Here is a little playbook on our experiences with co-designing and co-hosting the Unschoolers Winter Camp at Shikshantar.
Facilitating reading, writing and math in unschooling
I am 44 years old. I live in Pune with my daughter, Gourika, and son, Ishaan, my parents and our dog, Goldy. I run a space called Circle of Life, along with a partner, where we facilitate community-based activities and different kinds of intentional circles. I am one of the co-founders of Swashikshan-Indian Association of Homeschoolers. My daughter is 15 years old and she does not go to school. My son is 11 years old and he does not go to school. They are both unschooled. So far during these years of our learning journey, the three most frequently asked question that I have answered are the following.
Do you teach them to read and write?
How will they learn to read and write?
How will they do mathematics?
Let me elaborate.
Do you teach them to read and write and how will they learn to read and write?
I am clubbing these two questions since they are related. I have not ‘taught’ them to read or write. Does that mean I have neglected their need of learning to read and write? Well, no.
Now, what does this really mean?
(Before explaining further, I need to clarify that I am only talking about learning to read and write English language, since that is the language my children majorly use or communicate in. They can speak and understand Hindi and Bengali. And currently my daughter is learning German and Spanish online, and son is learning Japanese from a private tutor, because they wanted to learn.)
This means that I did not teach them alphabets, I did not teach vowels, consonants. I did not teach them sounds. I did not make them do drill sheets of Capital Letters and Small Letters. I did not make them do worksheets of simple words like Cat, Bat and Mat or Late, Mate and Kate, or Cot, Dot and Pot, or Pen, Ben and Hen.
I did not teach them short vowel sounds and long vowels sounds. I did not teach them why in Kit, the ‘I’s is short while in Kite, the ‘I’ is long.
I did not make them learn spellings for dictations. I did not make them read Easy Readings.
So then how did both my children learn to read and write?
I have been simply present to their need to read, that, which matters to them. I have assisted them in writing what they needed to write, as and when that need arose.
How did I stay present?
I did not push them to read or write. I read to them since they were both toddlers. I told them stories. Some from books, some I made up. As they got older, they asked me questions like ‘What is this word?’ I always answered that question.
A lot of their learning has been fuelled by the use of internet, cinema and music. Their need to use search engines to search for their interests on internet would require me to type out the key words to start with. Each time they asked for my help, I helped. And soon enough, they would simply ask me, ‘mum just tell us what to type and we will type it’.
Now, that meant I needed to show them the letters on the keyboard. So it was not enough for me to simply shout out, press T, then press I, then press another T, and then A, N, I and C, if my son wanted to research on Titanic or when my daughter wanted to research on animal birthing videos.
So I asked them, ‘would you guys like to recognize the letters so that you can type when I spell the words out to you guys?’
And the response was YES. It was their need to recognize the letters, so that they could type out the words they needed to get to their favorite website, or YouTube Channel, or Music.
So we simply started recognizing the letters. And slowly I started spelling out the words they needed to type in.
And some day without any of us noticing, they were able to type what they needed.
So far writing was using keyboard. Soon enough they needed to note down some key words, passwords etc., in their diaries for remembering later, as I would not be sometimes around or home to help them. They felt they needed to be independent if they wanted their work done. So they started to copy from the screen, to be used later on for typing again.
We used every opportunity to learn and recognize words. When out in grocery stores, restaurants, stores, airports, railways stations, other public places, while driving and looking at billboards, all the time we played ‘See if you can find the word I see.’
This kind of learning happened for few years with me telling them words, spelling them out for them, reading out complex instructions for them online. And almost magically one fine day they were both reading and typing. My daughter developed the interest to write journals. She wrote journals for three years regularly. When she got stuck with a word or spelling or meaning she asked me and I helped. She even figured out to use online spell checks and thesaurus.
They were reading and understanding all they needed to, online. Both of them were still not really into reading books. And that is another question they faced, ‘Don’t you like reading books?’
In our learning journey reading one kind of thing over another was never valued or judged. So reading books was not put on a higher pedestal over reading online. My daughter was already reading lyrics, music news, blogs etc., online. My son did all his research online for all the things he liked.
He researched online for computer hardware and made a list on his own of the parts that would suit his gaming PC. He then assembled the parts himself to build his own PC when he was 10. He even researched for the software that he would need and instructed our computer support man to install those. So I think my son was reading fairly well.
When my children started showing interest in reading books, I let them decide what they wanted to read. I did not judge their choices. My daughter picked Twilight Series, a set of thick novels. Someone who had not gone through easy readers went straight away to reading novels.
I thought she was interested in vampires (for those who don’t know the series, it is about a family of vampires and the love story of one of the vampire boys and a regular human girl). But soon in our conversations I realized that she was actually interested in youth relationships, love, emotions and feelings.
She took a break from reading books for a while. But she continued her reading online of fan fiction of musicians, blogs, watching YouTube channels etc. She read up on art (one of her interests), make up, craft, music, pets.
And one day she wanted to buy a book ‘Online Girl’ by Zoe Zugg. She got immersed in it and finished it real fast. Zoe Zugg’s online channel also has a book club, where she recommends books. So my daughter made a list of books she wants to read. And she is now reading one book after the other.
My son on the other hand was already reading books on architecture, dinosaurs, space, Star Wars, buildings, Lego. He watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and wanted to read the book. So he read his first novel by Roald Dahl. After which he read BFG by the same author and has declared it to be the best book ever.
His interest in the video game Assassin’s Creed, French Revolution, Notre Dame, led him to read Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. He is also reading The Three Musketeers.
My son picked up a lot of writing while playing Minecraft (a popular video game), while Skyping with his buddies online, and while writing instructions needed for video games.
Basically right now both my children are reading and writing unassisted by me.
Now let me get to the next frequently asked question:
What about math?
The interesting thing about math is that it is a life skill to start with, which has been made out to be a feared subject in schools. As I see it, math is all around us. We are always counting, measuring, estimating, quantifying, adding, subtracting, grouping, dividing. We are living in a world of shapes and sizes. Buildings are tall or short, fields are square, rectangle, circular or oval or asymmetrical at times.
Fruits are spherical, or cylindrical. Some fruits are in bunches, some come in dozens. We buy them in kilograms, grams. Oils and liquids are bought in liters.
My task was again to be present to the natural curiosity of my children.
While looking at buildings my son would ask ‘how many floors’. So we counted. When he wanted to know about the famous skyscrapers of the world, we looked up the number of floors, how many feet, etc. He then started making comparative charts of these buildings. He would sketch them and place them according to their heights and year of construction. He figured out units of measurement through his passion for architecture. I have a kitchen weighing scale, which he uses often to weight random things. He takes my mother’s tailoring tape to measure random objects in the house. His interest in space and Star Wars fuels his interest in space time travel. How many light years? How many KM apart are planets? How far is Pluto and how close is Mercury? That is enough Math for me for a 11-year-old.
His interest in Dinosaurs led him to understand decades, centuries, millennium. His interest in online research of prices for his video games or Lego Toys, led him to understand foreign exchange rates and how to convert them to local currency.
He understood money.
Even when he was a toddler, he would pick up a thick book and go to the last page to check ‘how many pages’. He recognized numbers in this way.
I never taught him to add or subtract or multiply or divide. He could do them mentally. I never asked him what his processes were. It did not matter since we are not taking exams or tests.
Soon he figured out the use of calculator to process bigger numbers. He asked me the symbols and I showed him. It was easy.
My daughter already had some knowledge about numbers as she had been to kindergarten. And over a period of time by assisting me in shopping for daily needs, she figured out the use of money and how to count. She is not able to process bigger numbers mentally, as my son does. That is probably not her natural skill. But we are not judging her for that. She is able to function quite well in this world with the help of a calculator.
She can use enough math that is needed for her art. She can draw circles with a compass for her Mandala Art. She can measure the letter sizes for her typography art.
It all works for us as we are not rushing to take exams or tests to prove that our children have reached any particular milestone.
It all flows like a river, they learn by meandering through twists and turns. It is slow and organic. It is mysterious and unique to each child. We are fortunate and grateful that as unschoolers, we have all the time in the world to learn at our own pace.
I have two blogs childrenmypartnerns.wordpress.com and thouartthycreator.wordpress.com. I support unschooling and peaceful parenting on a google group moderated by me, childrenmypartnersgooglegroup.com.