Confessions of a Classical Unschooler

Hard at work drawing an image for the game he has been writing the code for.
Hard at work drawing an image for the game he has been writing the code for.

Classical Unschooler, there is an accommodationist phrase for you! If you are wondering what it means to be a classical unschooler in terms of teaching methodology, it means the method I use to homeschool my son does not fit neatly into any one box. The teaching method I use with my son depends on the subject as well as his passion or lack thereof for that subject.

My journey to homeschooling started 12 years ago, when I came across the book The Well Trained Mind. I loved the teaching methodology described in it. I could imagine teaching my then 2-year-old son using the classical method, but I got cold feet and put him in kindergarten. Every time we pulled him out of school to travel, though, he improved more academically than when he was in school. So I found my resolve (I mean how hard could it be? I was a college professor before having him!) and pulled him out to joyfully embark on 12 years of homeschooling using the classical method. That was 8 years ago. The ride has been bumpier and harder than I expected. There has been a steady progression toward unschooling, but I have stayed true to the classical method too.

One of the fallouts to using two such divergent teaching methodologies is that it leaves me open to jibes from both sides, add to that the fact that I write textbooks and it can get quite personal. Am I one of those “teach to the textbook types”? Do I drill and kill? Or do I just not school; isn’t that the Latin meaning of the word unschool? I have heard all these comments as I have wended my way through homeschooling my son. None of them do a fair job of describing his education, by the way. But let’s put that aside. Isn’t it time the homeschool community stopped picking on its fellow members? One size fits all, does not. Isn’t that why we are all homeschooling? Isn’t the point of an education to end up with a well-educated individual? If that happens for your child by strictly adhering to one type of teaching methodology that is great. I recommend home educators become familiar with as many methods as possible, classical, unschooling, common core, etc. Every single method has inherent strengths and weaknesses. Each methods’ strengths and weaknesses also depend on the subject and student.

As an adherent to the classical method, we use a core schedule that looks the same every year: language arts, foreign language, math, science, and history. It’s a broad liberal arts education. If he doesn’t want to study in one of these areas, that’s too bad. I am not going to let a 10-year-old decide he doesn’t need to know math. He doesn’t know what path he will want to follow, and I am not going to let him limit his options at the age of 10. At its core the classical method is not about pushing your child to be the next Bill Gates. A charge leveled against it. It is about ensuring that students have a broad range of academic and work related options.

Another of the basic tenets of the classical method is that all subjects relate. I agree with this completely. My science textbooks weave history, literature, math, and art through them. Using the classical method, my son’s studies follow the four-year cycle of subjects, studying each in-depth throughout the year, with a logical progression from start to finish.

In this text I have students learn more about the history of science as it relates to the theory they are studying. I have them read “The Tell-Tale Heart”, by Poe and then give a scientific explanation for why or why not the heart would still be beating. There are also references to literature throughout, as it relates to science.

It doesn’t sound like there is any unschooling at all, does it? For unschooling purists I won’t quibble with you. Despite the title, I am not a labels’ person. Maybe I should call it a relaxed classical methodology, or better yet the method that works best for my son. That doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it? Labels aside, I am not into dogma, I am into what works.

You might wonder why I began to stray from the classical method. It wasn’t easy at first, in part because the classical method would have been the best method for me. (Yes, I was that kind of student.)

I wouldn’t have strayed if not for my one and only pupil. You see I gave birth to an artistic dreamer. A boy who would rather write an 84 page novella than even one sentence of copy work, who would rather spend hours making the numbers he writes match the font used in his math text than do one math problem. It was, in fact, writing and math, his strongest and weakest areas that led us away from the path I had us on.

Vivian, One of the 2 main characters for Sean's new game. It is not finished yet.
Vivian, One of the 2 main characters for Sean’s new game. It is not finished yet.

Writing was where it started. I think writing is the hardest academic subject to teach. At its finest, it is an art form. You can teach the rules of writing, but that doesn’t make someone an artist at it. And people who are true artists do not necessarily follow a strict structured path when developing their artistry. Creativity just doesn’t work that way. It is with a creative endeavor like learning the craft of writing that the unschooling methodology shines. This method lends itself to an open, natural progression and exploration of one’s talents and interests. Following and exploring your passions in this manner does a good job of showing how joyous learning can be. I think the arts in particular, not just the craft of writing, benefit from an unschooling approach. We do not unschool in all areas of language arts though.

My son will tell you, he has never been a number’s guy. We would spend days going over math topics to have him forget everything one week later. Honestly, I just decided to lighten up. All the time spent on math was taking away from his passions: writing, computer coding, film making, and art. We now do what I call math “light”. He studies it, but at an easy-going pace. At this time he wants to go to UCSD and major in computer science. I have explained to him that if he doesn’t work harder in math he will have to go through a community college to get there. I basically left the decision about how rigorously to study math up to him. We lightened up in other areas of academics too, so he has more time for “extra-curricular” subjects.

Where is my son going from here? I have no idea. He is 14, and this is his journey. I do know he will have a good liberal arts education, where he also enjoyed the time and freedom to focus on the areas that interested him the most.

All of this is very tongue in cheek. A few years back a friend of mine who is a public school teacher told me what method I really use. According to her I use child-led learning. That is probably closest to the truth. What I will tell you is 1.) I use whatever method works, 2.) I cherry pick and take the best aspects from every single method that works well for my son, and 3.) my son has some say, but at the end of the day I make sure he gets the high-quality education he deserves. Even when he doesn’t want it 😉