Can I Unschool While Using a Curriculum?

I have been homeschooling my twin boys, who are eleven, from the beginning, and have always thought of myself as more or less an unschooler. When they were five we simply continued to read lots of books together, play with arts and crafty things, and spend tons of time cavorting outside. Nothing about our routine really changed, and I felt confident they were learning everything they needed to from the world. When they turned 7, the voice of mainstream society had grown louder in my head, and I began to pay closer attention to the kinds of activities we did. If they wanted to spend hours at a time playing with rocks, could we make a game out of learning the types and properties of the rocks? Since we loved to read together, why not throw in some exciting books about historical figures, weird machines, or different cultures? I didn’t feel compelled to structure classes, but I found myself mentally keeping track of the types of activities we did, wanting to make sure I offered a wide variety of subjects and perspectives.

By the time they were 9, I realized we had barely covered any math concepts, and I began to sweat. They became aware that their friends were learning things they had not, which made them uncomfortable, so we stepped up our game. We decided it was OK to do occasional worksheets to master certain subjects, we picked up a few textbooks at the thrift store, not to follow but to scavenge as we saw fit, we developed games to test their (and my) retention.

As the years passed I began to think of ‘unschooling’ as existing on a spectrum and recognized that I was sliding down the spectrum towards more and more structure. But I felt that we were essentially making decisions together and the kids were choosing the bulk of their activities, so I was still technically an unschooler. And I was fine with that position.

Then, when they turned ten, I gave birth to my youngest son, and I knew that we were in for another change. Up until then I had spent our school days fully immersed in nearly every activity, helping them sort through research, find the tools they needed for construction projects, or simply deciding what to do next. When my youngest was an infant, this routine changed little- I could do most of it while standing and bouncing the baby, or sitting and nursing him. I knew, however, that once he was mobile, the boys would have to be on their own much of the time while I played damage control. And, I knew, my boys were not prepared for that.

For better or worse, I had not found my kids fitting the description I expected at the outset, finding their passion and burying themselves in exploration and creative productivity. There were days, increasingly frequent, where they could not get motivated to do anything at all, and I argued with myself (and them, I’m afraid to admit) about how much freedom to give them and how much structure to offer. I had tried what I felt was an exhaustive variety of approaches, from giving them complete choice (with the exception of video games- which I admit is a personal bias) to giving them a set of subjects to cover and choices of how to approach them.

It was messy, often confusing, we had conflicting opinions, and the boys often made different choices. They were technically participating in their educational process, but the reality was they had become dependent on me to hold their hands through most activities. Though I could see that as a failing, I didn’t feel it could be solved at that time, with so much transition already amidst ( as a side note, we also started construction of our house right after the baby was born, and moved in 6 months later to what amounted to a dried in construction site). The boys, my partner Josh, and I went over it many times, and they, somewhat grudgingly, realized that they were not prepared to be as independent as I needed them to be. They recognized that having a guideline- for I emphasized that we did not need to follow anything to the letter- would be helpful to them, given the vast universe of choices that exists when they are left to their own devices.

Thus, after much fretting, wringing of hands, and long discussions, we made a decision we never thought we would (how many times have you said that?) We decided to purchase a curriculum.

Every time I say those words I hear a dramatic drum roll in my head.  A curriculum, the antithesis of everything unschool, was sure to get me kicked out of the club once and for all. However, because of our loose approach, I didn’t really feel I could be a part of whatever the other club is either. I felt isolated and guilty. But, the truth is, I also felt a strong sense of relief.

There’s something comforting about having a huge stack of books sent to you at the beginning of the school year (we stacked them up on our coffee table to make a wobbly tower and took a picture). The curriculum we chose is called “Reading Beyond The Page”, which, as the name implies, does not use textbooks and emphasizes hands-on activities, art, drama, and learning from stories rather than academic material. Though the boys (and I) were a little nervous at first, I continued to emphasize there was no need to hold ourselves to every activity or reading suggestion. I wanted to use what resources I could from it, (I admit, partly because it cost a pretty chunk), but I also did not want to lose that precious spontaneity that is the gem if unschooling.

We experimented. Looking over all the activities, we decided to start from the beginning (why not?). They dove into their first assigned book and came up delighted. I  had not heard of it myself, it generated fruitful conversation, and they did not want to do anything else until it was finished. I felt a small victory.  As we experimented with the study activities, we found there were more written activities than we cared for, so we stuck to the discussion. We used the worksheets as guidelines, often veering off into other subjects and areas of questioning.

Exploring the hands-on activities (there are many), at first, we all felt compelled to complete each one, in order. There is a force to a structure that has been created with the intention of being followed. It pulls you in magnetically. Though it was still our prerogative to decide how the day went, we all succumbed initially to the sense of authority the curriculum held. Gradually, however, we began to make our own changes, add in different activities that appealed to their tastes, and let some go completely. We tended to spend about 2 hours a day with the curriculum, usually in the morning, and left the afternoon open for crafts, math practice, and any other projects that happened to be going on at the time. We were making it our own, and I began to feel more comfortable. At some point, I realized that we were not completing the activities in anywhere near the time frame expected, and again I felt a pang of stress. Then, after some family discussion, we again realized that we didn’t need to be held accountable for this framework. We could take two years to complete it if we wanted, or more! The curriculum is designed for a range of ages, so there was no concern about aging out too soon.

With that final realization, I felt great relief and comfort that yes, at least in my mind, we can use a curriculum as a resource and still have plenty of choice and responsibility in our education. The definition of unschool,  in my experience, varies greatly, and I feel this flexibility is inherent to the concept. So, though I’m sure there are some who would consider us out of the club, I am again comfortable referring to myself as an unschooler, more or less.