, or is this it through college?  I don't know.  The local high school has a fantastic DECA/FBLA club, and I'd love to have my kids get to do drama, culinary classes, and the upper level maths/sciences/humanities with engaged teachers and leaning-forward peers.  Can you imagine what their school experience would be if they could "skip" all the classes where peers don't want to be there--I'm thinking of my freshman health class as I write--and go right to the ones that are upper-level and not "required."  It's in those academic classes that you'll find kids leaning forward, and it's those classes that I'm excited to help my kids prepare themselves for.  The other credits they'll still have to get, but they can get them online.

I want each kid to come out of HSI a sleek, powerful racehorse of a person, not a fat little pony.

What Middle School Should Be (a bucket list for HSI)

TED Talks
Volunteer Service
Language Learning: Mango, Duolingo
Blogging Explorations (photojournaling laser experiments, cooking recipes, etc)
Math: Khan Academy, Arcademics, Manga High
Cyber Safety & Research
Reading, Fiction and Non, historical fiction
Biographies like Temple Grandin: Animals make us human.
Arts Education
How Stuff Works
Newberry Award Books:
Rock/plant identification
Made to Stick, Rich Dad-Poor Dad and other similar "grown-up" titles.
Quest Atlantis
World News

Pyramid scheme of incentives.
Weekly requirements* include extensive reading, blogging her way through her own explorations and discovery, and Khan Academy math, among other projects that will come and go.  She is only permitted to have a weekly Chinese lesson if ALL other weekly requirements are in place and finished. I only release funds ($25 a week, in our case) if a Chinese lesson passes muster with the Chinese teacher (who requires homework/practice--she's no pushover).  In this way there is only one binary criteria for the incentive . . . did you pass the Chinese lesson?  But to get to the Chinese lesson at all, you have to earn it with other completed academic work.

*Weekly Requirements: Wait a second . . . there is a bit of school in here that needs to get the boot.  Where is the initiative when there is a list of requirements?  On the parent, unless I'm mistaken.  Where do we want the initiative?  Always on the student.  Let the student outline her projects for the week, make goals for reading and math modules, identify other explorations and projects she'd like to do.  We'll let her set her own benchmark, with our participation and guidance, and then we'll hold her to it.

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Einstein

Invitation to form a cohort:
We're unenrolling our daughter from school this June.  If she had another peer to run this race with, regardless of geographic location, she'd do better.  I can set up an Edmodo classroom for them to interact in and they can comment on each other's HSI explorations.  I don't think it's important that they be the same age, though most of my work will be toward challenging the middle school age range.  Any 6th, 7th, or 8th graders want to jump off the school train and see how it goes with unschooling and intentional self-improving at home?  It's a real offer, and I know how to keep it small/intimate while scaling it big if hundreds of kids want to go this way with us.

Already we have a cohort group of 2 or 3 . . . would you share this post with your friends so we can see about increasing the group?  We'll build this cohort to 8 students and then fill the next cohort group.  For more info and/or to initiate a conversation about joining a cohort, put some contact info in this contact form.


  1. Your bucket list is right on the money.

    I would also suggest running a home-based business. Let her choose a craft, hobby or interest that could translate in a opportunity to spend and make money. Lemonade stand? Selling home-made crafts online?

    I'll be watching your progress closely. That's for being the guy who thinks deeply and leaves the footprints for others.

  2. This comment came from author Lindsay Eland, but somehow it didn't post correctly:

    I'm interested for our daughter...and wouldn't the two of them love that!? I have to say, that homeschooling has definitely been more in my mind the past few months as middle school looms on the horizon. I don't want to say that we're definitely not going to send her...but I loved this blog and am definitely taking it to heart. I'd really covet you and Janet's prayers that we do for her what He wants us to do...I don't want to make any decision out of fear. Love to all my favorite Oregonians :)

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a Middle school teacher myself your post helped me reflect on our current class structure. I don't know if this is the case in Oregon, but in Montana the Middle school experience has drastically changed over the past 20 years. The biggest change is the reduction or elimination of rotation classes. As I look at your HMI list, much of it was addressed in rotation classes. With the reduction of choices, the middle school experience has definitely taken a hit. I applaud you in your quest to address these issues for your own child.
    One thing lacking on your list is physical activity. You allude to upper level Health class, which would be another no brainer on my list. My point is a good education should address Mind, Body, and Soul.
    My daughters are just starting their school experience but this is an issue I have already started to ponder. I look forward to watching your progress and learning from you and your child's experience.

  4. I get excited about school again when I think about rotations/electives. It's no accident that what I want most want for my own kids at the high school are not core classes (read: "what's measured by standardized testing"): DECA, culinary, JROTC, etc.

    And you're right about physical activity not being on the list. We have several league sports here and I do want to have my kids engaged as much as they want to be. No lazy-fat ponies . . . sleek racehorses!

    Add to the HSI bucket list: operate a small business, games/simulations such as SIM City, Mission-US, etc.

  5. Interesting comments Tim. My niece teaches in California high school age kids with special needs. She has constantly given a lot of information to me that has shown traditional methods of educating to be ineffective. This went well with what one of my professors also illustrated to us in one class. Good luck on your journey with this.

  6. This comment came from my bro-in-law, Craig Stelle. In trying to reply and let him know that Arts Ed made it on the bucket list, just not in a big way, his original comment got lost. Here it is again:

    "You are onto something. Our current system of education is based on a Prussian model. Napoleon designed it to keep the masses in check with a top-down philosophy of education. That way he could teach the students what he wanted them to learn. "Deschooling Our Lives" by Matt Hern touches on some of this.

    I personally believe that all children are curious and creative. As facilitators, we teachers can surround students with catalysts of experience for learning. Instead of telling them what they "should" know, or like the 1968 book: "The way it spozed to be: A report on the classroom war behind the crisis in our schools." -J. Herndon

    I could talk for hours on this. Did you read my dissertation? It goes into some depth on some of these ideas... tho there may be differences in our personal philosophies, there are also very similar parallels too.

    Why you do not mention any art in your curriculum? I feel that art is an awesome tool for exploring and unearthing childrens' gifts and on Home Self Improvement (Unschooling our kids)

  7. Oh man, you guys are going to be hooked! I love learning with my kids at home. I love seeing what they are passionate about, and then giving them tools to pursue that passion. Finding great books to read aloud really bonds us together. My oldest daughter and I were sitting outside on the front porch each with our own pleasure reading on this nice spring day. The creek was bubbling and the bees were buzzing, and the school bus came, and there was not an ounce of regret that she was there with me and not coming off that bus.


    This instagrok website needs to be one of the inquiry tools we use. Demonstrate the new understandings that you've come to as pages on your website, but let instagrok help you research as you go.

    (Also, HSI students should use prezi to demonstrate their learning sometime. Set up a prezi show that is timed to provide backchannel information to correlate with a TED Talk; similar to RSA Animate but without the dry-erase markers.)


    Woot! This is a fabulous resource. Here's the concept for HSI:
    "Each week, choose one TED Talk and create a suite of webpages relating to the talk. On the main page, embed the talk. Then on subsidiary pages 1) identify the main two minutes of the talk and take dictation--using proper conventions, 2) create a links page of annotated resources so that someone watching that TED Talk could have a way to easily learn more, and/or 3) create a legomation, drawing, science experiment, capture with a camera, and upload to demonstrate your HSI."

  10. We'll use Edmodo to connect each HSI cohort. Parents will have logins so that all of us can appreciate the kids' progress.


    What adults can learn from kids . . . delivered by a 12-year-old.


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