Terminology–Unschooling, Homeschooling, and Schooling at Home

J-Man and I. He is pretty unperturbed about terminology. He just wants to take a selfie.

What we call ourselves is a hot debate in any tribe. My family has a strong Cherokee heritage and I cringe every time some one says Indians and they are not referring to the people from the country of India. I don’t like Native Americans either, as this wasn’t America when they came here. I actually prefer the term First People. At times I have been accused of being too PC (that’s politically correct). People say that what you call something doesn’t matter, it is the intent behind the words that really counts, but I was an English teacher, a word-smith as one of my former professors liked to say. As such, I know the power of words to not just reflect and express our thoughts, but also to shape meaning and create mutual understanding. What we call ourselves and others reflects what we believe and it shapes who we become.

I say these things because initially this blog was going to be about unschooling, and now I am not sure that is the best term for what it is we are doing.  The terminology used by homeschoolers and unschoolers can mean different things to different people as I am learning on our journey. If you, like me, are new to this journey, it might be helpful for you to learn some of the background and terminology.

People have been teaching their children at home since the dawn of time. It wasn’t until compulsory education was mandated that teaching at home needed a name and a movement. John Holt was a writer and a teacher who wrote a series of books beginning in the 60s on how children do and do not learn. According to his biographical website, “Holt originally called “unschooling.” Unschooling—learning that doesn’t look like school nor has to happen at home—is an effective way to work with, not on, young children and teenagers to help them learn.” As time went on, Holt became more and more disillusioned with public schools and lost faith in school reform, though he did not doubt their good intentions. Holt started a movement of parents who were wanted an education for their children that not only aligned with their values, but also met the individual needs.

For information on John Holt Click Here

There seem to be three movements in the homeschooling community.

Schooling at Home

Schooling at Home is not a term I have seen everywhere, and truthfully I forget where I first saw it, but essentially what it means is that children are learning in basically the same way as they would at school, but they are at home. These families purchased pre-made curricula and take a very conventional approach to education. They may be schooling at home due to religious reasons, distance, or other life situations.


When people say they are homeschooling, I have found that they are doing any number of things to make sure their children are learning. These could be taking children to homeschooling co-op classes, buying a curriculum, or designing a learning program around the child’s interest. The key difference here from unschooling is that the adult maintains at least a degree of control over the direction of the learning.


Unschoolers themselves lead the learning. Parents of unschoolers have mastered the art of trusting in their child. Unschooled children tend to have the freedom to make more decisions on what, how, and when they want to learn. The parent is the facilitator of the knowledge, not the giver.

So. With these highly rudimentary definitions in mind, I am not sure what to call us. I don’t think we are unschoolers yet, and I know we aren’t schooling at home. I am guessing we are somewhere in the homeschooler area. We’ve sat down and set some goals together (I definitely did not know he wanted to learn how to juggle), but I am still guiding most of the learning. Maybe I should say we are still finding our flow. Maybe what we are is Flowschooling? You heard it here first, kids.

Here are two amazing resources I came across in putting this post together.

BEST PLACE TO START–Sandra Dodd’s Disposable Checklists

John Holt and Unschooling

More on Motivation

So, as I have been sharing with friends and family that we will be homeschooling next year, I have received an almost uniform response that experienced homeschoolers would probably not be surprised to hear: “What about socialization?” and “What about diversity?” and most recently “Don’t you think you could work with the school to enhance his curriculum?”.  In a sense, these are the easier responses, because, really, almost every homeschooling/unschooling blog addresses the socialization issue at some point and there is plenty out there about making sure your child has real-world exposure to people from different cultures and different backgrounds. The really hard question comes more as a statement, “I can’t believe you would homeschool.”

I have worked in public schools in Florida for the last 18 years. For the last 11 years, I have been semi-administrative as a reading coach and then the coordinator for two different International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programmes. We have built our whole family life on the cycles of public school life, and for the last 17 years I have felt the sacrifices my family and I have made in serving other children have been worthy and almost noble. The change has come, for me, because my son is growing so fast, and I feel like I am missing it.

J-man baby picture
The first picture of J-man.

A bit about the J-man here:

From the first time I ever saw his face, I looked into his eyes and could see that he was unusually intelligent. I know that most parents think this, but there was almost an eerily alert quality to his gaze that convinced me that there was more going on here than with the average little tyke. Like most one year olds, J-man loved hearing his favorite stories read to him. The great Where’s Spot marathon of 2009, saw J-man recovering from his cleft palate surgery with nearly non-stop narration of his favorite book. By the time he was two and a half, he was reciting entire books in the car, and by four he was reading on his own. This is not that unusual, except he was choosing to read National Geographic books about dinosaurs written on the 2nd-4th grade levels.

When it was time for my little buddy to start school, we fell in love with the concept of Montessori. Here is a place, we thought, that he will get to advance at his own pace and have the autonomy to choose his daily activities. He excelled at Montessori. He was writing stories  with the letter manipulatives and illustrating stories that he and I would make up at bedtime.

He ran out of vowels at the end. He had just turned four in this picture.
He ran out of vowels at the end. He had just turned four in this picture.

In his second year at Montessori, once he was one of the older students in the class, he started to have challenges both behaviorally and academically. He tended to want to choose materials that were more appropriate for his new younger friends, and his behavior started regressing dramatically. So when it was time for kindergarten he came to school with me, and started in the International Baccalaureate.

Here his behavior in class got better, though he started showing anxiety when presented with problems without concrete solutions or that required creativity. He became a perfectionist, fearful of trying difficult challenges, if he wasn’t sure he would do well. At the same time, we had introduced him to some math videos for him to watch at night as he was going to bed, if he wanted. He advanced quickly and soon was doing far more advanced math than his kindergarten curriculum.

The problem here is that the public school curriculum would have him still working with addition until 2nd grade. He is reading far above level as well. Some people say that I should just try to skip him up a grade, but that really isn’t the answer either, as emotionally he is a little young for his age.

So we plan on letting him lead the charge on making friends that he likes, that might be younger than him, and studying what he wants which will likely be further along than what his friends in traditional schools will do.

So far this summer he has fallen in love with Roald Dahl, and spontaneously started what we called an author study in school. He is keeping a binder of all of his robot drawings and practicing descriptive writing by describing their capabilities. I feel pretty good about letting him take the lead, because he is already doing it. He is a sponge, and my job is to let him soak everything up!

The Decision to Change

First off, this is not a blog that is anti-public school, anti-charter school, or anti-private school. This blog is not really anti-anything (except hardboiled eggs, which I can’t stand!) Instead, this blog is pro-J-man and pro-my family. It supports listening to your gut, but doing your due diligence. All of the opinions expressed in this blog make sense for my family based on our particular set of circumstances and values. We hope that by sharing our journey, we can inspire or help others to make decisions that work for them, and maybe open up possibilities for others that may have, before, seemed like long shots.

This blog chronicles our journey to make a new way of life. Our goals for this year are few, but significant.

You don't say!
You don’t say!

Goal 1: We want to take back control of our time.

I have always said that there is nothing in this world so precious as time as it is the one commodity in life that you can never get more of and assuredly will run out of too soon. Yet, even knowing this, I have allowed my time to be controlled by a series of choices that piled on top of each other resulted in our family feeling harried and frazzled much of the time. We were always “going” and rest time was never really resting. I may have looked like I was home for the weekend, but my mind could not stop spinning about the fifteen projects I was working on from work. Consequently, I started to realize that I was never fully present any where. This year, I will be consciously reducing my obligations and working to eliminate multi-tasking. When I am with J-man, I will not begrudge him time I could be spending on other things. He will be the thing. A colleague said to me recently, that teachers’ kids often get shafted for attention because we are spending all of our time trying to help everybody else’s kids. I don’t want this anymore.

Traditional school is all about time. We do this at 8:00 and something else at 9:00, and that worked for me. I was great at school. J-man is doing fine too, but he has to wait all day to really dive into topics and books that interest him. Add homework to the mix and he often does not have any time to pursue his own interests. By homeschooling, he will be learning through those interests.  He will own his own learning time. The fact that nobody in this house will have to get up before 6:00 AM is an added bonus.

Goal 2: Live simply and appreciate our blessings.

To make this change happen, we will use my retirement to transition to a new and probably less reliable sources of income (more on this later). We will have a year’s worth to live on to get set up, which will give us time to make the shift smoothly, if we simplify our life. Right now we live like we have more money than we know what to do with, which is definitely not the case. We eat out or bring home take out, regularly. We have Direct TV and Netflix. We have expensive cell phone data plans, and I have an expensive Michael’s crafting habit (which would be fine if I actually focused on just selling). In short, there are places where we can cut our spending to make it possible for us to focus on what is important and live a life that is peaceful. No one will be happy all the time, but I think a feeling of overall peace is certainly attainable.

A brain so powerful, we see sparks, or it might have been Disney fireworks.
A brain so powerful, we see sparks, or it might have been Disney fireworks.

Goal 3: Lastly, but most importantly, allow J-man to learn and grow at his own pace with a curriculum designed specifically for him.

J-man is nearly obsessed with robotics. On the weekends he writes comic books about robots, draws blueprints of potential robots he would like to make, and watches documentaries about robots. He already has the potential with just this topic to cover science, reading and writing, art, and engineering. We could add in math with the materials lists. The bonus: he would be so excited to do this that he would barely be able to stop to eat. Right now, he fits this in as a robotics club one day a week and what we can do on the weekend. I can’t wait to see how far he can go when he has the time to really focus and someone to guide him on the way.

Have you ever made a DECISION that felt like it needed all caps to express its bigness? How did you decide to take action? Are you, too, choosing to take control of your child’s education? Let’s have some tea and share our stories!